We set out in winter, and ended in spring.  From Invercauld bridge to Kincardine O Neil, three days on the Dee. Three days of fires, purple birch and old green oak, old growth forest and snow covered hills, then fishing huts, farms and fences.  Some standing waves and some big water, a speedy thaw and a sense of caution.

It was late when we arrived, late and cold.  We dossed down in the open wood shelter that holds the public toilet in the car park. En suite!  Dawn creeps in at this time of year, the light stays low.  No big announcements in the Glen, just slowly pulling up the exposure slider, pale blue colour temperature barely warms at all.  We pack up and move out before there's too much movement from the posh house.

The first day is boney.  We walk to the waters edge, take our time making ready.  The water is not so technical but for me navigating strainers is too quick and too detailed for comfort.  I realise how much my nerve was shaken by my last encounter in the water.  My borrowed kayak paddle is feathered and means complicated back paddling.  I'm making heavy going of it, not turning fast enough, not being bold enough.  It takes me most of the first day to find my flow again.

Late by the fire on the gravel bar in the evening, it begins to rain gently.  By the following morning, there is no snow on the hills, and no ice on the bank.  Where has it all gone?  It's in the river.  It's in the river, with us.

The second day is pushy.  The river is swollen.  We paddle through shallows and into the flow, pulling out to scout where the water crashes round corners.  Sometimes the volume flattens the detail out and it is easier, sometimes there are standing waves big enough to snap and to crush.  This is all new(s) to me.

Spat out fast on the other side of the biggest wave train, I'm laughing uncontrollably in the face of the force.  In packrafts you are close to the water.  David looks worried.  Taking a swim here would be hazardous to our health.  We move on to Braemar, keep scouting, keep checking in with the river, and each other.  Soup and tea in town, but by then the rush is abating.

We pitch early where a birch wood meets an old forestry plantation.  Camped in the lee of the trees, we make fire and dry out our gear, and whilst the winds make white noise in the branches above our heads, the river drops by 2 foot overnight.

The third day flows.  It is warm, too warm for December.  The river is still large and fast but less angry.  We put in for 3 kms, then drag the boats up a rise and pop out on the straight-line and pretty Deeside Way, now strapping the boats on our backs, top heavy tortoises, amphibians. We waddle past casual wealth, new oil and old royal, mock baronial campery in bricks and mortar.  A moth eaten white stag's head dumped near the paint pots, an old Daimler rusting in the keeper's shed...the cut of Deeside's jib is relaxed Naples tailored tweed.  We're not trespassing, but it feels like it, even in Scotland.  We're on foot to the falls, because it's where David came unstuck before.

After the bridge and after lunch, we put in again, and paddle through the afternoon light, sun playing on the trees.  Easy going stretches between small narrows, as the banksides become less forested and more agricultural.  The churning ferocity of yesterday is gone.  David found a monster fish beached on the bank, I found two traffic cones beached on a beach.  Geese flew overhead, and seemed to be confused as to which season and what direction.  Chat, plans.  The last trip of the year for both of us.

After three days of river travel, I feel comfortable in the boat. Some basic skills finally bedded in and intuited - finding the deep water channel, thinking not just 1 but 2, 3 and 4 moves ahead, where the water boils, where flows meet, the strainers and kicking paddle blades.  How to glide and parry, how to sit lightly on the water.  A few rudiments of technique, and delight.

Paddling into that late afternoon sun felt like the afterburn of the year, a little like a mirage, a dream.  Like my paddle blades on water, I'm reflecting back - on my luck to have shelter, and warmth, friendship and meaningful work, my good fortune to be able to draw inspiration and learning from gentle and sometimes not so gentle adventures in nature.

These pictures from my non waterproof camera don't show the more mischievous water on day two, but David Hine has a trip report and a video too....

A call for your views on Wild Land

There is no one left: none but all of us


Sam McClure

Until the 20th December, the organisation that looks after Natural Heritage in Scotland is asking for our views on protecting places of wild character. These are the remote and untamed places many of us visit, as gentle adventurers and extreme athletes, campers, photographers, nature lovers, poets, pirates, refugees and vagabonds of all castes, colours, professions and political persuasions.  Some of these are also places of work as well as play, for hundreds of thousands of small business owners, crofters and scientists.  And these places are also full of wild life and rare species that we depend upon, and that depend upon us...

I'd like to urge you to take some time over the next few days to submit your defence of the Wild Land Map, which is being suggested as a means to protect our collective and fast diminishing inheritance.  We've been asked our views before, and I think it's even more important we continue to give them now: as evidence builds in the case for protection, and inevitably some tire of an admittedly tiresome process.  In the spirit of disclosure, it's no secret that I work part time for an organisation that campaigns on behalf of Wild Land, and I have included my own response below.  This is a personal response, shared on a personal website, written in my own time -  not everyone will agree with its emphases.  If you choose to respond, yours should also be personal - please don't copy and paste, as generic responses are now discounted.  You can find the form required by SNH, and guidelines for filling it in so that your views are properly heard


.  I know things are busy for many in the run up to the holiday season, but please find 20 minutes to respond before the 20th December.  Sharing this information online is also helpful, but you can go one better - submit your own response and share that - even if you live outside Scotland.  The rest of the world is watching, we can lead by example.

My response:

''I believe Wild Land is vitally important as a source of ecosystem services (flood defence, clean water, carbon sequestration) and a source of mental and physical inspiration, solace and adventure.  It has recently been estimated as worth circa £23bn PA to Scotland alone, a significant part of which is tourism.  I am extremely concerned at the present rate of loss of Wild Land as documented by SNH, in particular due to unsustainable and heavily subsidised energy developments and hill tracks.  Two particular examples which come to mind personally are Allt Duine and Stronelairg, but many equally vulnerable areas are in the planning or development stages.

I strongly support the present and future protection of Wild Land and the principle and methods of Core Areas of Wild Land used by SNH, as it provides a readily understood and administratable means by which Wild Land can be safeguarded by policy makers and local authorities, for both people and nature into the future.  The map clearly shows where Core Wild Land is and what is left – the boundaries of these areas should NOT be repeatedly challenged by industrial development but be respected as our common inheritance.  I agree with the SNH statement in paragraph 2.2 that Wild Land

by definition

is not or has not always been devoid of human activities, but request that we manage Core Wild Land from this point onwards for the benefit of a flourishing habitat and wildlife - that is also of wider economic and cultural benefit to humans in Scotland, the UK and far beyond.  We have something entirely unique in terms of World Natural Heritage here, and should not squander it. 

I appreciate that a map may not be an absolute or definitive measure of all conditions on the ground forever, but it is by far the best means we have of measuring CAWL’s at present.  In the immediate future, we should respect the current boundaries of the map and concentrate on protecting what is left, before any more debate and delay causes further losses.  A map is a practical means of protection.  It allows immediate action and therefore I support it.

Our existing designations (National Parks and National Scenic Areas) are not sufficient to protect ALL of Scotland’s remaining Wild Land and I strongly believe all policy makers should recognise all areas identified as Core Wild Land at consulation, in their present and future planning decisions.  Core Wild Land is a more thorough measure of this valuable and finite resource than any other existing designation we have currently at our disposal.

I would like to question the current drawing of boundaries around Core Areas.  Simply because planning permission has been granted, does not mean a development will go ahead.  If we assume an area is no longer wild because permission is or was granted, we risk further ‘creep’ of industrialisation into Core Wild Land Areas.  I would like to see this stopped and a new approach considered.  Given that this is a consultation, I’d like to point out the Public Perception of Wildness in Scotland Survey 2012, for SNH and Scottish National Parks, as well as a You Gov poll for the John Muir Trust in 2013, both of which showed overwhelming public support for Wild Land Protection as well as the effect the current lack of protection may have on tourism.   The CAWL map may not be perfect and could be revisited in the future to include more areas of coast, island and peatbog that have been omitted this time.  In the meantime it offers a practical and structured means to address to an immediate and rapidly degenerating situation.  I believe we need to stem the loss of Wild Land now, and this is the tool to begin that process.''

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world


Paul Hawken 


Accidents always happen to others, until they happen to us.  Last week, I let an accident happen to me.  In the scheme of things it was relatively small, but it could have been avoided entirely.  I thought it might be useful to others to write about it here.

After a day and 2 nights of what some might consider high risk walking over winter mountains in trail shoes, I put in my packraft, just after the class 3/3+ rapids at the head of the River Lyon.  The River Lyon was, I know now with hindsight, too complicated a river to be trying on my first winter solo run, with 2 dams and several rapids and small gorges.  I knew I would be portaging on and off.  I wasn't wearing a drysuit, a helmet, or a legitimate PFD - I am trialing a homemade device at the moment, which is light, packable and inflatable, but therefore susceptible to puncture in the event of a rocky 'swim'.  A 'swim' is what happened, here:

It doesn't look like much, but for a near-beginner this is complicated enough.  I came over from the right (as we look at it, which is 'river left'), hit the 2nd pour-over at an angle, narrowly avoided the large strainer in the middle and tipped the boat from the front right...very slowly.  I didn't come out of the boat straight away, I was dragged along half submerged, committed the cardinal sin of letting go of my paddle, and finally bailed out of my boat, only to get a foot caught in my boat line.  Successfully ejected and the right way up but with one foot tangled, I managed to hold on to the boat hull and drag myself to shore a few metres before the second, and more complicated rock garden, here:

Yep, that is my yellow bladed paddle in the middle, and nope, I wasn't able to retrieve it - the thaw had started about 6 hours earlier than the forecast predicted, and the flow was too way too high.  I tried for an hour, several different approaches, but the river was too deep and too fast to go in higher than my waist, without being dragged down river and hitting a rock.

This incident was entirely my own fault.   What did I do wrong?
1. I didn't scout properly.  I got out of my boat, but didn't even take the time to walk up to the first pour-over, let alone walk past it and look at the second rapid.  To compound my own negligence, I had spotted this section the previous day from the hill far above, so I knew there was white water there, enough to see from 2 km's away... but I was being lazy.  If I had scouted the first rapid properly, I would have seen the safest deep water channel was to the right away from the pour-overs (picture 2 above), but then would have also seen the second set of rapids (picture 3 above), and would have portaged the entire section - given my lack of paddling partner, lack of safety gear and relative inexperience.  Inexcusable.
2. There was a knot in the boat line.  The line hangs off the boat as a safety measure, but I had knotted it when the boat was moored and attached it to my paddle as a land anchor - I failed to unknot it and subsequently my foot become entangled.
3.  I didn't wear a helmet or a full PFD.  Luckily I didn't need the helmet, the river was deep enough, and the PFD worked well and did not puncture, but it's not really designed for this kind of water.
4. I let go of my paddle.

Everything up to where I went in, and after I came out, was within my control.  Without a drysuit, I knew I had a limited time frame once out of the water to get warm and dry again, and was able to use previous experience of being cold and wet in the outdoors to judge this.  What I didn't know was how potentially dangerous the consequences of my laziness beforehand was, whilst in the water shortly after.  The incident began not with my boat tipping, but with my lack of awareness of the risks of not scouting.  I didn't know what I didn't know. 

Did I do anything that worked?  Not much, but...
1. I had fairly decent beta on the route, and an accurate (as possible) weather forecast.
2. I held on to my boat.
3. I had well packed, dry gear to change into, so avoided potential hypothermia.
4. I was equipped with an accessible boat knife so could have cut the line if needed.

If you've only recently joined us, I can guess what you might be thinking... but I'm a fairly long way past pitting myself against the elements.  Either that or 'but that's nary a ripple, what's all the fuss about!'  So, I guess it's relative.  Either way, I've as much patience for outdoors Rambos as for those that talk of 'quiet enjoyment'.  Which is to say, I've got a little with both, and also none with either.  Outside can be a visceral, noisy place, as well as a gentle, contemplative one, and how we interact with it is just as diverse and complex.  The inconvenient truth is that taking risks and getting into scrapes can be a great teacher if I'm willing to learn.  It can help me interact with nature and other people better.  Decisions are about balance, which is a huge part of what makes outdoors experiences so dynamic and informative.  The Tyrol Declaration gives us as robust a framework for that balancing act as I would ever want to see.

Does this mean that if I had made it dry and unscathed, I would be a hardcore boater (dude)?  No, I'd still be a bone idle, inexperienced paddler who didn't comprehend the risks until it was too late... and then got temporarily lucky.  I'd just be stacking my odds for a harder fall next time.  As it is, I'm now more aware of some of the risks.  I now understand the importance of scouting because of the risk I took by not scouting.  I won't be making that mistake again in a hurry.  But there will probably be others, made with what Hamish Brown called 'the confidence of ignorance'.  I'd rather it wasn't so, but that's the inconvenient truth. 

It's useful to reflect on this - and to remember to continue to reflect on it - because I've negotiated this delicate balancing act between risk, awareness and experience as a hill-goer in the past.  Nowadays, maybe I have more experience, and in the main don't feel so pushed.  Maybe I read the warning signs earlier, so resolve, avoid or retreat from potential hazards sooner?  Or maybe I am older, and don't push myself so hard?  Or perhaps a combination of all these.  I'm not immune to feeling out of my depth, far from it, but it happens less often.  But it's interesting that as I start to learn something new, the same old mistakes can happen easily enough - a lack of awareness of natural boundaries, smaller margins of safety, which can have potentially serious consequences.

What's the moral of my sorry, soggy tailed tale?  You don't know what you don't know, until you're presented with it, up-close-and-a-little-too-personal.  If in doubt, scout it out.  Then again, why listen to me?  On the evidence here I was plainly out of my depth.

Nature's Peace - photos for a book

About a year ago, I started taking photographs for Peter Wright's third book about the Scottish Watershed - Nature's Peace, which was published last month.  The book is possibly the most accessible in Peter's trilogy about the subject, benefiting from images from a range of contributors that showcase the hugely diverse landscape that the watershed has helped create. 

I mostly concentrated on the Scottish Borders - because it was relatively nearby, and was a way of getting to know my neighbourhood better.  For me as a newcomer to Scotland, I didn't have a huge library to draw on, so the project became a good excuse for some local research.  I spent longer in each place than I might have done otherwise, sometimes doing repeat visits.  I mostly worked to Peter's shot list, although he was kind enough to allow interpretation of this and not be too literal, if there was a better shot in the vicinity.  We were also careful not to exclude human influence in the landscape, especially in the borders, where intensive farming for both food and energy have left their marks.  I'm pleased to have a few shots inside which aren't necessarily the big, 'iconic' landscapes of the central and northern highlands - but hopefully still show something of the character of the area, that the project helped open up for me.

Here's a small selection from the book: