Thursday, 7 March 2013

The weekend of a thousand cuts.

A few weeks ago Andy asked myself and Graham if we fancied a trip to Loch Ken. I'd been here a couple of times before (once to buy a kayak from the Galloway Activity Centre and then again to my first ever OCSG meet two years ago  To be honest I wasn't all that keen initially as I would have preferred to have gone further north and west but good company is more than half the battle so how could I refuse? As the plans for the weekend progressed a proposal was made to try sleeping aboard our canoes which was something that I'd been very curious to try.  In the weeks preceding the trip I contemplated a number of ways of rigging some form of shelter on my canoe. My first idea was to go with the tried and tested method of making a boom tent, this is the traditional method of rigging a shelter on a sailing boat and I figured that constructing one from a polytarp would be cheap and easy to do and allow me to experiment with different designs with a view to remaking the tent in better quality fabric later once I was happy with it. Andy threw a cat amongst the pigeons though when he posted pictures of his plan to rig the flysheet of his small backpacking tent over the cockpit of his canoe. I knew that I had a very similar tent in my collection so I tried a quick trial pitch in the garden.
Whilst this would provide great shelter it would have involved fabricating a few components to adapt the tent for use on the canoe plus it seemed a little unwieldy and I imagined that it would be very prone to catching the wind should it pick up during a sleep aboard. I also felt that it would be very difficult to erect on the water and if I had to land to pitch the tent on the canoe this defeated many of the objectives of sleeping aboard in the first place. Back to square one then and I ordered a suitably sized donor polytarp and a host of different eyelets and tarp tape for my project. Over the ten days preceding the trip I constructed the boom tent but due to the weather and time constraints didn't have the chance to test it on the canoe.
During the planning for the weekend Tom joined the group for the trip as well and as the weekend approached the weather forecast looked as though it would be settled but cold with light winds, not great for sailing but good for trying to sleep aboard for the first time. Tom is a keen sea kayaker as well as a canoe sailor and Graham was hoping to get some tips on paddling the kayak he bought last year but hadn't used so we all decided to take our kayaks as well as our sailing canoes.
It's only a two hour drive for me to get to Loch Ken so I left just before lunchtime on Friday and arrived at GAC just before three. Tom's car, tent and kayak were there already but there was no sign of the man himself or his canoe. I set about unloading my boats so that I could get on the water and go and find him. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, I was warm enough in just a tee shirt as I worked away and the loch was like a millpond. In short order I had the boats off and noticed a red sail in the distance, it was Tom.
He landed and we had a catch up while I quickly ate my lunch, donned my drysuit and wheeled Aylen down to the slipway. It was a bit late to be getting out for a sail but it was such a lovely afternoon we reckoned it was worth going for a potter for an hour or so before the sun went down.
We sailed south past two small islands and into the waterski area (thankfully it was devoid of waterskiers). The sun was starting to go down and the temperature dropped dramatically so we decided to turn round and head back. In the evening light the views became even more atmospheric, it really was stunning!
(pic courtesy of Tom).
 As we neared GAC my phone rang, it was Graham who was in Castle Douglas and would be arriving soon so we paddle sailed back to GAC to meet him. We cooked some dinner at our camp and then took advantage of having the use of the activity centre facilities, moving into the comfortable lounge area to escape the cold. Andy arrived as well and we sat about chatting, drinking and snacking on cheese and biscuits. Glamping indeed!
It was very cold overnight but I slept like a log and woke fairly late. The guys were all up fixing breakfast and discussing options for the day. It was windless and there was ice floating on the loch so we decided to go for a paddle in the kayaks to the northern end of the loch to search for potential sleep aboard spots for Sunday night.
Andy in his folder.
Graham in the "Widowmaker" (nicknamed this last year by some wag after a quick try out revealed not much primary stability)!
Graham bought her last Spring at an absolute bargain price but hasn't paddled her much due to fears about the aforementioned lack of initial stability, he was hoping to tap into Tom's knowledge and get some tips during this trip. After initially looking very uneasy he quickly settled down and with some sage advice from Tom has now gained enough confidence to contemplate using her a bit more this season. 
We paddled to the northern extremities of the loch and set about exploring a maze of narrow channels and shallow lagoons amongst the reed beds, this was great fun and ideal for progressing Graham's confidence and boat  handling skills. It was tight going in places trying to manouevre a seventeen foot sea kayak through the winding ditches.  
Tom in his beautiful Alaw Bach
and me in my scabby Skerray! (pic courtesy of Tom).
Rafted up on the river
and looking back the other way (pic courtesy of Andy).
After exploring the channels and lagoons for a while and paddling up the river for a good distance we noticed that a breeze had got up so as we were starting to get peckish we headed back towards GAC for lunch and to change boats for an afternoon sail. 
Tom and Andy paddling back down the river
and back onto Loch Ken.
After lunch we set out (south this time) for a sail. The wind was light but steady as we ran downwind down the loch. 
After an uneventful sail south we turned tail to start back (mindful that we were beating upwind on the return leg) to ensure Tom wasn't late for a family party that he had to attend that evening. The wind freshened on the sail back and it was really good to be sailing my Shearwater again after a couple of months away from it. This weekend had been the first time I'd sailed her without using the outriggers (emboldened by my new drysuit) and I was revelling in the experience. 
Loch Ken was chosen as a site for the reintroduction of the Red Kite and there is now quite a healthy population. It's difficult to photograph them with the short lens on my little compact but this is one of them. They're striking birds with a distinctive vee shaped tail and colouring and are quite large as well. 
Once we got back Tom packed and left, it was sad to see him go but it had been great to catch up with him again. Graham, Andy and I had a dinner date with Graham's friend Christine (who had joined us for the first Wallaby Safari on Loch Lomond eighteen months ago ) and she duly arrived to pick us up and kindly drove us to the Ken Bridge Hotel, our venue for the evening.  
On Sunday we had a lazy start carrying out last minute preparations on our boats for the overnighter. Andy and I fitted our outriggers and I tried my boom tent on the canoe (it was a bit flappy but should be okay with the forecast conditions). After notifying the staff at GAC that we would be away overnight (and getting some good advice on further possible anchoring up spots from them) we got away just after lunchtime. The sail north was easy in a steady southerly breeze. 
(pic courtesy of Graham)
(pic courtesy of Graham)
As we approached the head of the loch we decided to explore the western side rather than the eastern section we'd recce'd in the kayaks. It had struck us that as it would be dark by seven we should find somewhere to anchor where we could get ashore close by to cook and maybe have a campfire for the evening (it'd be a long night going to bed at 7pm!) The area we'd already scouted on Saturday morning had some perfect anchorages but not with anywhere to really get ashore and definitely nowhere for a fire. We were moving at a fair lick downwind and I was a bit worried about hitting an underwater obstruction at speed as we entered an area of channels we knew would be very shallow in places.
Andy and Graham surged ahead with their full sail areas still deployed while I stopped to reef to slow things down a little.
We passed through an initial mini-loch and cut through into a tributary of the river.
It became even tighter and too enclosed to sail so we furled the sails and broke out the paddles. After half an hour of exploring we decided upon a spot. I worked my canoe into a gap between the bank and a tiny islet then with Graham's assistance jumped ashore and secured the stern of my canoe to a tree and the bow to my anchor dug into the bank.
 Andy and Graham had parked just around the corner.
We all started converting our boats into floating bedrooms. Graham was intending not to sleep afloat due to his canoe having a leaky self bailer but before he pulled the "Pig" out of the water for the night he wanted to try setting up his shelter afloat for future reference.
Andy can only set up his shelter ashore at the moment but once up his tent looked the most weathertight of the three. 
He planned to paddle Delpha out in the dark later on and drop anchor then.
My tarp went up quickly and easily but wasn't tensioned as well as I'd hoped it would be (should be easy to rectify for future use though). Although I initially intended to do the same as Andy and anchor it seemed pointless since the canoe was securely moored alongside so I decided to remove the bank side ama to allow her to sit level in the water and sleep were I was  (I was still afloat after all!)
After that we changed out of our drysuits, gathered up our food and drink and relocated a few yards to an area where Graham had dug out a shallow fire pit for us to use. There was an abundance of felled dry wood nearby so we knew we would be in for a hearty fire to warm our evening. Andy lit the fire using his fire steel, a ball of cotton wool and locally gathered tinder, it took first time and was soon burning away. 
We passed an enjoyable evening eating, drinking and chatting, occasionally having to walk a few feet to replenish the fire wood supply! 
The fire looks as though it's gone out in this picture but it's just the flash from the camera overwhelming the light from the flames. 
Here's the proof!
Around midnight we went our separate ways after dousing the fire. It took me about ten minutes to roll out my old Karrimat on the floor of the canoe, pump up my Synmat airbed and get into my ancient synthetic sleeping bag (I wasn't risking getting my new down bag wet). I was amazed how warm and comfy I was.
During the night the temperature dipped down around freezing and I felt the limitations of sleeping in a thirty five year old sleeping bag but I was never cold enough to be bothered getting up to fish out the fleece sleeping bag liner I'd brought with me as insurance. With hindsight I probably would have been warmer had I got into my bivi bag as well but as there was no prospect of rain I hadn't bothered. I slept fitfully (due to the unfamiliar sensation  rather than being cold or uncomfortable) and woke up around 6am taking this picture of Andy floating serenely at anchor next to me in the early morning light before rolling over for another hour. 
An hour later!
We got up and had breakfast and all agreed that sleeping aboard had been an enjoyable experience. All that remained before leaving was to replace the turf over the fire pit and tidy up a little so that we left no trace of our stay. 
We were well sheltered in the trees but could feel a nice breeze blowing from the south as we worked our way back down the river. 
Once out into the main body of the loch we could stow the paddles and unfurl the sails for an enjoyable sail back to GAC. 
(pic courtesy of Graham).
We were back at base camp by lunchtime and there was nothing for it but to start packing up. What a fun weekend we had doing a variety of paddling and sailing, socialising and scoffing (with the odd drink thrown in for good measure!) As always the guys (and Christine) were great company and it's so nice to feel that the season is finally getting under way after the dreary winter.