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....


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.

The Great Wilderness

I'm all out of words this week, so I'll leave you with just a few more and some photos. 
My compadre has a great account over on his site that's worth a look too. 

David, David, Rannoch and Newt went for a wet autumn wander in the space between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree.  We aimed for the Isle of Graves on All Hallows Eve and strange things were afoot in the graveyard.  The weather arrived a day later than planned and we rode the swell to the Letterewe pier and dug in for Beinn Eighe regardless.  By the time of halfway, we were halfway to nowhere - more water was going uphill than down, the lochan was possessed of evil spirits throwing their blue and green weight around.  It was temporarily unsafe.  Heads bowed we scraped a hasty pitch between giant erratics and pretended to ignore the casual glug of the burn right above.  In the morning, tiny, soggy carbon-based lifeforms scurried past solitary architectures, isolated giants standing alone against one another, hopping across a no man's land of scratchy rock and squelchy bog, out past Hamish's favourite and a bothy shut by the new laird Duncan Mackenzie, our paddle plans scotched by heavy doses of storm light and cold showers.  Wet tarmac taken to Gairloch for whisky and candles, then a night walk to a bothy that once was a secret, shoulders and knees feeling the weight of 10 kilos of coal.   An artist called in on our hangovers in the morning, a man called Stevenson who had enough footage and was leaving for Bristol later that day.  We ran the Allt Strath Sealga in lively conditions, except for the rapids down by the loch, and found an old pentax deep in the mire.  The fire wouldn't light that night.  The sun shone weakly the following morning for an hour or two, but the river was too low to run again, so we cut our losses and walked out whilst the memory of that river the previous day was still unsullied. 

Distant shape, close acquaintance

The first two days were words to the wise, the weather upon us.  High winds, heavy rain and substantial windchill forced us off course barely out of the gate, after labouring up an endless rake to the ridge.  Two Munros and off at the bealach, nearly missed in the swirling clag, deer roaring and weather raw. 
Our first camp in an inch of groundwater, a second made after hours spent peering into the dark in vain for just enough suitable ground.  I didn't have my camera out much those first two days.  Our eyes were bigger than our tummies.

In Glen Affric, we met the head stalker, dressed head to foot in tweed - the original camouflage softshell - and contracted to the Forestry Commission on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland. Andy asked to see the 2 kills, stashed in the back of the 4x4.  Such beautiful animals, and such a shame that at current levels they're the locusts of the highlands.  One still with a mouth full of grass from a quick and clear chest shot.  Lots of talk of regeneration and lots of it to see until the weather deteriorated.  The walk up Affric past the UK's most remote youth hostel was plain unamusing and by lunch Andy was soaked through and chilling down not so well.  I was peripherally concerned - strong an an ox and no stranger to strenuous, but this was his first multiday walk in Scotland and the weather can be a bit... special.  Camban bothy saved our bacon, just enough fuel to keep us going, and although it took us 2 hrs to get the damp wood to light, as we dried out our powder and sucked on single malt our little world came right.  What a place.  By the following morning the weather was clearing, although it took another full day to settle.  There was light snow on the tops as we rode the high ridges of North Glen Shiel to the bealach before the Peak of the Spaniards and a sub zero, gale force pitch, water vapour freezing on the bivvi bags, shooting stars then pre dawn bands of purple and pink.  Not much sleep was got.

The final two days were reward for persisting, fortunes on the change.  A deeper feeling for Caledonia this year, more complex, rounded out with a little familiarity borne by my return visit after last years near miss on the Five Sisters.  This time, views of ages, out to the Cuillin, Rum and Eigg, and over to Knoydart and Nevis - such a joy from Sgurr Fhuaran.  Off the side steep on the deer road, on a route that will never appear in a guidebook.  Then day packs on the Forcan ridge to the Saddle, all anticipation, adrenalin and endorphins.  Not withstanding a good deal of unfinished business banked for next time, I'd go along with WH Murray: "the best mountain of the region both in distant shape and close acquaintance", although the Peak of the Black Chest came a close second.  That day, Andy gulped it all down and wanted just one more, like you do when it's new and it takes a full day of travel to get to the start.  I played the cautious naysayer, like you do when it isn't and doesn't.  Consensus achieved, we went up top again for the big finish, before stumbling down in the dark under headlamps for a 1000 metres to the road.  Hurty but worth it for that autumn sunset with all the dials turned up past 11.  By the time we reached our out, everything was shut, so we parked up at Shiel Bridge and brewed up coffee and cous cous in the passenger footwell for a long drive home.  Older.  Wiser?  Still a great collaboration.