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 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. ;)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Queen's Baton...and the XX Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Mike and the family.
We simply can't let the fact pass that cousin and good friend, "MG" Mike, is one of the Batonbearers for the upcoming Glasgow 2014 XX Commonwealth Games. Mike is among the thousands of runners who were appointed to carry the baton and his nomination reflects the difference he has made through volunteering and community support.

The Queen's Baton Relay was launched on October 9th, 2013, at Buckingham Palace. At that time, the Queen placed a message in the baton. Since then, it has travelled from Glasgow, over 190,000 kilometres, through 71 nations and territories before arriving back here in Scotland on June 14th. After criss-crossing this country - 40 days in 400 communities - the final batonbearer will hand the baton back to Her Majesty on the 23rd and she will read her message, proclaiming the Glasgow Commonwealth Games open.

Bravo Mike!

And, oh yes, Glasgow is my "hometown", so it's also just a little extra special to be here this "Year of Homecoming". :)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Puffins, caves, tides, and dolphins...and the long-lost piper?

Sandstone and seabirds.
Nearing Arbroath, we turned around and enjoyed the warm sun on our backs for the return leg to Auchmithie. Last autumn, we stayed in a self-catering flat in Arbroath and frequently witnessed the power of the North Sea waves as they released their immense energy against the sea walls and cliffs.

On this day, the sea state was benign and welcoming. We are always, after all, "guests" here. Passage in such narrow boats is granted only when wind and waves permit. Conditions are dynamic, change is normal, and nothing is ever taken for granted.

The cliffs are home to numerous colonies of sea birds - herring gulls, fulmars, kittiwakes, rock doves, and puffins. Their habitation is well "marked". We wondered if even the driving rain of north-easterly winter storms could wash these cliffs clean?

Cliff dwellers with an amazing sea view!
Did you know that puffins sometimes make a "purring" sound when they fly? In their burrow, on land, they make a sound like a revving chainsaw! Most impressive!

The handsome fellow, who paddled along with us on the water, spoke with a delightful Scottish accent. We asked him to demonstrate his "chainsaw" voice. He just winked, and paddled on. ;)

Puffin in a trough!
(Canadian connection: The Atlantic Puffin is the provincial bird
 of Newfoundland and Labrador)
At high tide, countless passages between the rocks are open. A game of "follow the leader" could not be resisted.

There would be no entry here at low tide.
For three years, we've gazed upon the "Deil's Heid" ("Devil's Head"), from the path along the top of the cliffs. This time, the view of the impressive sea stack was from the water. Rock climbers will be interested to know that a route up its seaward face was first accomplished in the seventies.

The "Deil's Heid".
An eroded arch at the south end of Carlingheugh Bay marks the trail down to a marvellous pebble beach. It's a great place to discover tiny pieces of sea glass, the frosted shards of glass, now weathered by tides and waves and the chemical processes of sea water.

The arch at the south end of Carlingheugh Bay.
The Forbidden Caves are tucked into the cliffs at the north end of the beach. Smugglers once hid out in these caves - there would be stories to tell! There is also an account of a piper and his wife who once ventured in, "regardless of the prejudice about entering its precincts". They never returned.

At low tide, we entered one of the caves a few weeks ago with a friend from Vancouver Island. She ventured further in than we did. Happily, she did return. :)

Listening very, very carefully...was it possible to hear the faint sound of bagpipes, deep within the cave? After all these years? Could it possibly have been...the lost piper?

Yours truly, inside Forbidden Cave, several weeks ago.
(Image, courtesy of Linda.)
Paddling back, along the caves, we came upon a couple of individuals "perched" on the rocks outside the mouth of one of the caves. It was immediately clear that their route back to the beach had been cut off by the high tide. This very scenario has resulted in many lives lost over the years.

They were, however, fine and in good spirits, although clearly appreciative to see someone! Had the seas been stormy, they would have had good reason to be very anxious. The tide was now going out and soon they would be able to retrace their steps back to the beach. Sea caves and tide tables make for very good mates in these parts.

Joan, sharing the water with some friends.
Just to the north of Auchmithie, there is another eroded arch in the sandstone. It's really quite surreal to occupy the same space that rock once did. Did this sculpture take hundreds of thousands of years to form? Millions? Tens of millions? We human beings are here for such a short time on this planet. Every moment is so brief...and so precious. Why is that so hard to remember?

Paddling through "time".
It had been a very good day on the water and there was a reluctance to return to the launch spot. Paddling well out from the shore, to prolong our loop back to Auchmithie, there was a suddenly a startling "chuff"! A dorsal fin and a sleek black-silvery-shiny body surfaced and was quickly sliding, soundlessly, back into the water - only a few metres away. Dolphins!

It was delightfully surprising...completely amazing, and so very beautiful. The camera, of course, had been zipped securely back into the pocket of the PFD in preparation for returning to the harbour. By the time the overly-excited and fumbling fingers began to actually function together in a meaningful way, the pair of dolphins had moved away.

We did get a couple of images, quickly snapped by excited hands. It was more important, however, to take a deep breath and simply enjoy the experience of sharing time and space with these marvellous creatures. They demonstrated such grace and beauty. They seemed happy to share their world. We posed no threat to one another. Perhaps they even gave an affirming nod to the sleek lines of our tiny, seagoing vessels.

Cropped images of Auchmithie and two transient companions.
We felt most fortunate indeed, for this gentle encounter with nature.

Returning to the harbour, there was one more surprise, this time on the grassy bank above the shoreline. There had been the faint sound of the pipes, while watching the dolphins. It must have been our imagination?

It wasn't. There, by the ruined harbour, was a piper, playing his heart out. A young woman sat nearby. The emotion-filled tune felt as timeless and ancient as the sandstone cliffs before him.

Could this have been the same piper and his wife, long lost in the Forbidden Caves of the 400 million-year-old sandstone cliffs? After all...

"Everything you can imagine, is real"
- Pablo Picasso

Maybe, just maybe. :)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

From the light sands of the Sound of Arisaig to the "dark" side of the North Sea cliffs...

Site of an Iron Age promontory fort.
A couple of weeks ago, we experienced the white sands and remarkable vistas of the Sound of Arisaig while paddling on Scotland's west coast. It instantly became a new "favourite" place! Auchmithie is an old favourite place, just half an hour from home. About three miles up the North Sea coast from Arbroath, this tiny village sits high atop the 400 million-year-old red sandstone and conglomerate cliffs. It's the birthplace of the famous hot-smoked haddock - now known all around the world as the "Arbroath smokie", a name so treasured that it is protected by law.

This former fishing village also has the remnant of a protected harbour. Although in ruins, it's a good place from which to launch a sea kayak - but only if the conditions are right. We'd tried several days previously but the forecast "calm" winds had kicked up. The building waves and considerable swell suggested that finding a café for a scone (with butter and jam) and a coffee seemed to be a responsible Plan B. We could at least look out the window and admire the boats in their roof cradles - and wonder in anticipation of the next time. :)

This week, the forecast winds and sea state promised a perfect day. Arriving at Auchmithie, just after high tide, the water was nicely rippled with a only a slight swell. It was a "go". From this launch spot, it's possible to explore the base of the dramatic cliffs that meet the sea and the many seabird colonies that are only visible from the sea.

Paddling into the sun, the red sandstone appeared dark and often featureless, in deep contrast to the clear sky. It was impossible to even begin to imagine the ancient processes that had created and formed such natural beauty. Here's a small taste of the "dark" side...

Paddling out from the "Deil's Heid".
Narrow channels begged exploration...
...and provided countless photo ops.
Nature's timeless sculptures.
Rising and falling on the gentle swell.
Last "land"...for a very long way.
So enthralled by the perfect paddling conditions in yet another remarkable place, we took far too few photos. We will simply have to get back here again, and soon. The "dark" side of the cliffs thrilled and en"light"ened.

And little did we know, a wonderfully delightful surprise was about to "surface", all around us...

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Before it's your favourite place, it's a place you've never been.

Leaving Arisaig, the Island of Eigg across the still waters.
A friend from Vancouver Island just sent me those words from a very beautiful poster. She must have known. 

First stop, an idyllic beach, and a perfect cup of coffee.
They help to frame two marvellous days with Joan and Ian on the water near Arisaig, on Scotland's west coast.

Sharing the sand - and the view.
"Before it's your favourite place, 
it's a place you've never been." 

Our very mellow friends were, after all, here first.
These words speak of a deep truth that often becomes evident when one ventures out, away from the familiar.  

There are precious rewards when we invite and welcome new experiences into our lives.

Many nautical miles to go.
But sometimes we fear the "unknown", for there may be risk, yet that is the very context of "discovery".

Surface colours. (Image courtesy of Ian at Mountain and Sea Scotland)
When we meet someone for the very first time, in that moment of discovery, they are a "stranger".

Time out for a short climb.
But that is where every deep and meaning-filled connection with one another begins.

Through the bracken.
It is only then that there is the possibility of a relationship that will deepen and flourish and endure forever.

A little "rope work"...
But that discovery had to be the context of the unknown. a special place.
Venturing out to some unknown place invites a precious reward...

And what a view.
...a discovery of a new favourite place. 

Lunch...or was that 2nd lunch? :)
This, of course, makes the "unknown" very appealing!

Return to the launch site...with a new "favourite place". 
(Image courtesy of Mountain and Sea Scotland)
Imagine the wonder it's so hard to stay home! :)

For another look at two fine days on the water near Arisaig, "paddle" over to Ian's blog, Mountain and Sea Scotland.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Paddling under Scotland's gloomy skies to dreary beaches...just teasing!

The dreamlike land and waterscape, near Arisaig, 
The deeply evocative landscape of Scotland's west coast takes one's breath completely away. The turquoise, emerald, and deep blue waters, white sandy beaches, and dark volcanic rock create a stunning portrait - wherever you look. Inner Hebridean islands, their mountains reaching into the clouds on the horizon, beckon the paddler to cross yet another world.

lan picked a perfect weather window and an ideal launch spot, Arisaig's Loch nan Cealas, for approximately 30 kilometres of paddling that will linger in the mind and imagination for a very long time to come.

Scottish philosopher, David Hume, wrote, ""Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them." It would be very difficult to imagine a mind that could not contemplate, and be profoundly moved, by this pristine and timeless environment.

Water so crystal's hardly there. 
I have found, through many years of observing, that there is beauty everywhere. Sometimes it is expected, sometimes it is serendipitous. It can be secreted away, visible only when one is persistent. At other times, it is simply everywhere you look, such as in this place. Always, it is a reflection of this marvellous planet that we all share.

Looking "down", from the kayak cockpit,
 reveals a similar beauty to looking "around".
To look for beauty is to find it. To make each such discovery, is to be enriched...and that's why we must always be "searchers". On this day, over the many hours on the water, each paddle stroke, revealed a new and delightful treasure.

Ian and Joan and the distant "Nose of Sgùrr"
on the Inner Hebridean island of Eigg - between the paddle blades.
There's more to come...