Thursday, February 26, 2015

Return to the North Sea...journey through the earth, the sea casting its spell.


It's an extraordinary planet we share, and how wonderful to get to know it better.

For several years now, we've walked above the Arbroath cliffs, on the east coast of Scotland, and marvelled at the sculptured red sandstone that built the abbeys, churches, and homes in Angus. It sparks the imagination to realise that during the Devonian period, some 400 million years ago, this part of Scotland was located below the equator. It was during that time and in that place, the warm waters of ancient rivers flowed across the landscape, depositing the sands that are now preserved as rock.

Unimaginable time passed, and through movement in the crust, the land was transported north. Glacial ice covered modern day Scotland, numerous times, the weight of thousands of feet of heavy ice pressing the country into the the molten rock below the crust. The last of these glaciers melted only 10,000 years ago and the earth is still rebounding in places, rising back up again through a process known as isostatic rebound. What was once sand, carried by rivers in the distant past, are now the cliffs we walk along.

These same cliffs are now subject to the immense energy of the North Sea's storm-created waves.


On this day, from the kayak cockpits, we watched the sea continue to shape and form this ancient rock. It's possible to see, almost in real time, what is happening. It is not mysterious at all.

One of the caves we entered presented a startling surprise. There was "light at  the end of the tunnel", but more than that...it was a passageway to a quiet and hidden world - hidden from both land and sea.


We had entered into cavernous darkness from the sea, and found a brightly lit exit...into a deep crater. It was as if we had been transported through time to another place altogether.  

There was an eerie silence as the bow of my kayak glided towards the pebbles of a tiny, secret, "underground" beach. I wondered if I should quit this exploration while still free to paddle back to the safety of the sea behind...but curiosity, and the bright sun, warming the sides of this massive hole in the earth, were like a siren song, a temptress. 

Would I be lured on by these beautiful "voices" that called out? Joan was still in the darkness of the cavern, but not far away. Unable to resist, I succumbed to the call. Releasing the sprayskirt, I exited the kayak, and stepped tentatively onto the beach.


The air was still, and very warm, much warmer than "outside", on the sea. Imagination running wild, I felt separated from all reality. Would prehistoric, flying pterosaurs descend from these lonely skies, and carry me away to a nest, tucked somewhere into the sandstone crevices? Would I ever see Joan again? Surely, she was still nearby, in the darkness.


It's possible for the imagination to run wild in such places! It felt good to be a child again. :)

The coastal landscape that we were so enjoying is sculpted and shaped by the forces of the sea and weathering. The place where we entered the double-ended cave in our kayaks was once the face of a sandstone cliff. Waves battered that rock cliff, day and night for thousands of years. The water would have discovered a zone of weakness in the sandstone. Perhaps it first entered a tiny crack, creating a larger cavity by the hydraulic forces of the persistent waves. The water continued to push back, into the rock, creating a deeper and deeper cavity, and then a cave by mechanical erosion. 

At some point, on its inland journey, the water may have been forced upwards through a vertical shaft, creating a blow hole, and weakening the roof of the cave. Over untold centuries, or even in a single moment of time, the roof collapsed, leaving a massive crater and a view of the sea rushing up and onto a newly created shore, far from the "sea" shore...and under what one day would be a farmer's field of brussels sprouts.

We had found the Gaylet Pot, a "gloup", a collapsed cave, just a few kilometres from Auchmithie. Several days later, we would return, by land, and traverse the farmer's field to look into it from the top.


It was on this little beach, way down below, that my sea kayak rested, while I explored. On this day, there was significant swell that would have prevented entry.


There was only another hour until sunset, but sufficient time to return to the launch site. 

A sandstone face, carved by the elements, stared beyond the Deil's Heid, and out to the vast sea.


We paddled homewards, still spellbound, by it all. Jacques is correct...


The sea, once it casts its spell, 
holds one in its net of wonder forever.
- Jacques Yves Cousteau


Friday, February 20, 2015

Return to the North Sea...cliffs and caves, and a small digressive vociferation.

The Seaton cliffs, majestic ancient sandstone.
Pssst...before returning to the North Sea, and its cliffs and caves just north of Arbroath, would a small vociferation be permissible? Thank you. :)

Well you see, a young(ish) woman here in Scotland, who shares my vocation, recently spoke to me about this blog. She liked it! I was quite surprised. I have always assumed that members of my vocation may find these little contemplative essays, based primarily on outdoor pursuits just a little, well you know, "fluffy". :) After all, there's serious work to be done in this world. Time on the water, paddling a sea kayak or spending time walking in the hills and mountains, may be seen by some as a misuse of valuable time and energies that would be better spent on addressing the world's ills. And as for living in, and celebrating the moment, well harrumph, that's for children!

There's no question, the world is struggling, in so many ways. A quick look at any newspaper (or many of my colleagues' social networking sites) will provide a detailed account of "what's wrong". What disturbs me is the negativism, cynicism, even anger, that is often expressed on these sites. Strategies for dealing with these serious issues, however, are not so commonly expressed.

Admittedly, we should be angry that so many people are hungry, that most in this world do not have safe water or sanitation facilities, that untold millions are refugees and homeless, that terror continues, and that this fragile island planet is being abused by our wants and desires. BUT, where are the positive action plans expressed? Where is the hopefulness? Where are the inspired words that will move and enthuse action. Where is the confidence that there are sufficient caring people in the world and the resources to deal with these matters. Where is the optimism? Where is the encouragement for those who have the will, to join to together to build a better world for all?

Come on folks, let's get out of the "pity party for the world" mode. We all know the issues. Let's get on with demonstrating, enthusing, and exciting people about how the world could be if we channelled our energies with confidence and hopefulness. Let's model cheerfulness and compassion. When we say that love is more powerful than hate, let's live it. Let's speak with kindness and listen with tenderness...these are far more effective tools for change than grim, cheerless, and dour moaning.

So, after this little vociferation, do I have strategies and solutions for my angst-filled colleagues, here and across the ocean? You bet. First of all, get outside for some fresh air and soak up some vitamin D, in the form of sunshine. "Indoor" living simply isn't healthy. Second, get some regular exercise. That's right, elevate the heart rate a little. You'll feel much healthier, be much more positive, and have infinitely more energy, strength, and resilience for the important work at hand. Thirdly, read the quote from Annie Dillard at the top of this blog...at least twice. It leads to better self-care. Without self-care, what's left to give? Who'd have thought it, eh? Finally, take a deep breath, it's not all up to you. You're not alone, we can all work on the world's ills together.

See? Easy peasy. :)

Now, back to the North Sea...

The Seaton Cliffs are dramatic...rich, red, ancient sandstone, sea caves, stacks, arches, and blow holes formed by sea erosion. It's a pretty sweet backdrop to a day on the water.

Two favourites of local UK rock climbers: the Deil's Heid (r)
and Granny's Garrett, a sea stack about to be born...in another 1000 years?


There are many caves, and they are accessible if the conditions are perfect...on this day they were.

A trio of caves.
There was hardly a breath of wind, a gentle swell washed up against the sandstone as it has done for a very, very long time.

The north-east edge of the UK.
A rest and relief stop is important every now and again...we found the perfect shingle beach, and a patch of sand and...

A small landing spot near a large cave.
a rather nice cave to explore.

Looking out.
When the tide is high, it's all awash, but for this visit, it was possible to penetrate deep under the walkers on the trail high above us, enjoying the view over the North Sea.

Looking in.
We paddled back out, to take in the long view, it was breathtaking.

Silky water and soft swell.
Nearing Auchmithie, we looked up to the site of an Iron Age clifftop promontory fort, in place perhaps two thousand years ago or more. It must have been a lonely place to live, albeit strategically safe from most invaders from the sea.

Once-upon-a-time settlement.
There was one more special "hideaway" to explore. The conditions were right for a return visit, deep into the earth and under a farmer's field...to the base of the Gaylet Pot, a collapsed sea cave, also known as a "gloup".


See you next time, in the gloup.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Return to the North Sea...but first some fine, iced "Brandy".


This is still a small series of postings on getting the sea kayaks back on the North Sea - but yesterday was rather special. 

At home, in Fife, the air was spring-like, and the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky. Just a few short miles to the north, in the Angus Glens, a taste of something very special awaited - iced Brandy. So before the "ice" melts...

Loch Brandy is that perfect mountain corrie, above Glen Clova, just inside Cairngorms National Park. It tempts us back regularly, changing its face at the whim of the weather. And every single time, its expression changes. 

Today, it mirrored icy solitude. 


There were no other tracks in the snow and we knew that, on this day, we would be alone on the isolated windswept plateau above the loch.

As heather slept, insulated beneath the carpet of frozen crystals, each of intricate and unique design, surface snow blew into the air towards the distant sea.


It was a glorious day to be alone, together.


It was such a place as this that the ancient Celtic people would describe as a "thin place", where the distance between heaven and earth was virtually nothing at all. It was extraordinary and ineffable beauty. 

Truly, this must be the most perfect sphere in the universe.


If we are to rescue our environment, we must come to love it.

But to love it, we must first come to know it.

There are no short cuts.

We must leave our busy agendas and schedules behind, for just awhile...and spend time sipping at its rawness, drinking in all that it will allow, coming face to face with its strength and power, and understanding that as vulnerable as it is, it will outlast us.


Returning lochside, the sun low on the horizon, we could only embrace one another, eyes misting with both emotion and humility at the majesty of what was before us...and the experience it had permitted.


Each of us is here, but once, on this fragile, island planet, whirling through space. It sustains us and makes our existence possible. We must get to know it. In so doing, we will fall deeply in love with it. It is then that we will be compelled to do all that we can to take care of it...and by extension, one another.

Iced Brandy, a spirited "drink"...that does a body, mind, and spirit good.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Return to the North Sea...launching.

Red and green, port and starboard...
and a sleek yellow "banana" on the side.
The forecast day finally arrived, conditions on the North Sea would be perfect. The plan was to launch at Arbroath. Over the last several years, we've stayed, for extended periods, in this lovely seaside town. It's the home of Arbroath Abbey, founded in 1178 by King William the Lion - 20 years or so after the parish church where I currently serve was built. The abbey was the site of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath - Scottish independence - in 1320.

The beach where we usually launch sits just below the Signal Tower, built in 1813. Now a museum, it served as the shore base of operations and family living quarters for the brave keepers of the Bell Rock lighthouse. Constructed between 1807 and 1810 by Robert Stevenson, and sitting 11 miles off-shore, it is the world's oldest sea-washed lighthouse. Interestingly, Robert was the grandfather of another famous Stevenson, novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote the classics, KidnappedTreasure Island, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's a small world.

The elegant Signal Tower Museum, former base of land ops.
Launch is a lovely word. It suggests the beginning of a journey, perhaps the initial step of a grand adventure. For most sea kayakers, the preparation for the launch is a labour of love. Before leaving home, gear and kit is assembled...we've finally learned to keep it all together in two large, blue IKEA (International Kayaking Expedition Association) bags. ;)

Kayaks are then lifted onto the roof of the Moderate Terrain Kayak Transport Vehicle, also known by its civilian designation as a four-door Ford Focus. The boats are secured, and checked.

The drive to the launch spot is always one of quiet and delicious anticipation. We park and carry or roll the kayaks to the shoreline. We squeeze into the dry suits. Like two astronauts-in-training, we check one another for secure (and therefore watertight) zippers and seals. Gear is tucked into designated hatches. The two-piece, adjustable, paddles are put together, mine at a 15 degree "feather", Joan's at 30 degrees. Everything is ready.

The two "pals" are getting closer to where they want to be.
The moment having come, we launch into the very still water.

Setting out.
Leaving terra firma, and the harbour behind, it's difficult to believe that this is the North Sea...in February.

Last "land".
On this day, it might be possible to paddle all the way...to Denmark.

"Joan, I mean really...Danish pastries or not, it's too far."
But we don't. 

A slow and arcing turn to the port side points us towards the dramatic cliffs and the darkened, eerie caves, carved into the ancient red sandstone. It was this very sandstone that built the medieval Abbey...and most of Arbroath.

It was going to be a perfect winter day in a small northern country, once known as Caledonia.

The launch accomplished, the adventure begins.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Return to the North Sea...anticipation, excitement, and getting paddles in the water.

The glassy surface of a "highland cathedral".
A high pressure weather system has stalled over Ireland - and that's very good news! It means cold, dry air...and lots of sunshine here in Scotland. We'd been looking very carefully at both the MWIS forecast and the local (wind, wave, and weather) marine forecast for over a week. There was going be a significant window for getting back on the North Sea. Yes!

In the meantime, the mountain weather forecast suggested excellent conditions on our favourite highland loch, Loch Tay. It would be another opportunity to "warm up", and get the paddles in the water.

As promised, conditions were mirror-like. It was good "thinking time", and as paddle eddies swirled behind the boats, an opportunity to live in each moment.

We're passionate about sea kayaking and like most who paddle narrow boats, we love to talk about it, share experiences about it, and most especially, ask questions of those who have greater expertise and knowledge. We treasure the wisdom they have accumulated. In terms of improving skills, however, nothing beats...getting the paddles in the water.


Paddling between two "mountains".
A week or so ago, I gave a talk on the subject of "compassion" and how it goes so far beyond both sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is when we feel for someone. Granted, it's a beginning. Empathy, takes the next step and is when we actually feel with and have a sense of another person's discomfort, even pain. It creates a meaningful connection and brings us closer to being able to offer encouragement and practical support.

Compassion, however, takes that connection to a whole new level. Having felt their struggle, compassion compels us to do something about it. It gets us beyond the "talk" and enables us to find strategies to work together to help make the world a better place for all people. In terms of expressing care and concern for others, it's "putting the paddles in the water."

This was a crisp, cold, absolutely cracking day to be in the highlands. Paddle strokes on the water, of course, work up an appetite.

The magic and mystery of a Scottish loch - where PFDs grow on trees.
Joan quickly got the stove going, and in no time, a warm meal was restoring both flagging energies and body temperature.

Cooking up a storm? Well, maybe a "tempest in a chili pot".
With only a couple of hours of remaining light, it would soon be time to return to the beach at Kenmore. While we sustained our strength in the charming, magical, little shoreline forest, the Valley Etain and the Scorpio LV waited patiently on the pebble beach. They seemed to be whispering together, with anticipation and excitement, about their next adventure.

Somehow, they seemed to know that soon, they would be back on their beloved North Sea.

Our two Scottish pals, lovin' the loch, but ready to go back to the Sea.
Their every wish was about to come true - and much more. :)

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

When the winds of change blow...I sometimes change my mind.

Morning has broken...the hills of Fife,
and the midway point of the morning run.
Almost every morning, before sunrise, we leave the village where we live, and head for the hills. The daily run has been an important "discipline" for many years. And the older we get, the easier it is to get out. Why? It's become a habit. Philosopher William James put it well:

Habit simplifies our movements, 
makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue.

This particular 8.3 km loop takes us alongside rolling turnip fields, through a working farm, sheep pastures, by a quarry of orange-pink volcanic felsite, and up into the lovely hills of Fife. Along the way, the view looks out over a patchwork quilt of green fields, RAF Station Leuchars, the historic town of St. Andrew's, and the North Sea. Even at a distance, the ruins of St. Andrew's Cathedral, built in the 12th century, and once the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, can be easily seen. The historic buildings of St. Andrew's University, the third oldest university in the English speaking world, still bustles with students from all over the world. There are some golf courses there too, rather famous ones, their soft and manicured fairways and greens, extending beyond the margins of the town.

The early morning run is always a "moving meditation". A body in motion, heart and lungs working together, becomes a fertile place for ideas, and problem solving. The late George Sheehan, cardiologist, marathon runner, and philosopher cautioned that we should "trust no thought arrived at sitting down." He wasn't one to "sit", nor was he a "spectator". He always advised "participation".

The seated spectator is not a thinker; he is a knower. Unlike the athlete who is still seeking his experience, who leaves himself open to truth, the spectator has closed the ring. His thinking has become a rigid knowing. He has enclosed himself in bias and partisanship and prejudice. He imagines himself self-sufficient and has ceased to grow. - George Sheehan

Sometimes in life we make observations, form opinions, or take actions...and then change our mind about things. I think it's like the "spectator" and the "participant". The spectator has made up his mind, and closed the doors to new information. The participant, however, hungers to grow and integrate new and fresh information. Some years ago, I was affectionately (I think!) teased, about how I would sometimes "change my mind". I always struggled to explain these actions, and even felt embarrassment at what might appear to be "indecision", or worse, "wishy-washyness"!

"Changing one's mind", however, in light of new information is what keeps winter hill walkers alive. Weather can deteriorate, frequently. Plans need to be adapted. Giving second thoughts to a day on the water, in light of new information or an updated forecast, keeps the sea kayaker from becoming a victim of his own refusal to accommodate changing conditions on the sea. It also saves the RNLI volunteers from launching a life boat, and endangering even more lives.

On this morning run, the camera captured a simple lesson. Three horses, on the top of the hill, were backlit by the rising sun. They seemed to be wearing blankets. It was impossible to determine one horse from another...the lighting did not allow any further information. They were little more than three, nondescript silhouettes.

Three horses...backlit.
Rounding the corner, and looking up at them from the other side of the hill, however, provided a whole new perspective. Illuminated by the sun, more information became available. They were, indeed, wearing blankets. And each horse could be clearly identified.

Three horses...sunlit.
Reassessment, re-evaluation, having "second thoughts", based on new information, may well result in "changing one's mind". That process, however, demonstrates participation in life's changing conditions. In the mountains and in a sea kayak, it keeps one alive. Elsewhere, it keeps one connected to reality.

There was another small lesson on this morning's run. Ever noticed that the windmill derives its greatest strength, value, and reason for being, by facing directly into the winds that blow across its path? It's a good reminder to face our challenges, head on...and derive strength from them.

Facing directly into the wind.
There's a proverb that says, "when the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” I'm rather partial to directions that empower.

So when the winds of change blow, that's sometimes when I change my mind. It gets you out from behind the walls that contain and restrict...to build that windmill.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Savouring the sweetest sea kayaking "lemonade"...another of Nature's lessons.

A Valley Etain 17.5, traversing the loch.
The world outside is simply the greatest resource for a lot of life's most important lessons. That's probably why I'm always much happier out-of-doors. This week, once again, Mother Nature demonstrated the rewards of living life with an open heart, an open mind...and an attitude of optimism and hopefulness. She made it very clear that there are always great treasures in store when we seek to make the best of any given situation.

We had been invited to share in several days of paddling on the west coast, with Ian, Douglas, and Mike. The stormy weather was finally settling and there was a "window" of opportunity. Our hearts leapt at the thought. I began immediately thinking about how to rearrange the schedule to make some days on the water possible. We were ready for this adventure. It was doable, it would happen...until I thought about the drive through the mountains to get there.

Our ageing, but (mostly) faithful Ford Focus, had recently experienced some mechanical "hiccups". Additionally, it only has summer tires - a difficult confession for someone who has spent most of his life in Canada. There was a good chance that road conditions could be a bit "iffy", with some possible hard-packed snow and ice, at the higher elevations. I was, admittedly, nervous about the thought of driving from coast to coast, with less than ideal equipment.

I began to see this unique opportunity, to spend time with three adventurous and highly experienced paddlers, evaporate before my eyes. The bitter taste of a small "lemon" seeped into my consciousness. It didn't feel very good...and needed to be rinsed aside...quickly.

A Scorpio LV, heading for the hills.
Defeatism, and its closely related cousins, pessimism and ingratitude, can spawn feelings of resentment, jealousy, cynicism, and indignation. Like the proverbial "bridge to nowhere" - none of them lead to any meaningful place. They waste our time, life's most precious commodity.

On the other hand, along with an attitude of thankfulness, the desire to make the best of life's circumstances is a key ingredient to happiness, and peace of mind. We all hurt, sometimes, and often it is our negative and defeatist response to a given reality that perpetuates the cycle of pain. Optimism and hopefulness, however, help us to transcend the pot-holes and speed bumps...and the nasty-winter-driving-conditions-without-snow-tires scenarios, that we all encounter.

Lemons need to be transformed into "lemonade". It just requires an open mind, an open heart...and a healthy blend of optimism and gratitude. Life is, after all, what we make it - after circumstances have had their "go". It might as well be a glass that's half full, as half empty.

So, we couldn't just sit and "stew" about our inability to get to the west coast. There would be other opportunities.

We loaded the kayaks on the roof of our "moderate terrain kayak transport vehicle" and headed for a closer venue, where the roads would accommodate the summer tires...Perthshire's, Loch Tay.

A great day on the water...in the snow-covered Highlands.
After an easy drive to Kenmore, we launched the kayaks from the frozen beach and paddled for about four hours, pausing frequently to breathe in the magic and majesty of the snow-covered Munros. The air was minus three, cold and bracing, but the warmth of the low January sun could be felt through the dry suits. The source of greatest warmth, however, was having turned a disappointment into an opportunity.

Seeking to make the best of any given situation in life is always transformational, and almost always guarantees a treasure of an experience. Nature rewarded this effort with some of the sweetest sea kayaking "lemonade". And we savoured it.

Lemons to lemonade!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Called to the mountain...and into the icy mists of West Lomond.


It was a "Blue Sky Scotland" day today...the perfect day to hike up to the highest point in the Kingdom of Fife - West Lomond. The volcanic cone, along with its sister, East Lomond can be seen from all over. At 1,713 feet high, it's a modest hill but it offers wonderful 360 degree views - of the Perthshire and Angus mountains, across the Firth of Forth to Arthur's Seat by Edinburgh, the Ochil Hills, and the North Sea. At the base of the hill lies Loch Leven, where Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned on a small island in 1567. At the summit, by the trig point, lies the remnants of an iron age hill fort. Folks have been enjoying this place for a very long time.

It was a crisp, clear day, and it reminded us of the many winters we'd spent in Alberta, where blue skies and a bright sun went hand in hand.


Grassy vegetation seemed (and was) frozen in time.



An old boundary marker remained on the approach trail, with the inscription "WR 1818". Sir William Rae, had the job of surveying the land back in the day.


Contemporary Scottish access rights, however, mean that there are no longer any boundaries. Walkers and hikers are free to roam and respectfully enjoy every nook and cranny of this richly endowed country. It's a rare treat to have such freedom to explore and discover.



The summit of West Lomond beckoned, but a shroud of mist and blowing ice crystals would not permit a view...until we had made the effort to reach its highest point.


Memories of decades of Canadian winters, cross-country skiing, shovelling out driveways, and skating on ponds and lakes came flooding back.


The first view of the trig point, thorough the swirling mist, seemed more like an Antarctic ice base than the summit of a high hill that looked down on a patchwork of emerald green and golden fields dotted with towns and villages, castles and palaces.

There was a "softness", even to the ancient rubble.


As if to reward the effort, the skies cleared, but just momentarily.


As a small group of travellers approached the rocky remnants of the hill fort, the mist gathered once again.


This small effort had taken us above the clouds. The ancient Celtic contemplatives might also have found it to be a "thin place".


The mountains are calling, and I must go. - John Muir

Today, we heard a "call" to a high place, heeded it...and returned freshened, revitalised, and with clearer heads and perspectives for the tasks at hand.

And, it was a simply cracking day out. :)

Afterthought: Are there special places or spaces that call out to you?