Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One paddler's secret to slowing down the passage of time...do something difficult, every day.

Joan, on the beach, at Qualicum.

There's been significant time on the water recently...always so refreshing for body, mind, and spirit. It's an outdoor pursuit that also offers lots of "thinking" time. The rhythm of countless paddle strokes over many hours offers a contemplative experience. Such times are necessary, for they offer balance and provide renewed strength for what life calls us all to "do". 

It was good to be back on the Salish Sea again. Launching near the town of Qualicum Beach, Texada Island and the distant coastal range of the mainland of Canada formed a gentle horizon through the soft and shimmering air. It's truly an endless summer, here on Canada's "Pacific Island".

In these precious moments on the water, I thought about time, life's most precious commodity...and how we sometimes allow it to "vanish" in the passage and industry of each day. Sometimes, in fact, we even wish it away. It has been my experience, over the years, that "lost time" is the greatest regret most people have as they near the end of their lives. That difficult circumstance, however, is abundantly avoidable.

Most of us over the age of forty, which I am (but only slightly, well, OK, maybe by quite a bit) are familiar with the experience of time just "flying". Every year, it seems to pass by faster and faster and it is almost as if we are on a spinning carousel, the back drop of life's "scenery" flashing by. When that happens, of course, we miss out on so much.

"Pausing" time.
It seems like only yesterday, we were in Scotland, packing up for the almost five weeks here back in Canada. Now, at almost the half-way point, I am thinking about the challenges, projects and activities to come and even the extra "bits and bobs" to take back - mainly small items of kayaking kit. The time can surely "fly", if we're not careful. Nothing accelerates the passage of time more than living in the past...or the future. Neither one honours the present moment, the only moment that exists at all.

It seems like just a short time ago that Joan and I were getting married in a beautiful church next to the university that we were attending in Hamilton, Ontario. She wore a simple wedding dress that she had made herself. I wore a rented morning suit, with ascot, winged collar and white boutonnière - absolutely dashing! Haha! Almost forty-two years ago now, it does seem rather "sixties". Of course, it was. :)

But strangely, those days seem like just "yesterday".

Memories still so fresh!
Where has the time gone? Well, of course we know where it's gone and there have been many great adventures...and the memories of that special day are as clear and sharp as if no time at all has passed. (And yes, your reporter still has hair and it's still mostly brown!)

Time, however, didn't always pass this quickly. As little children, the hours and days and weeks were so long and delicious. Every day, in fact, could have been described as a "never-ending story". An afternoon adventure in the playground lasted a lifetime. Summer holidays lasted even longer.

A "sea monster", as long as Joan's kayak, looms darkly below.
When we slow time down, our imaginations are freed. :)
Most of us can remember, as high school students, the "interminable" Monday to Friday week in the classrooms. It seemed like the weekend would never (ever!) arrive. Sitting in classroom on a Monday morning, the "freedom" of 3:30 pm on Friday afternoon felt like a million years away!

Time lingered...and we didn't always appreciate it.

The older we get, however, the more rapidly time seems to fly by. Some would explain that this is because when we are young, our lives are ahead of us, stretching out into a distant future. But when we get older, the larger percentage of our lives are behind us, with the "sands" of time simply running out.

I'm not so sure about that. I think there's more to it. And it's rather exciting.

When we were young, we were constantly learning. We were literally growing up. And we were, for the most part, eager about the process of learning. Our eyes were as wide as saucers and our minds vacuumed up every bit of new knowledge. We ate it up, drank it in, relished it...and celebrated our successes and accomplishments, large and small. Even our frequent failures contributed to our growth, for every new experience tested us, and strengthened us. We didn't look so much for short cuts - sadly, that's an adult "thing".

Time does seem to pause when we are struggling to master a new skill. Whether it's learning to walk, or run, or ride a bicycle, master social skills, or grasp the elements of algebra and geometry, our minds are occupied and struggling...and growing.

It is in such moments that time slows down and permits the process of learning. In these "times", life reveals a beauty and an intricacy that can only be appreciated when our hearts and minds are open to the deliberate and sometimes painstaking process of exploration and discovery.

When we get older, however, our hunger for learning seems satiated, by our desire to be "comfortable". We think that we've learned all we need to know and sometimes we even avoid the tasks and responsibilities that we know will test our patience, strength, and will. We look for the short cuts...we stop growing and learning. The result: the passage of time accelerates, almost out of control...and we wonder what we have to show for it.

I've discovered at least one secret to slowing down the passage of time: it's doing something difficult, something you really may not even want to do, every single day.

When we were with kayaking coach Gordon Brown last month, on the Isle of Skye, he taught us to take the time to develop balance and confidence in the kayak...by getting out of the kayak. The exercises looked difficult. Surely, it would be a lot more fun just to paddle! We took his advice, however, and have practised faithfully since that time. It has been during these practice sessions, frequently falling in and having to get back in the cockpit, that we have discovered a most surprising gift. In the midst of the "struggle", we became as little children. And time...slowed down.

Amidst the frustration, the failures, the successes, and the determination...time slowed down. And when these skills are mastered, it will be time to move on to other challenges. There are, of course, unlimited challenges in the world of sea kayaking!

Time out of the cockpit, the process...
...of slowing down the passage of time.
I am sure that it is the very process of learning that deepens, enriches, and lengthens the passage of time.

And almost in obedience to that process, the precious moments dutifully slow their otherwise (seemingly) frantic pace so that each can be truly tasted and savoured.

Becoming as a child is doing something difficult every day...and seeing time's each and every moment sparkle with fresh satisfaction and renewed meaning. Will there be frustration? Of course, but there is no better way to experience the length and breadth of time. It's very survivable. :)

The relatively brief four hours on the water made for a very long day...just the way it should always be.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The pleasure of stepping into an old, familiar "river"...for the very first time.

The warm breeze across Maple Bay felt wonderful. Being back in the cockpit of "Spartan", my Canadian sea kayak who has waited so patiently, was an absolute thrill. For the past six months, Scotland has been home. We will return there, but for now, for these precious weeks, we will soak up this very special part of Canada that has been "Base Camp 1" for some twelve years.

It's an interesting experience, coming "home", for a visit. The eyes see everything from a new perspective.

In many ways, they see, for the very first time. As the ancient philosopher, Heraclitis, said, "You cannot step into the same river twice" - and I always find that the new "river" is just as refreshing, albeit in very different ways.

I had forgotten how magnificent this part of our country is...it's pure outdoors. Vancouver Island is a land of ocean and sea, mountains, rainforest, and deep, fertile valleys.

I am happiest on the water, in my narrow boat. It's there that the mind is freed and allowed to rediscover its quiet centre. In this place, there is a connection to the water, the air, the sandstone shores, the verdant forests...and to the depth of one's own spirit.

Whether it's here on the vast Pacific waters, or the imagination-inspiring North Sea 7000 kilometres away, an inland Scottish loch surrounded by heather-clad mountains, or a glistening lake in Canadian "cottage country", the experience is always the same.

It is a time, a place, and a context...simply to be.

When we launched from the beach at Maple Bay, there was a brisk and refreshing breeze. Three hours later, the narrows were calm and as reflective as a mirror.

I think it's all about change...the most refreshing, healing, invigorating, perspective-enhancing, proof...that one is alive, and still growing. It does a body, mind, and spirit good. It is essential to richness and texture in life.

It's great to be back in this old, familiar "river"...for the very first time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Filled and refreshed by the "emptiness" of an unbroken horizon...

Paddle strokes into the "empty" horizon.
Paddling a sea kayak, along the red sandstone Angus shores of the North Sea, is a liberating and invigorating experience. The marine life, and the dramatic geological formations of arches, caves, sea stacks and cliffs delight and stimulate the senses.

Out to sea, the empty horizon, provides a similar feast of gentle stimuli that fills and refreshes. If only for just a little while, land is left behind, and the imagination anticipates the possibility of an epic adventure.

The "empty" horizon promises a sea-going version of pilot John Gillespie Magee's slipping "the surly bonds of earth". The sea kayak's forward momentum shares many of the "flight" dynamics of an aircraft - the pitch, the yaw, and the roll. The angles of rotation in three dimensions soothe, and focus attention. There is a gentle transformation...and then almost imperceptibly...you are fully immersed in the "moment". The distractions and the agendas, the "to do" lists and the pressures, all fade away. This is time well spent. The sacred balance, for which the human body, mind and spirit yearns, establishes itself.

The featureless ocean horizon, especially under an overcast sky, imparts a sense of "invitation" into the unknown. It satiates the dreamy thirst for adventure that resides within. All this, of course, is sharpened by a tiny pinch of delicious and healthy disquiet. After all, the unknown is the unknown.

It is always a life-giving exercise to yearn to make new discoveries - about self and about the world. And this becomes possible, in the "moment". This is when time becomes a rich and deep well of treasures. How often we miss it with our need to accomplish and with the strange refuge we take in "busyness". The distracted life, filled with overwhelming agendas, so easily becomes the life of "quiet desperation" that draws energy and invites vulnerability. I see this so often in many who share my vocation. Their most important relationships and their courageous dreams of making a difference become part of the collateral damage, having neglected and ignored sufficient "moments" of respite and renewal.

The empty horizon is far from featureless, rather, it is full to brimming with the varied "topography" of promised adventure. As is the case with so much in life, our view is determined by our perspective. Frequent time in such natural surroundings, is time away from the "fray". It restores and revitalises and strengthens us to do good works and safeguard our most valued relationships. It gives us fresh and new perspectives and sufficient energy to do what we feel called to do in life.

May such distant and "empty" horizons, and such "moments" beckon...with their promise to fill and refresh. They will! :)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A mother's counsel, and following our fears...

Like two ants, atop the Deil's Heid...they followed their fears.
Hiking along the top of the sandstone cliffs overlooking the North Sea, where we had kayaked just days before, we came upon two climbers - on the very top of the Deil's Heid, a local sea stack. Very impressive! It led us to think about the directions in life we sometimes fear to take...

As a small boy, I was a little shy. I was also short, wore glasses, had freckles and curly hair, and was usually the last person chosen to be on any team, whether it be road hockey or schoolyard soccer. Given all this, I'm thankful to have had the parents I did. My father always seemed completely fearless - there was nothing, it seemed, he wouldn't dare to do or try. He had a great life, full of adventure. He probably never said, "I should have." - he just did it. My mother was quietly the same way. Growing up, her words of encouragement were often..."Duncan, if you don't try, you'll never know." She was right.

Their example taught one of life's most important lessons - we need to follow our fears and our doubts. Yossi Ghinsberg's moving account of his survival, against all odds, in the Amazon rainforest of Bolivia is a startling, raw, and graphic account of survival in unthinkable conditions. Having survived the impossible harshness of an unforgiving environment, Ghinsberg ended his book, Lost in the Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival, with these gentle words:

"May you find the courage to walk your own path. May you dare to venture into the uncharted domains of your heart. Here is my advice to you, the adventurers - fear will show you the way, walk steadily toward it. Have trust and faith to guide you like a torch piercing darkness."

I get goose bumps when I re-read those words. Usually we talk about facing our fears - but following our fears is so very different. In facing our fears, we can decide that they are too formidable and back away from them. Then we will never know if we have missed out on something essential, something that is life-giving and life-enriching. If we follow our fears, however, if we allow our fears to show us the way, we dare to go where we can confront their source and their true nature. Most often, the things we fear in life have a ferocious bark, but they rarely have much real bite.

I was thinking this morning about my father's example and my mother's counsel, "If you don't try, you'll never know." Our first summer internship many years ago could have been near home, in Toronto. It would have been easy. There was a sense, however, that we should follow our fears of the unknown which would mean cutting the umbilical cord to everything familiar. We were assigned to a remote and tiny community in Fortune Bay, in Newfoundland. We could have had the comfort of the familiar. Instead, we discovered the warmth and charm of wonderful people, indescribable natural beauty, and a deeply enriching experience. It was an "adventure" we'll never forget.

For years, I desperately wanted to learn to fly but there was always the nagging fear of the mandatory and dreaded "spin recovery" and then the first solo, followed by the cross-country solo. What if I couldn't do it? What if it didn't go well? "If you don't try, you'll never know." Despite the fears and self-doubt, it did go well and several years of living a dream followed - and no one ever got hurt. :)

We have loved everywhere we have ever lived. Every time we moved, however, there was the nagging worry that we might be making a mistake.To move always meant leaving people we cared about and places that had become "home". Despite this, there has always been the irresistible call, as Yossi Ghinsberg describes, "to venture into the uncharted domains" of the heart. After the usual agonizing, we usually followed our fears - and our hearts. Over the years, we know that it was always the right thing to do.

It is, admittedly always easier not to "launch", and to stay on the shore. The waves, the wind, and the currents can be so unpredictable and so contrary. And the shoreline is very beautiful, rich in diversity, and offers much comfort. The counsel, however, a loving mother frequently gave to her shy, freckled and bespectacled, little boy, keeps coming to mind. "If you don't try, you'll never know."

I guess I've just always needed to know - but never quite enough to climb to the top of the Deil's Heid!

Two climbers that "know".
When we become aware of the struggles our world faces, issues related to violence and injustice, hunger, disparity, and poverty, we often fear that we cannot make a difference.

And so we don't try.

It is in finding the courage to follow our fears, and all of our doubts in life, that we most often do make a difference...in our own lives and in the lives of others.

And besides, if we don't try, we'll never know. :)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The companionship of nature...alone, but rarely lonely.

I have a great deal of company in the house,
especially in the morning when nobody calls.
- Henry David Thoreau

Arbroath's red sandstone cliffs...and the North Sea.
Despite the pleasant need to be affable and convivial in the midst of others, we are also very content to have the "companionship" of the natural world.

As do many of you, who find meaning and value in self-propelled activities such as kayaking and hill walking, we have discovered that there is a wonderful experience of rapport in nature.

The sound of the bow of the narrow boats, rising and falling through the gentle swell, delivers a "voice" that can be heard. It is the same sound that was heard thousands of years ago by indigenous paddlers on northern waters. This familiar call, speaks the same universal language today as it did in the countless millennia before recorded time began.

The waves that caress the red sandstone shores feel like they are moving right along with us, enjoying our company as much as we are enjoying theirs. They are beneath and around. The creatures of land, sea, and air offer their companionship - sometimes it seems they are calling out a greeting. We call back, and maybe their "grin" is as wide as ours? Perhaps we are sharing laughter together? We most certainly share curiosity.

Looking out to sea, and along the dramatic shoreline that eventually falls beneath the horizon, we feel a connection to a most wondrous and complex world.

In all of this, there is a "companionship" that nurtures and comforts in ways the busy, and often frenetic urban landscape can never offer.

It is a context where one can be alone...but rarely lonely.

Perhaps this is how Henry David enjoyed such good "company", in those quiet early morning hours, alone in his tiny cabin and around his lovely Walden Pond.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sea kayaking with Gordon Brown...three amazing days!

Gordon, ensuring everything is in place for the day's training.
It was, indeed, an amazing three days…with a dramatic beginning.

Our eclectic and friendly group of six met at the Skyak Adventures base of operations, on the breathtaking Isle of Skye. We were two Swedish photographers, a Danish-Scottish sculptor, an Australian educator, and two Canadians living in Scotland, a social worker and a parish minister. After a warm welcome, introductions, coffee, and a most enjoyable and comprehensive briefing by our coach and mentor, Gordon Brown, we were ready to launch. It was clearly the perfect day to "learn" - the skies were dark, overcast, and glowering. Rain was falling from every direction, the driven pellets of water bouncing off our dry suits. The remnants of Hurricane Bertha, wagging its tail end furiously, was here to play!

Today, the winds were dutifully obedient to the forecast Force 5 to the upper end of Force 6 - it was, after all, the tail end of Hurricane Bertha. Right, I already mentioned that. :) Little did we know, as we took the first paddle strokes away from the shore, roads were being washed away and landscapes changed in many areas of northern Scotland. As if to kick up the delicious drama that was forming in my imagination another notch or two, under the Skye Bridge, the incoming winds angrily confronted the outgoing tide. The result: a rather "iffy" alarming tidal race - with huge rolling and breaking waves. The thought, admittedly, passed through my mind that now might be the perfect time to return to the Skyak base - for more coffee. Needless to say, we stayed...and the camera stayed stowed!

En route to a more sheltered spot, for some further instruction, before entering the “fray”, I found myself paddling along and chatting amiably with our instructor. Suddenly, the realisation hit me: I was sea kayaking with Gordon Brown! Mentally pinching myself, to ensure this was all real, every anxiety about what was to come, real and imagined, melted completely away. :) The adventure had begun. For the next few days, we would be privileged to be in the company of, and instructed by, one of the most renowned and respected ocean-going paddlers on the planet.

Kevin, assisting Gordon, entering a tide race. 
near the Gleneig and Kylerhea ferry.
And learn we did. The finest teachers, instructors, and coaches in the world value and affirm their students. They help them to believe that everything is possible, albeit with the requisite desire, discipline, and practice. Gordon is one such teacher. Applying a lifetime of gathered skills and experiences in a diversity of places and situations, he nourished us with his every word, lesson, and story. He listens very carefully and patiently to every question and query, and reflects back his observations with clarity and superb humour. His absolute passion for sea kayaking, and a myriad of related subjects, is more than tangible. Gordon's enthusiasm is contagious and we all became "believers" - in the ways that we could continue to grow and develop as sea kayakers.

Feeling that we'd reached a bit of an impenetrable "plateau" in our own paddling, the two of us quickly realised that we had put limits on ourselves. Gordon moved us all from a comfort zone into the "adventure zone". That, of course, expands the comfort zone and opens up so many more possibilities and opportunities on the water. Following his guidance and example, the new comfort zone expands and reveals further entry points into new adventures. When any one of the six of us, on occasion, began to push through into the "mis-adventure" zone (usually ending up outside of the kayaks and in flowing water), he and Kevin instantly (somehow!) appeared by our sides - with a helpful debrief and lots of encouraging words. :)

On-water briefing.
The three days were full - in the "classroom", but mostly on the water. We "caught" waves and enjoyed the exhilaration of surfing them, albeit a bit conservatively on my part. We guided one another on a slalom course around the huge bridge supports in the moving current - with eyes closed! We practised forward strokes that became more efficient and powerful, skulling, and the bow and stern rudder turns that will assist in rock-hopping. Gordon demonstrated and taught a series of balance exercises - including standing up in the cockpit! We practised self and assisted-rescue skills (in flowing water), and techniques to enter and exit the tidal races. 

All too soon, the three days were over...but there was a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment. 

Lunch break with Gordon and Kevin, (Joan behind the camera) 
Gordon and Morag Brown are a superb team. Morag, is also a highly skilled paddler, and practised as a GP with special training in sports, expedition, and high altitude medicine  - and she's climbed every one of the 282 Scottish Munros! (Having "bagged" a grand total of five, we find that pretty impressive!)

Thank you Gordon and Morag - you've inspired and enthused, and given us all a taste of what's possible when we push through the comfort zone. 

* Also extremely helpful for those who may not be able to get to Skye or Gordon's coaching sessions: the DVD series by Simon Willis and Gordon Brown, Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown and Gordon's book, Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Escape from "comfort"...to the Isle of Skye, and Gordon Brown.

Safe in Auchmithie harbour...
but needing to go further.
One of the many delightful things about living away from home is learning new expressions. Some, we've had to ask folks to repeat...and then explain! It's been fun. :) There are two expressions, however, whose meanings are perfectly clear: "Every day's a school day." and "We'll get there." Both are said with the characteristic warmth, good cheer, and optimism of the people in this country.

Every day should, indeed, be a "school day". The process of learning is one of life's richest and most meaningful activities. My dad, whose personality was always an enigmatic amalgam of the outdoors, mathematics, and philosophy, often advised his young son that "comfort" was not something to embrace in life. (He always said it rather emphatically.) That particular piece of fatherly advice made no sense to me at all! Surely comfort, after all, is a reasonable condition? Why would one strive to be uncomfortable? What he was getting at, however, was that seeking and embracing comfort can sometimes be an "end" state...namely, the end of growth and development.

My dad's advice did, eventually, begin to make some sense as I grew older. Having all the "answers", for example, clearly brings a sense of comfort to some, but it means that questions are no longer being asked. The door subsequently closes, firmly shut, to the process of learning and growing. How much more satisfying and enriching it is to "live the questions". Being satisfied with the status quo (in any context) may seem to be a comfortable niche...but that niche can become a stifling and claustrophobic place to be. When every day's a "school day", the process of discovery and exploration is set free. Life remains fresh and vibrant and stimulating. It becomes an "adventure" in the truest sense.

To be quite honest, we'd become comfortable with our paddling skills over the years. Why push the "envelope" any further? As a consequence, time in the cockpit had begun to lose a little of its sparkle and its thrill. It just didn't seem quite the same as it used to be when we were learning and growing (and, admittedly, sometimes scaring ourselves).

It was time to take serious steps - or at least paddle strokes.

Tomorrow, we leave for the Isle of Skye, in the Inner Hebrides, to spend three days with Gordon Brown, arguably, the most renown instructor and coach in the world of sea kayaking. The goal: to escape the "comfort" of the status quo - and safely open wider the doors to new paddling possibilities and opportunities.

It is clear that the coming days will be challenging. The process of learning new skills is guaranteed to be (very) humbling at times. There will, undoubtedly, be some good laughs!

Despite it all, we'll get there - right side up! ;)

Friday, August 01, 2014

Stories in the ancient cliffs of Arbroath, Auchmithie and beyond...

The Arbroath Signal Tower, built in 1813 by Robert Stevenson,
the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.
In every out-thrust headland,
in every curving beach,
in every grain of sand
there is the story of the earth."
- Rachel Carson

With a sense of great anticipation, we met up with Ian, at 0930 hrs - it was going to be another great day on the North Sea waters, off the Angus coast of Scotland. Ian has already written a marvellous story, with descriptions and images of the geological history at Mountain and Sea Scotland.

It's a profoundly moving experience to paddle along the edge of these ancient sandstone cliffs. They have so many stories to tell...

And so we set out along the cliffs, under a windless, azure sky.

Joan and Ian, paddling along the Seaton Cliffs - in waters rarely this calm.
Tides, waves, weather, and the continual movement of the earth continue to shape and carve, build up and wear down the 400 million year old sandstones and conglomerates.

An elegant P&H Cetus (kayak), and the Deil's Heid.
Deep caverns and caves, geos and countless nooks and crannies beckon those who are fortunate to be at their entry portals...but there's a caution. Conditions must be perfect. On this day, they were.

Ian, near the tiny beach of the Gaylet Pot blow hole.
Forward progress on the water was slow, there was simply so much to take in. One felt compelled to pause, contemplate, reflect, and "listen".

Imagine. What if we did take the time to listen to the "stories" each grain of sand, each darkened cave might tell?

"Inside" looking out.
William Wordsworth wrote, "let nature be your teacher". 

Headlamps: "On"
If we paused our frantic pace, our constant hunger for digital connectivity, and our "urgent" agendas sufficiently, her great wisdom would find an entry point into our lives. 

She would gently guide us to doing what we must do to safeguard life on this fragile, island planet. 

She would demonstrate to us how we could truly enrich one another's lives by an equal and just sharing of resources.

Twin portals.
If we followed nature's gentle guidance, this "blue marble", as it appears from a million miles away in space, could be assured of health and vitality, balance and beauty. Humankind and creation would be at peace with one another.

Once a headland?
Biologist Callum Roberts, in The Ocean of Life, calls us to understand that "it is essential for ocean life and our own that we transform ourselves from being a species that uses up resources to one that cherishes and nurtures them."

Last stop...savouring.
Jacques Cousteau taught, "people protect what they love." Before we are truly able to love this planet, however, we need to get to know it. In so doing, we would certainly learn to cherish and nurture it.

Joan and Ian...and nothing on the North Sea's horizon.
There's a "story" being told in every moment of time...

Homeward bound...we'll be back.
...do we take time to listen? Do we spend sufficient time "out"doors where the stories are being told?

As Annie Dillard says, "We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place."

Hmm...perhaps if we did, we'd get a better feel for one another in this world. A possible strategy for peace?

The kayak cockpit, of course, is just one place that lends itself rather well to the job of "listening". :)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Apparitions and "gloups"...a subterranean paddle through the mists of time.

Into the mist, from the ruins of Arbroath Harbour.
Back home, the sun was blazing in the clear skies. The temperature was unseasonably hot for this part of Scotland. 19.2 miles to the east, it was much cooler and the meeting of the chilly North Sea waters and the summer air were creating foggy conditions along the Arbroath cliffs. There was hardly a breath of air. The sea was unusually calm - a perfect day to be on the water.

Leaving the harbour at Auchmithie, a sandstone headland that overlooks Castlesea Bay draws the eye - the site of an Iron Age defensive fort, known as Lud Castle. A narrow spur or "neck" of land connects it to the mainland proper.

Gliding beneath what was once an ancient fort some 2000+ years ago, in a narrow craft whose essential design is possibly 5000 years old, gives one a perspective on the passage of time. My sleek new kayak, a red Valley Etain 17.5, has significantly older roots than the "blueprints" of an ancient hill fort. Imagine. A case could easily be made that our tiny, one-person vessels are "pre-historic", at least in design.

The site of Lud Castle, an ancient promontory fort...
and a narrow vessel with a history, twice as long.
On this day, the North Sea was relaxed, as if in a pensive mood, even moody. Perhaps it was contemplating the violent, wind-whipped, winter storms it will have to accommodate in just a few short months. Its silky surface parted cleanly and effortlessly as we paddled along the cliffs and around skerries.

"Skerry" is an Old Norse word that means "a rock in the sea" - and that's exactly what they are. Massive skerries or reefs, such as the nearby Bell Rock require lighthouses. Even these tiny ones, when submerged, require a vigilant eye for breaking water.

Around the skerry.
A small pod of five dolphins passed by going in the other direction. It was all rather magical.

Dolphins and sea birds.
Approaching the dark form of the Deil's Heid, we saw, in the distance, a ghostly apparition coming towards us, out of the mist. Could it be? Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "ancient mariner"?

"A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered."

"Someone" on the horizon?
As we paddled along, we were clearly on a "confliction" course...but it was by mutual design.

A fellow mariner!
It was a serendipitous encounter on the sea - three paddlers, two in kayaks and one on a SUP board. It was enjoyable to share a few moments together on the gentle swell. Can't imagine where the paddling fisherman was going. Auchmithie? Points north?

The passing "fisher" on a SUP.
Wishing each other well, we parted company, the "ancient" mariner to the north, and we to the south.

For several years, we've walked along the narrow clifftop path, around the deeply cut inlet, Dickmont's Den. Looking down, we had imagined what it would be like to be at sea level in this great chasm, a haunt of 17th and 18th century smugglers.

Dickmont's Den, from the path on another day.

Paddling into the "Den", the sandstone cliffs rising on either side, was exhilarating. Mixed with the screeching of sea birds was the deep sound of the sea's slow "breathing". It came from deep inside a dark cleft in the rock wall. This planet is so very much alive.

Inside Dickmont's Den, looking out.
There was one more place to explore before returning to the old harbour. A dark and broad opening in the sandstone cliffs invited, at the very least, "closer" investigation. Was this an invitation to the curious...or the foolish? The sea was calm, the tide was sufficiently high. The slight swell did not indicate any submerged obstacles at our minimal draught.

Tentative paddle strokes into the darkness.
Drifting into the entrance of the cavern, it quickly became eerily quiet. 

The mouth of the cavern.
It was very dark. Water dripped from the roof of the cavern. It was easy to wonder what else might be lurking in there - above or below us. A slight chill ran down my spine. Nothing like a vivid imagination. We were gently rising and falling in a subterranean world.

Paddling inside the earth...literally.
There was light at the end of the cavern...but we had not seen any exit on the other side of the headland. How could light possible penetrate? From above? But how?

Shaft of light from "above".
We sat in our boats, trying to take in all in. Time seemed to slow down, even stop. It was another realm, neither land nor sea. The tide was beginning to fall. We elected to have a closer study of the charts and maps from the less-mysterious comfort of home.

Paddling back to the mouth of the cavern and to the screeching sounds of hundreds of sea birds, we felt that we had been permitted a unique glimpse of nature's handiwork. It had been from inside the earth and through the mists of unfathomable time. 

We are always deeply grateful for such opportunities. A new "connection" was made to the planet that was both stirring and deeply emotional, on so many levels.

Back into the light...at the "beginning of the tunnel".
Later, after checking the maps, the cavern certainly did appear to lead to the giant blowhole, the Gaylet Pot. We must have walked by it, on the trail above the cliffs, countless times - and never noticed it. Formed by the collapse of a sea cave, it's located in the middle of a farmer's field. It was astonishing. We'd been 300 feet inland, and 150 feet below a farmer's field - in sea kayaks.

It is this giant "gloup", or hole in the earth, that permits the sun to shine through to the end of the sea cave. Through tens of millions of years, the cave has grown landwards and into a vertical shaft...and into the rays of the sun. A thrilling account of how stormy seas can penetrate this shaft and rise high into the air, can be found here

Apparitions, "ancient mariners", smuggler's coves, caverns, and gloups - another routine day, paddling on the North Sea, between Auchmithie and Arbroath. ;)