Fisherfield - A Packraft Classic Part 2
There's no feeling in the world like the sun's rays soaking through your tent and your top quilt. I routinely forget, the powerful effect its energy has as it leaches through, charging your soul. And, that morning on the sand dunes of Guinard bay was no different. Not even the snoring teen next to me can resist it for long. Stretching, he rubs his eyes, blinking at the sheer intensity of the light of flooding in. Siting, yawning, basking in the glow we move slowly yet with a determined edge. Once outside the glow is replaced by the salt air; just sensory indulgence being here, now.
Soon we're boiling water for breakfast porridge and dropping the tent. Hanging the down top quilts in the vague breeze to air them and keep their insulation. Once fed, we sit for a bit just enjoying the silence and the prospect of the new day.
By eight though, it's time to begin, adjusting packs we stride up the path and over the road. Tom's full of questions about the day ahead, he knows it's a long way before we will inflate the rafts again and that the wind direction may mean another hard few Kilometres of paddling. I dodge them finally offering, ”All in good time youth" then sensing theres more on the way, I add “For today, If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit. But whatever you do don't wobble" a borrowed abstraction; it works, he frowns and ponders. Silence. We just walk.
Before long we leave the road and passing along the track along the Guinard River, we’re met by a chap walking his chocolate Lab - the Laird I'll wager - exchanging pleasantries we keep walking, but he enquiries about our intentions, eyes focussed on the paddle blades on the sides of our packs. Suppressing my political evil twin, I answer politely but without apology, confirming our plan to head up to Loch na Sealga and from there to Shenevall. He seems satisfied with that, content that we won't be on the river, he bids us good day and we part company.
The track winds slowly up the glen easing round the small buttresses that meet the river, and along ox-bowed plains that will fill to capacity when the water requires. The odd deer gate requires our attention but thats all. Just walk.
A few kilometres later, I sense the sole of my right foot is warm and pinching, the spell is broken as it draws my mind endlessly away; I call a halt. Tom, still full of wonder, pulls out his camera and begins to snap away at various plants and flowers, meanwhile, I investigate. The inner sole of my Inov8s has cracked and it is pinching the soft skin below the ball of my foot. So far no harm done. But it needs a fix. A thin spread of seam sealer and some PVC tape (from the packraft first aid kit) sort the shoe. Dry socks and foot powder sort my sole. By now though Tom is growing impatient; I explain the need to fix these things as soon as they occur, preventing problems in the days ahead. He gives me that 'whatever Dad' look. Its OK, I suspect he, like me, will need to learn this one the hard way. Lets save that, all good, we move on.
A rumble stirs us; its from behind. We spin and spot the dust from the land rovers that are heading our way. The proliferation of tracks for shooting and fishing in the highlands is a subject of painful debate, whilst this isn't a new track the vehicles’ appearance immediately changes the vibe of the scene; it’s no longer wild, or remote. Rather than wobble we sit and let them pass. Watching as they slowly roll by. ’Tweed for the day' types in the back with the ever patient ghillies up front, "There's a few quid in their son" I suggest, whilst I offer a wide mouthed smile, touching the peak of my cap with feigned fealty. They smile, just, nod, and move along. The dust settles, we're alone again.
By the time we reach Loch na Sealga, it's nearly midday and the heat is building. We round the final corner and as expected the Landrovers are parked along the road. The drivers - plus-foured - are leaning over the bonnet, tweed hats off, smoking and wiping their foreheads in the sun. We exchange hellos and, without pausing we round onto the beach.
Looking across the pebble shore, half blinded by the reflection of sun off granite and water. Squinting, I notice there’s an old couple sat picnicking, by a large black rock, again tweed abounds. They see us but don’t acknowledge, sensing the intrusion we take a wide berth to maintain their space as far as we can and, once enough ground has passed, we pick our own spot, drop the bags and kick back.
Lunch is a lazy affair, Tom is in no rush to start paddling, he can see the blue miles stretching out before us but cannot see the destination. He’s trying to keep his reticence hidden, but cannot resist asking “How far is it to the bothy Dad?”. “Its a fair way from here still.” I answer. Knowing that he will now be reflecting on the hard paddling we did yesterday, I offer him some respite; turning round I pull the sail from my pack and lay it next to me, he gets the hint. We both smile; he’s happy now. After a second cup of tea we pack up the food and begin to lay out the boats, the wind is building and although the peat bank at the back of the beach offers us some shelter we still have to weight the rafts with our packs to stop them from being blown about. I take another look down the loch, squinting to see the waves further down. I can see the bright dashes of white horses everywhere, for sure, regular now. With the northerly wind blowing clean down the loch and the steep sides acting as a funnel, I’m growing a little wary of the size of the fetch we will encounter as we head further along.
With the rafts ready and the sails stowed to hand, we slip into the water. The old couple have finished their lunch now and he is wading knee deep casting for the ‘ripple edge’, I can remember doing that for hours and hours in my youth. Creeping as far out as my wellies would dare to allow, trying with every inch of my soul to stretch my casting to place my fly on the water where the fish would be waiting. Waiting for the insects to be blown off the heather banks and onto the water; right on the ripple edge, where the wind first kisses the water and breaks the mirror calm. Fond days.
The old woman is still on the bank, drawing, I think, but, they’re getting smaller now and its harder to tell. We’re already about 3/4 of a kilometre from shore and getting further apart, Tom is ahead and fiddling with his sail. He’s itching to get it up, relax and let the wind do the work. He’s sailed a fair amount in a canoe, so he’s confident and knows how much fun it is. And he’s right, infectious giggles break out as you just slip along, listening to the fizz of the water in your wake. But these aren’t canoes; the soft, edgeless hull has very different characteristics. Correct trim is massively important here, if the bow dives into a wave top the raft will fold and one of us will be swimming. That would be a bad thing. So, before the sails go up we need to sort a few things out.
I call him over, no response. Louder now, nothing he’s still messing about with his sail bag, and again as loud as I can. He hears and looks, he begins to turn across the waves as I repeatedly pat the top of my head to signal him to come to me.
When we are within speaking distance, I call to him to explain, “I know Dad…” he interrupts, I raise my eyebrows and he stops, I continue, keeping it brief so as not to stifle things, recapping the key points: “Keep trimmed well to stern and keep the raft rigid by locking your legs in”. “Keep a close eye on our distance apart, no more than 50m, its hard to communicate in this wind so keep looking to the other”. We confirm hand signals and talk about capsize drills, shuffle back to alter the trim, Tom adjusts his pack and then we put stern painters out; a clean trailing grab line to offer a chance of staying with the boat if a capsize occurs.
With this done I explain to Tom, that he must not attach his sail to him or the raft, I demonstrate holding the base of the sail by firm pressure between my feet and the hull and show him how to reduce speed by spilling air over the top. Enough now, I can see his eyes glazing over, the rest we’ll do on the hoof. He’s being driven by the adventure: the majestic scenery, the sun, the wind, the water, the unknown. I can see it in his face, pure raw anticipation, he knows not what’s ahead, only that draw into the virgin experience.
Tom ‘pops’ his sail and clamps it with his toes. Leaning to stern he trails his paddle to act as a tiller and I see his face ‘light’ as he feels the raft lurch forward as the wind fills the orange disk in front of him. I quickly, copy and within seconds we are both clipping along, down the loch. I move the raft across the wind positioning myself upwind of him and off we go. The fetch is a good 25 cm by now although as I look at Toms boat he’s keeping a good trim and his bow is lifting, the wave tops breaking underneath. There’s no chine and its not possible to use and edge in these rafts so sailing across the wind is near impossible, I’m experimenting with the paddle but only manage to get about 20 degrees off and still maintain speed. Thankfully Tom has remembered my words and has checked back, noticing I’m getting behind he spills the air a little from the sail, reducing power and so slows until I catch up. We sail together now, I’m just to the Wes
t of him and checking the GPS I shout over “6 Km an hour!”, Tom looks back bemused “Well, its much faster than paddling.” I add, he nods and laughs. I can hear the wind and the fizz, the odd hollow slap as the bow breaks a wave top. Even with the breeze the sun is still hot, though rounding off to the west now, I notice that I’m squinting my right eye as I look ahead, trying to gauge our distance to the end of the loch.
By now the hills are causing the wind to veer slightly across the loch and, with our speed and the distance we’ve come, the rafts are edging towards the eastern shore. I call to Tom and signal to him to copy me. I make an obvious movement of my paddle blade 20 degrees of stern and curl my arm and body around the other blade. My boat lurches to the side and I start to track west visibly moving away from Tom. I reach up with my free hand and pat the top off my head, signalling that he should follow. He copies perfectly, and with a few adjustments he’s soon making distance from the shore, we hold this course for around ten minutes and, then run down wind for a while. Repeating this manoeuvre a couple more times we make good progress, around 2/3 of the way along now and into the narrowest part of the valley, between the impenetrable ramparts of An Teallach and the colossal hump of Being Dearg More.
As I suspected the wind speed is increasing as the air is squeezed through the mountains and consequently the fetch has built significantly. A splash of cold water, confirms my thoughts as my bow breaks through a wave rather than over it. Pushing my weight even further back, makes little difference and so I have to reduce power. Both hands are full now, one with the paddle tiller one with the sail, he’s too far away to hear a shout, so I have to bend my head down to find the whistle on my BA. “Where’s it gone”, I mumble. Looking up I can see Tom still going full speed with waves breaking over his bow. He’s forgotten our conversation. He needs to slow down, I can see the creases appearing in his hull as the waves bend the boat slightly, if he catches a bigger wave, the raft will fold and he’ll be swimming. I bend my head further towards my shoulder where the whistle is clipped. My lips touch around the hard plastic and I blow hard, three sharp trills shoot out across the water. Tom turns and briefly letting the sail out to full I signal “STOP”, grabbing the sail back quickly I take off speed and head over to him. When I get there he’s dropped his a sail into his raft and is bobbing around in the waves. We link up briefly and I remind him about the hazard. He nods and smiles sheepishly. This isn’t a nice place to be static, water is regularly breaking over the back of the raft and I’ve already shipped quite a bit, my arse is soaked. Bailing a few scoops back into the loch we push apart and head off again. This time taking it easy and keeping closer together. The trick,Tom suggest, is to go at the same speed as waves. Keeping the water from sloshing over the heavy stern whilst stopping the bow diving into the crests. Not thinking too much about the theory, we try, it works and pragmatism wins.
Once the land opens out the wind eases off and we can see the shore line, the south eastern corner looks wild, I can see the waves crashing on to the boulders and although I know it will turn out to be a pain in the arse once were on land, I head over to the less manic north western corner.
Tom’s crept a ways ahead again, and I feel a pang of apprehension as I see he’s choosing to run the sail right into the bay. He won’t have much time to get the sail down and ready himself for a rough exit from the raft. “Tom, Tom, slow down, drop your sail, steady now!” I hear myself thinking aloud, urging caution. “No point” I reflect, he couldn’t hear if I did shout. Trust and standby by... By the time these thoughts have passed he’s out on the shore, perfect. A wave of relief, a wave of pride, a wave of cold water. Right over the stern, the cold irony hits my back it snaps me out of focus and I notice I’m now way too close to shore. Stuffing the sail down between my knees I spin and, only a little too late, stand up in the bracing water. Stumble, slip and slide, but I’m on the shore. Far from elegant but dry - ish.
Toms already carrying his raft up onto the grass and starting to strip it down. I’m stuck, the sun, wind and scenery have me glued inside my head. The dry haze in the air gives the landscape a sense of depth and scale which has me wheeling around on the cobbled beach. Beinn Dearg Mor looms resplendent in the stark light of the northern air. An Teallach, although hidden, affirms her presence; her ruddy colour dominates the vista, shrinking me back and down, forcing memories to rise of her fickle reputation.
The walk to Shenavall along the SW of the strath is wet, knee deep in bog and striding over tussocks. Tom isn’t complaining, he’s way ahead, eager to visit this legendary bothy. After hearing my tales of nights here, his anticipation is carrying him. When I arrive he’s sprawled out on the lawn, hands clasped as a pillow, sun specs on, shirt off. “Lizard”, I observe, walking past and into the building. Cool respite, the vague scent of mouse, mixed with old soot. Again, I’m momentarily back in time, I can hear the laughter and smell the whiskey. Fond days indeed. Outside a couple of chaps are airing their gear from the day’s travels, their kit is scattered around on the tables. I skulk upstairs and notice 3 ‘pit spaces’ laid out. I opt for the back room downstairs, it’s a little more mousy but, I’m a snorer so won’t be welcome up here.
Bag off, kit laid out, I’m back in the sun sat next to the lizard who is snoring gently, I nudge him, him growls quietly, then wakes. I warn him about the sun and he rolls over, kneels and sticks his shirt on. As the evening draws in the breeze drops and the midges appear, soon there’s no option. We head inside.