Sunday, 9 January 2011

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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment