Monday, 31 January 2011

Of Jupiters Travels and my travels.

I've been seriously thinking about selling my motorbike over the last few months. I really like it and enjoy riding it a lot but over the last year or so I just haven't been using it enough to really justify keeping it.
In 2008 when the bike was less than a year old I rode it up the west coast of Scotland, taking in some of the stunning scenery and roads and camping out wherever I felt like stopping. It was a great trip and I envisaged doing more trips in a similar vein in future (the outer Hebrides was to be my next target).

Unfortunately it hasn't worked out that way. I've toured all over Europe on my various bikes over the years but this bike is better suited to smaller roads such as those in Scotland or possibly the west of Ireland.
My plan had been to wait until Spring (when people start looking for a bike for the summer and the market picks up) then see if I could sell it.
At Christmas when I was down at my Dad's house in Yorkshire I borrowed his copy of "Jupiter's Travels". This is a book written by a journalist called Ted Simon. He jacked in his job in 1974 and set off (on his own) to ride around the world on a Triumph T100, he's been travelling on and off ever since. The book documents his adventures, it's also the book that inspired Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman to do their Long Way Round trip. I've always meant to read it after I'd read about it in their book and after hearing my Dad mention  it.
 I'm about two thirds of the way through it now and it's a great read, it's not really a bike book, just a book about traveling (he just happens to be on a bike). It's also a lot about Ted Simon discovering things about himself through the hardships and elation of his experiences. There's much more substance to it than Ewan and Charlie's books, it's less superficial.
Most of the rides I've done recently have been with my friend Pat who has an old Suzuki GSXR 600. The problem with this is that Pat's bike is a sportsbike, it works best on open fast roads with sweeping bends, my bike is a supermoto which works best on narrow, tight twisty roads. We've had some great runs but it's always a compromise to find common ground for our respective bikes.
Pat has however just put his bike on ebay so that he can sell it and put the money towards something similar to my bike.
All of a sudden with the prospect of having someone else to ride with on the roads that I love and after reading Ted Simon's brilliant musings I'm not quite so sure that I want to sell my bike!!!!!!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Canoe sailing rigs.

One of my motivations for buying a canoe was the fact that with an appropriate rig attached you can turn your canoe into an effective small sailing boat. Rigs are available commercially or some people make or adapt one from an existing rig (Optimist rigs are popular but pretty much anything can be used as a donor rig). By all accounts the most effective solution is to buy a dedicated rig from a company called Solway Dory who make and sell sailing canoes, rigs and accessories. Their stuff isn't cheap but it's tried and tested and is highly rated by those who use it.
 I've been considering which route to go down myself, my initial thought was to buy a Solway Dory Expedition Rig. This is a small lugsail rig (24sq ft)  which packs down really small and uses a mast and spars that are only just over 6 feet long so it can easily be stowed in the canoe when you're in paddling mode. It is usually used in conjunction with a small leeboard which clips onto the downwind gunwale and is swapped from one side to the other as you tack. This too is designed to be easy to carry when not in use. Steering is carried out by using a paddle. Performance isn't exactly startling but the rig can be sailed upwind and works well across and downwind.
 Another option is to make my own rig. I have an old soft windsurfing sail that I could get my friend John (who's a sailmaker) to modify. I also have a few broken windsurfing masts and booms that I could use to make a rig. I'd either have to make my own pivoting leeboard and rudder or buy them from SD. The downside of this plan is that the performance of the rig would be a total unknown but it would be cheap to do and potentially provide better upwind performance than the SD Exped Rig.
The third and most expensive option is to buy a bigger rig from SD, they make both lugsail and bermudan rigs which perform very well. The 44sq ft Bermudan rig will allow a canoe to outperform small dinghys like a Mirror or Topper and is easy to reef in stronger winds. The downside is that it sets on quite a long mast so is a lot more intrusive in paddling mode and is less convenient to store.
  I'm not sure which route to go down yet but a sailing rig will be heading my way soon.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

New acquaintances, new perspectives, familiar places.

I'd originally thought about driving over to Loch Awe for a few days paddling and exploring but then Rich (Shewie, the guy who's trivet I'd found at Loch Lomond) said that he and his friends were heading to Loch Long for the weekend. He wanted to know if we could meet up so that he could get his trivet back and said I could join them if I fancied it. It sounded like a good chance to meet some new people and paddle somewhere I'd not been before.
   On Friday I waited in all day for a pair of boots to arrive that I'd ordered for paddling, by 3pm they still hadn't come and I'd got everything ready so I just decided to head off without them. I arrived at the put in at Finnart by about 4pm and set off across to the beach immediately opposite where Rich's mates were supposed to be camping and waiting for him to arrive (he lives near Leeds). As I approached I could see no signs of life and thought these guys had taken low impact camping to new levels of stealthiness. I landed and had a look about. I could see loads of litter and rubbish (left behind by anglers I assume) but nothing else. I texted Rich who  said the guys had gone to an alternative venue three bays further north. I jumped back in the boat and paddled off into the gathering gloom.
 As I cruised along something broke the water in front of my canoe and made a snorting noise, it looked like a small seal but it was difficult to make out in the darkness, it stayed with me for about ten minutes, leaving a line of telltale bubbles when it dived and always remaining just too distant to get a clear look at in the gloom.
After about forty minutes paddling I saw lights on the shore and smelled the familiar scent of woodsmoke, it had to be the guys. I landed and introduced myself to Josh, Stephen, Stu and Ciara the canoe dog! It was a bit surreal meeting folks for the first time like that but everyone was friendly and welcoming and they directed me to the old overgrown forest road just above the shoreline which was fairly flat for setting up my bivi. It turned out that they'd changed venues due to the rubbish dumped at the original campsite and just paddled north until dusk then landed at the first likely spot they saw.
I set up my tarp and bivi bag on the levelest, driest bit of ground I could find, it wasn't ideal but it'd do the job.
After getting set up I joined the guys by the fire drinking a few beers and waiting for Rich to arrive (he was working in Motherwell and had rush hour traffic to negotiate). Eventually we saw a light gliding along the loch and Stu went down to guide him in. It was cool to finally meet Rich in person.
The evening went on with eating, drinking and chatting by the fire and watching the moon rise over the hills, I finally got to bed just before midnight.
I had an okay nights sleep but I kept sliding down my sleeping bag on the slight slope I was on which compressed the down at the bottom of my sleeping leading to cold feet, still it was half eight before I got up.
As we loafed about eating breakfast an otter swam past parallel with the shore no more than ten metres out (seemingly oblivious to our presence). We watched him come ashore just south of our campsite and disappear.
 Stephen, Rich and Stu by the fire.
The camp from where the otter landed.
The view to the south from the same spot.
 Just before lunchtime I decided to move on, I wanted to see if I could find a better place to kip on Saturday night and while the guys had been more than hospitable I didn't want to overstay my welcome and crowd them, besides I fancied a paddle and a bit more of a look around this part of the loch.
The view back to camp as I left (the line of the forest road is visible behind).
It was a really nice day for a paddle as the morning mist started to disperse just leaving wisps over the loch.

After a while I came across a beach with a flat grassy area behind. I reckoned this must be the spot Rich had mentioned that he'd hiked too one time and camped at. I went ashore for a look. It was pretty good but I walked just a little bit further up the shore and found an even nicer spot with a handy tree for suspending my tarp from and best of all it was level! I walked back, jumped in the noo and paddled round. By this time the tide was quite high (and still rising) so I could get the canoe right up onto the grass.
Pretty soon I was set up and enjoying the afternoon sunshine and lovely views while searching for fire wood. I found some nice dry fallen pine which I reckoned would burn well and salvaged some old semi-burnt floorboards from someones  previous fire place just round the corner.

 Once the tide dropped, my canoe was left high and dry where I'd parked it!
   The sunset was pretty nice and once it started to get dark I started my firebox as I'd decided to try to cook my dinner on it (I've used it to boil water for a brew before but not for proper cooking).
It worked really well and I had peppered mackerel fillets with mushroom risotto and sweetcorn and peppers which was delicious.
I used it to heat the Kelly Kettle for a brew during the evening and that worked great too.
I watched the moon rise again and sat by the fire til late then hit the sack. I slept really well and thankfully had toasty feet this time.
I woke around eight thirty and got up, the tide was really low and I could see something intriguing on the beach. There used to be a navy torpedo range at Arrochar (just up the loch, the buildings and piers are still there) and I'd heard tales of them "losing" torpedoes during test firing back in the day.
Could this be the remains of one? I don't know but I couldn't think what else it could be.
On to breakfast then......................................................
............................bacon, beans, and tattie scones (with a cuppa of course!) After breakfast I packed my stuff and headed south again. I hoped to catch up with Rich, Stu, Stephen and Josh again but I knew that they didn't want to leave their departure too late as Rich had a long drive back down to Leeds, I had my fingers crossed they'd still be there as I paddled south.
As I rounded the headland in this picture I saw woodsmoke hanging over the trees ahead and I was soon enjoying a cup of tea with the guys and Ciara as they packed up.
 We all got on the water to form a mini armada for the paddle back down the loch.
Left to right, Stu and Ciara, Josh, Stephen.
Josh, Stu and Rich passing Glen Mallan jetty.
As we approached Finnart we passed this little guy, I reckon it could be the same young seal that had accompanied me up the loch on Friday.
All too soon we were back at the cars. All that remained was to load up and say our farewells. I had a brilliant weekend and it was really nice to finally meet Shewie in person and return the trivet to it's rightful owner and to put names to the faces of Josh, Stephen and Stu who I'd previously only seen on the canoe forum.  I'm absolutely loving this canoeing malarkey!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Injuns and Roos!

I managed to persuade Val to come out for a paddle in the canoe today. It's the first time she's been out in it and it seems appropriate that I finally got her out given the heritage of the open canoe and the fact that she's a bonafide Blackfoot Indian!
  We loaded the boat onto the van and quickly nipped into town to get some eats for a picnic then headed off. Loch Lomond was fairly calm and we soon got around to wallaby island where we stopped for lunch and a wander about. Val spotted a wallaby bouncing away into the undergrowth but I wasn't quick enough to get a picture on this occasion. Back in the boat we headed off again and were back at the van in good time. It was only a quick paddle but it was good to get Val out the house for a while after her recent illness and I didn't want to overdo it. She enjoyed the canoe but says she'd prefer to take her kayak once she's fit enough again as she likes be independent.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The daily commuting grind.

I usually work shifts and my workplace is in the middle of nowhere so driving too and from work is rarely a problem (unless it snows a lot). This week I'm on a course which necessitates driving part way into Glasgow on the motorway at the same times as everyone else is trying to do the same thing. I know that this is the reality of getting to work for many (most?) people but what a bind! It makes me realise how lucky I am not to have to do this journey on a regular basis! No thankyou, not for me!!!!!!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

A new sleeping bag (review).

I bought my last winter sleeping bag in the late eighties, it was to replace a synthetic bag that I'd been using previously (which was quite warm but VERY bulky). Since then it's provided sterling service keeping me warm on trips and packing reasonably small when compressed. Around two years ago I started to notice I wasn't staying as warm in extreme conditions and had to start wearing more clothes while sleeping in it in cold conditions. Latterly I've been using it with a fleece liner inside as well as keeping my thermals on at night, I've even started to wonder if my (newer) Mountain Equipment two season down bag would be warmer (probably not). I  had to accept the inevitable and start looking for a replacement.
 I've bought a fair bit of outdoorsy stuff over the last few years from a company called Alpkit. They have their own gear made in the far east (same as most stuff these days) but sell it directly themselves via the internet. They have no shops or middlemen so the prices are very reasonable and everything I've bought from them so far has been decent quality.
 Alpkit's top of the range sleeping bag (the Pipedream 800) retails at £180, it's filled with 750 fillpower down and has a super light Toray nylon shell and lining and is supposed to be good down to -17C. These bags sell out almost as fast as Alpkit get them in so I put myself on their mailing list last autumn so I'd know when the next batch was arriving. In late December I got the word and took the plunge and ordered one.
 With the festive postal rush and weather chaos I didn't get my bag til early January (Alpkit usually manage next day delivery) but I hoped it'd be worth the wait. The package was quite small and when I opened it I noticed that the bag (in it's compression bag but not compressed) was smaller than my old bag. I was a bit worried it might not be warm enough but hoped the superior down and lightweight shell accounted for the small pack size. I got the bag out of the compression bag and left it on the sofa to loft (expand) for a few minutes. When I came back it was huge! I was reassured! It comes with a compression sack, stuff sack and a huge cotton storage sack (great value again, a lot of name brand bags don't even come in a compression bag). When I put it back in the compression bag and squashed it down it packed much smaller than my old bag. First signs were good then.
 I used it in anger to bivy out on Friday night. it started out a coldish night (snowing) but not enough to really test the bag. That being said it was sub zero and I was too hot with my thermals and socks on (I had to take them off during the night as I was overheating). In the early hours the sky cleared and the temperature dropped (it was forecast to be -5C) and I was still toasty warm. Early days still but so far I'm very impressed and chuffed with my new sleeping bag.

Twenty years (or so) on.

Way back in the early nineties there was a really healthy mountainbiking scene in Helensburgh (where I live). In those days mountain bikes weren't as universally popular as they are today but there was a group of us who used to race and ride together regularly. The group comprised of older guys (in their twenties) like me and my friends and a young crew of kids who were in their last year or so at school. We travelled all over Scotland attending races and competing in the Scottish mountainbike race series and in between races and out of the race season we trained and rode together just for pleasure.
   Fast forward twenty(ish) years and I'm starting to develop a passion for paddling canoes and kayaks. I've always been one to read up a lot on topics that I'm interested in so I searched for info online on canoe and kayak forums. Whilst trawling through the interesting (and not so) threads I noticed a name that was familiar. Graeme was one of the mountainbiking kids back in the day and when I saw the name on a kayak forum I wondered if it could be the same person? All it took was one post from me to discover that it was indeed the same Graeme from all those years ago, what a small world we live in!
 It turned out that we were both planning to buy canoes in the near future and we've been corresponding about canoe choices since. I bought my canoe first and whilst a Nova Craft Pal hadn't been on Graeme's original shortlist, he became curious about the boat so I'd offered him the chance to have a test paddle in mine sometime.
  After a false start last week we arranged to meet up on Saturday for a paddle on Loch Lomond (he hadn't paddled the loch properly before). Graeme also hired a Wenonah Aurora canoe to paddle and compare with the Pal as this was another boat on his shortlist.
  On Friday I'd planned to go snowboarding to Glencoe (which had great snow cover) but I couldn't find anyone to accompany me. I know from experience that I don't really enjoy snowboarding on my own, it just doesn't work for me as a solo activity so I started to think about heading out onto the loch a day early and bivying out (I really enjoy solo paddling and camping). Fueling the fire was the fact that after twenty years of faithful service I'd just replaced my old down sleeping bag with a new one that I was keen to put to the test. I texted Shuzzy (Chris) on the off chance that he'd want to come too (I didn't expect him to manage it). I was surprised and chuffed to hear from him that he was well up for it but wouldn't be able to leave until after he got home from work. We decided to go two up in the Pal (a first) as I was pretty sure that there'd be ice on the loch which wouldn't suit Chris's SUP. I went out and bought food and logs for the fire and loaded everything into and on the van ready to go as soon as Chris got home and sorted his kit out.
  After letting Graeme know my plans, I picked Chris up at around 6pm at his house. It'd already been dark for two hours, the temperature was well below freezing and snow was forecast so it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we loaded the Pal up at the usual put in.  
I was worried that the boat would sink under our combined weight and that of our kit but we fitted everything in easily enough and as we set off into the dark the Pal felt okay after a few initial wobbles! We paddled south and pretty soon ran into our first patch of ice. Although it was very dark we could pick out a line through by using unfrozen channels and breaking through thinner patches of ice (which could be distinguished from the thicker patches). We rounded the southwest corner of Inchtavannach and quickly ran into really thick ice. We initially tried to force a path  but soon realised that we wouldn't be able to get right through. There was nothing for it but to reverse back out of the blind alley we were in and take a much wider course round the island in deeper water which hadn't yet frozen. By this time we were both starting to really enjoy ourselves. The boat felt really quick and responsive paddled tandem and the team work of Shuzz shouting directions from the front seat (to find a path through the ice) and myself in the back trying to steer us accurately through was a real laugh. As we approached Inchmoan (where I'd thought we might have camped) we could see that thick ice extended out quite a long way from shore which would have made it really difficult to land there. I started to wonder if we should head back to the other end of Inchtavannach to land where I knew it'd be ice free but Shuzz was keen to explore the maze of channels created by the ice in the lagoon between the three islands of Inchtavannach, Inchconnachan and Inchmoan in the hope we might find a way through to a decent camp spot. It would be a long paddle back to the other end so we decided to carry on. Slowly we wound and threaded our way north towards the narrows, sometimes getting close to Inchconnachan, sometimes close to Inchtavannach but never close enough to land. The ice was thickest in the shallow water near the shore preventing us from landing and I again started to think we'd have to go back. As we got close to the narrows though, the shore on the Inchtavannach side started to have some clear sections. We paddled on just exploring and to see how far we could get, I knew we'd already passed a great campsite (where I'd stopped with my dad for a cuppa when we'd paddled around here back in October) so we could always go back there. Eventually we turned around and headed back to the spot I knew. It was a good choice, a small promontory jutted out into the water with a nice flat raised area for bivying and plenty of trees to suspend the tarp from if it was needed.
 The good thing about bivying is that you don't have to faff about setting tents up so we quickly arranged our stuff and set to making Italian meatballs, tomato and chilli sauce and fusili pasta, quick,easy, tasty and filling!
After dinner we got the firebox fired up just as it started to snow and got a brew on to have with our desert. Pretty quickly we decided to rig the tarp as the snow was showing no sign of stopping. I pitched it  to shelter our heads so that we could sleep with our heads outside our bivy bags but still have an open view past our feet (although I've done it I don't really enjoy bivying with my head inside my bivy bag when it's raining or snowing, it's a bit claustrophobic).
Once that was done it was back to the serious business of loafing by the fire and drinking ten year old Macallan!
We stayed up quite late chatting and enjoying sitting by the fire in the snow but knew we wouldn't be able to lie in too long as we had to rendez-vous with Graeme in the morning so eventually it was off to bed.
It was great to doze off toasty in my new bag, listening to the snow pattering on the tarp and occasionally sluffing off in mini avalanches.
 Next morning the sky had cleared and the temperature had dropped dramatically, it promised to be a beautiful dawn.
It was a bit of a battle getting out of a lovely warm sleeping bag to start breakfast but the sunrise helped make it worthwhile!
Everything was dusted with snow and looked stunning (if a little chilly!)
 Breakfast was underway pretty quickly and we took turns packing our gear while the other one cooked.
 We managed to get everything done and the boat loaded in time to hopefully get back to the put in and dump the camping gear before Graeme arrived. We decided with the benefit of daylight to try to break through the ice in the narrows to allow us to return by a different route and so that we could bring Graeme back through that way to see it later. I provided forward thrust by paddling while Chris reached over the bow and smashed a passage using my plastic kayak paddle to break through the ice.
It worked quite well (although it was hard going). The picture above shows the channel we broke, our campsite was in the trees at the upper left hand corner of the picture.
We made it back to the van in time to drop our camping gear and repack just enough stuff so that we could stop for a brew later on then shortly after Graeme arrived. It felt a little strange meeting Graeme again after such a long time but he was still the friendly easy going guy he'd been before so it wasn't awkward at all. We sorted the boats and Graeme got changed into his paddling gear then we headed out back onto the loch. If the Pal had felt lively paddled tandem before, it felt really quick with no  baggage in it and soon we were heading back towards the narrows stopping occasionally to take photos. Graeme seemed to be enjoying the views and the paddle in the Aurora.
 The channel we'd made through the narrows was still clear so we negotiated our way back through
 The section of ice near Inchmoan that had prevented us landing the night before had now miraculously disappeared (blown away by the wind presumably) so we were able to head around the southern side of the island (stopping briefly for a brew and some lunch on the way). After lunch we swopped over boats so Graeme could try the Pal out.

It was strange to paddle the Wenonah, first impressions were that it had a lot more freeboard than the Pal, the seats were set much lower (preventing kneeling in the way I like to paddle the Pal) and Chris and I both agreed it felt a bit sluggish after my boat. We headed on towards the Geggles the narrow channel between Inchcruin and Inchmoan which I thought would probably be frozen. As we approached we spotted a channel through the ice and were able to sneak through.
You can just make out the channel in this picture. From here we paddled back across to Inchconnachan to allow Graeme to swop back into the Aurora for a really good comparison. The daylight was fading fast by now so we paddled back in the direction of the put in, stopping a couple of times so that Graeme could try both boats tandem as well. This allowed Shuzz the chance to have a try in the pal on his own (which he seemed to manage well).
All too soon we were back at the put in and it was time to pack up and say our farewells. It was fantastic to see Graeme again after all this time, hopefully we'll be meeting up again once he has his new boat. Shuzzy and I had an absolute blast (it's great to know that the tandem paddling option is viable for future trips if we want) and bivying in the snow and negotiating the ice was a really special experience.