Monday, 14 March 2011

Loch Sween - March 2011

Sunday March 6th

I was up and away by 07:30 trundling my way up the A1 in glorious sunshine and clear blue skies, thinking of the adventures ahead time was scooting by and before I knew it I was winding my way up the side of Loch Lomond and getting a look at what the water might be like over on the coast. Much to my delight the water looked like a mirror when I got a peak through the trees every now and then, things were looking good.
As I made my way over the Rest and Be Thankful and down through Glen Kinglas I got a better idea of what to expect on Sween, the next thirty minutes or so took me along the northern shore of Loch Fynne where conditions were slightly different. Nothing much to write about but there were small swells rolling along and the occasional white horse dotted about. More of a steady breeze than gusting I’d say.
Pulling up at the pub I met Stuart and Josh who had already got stuck into the amber nectar, I quickly parked up and headed inside the inn for a pint. A short while later Stephen arrived and we set about unloading the boats and countless packs of gear from the cars. As we shuttled the cars round to the car park we found Pete who’d been parked up for a while after a last minute dash to Oban and back.

Loading the boats and ready for off

Pete fathoming out how to fit all his gear in

We enjoyed a gentle paddle out of the harbour and out into the open water where we turned with the breeze and headed for camp one near the head of the loch. A nice relaxing ride with the occasional boost from a rolling swell as it passed under the hull, passing the entrance to the Faery Isles both Stephen and I clocked the huge Osprey nest which we’d missed on our first visit last year.
Landing at camp we set about finding our pitches, got our shelters up, sorted the group tarp, prepped the fire place and then gathered a bit of fuel for the night. No real hardship in an old plantation where fuel is a plenty and never more than 20m away.

Stuart and Ciara's tent, Pete’s tarp & hammock

An offcut makes a useful base for the fire

The rest of the evening was spent lounging under the tarp sharing a couple of beers and filling our faces with the mountain of grub we’d all brought along. Pete wanted to have a bit more of a play in his boat so went off for a paddle before nightfall.

Pete away for a play

Monday March 7th

I awoke in the hammock around 06:45 after enjoying another perfect sleep of around nine hours straight, got up to water the plants and then climbed back into the hammock again. I got my alcohol stove out and made a coffee whilst I lay there snug in my layers of downy delights, bliss
After half an hour or so I got up and got dressed and went for a wee wander over to the shore line, a short while later Pete surfaced as well. We chilled out and chatted about his tarp mods and DIY hammock gear until a few of the others started to stir. Once everyone was awake I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the bacon butties and gallons of coffee. The weather was nice enough in the morning so a few of us decided to head out for a paddle up the Faery Isles, timing it very badly as it turns out as the tide was right out and we could hardly get anywhere for the sludge and mud flats.

Pete and Stephen bobbing around in the Faery Isles entrance

After our paddle Stephen and I went back to camp whilst Pete headed back up the loch to Tayvallich to unload some unwanted gear and pick up some bits he’d forgotten.  Josh and Stuart had been busy collecting timber to make a start on a couple of paddles, this was to be their little project for the week. I spent the rest of the afternoon chopping up firewood whilst Pete tried his luck at fishing off one of the points, nothing doing though apparently.
As we spent the rest of the day messing about round camp the weather was starting to worsen slightly, an evening hunkered around the fire was had whilst a couple of the guys made some adjustments to their tarps in view if the impending weather. Pretty much as soon as we’d all retired for the night around 10pm the winds really picked up, I lay in my hammock listening to my ipod but the whistling of the wind in the tree tops and the clattering of branches meant I didn’t get off to sleep straight away.

Tuesday March 8th 

I woke pretty much at first light somewhere around 6am I think, what I’d woken up to wasn’t nice though. Pulling the bottom of my tarp up I peered out to see what all the noise was and to see what the loch was doing, ooh not good, big rollers bounding in with wind braking the tops and kicking up a spray. The tide had been pushed up by what must have been a good couple of feet which made the waves sound a lot closer than previous days. Then it clicked, none of us had tethered out boats up let alone turn them upside down for the night, panicking I jumped up threw my boots on and made my way over to the shore. Thankfully all the boats were present and correct although all of them were now much closer to sailing off without us, Stephen’s boat was half floating in the water and his paddled was trying to make a break for it. I dragged the boats up the shore a few more feet and then decided to hit the hammock again for a couple of hours, I made a brew in bed again but couldn’t get off to sleep because of the wind and the fact I was getting bounced in the hammock as the trees swayed overhead. I eventually got up around eight o’clock and mooched about camp whilst everyone else tried to catch up on a pretty restless night.
Tuesday was supposed to be moving on day, we were going to be heading off up the loch to explore new grounds and had earmarked one or two places for a likely looking campsite. There was no chance of that happening looking at the state of the water so it looked like another day spent around camp. Myself, Josh and Pete had a bit of a wander around the stone buffs which surround the camp, looking at the varied stone and flora which makes up much of the west coast. After lunch we three decided to take a hike up to one of the neighbouring lochs to see if we could get an eyeball on the beavers. At least we were on the right loch this time, I‘d been up a couple of weeks earlier and spotted the tell tale signs of pointed nibbled tree stumps and wood chips on the floor. As we neared the dam which they’d built I was certain I got a glimpse of one of them through the birch on the other side of the small lochan. Something just big enough to make out but making a zig zag path towards to opposite bank, I need to check if that’s characteristic of beavers one day. It was nice to get out of the wind for a few hours but as we made our way round the shoreline and up onto an escarpment the heavy rains moved in. The unusual Beech woodland we’d found didn’t provide much cover with the bare branches, after a short sit and watch for the beavers we made our way back to camp.
Back at base things were still wet and windy, Stephen and Stuart sought refuge under the tarp for most of the time we were away I think, not venturing too far from shelter anyway. I set about gathering some more firewood for the night and then relaxed as much as possible whilst we dodged the showers and squalls that blew through regularly. Tuesday night was wild, I’d decided to go to ground in the bivvy so was soon away with the fairies without the bouncing and rocking of previous nights.

Wednesday March 9th

Sleeping on the ground is a bit of a novelty for me these days, though the added comfort of the Exped down mat meant I’d slept like a baby all night which I wasn’t expecting. Still I was awake now and without enough room to anything apart from blink in my hooped bivvy I thought I might as well get up. I think it was still fairly early when I unzipped the door of the bivvy, it was dry but still blowing a hoolie right enough. Within half an hour of getting up though everything seemed to go calm all of a sudden, the sun was even making an appearance between the hail storms and black clouds that scudded over. 
Most of the other guys had gotten up fairly soon after me, as I stood finishing a brew at the water’s edge a local appeared from one of the tracks that lead into the old plantation. He was a nice enough chap and showed an interest in what we were up to, even sharing tales of his past boating and camping experiences on the loch in days gone by. He was out looking for signs of Roe which were coming into season within a few weeks and stood blethering with me and Stephen for a good ten minutes. He made me giggle with the digs he was having at the English folk who’ve moved into the community and were trying to make big changes, he also confirmed one of our targets for a camp one night as a real gem and even offered up a nice little fishing tip for us in the future
Looking at the map and hoping to make the most of a lull in the weather we decided to get packed up and make a break for pastures new. It took some longer than others to get packed (Pete) but eventually we were ready for the off. Whilst the packing had been going on a few squalls had come up the loch, sometimes nobody said anything and sometimes somebody just let out a giggle, we were committed now even though we’d all noticed the occasional white horses and swells kicking up we carried on getting ready.

Boats nearly loaded

Pushing off the shore it didn’t feel too bad once we were on the water, pulling far enough away from the bay though and it all went a bit mental. It was quite strange for us all to set off together quite calmly but once we were hit by the side on gusts each of the boats took on their own path. I was trying my hardest to keep the bow turning into the wind but also very wary of not getting too side on to the waves, swells and crazy winds. As I pulled and heaved the water past the blade of the paddle, trying to keep a general direction of the opposite bank going, I slowly noticed Stuart and Josh disappear out of the left hand side of my vision. I wanted to turn round and see if they were okay but I just couldn’t do anything apart from trying to stay the right way up. I managed to keep up with Stephen and Pete in their kayaks for a while but ¾ of the way across I started to lag behind. Pete was on a much more direct course whilst Stephen was kind of side slipping his way across, it was another five minutes or so before I got to the other side, the last 20m up into the inlet took me the same amount of time again. Josh has described what happened on the water after that so I won’t bother, what I will say though is that’s about as close to going in as I’ve ever been.


That was the day the weather hit. In the evening we gathered branches from the plantation debris and piled them into a windbreak, topped up the water supply with run-off from the tarp as is become the norm at this spot then rode it out with a few drinks and good company round the fire.
Woke up the next morning(first mistake of the day  ) to talk of moving on. A local had been by scouting for deer before the start of the roe season and filled folks heads with talk of a lovely camp up the loch a ways. The wind had dropped a bit so we packed up and set off.
Again I took the bow of the boat figuring that the in-at-the-deep-end approach had worked for Stuart learning to paddle solo, might as well try it again with learning tandem. By mid crossing he had his hands full as the winds started gusting and the waves started picking up.
Meanwhile the others weren't having much more fun, being solo the sidewind had locked them into a slightly different heading to us and after crossing they'd found shelter and waited on us to work along the shoreline to them.
Everyone was being pushed. The kayaks were coping much better but it was both Stephen and Pete's first time out on the salt and they were just getting used to things. Stuart was doing a good job in the back of our boat but from his tone I could tell he was getting sick of me trying to draw out a little more paddle power. I was shattered. Rich was at least in familiar territory but had said the crossing had included a few "moments".
After a rest we pushed on round the shore, hoping to bay hop and rest our way along to our goal about a mile and a half further. Within about a hundred metres though the wind kicked it up another gear and stopped the canoes dead in their tracks. In an attempt not to lose our hard-earned progress we sided up to a slightly sheltered cliff and clung onto the seaweed, waiting for a lull to make a break for it. The kayaks hovered offshore waiting on us.
After a few minutes it became clear that lulls weren't going to be coming anytime soon. We'd sat the day before and watched the waves crash against these very cliffs and as the wind continued to pick up there were comments like "We can't stay here!" and "Much more of this and we'll be swimming!".
Decided on one final attempt, there was a calm(ish) bay just ahead so we pushed off and paddled as hard as we could.
Wasn't enough. I hated doing it but declared it hopeless, turned and ran. Stuart managed the turn with me frantically scull-drawing the front round and as we passed the others we shouted that we were done and heading back to the safe inlet where they'd waited on us earlier.
Weren't out of the woods yet though. Running downwind can be tricky and Stuart was just getting used to rudder duty. Not being able to see the waves coming anymore doesn't help either. About the only good thing was the pace, we were back to safety in short order.
Rich was right behind us. As we landed he told us Pete was swimming and Stephen had held back to help out. We'd been totaly oblivious to anything but staying upright and hadn't noticed that he'd ditched it making the turn. Rich ran up to the top of an outcrop and declared Pete safely ashore and sorting things out. A relief all round because although we could have cut out and lent a hand the prospect of doing it in the middle of the squall with loaded boats wasn't appealing, just as good a chance that someone else would have ended up swimming as well.
When we were all back together and all the "Extreme Pete" jokes were out of the way we decided it was a write off. No-one fancied making the return crossing to the previous camp, there was no hint that the wind was going to do anything but increase and nowhere to camp on the downwind stretch. Time to say goodbye to Loch Sween.

The look of relieved faces as we ditch the boats in a posh garden, luckily the house was empty but even if it wasn’t I still think we’d have been using their jetty

Having ditched on the wrong side of the loch we had a bit of a longer walk back to civilisation, we reckoned it was around 7.5 miles back to the cars. Stuart and Ciara stopped with the boats in case the land owner came back and decided to chuck all our gear in the sea. About half way round Stephen managed to hitch a lift which couldn’t have come at a better time, we were all pretty grumpy and tired after the last few hours and blisters were starting to warm up on the old feet. After the shuttle back to the cars we all met up at the house and loaded the boats and gear, Stephen was wacked and called it a day for the trip, I think most of us were feeling the same at that point.
But no we pressed on, meeting up in Lochgilphead for a well deserved fish and chips en route, our heading was slightly more in land this time to a loch which looked fairly well protected on a map. Josh had been many moons ago so memories were hazy but it was half a plan and it sounded good to us. We found the loch easy enough but trying to find a suitable camp for the night was proving a bit more difficult. Stu and Josh would shoot off in the 4x4 checking out the tracks and looking for a camp, every now and then they would come back with the verdict, one such trip and a result of condensation on the windows plus a tiring day, Stu got in a bit of a mess and ended up backing into a ditch. It was stuck but no real drama, Pete got his tow hook onto his van and dragged Stu out without any bother. It was a good test for a bundle of climbing cord Stu had lying about anyway
After the excitement of the ditch Josh found his old camp site within minutes, we all followed along in a convoy, I was cringing at every pot hole as I was sure my car was undressing itself.
Campsite established we grabbed what gear we needed from the cars and set about rigging our shelters. Straight away I hit a snag with my tree straps not being long enough to go round the huge Scots pine I wanted to use, I wandered round for five minutes dragging my tarp about in the monsoon like rain, eventually giving it up as a bad job and heading back to the car for the bivvy setup. I messed about with a tarp for a bit and gave up when the winds picked up, I quickly stuck up the bivvy and went to join Stuart and Josh under the tarp. They had been trying to get a fire going but it was just too wet for anything to catch, the firelighter just sat in the bottom of the pile having no effect on the thin pine sticks above.  Right on cue just as I sat down a huge great gust came across the lock and ripped out the guy lines of the big tarp, me and Josh wrestled to get it under control for a few minutes before declaring defeat. Stuart had sloped off to his tent with Ciara and I informed Josh I was binning it too, not to my bivvy though, the car. Proper spat my dummy out. I wandered back up the path to the cars and found Pete in the back of his van still trying to sort out his wet gear from his swim earlier in the day. I told him the crack and he decided to kip in his van for the night too, we sat up for an hour or two but then I made a run for the car.

Thursday March 10th

I was that tired the night before that I could have slept anywhere, as it turns out on the night I couldn’t face any more wind and rain so the sensible dry option was a night in the car. To be honest I didn’t sleep all that great, I kept waking up with my legs caught down the side of the flattened passenger seat, I remember getting a glimpse of the moon through the rear windscreen at one point and woke up thinking it was a torch shining through. It was a bit Dog Soldiers at one point too but I think that was just a bit of a dream. 
The windows were dripping with water on the inside and everything around or on me was damp, I was toasty all night in the Pipedream though and I reckon it got down pretty low that night with the snow showers. I dozed on and off for an hour or so before I heard the door on Pete’s van slide open, he’d slept okay despite his van getting rocked by the wind most of the night. We chatted about the shenanigans of the day before and made a plan to head further inland and check out Loch Long and Lomond on the way. Josh and Stuart stirred about an hour later so I went down to see them and noticed the carnage from the night before. Stuart’s tent didn’t look very healthy at all, a solid Vaude construction which normally shrugs off the worst of the Scottish weather, this time it stood limp with broken poles and a flappy flysheet. Josh had faired okay in my bivvy as it turns out, not quite as soundly as his own though which has quite a bit more height to it. Stuart’s Tatonka Poly tarp lay in a heap next to the unsuccessful fire along with puppy’s mat and a big nest of knotted guy lines. After they’d come round a bit they said they were calling it a day too, we helped them haul the gear back to the car then we set off in convoy once more through the forest tracks. 
Pete and I agreed to pull over at the top of the Rest and Be Thankful and get a brew on and have some breaky, we’d get an idea of what the winds would be doing down on Lomond from here and it wasn’t looking promising. I thought my canoe was gonna take off at one point whilst we were parked up waiting for the kettle to boil, I think Pete mentioned 70mph gusts on the forecast.
After the best fried egg sarny I’ve ever had and a pot of coffee made with the smokey water we’d collected at Sween, we pressed on down the hill and on to Lomond. As we cut round the corner by Arrochar I was hoping that Loch Long might have been fairly calm given the heavy westerlies, not a chance, seriously big rollers pounding into the rocks and white horses as far as you could see, still there’s hope for Lomond yet.
The top end near Tarbet actually looked really good but as we made our way down the A82 the water conditions gradually worsened. We pulled into the car park at Luss and went to check it out, the first 50 yards or so from shore weren’t too bad but after that it was pretty messy out there. We jumped back into the cars and headed for Aldochlay, I pulled up expecting it to be nice and calm and there were squalls spinning around on the top of the water from all directions making the moored boats rotate on the spot. Pete rang his dad to get a decent forecast from the web but when he came back from his van the news wasn’t great, 70mph+ gales with snow and sleet on the hills. For me that was enough to call it a day but we went down to the picnic area near Duck Bay to have one last look. I stuck around for an hour so hoping it would die off long enough to convince myself it was a good idea, that never happened though so I said my fairwells to Pete and left him to it.

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