Coast magazine: Wilderness kayaking

The Scottish islands have enchanted and enthralled us for millenia. They have provided escape from class and convention, inspired writers and poets, provoked volatile emotional intensity in songwriters and have provided explorers and adventurers with the opportunity to ‘contemplate a system of life almost totally different from what we were accustomed – to find simplicity and wildness and the circumstances of remote time or place.’

It was with this quote from James Boswell’s 1785 book, The Journey of a Tour to the Hebrides that I arrive in Scotland, rucksack full to the brim and sleeping bag tied optimistically around the straps. I’m here to wild camp and kayak around the Summer Isles north west of Ullapool. From the diminutive Inverness airport, I travel to the train station to meet my Wilderness Scotland group for the week. Congregating in an unfamiliar place to meet unfamiliar people – four of us plus the guide on this trip – is one of the joys of an organised expedition – the sense of all ‘being in the same boat,’ metaphorically, is exciting and compelling.

We travel first from Inverness to Ullapool, the roads narrowing and the air establishing its familiar salty tang as we bounce along, kayaks in tow, around Loch Canaird and northwest from there towards our departure point at Old Dorney. We pass the North West Highland Geopark, where the mountains of Cul Beg and Stac Polliadh make up some of the oldest in the world. After 16 miles of single-track road, ahead of us, glinting in the unseasonably warm sunshine, are the Summer Isles, our ultimate destination and sea-kayaking playground for the next week.

The Summer Isles is an archipelago lying in the mouth of Loch Broom at the north- western edge of the Scottish mainland. The islands are uninhabited, there are no roads around them and the only signs of life are on the largest island, Tanera Mor, which used to house a café and a post-office. These have since disappeared, leaving the whole chain blissfully devoid of people and civilisation. The freedom to roam these unspoilt spaces is inviting.

We arrive at the small sheltered jetty at Old Dorney, offloading our kayaks and setting up our gear for the week ahead. A considerable amount of ‘faffing’ ensues and at first it’s a wonder to us all how we might get our tents, sleeping equipment, food and supplies in the small and awkward sea kayak storage compartments. However, finding a way to cram it in gives us a feeling of confidence in our abilities and in the trip, and as we lift the now heavy kayaks into the sea I’m glad we’re underway. We make the first tentative paddles out – a movement and a routine that in a few days’ time becomes second nature. The trip begins.

The first afternoon is a gentle one as we paddle to the northern edge of Isle Ristol, the nearest island and a good base for the night to get us into the routine of a wild camping, sea kayaking expedition. It also provides shelter from a whipping wind that has sprung up, making the white horses on the horizon look treacherous and the surrounding coastline feel exposed. It feels exhilarating that we’re on the tip of Scotland and looking out towards the edge of the continental shelf of Europe. The great expanse of water that we are to inhabit a small part of for the next week is called The Minch – the feared, exposed stretch of ocean separating the mainland from the Outer Hebrides. In summer weather and accompanied by our experienced guide, I know that despite the breeze the forecast is reassuringly positive.

Day two is our first taste of the morning rituals that often dictate the efficiency and success of an expedition like this. With hot coffee thanks to a Jetboil and porridge slowly bubbling away on the stove, we discuss our plans for the day with our guide Donald, and, for the first time, get to grips with the maps laid out before us and the distances we plan to cover throughout the week. Overnight, the wind has died down and as we pack away our tents and camping gear it’s mentioned that we are to paddle to Horse Island, one of the southerly Summer Isles and a journey of around 15km with a couple of open water crossings. It’s going to be a long, hot day, but one we’re excited to start as it marks the real beginning of the week. It feels good to be paddling, extending our journey beyond the confines of the jetty and Isle Ristol and getting out into the Island wilderness.

There’s a serenity to sea kayaking that’s hard to achieve in a conventional boat. Being so close to the water it’s easy to feel more connected to the sea around you – I feel as if I’m sitting in the water rather than on top of it. Travelling slowly, deliberately, under just the power of my own strokes is a liberating feeling and it’s a joy to have little to think of each day other than putting one paddle in front of the other. Even on the first day of real paddling, I can feel my heat-rate slow and my senses tune in to the natural world around me. I can smell, taste and hear the sea, hear the lapping of the water on the hull of the kayak and sense the frenzy of seabird activity on the cliffs we kayak past. The longer I stay tuned in to this environment, the more energising it feels.

Being on the water feels good, but it’s the self-sufficiency as a group that is one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip. We have no need or reason to be bound by any form of transport other than our kayaks, no technology save for our laminated, printed OS maps and no communication with the outside world other than a satellite phone should it be required. Compressed and stored in our kayaks is all we need to survive for the week on our own. With every waking moment spent outside, it’s impossible not to enjoy being immersed in the delicate rhythms of the day, within such a special environment.

We stay on our campsite on Horse Island for two nights, perched high above the water looking down on our kayaks below and across to the mainland and the hills near Achiltibuie. It’s a calming existence – we return from kayaking at about 4pm, rest and swim, then begin food preparation at about 6pm. We eat excellently, a diet of hearty camping stews and one-pot dishes to readdress our calorie count. We have fires on the beach made possible by salvaging driftwood, watch the sunset over a glass of wine and head to our tents at about 10.30pm. In the mornings, we’re awoken by the CalMac ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway as it passes – the only reminder of humanity, signified by its distinctive, low, distant rumble. The wind dies down altogether, and the sea remains tranquil, giving us ample opportunity to kayak back past the islands of Tanera Mor and Tanera Beag, taking in all the nooks and crannies in the clifftops and their associated wildlife. We marvel at seals atop rocks and an array of seabirds such as Common Terns and Cormorants guarding their nests. At one point, we even have two porpoises surface near us and then dive under our boats – a truly remarkable experience.

Throughout the last few days of our expedition, I cherish the small things I know I’ll miss when I get home. Collecting fresh water from island streams, watching the sun disappear below the horizon at 10:30pm, the sound of my paddle on the water and the brilliant stillness in the air. We spend the final two nights on the mainland, north of Isle Ristol in a stunning little bay with the almost ethereal sight of Lewis and Harris in the distance. With only sheep for company, we kayak during the day and roam the land in the evening, gaining higher ground to watch the sunsets and take in the wonderful overview of the islands this elevation gives us. On our final day, one of our longest kayaks sees us go around the headland, venture into open water and reach the almost empty beach at Achnahaird with its incredible backdrop of the Assynt mountains. The beach’s golden sands are a welcome and beautiful finale to the trip.

At the end of the week we’re tired and sunburnt, but we all manage the energy to sample a dram of whisky and toast the magnificent Scottish landscape around us. This is the reason for our trip, it has been a wonderfully calming experience, and I leave with a sense of confidence in my ability to wild camp, safe in the knowledge that I have experienced the very best of this magical Scottish landscape.

_MG_2091.JPG