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by Alison Dun
We stopped paddling and let the kayaks glide smoothly through the water into the narrow inlet that divides two of the Crowlin Islands, Eilean Beag and Eilean Meadhonach, at all but low tide. The sun warmed the back of my neck as I trailed my hand in the clear water, watching the ripples it caused. We had paused for reflection in one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Mountains and islands rose up in every direction, floating on the haze that covered the sea in the middle distance. I recognised the Cuillin hills of Skye and Dun Caan on the Isle of Raasay out to the West. From close by, a colony of seals eyed us curiously as they basked lazily on the rocks, reluctantly slipping into the water when we paddled too close. The long sea grass floated up from the sandy sea-bed - the water was clear enough to see twenty feet down, and when we looked carefully, we could see sea urchins and star fish among the sea weed. Shags stood in groups on the rocks, silhouetted by the sun, and then commenced flight, skimming low over the water at high speed, more gracefully than any jet pilot could ever manage. I closed my eyes and listened to the lapping of the water while the kayak rocked gently from side to side. An overwhelming sense of peace came with the stillness of that August afternoon. Such moments in life are rare and the memory of that afternoon has carried me through many dark wet winter days.
The sea-kayaking around Wester Ross remains a well kept secret, partly due to firmly held beliefs about Scottish Summer weather and blood-thirsty midges. Experiences of rain sodden tents and days spent exploring the mountains in the mist have encouraged many to look elsewhere for their Summer holiday. It is with mixed feelings that I share the secrets of this place with you. We spent three weeks last July and August in hot, sunny weather exploring the coastline of Wester Ross. While the rest of the country sweltered in the heat, out on the water, a sea breeze took the edge off the temperature. Even on wet days, this place has a magic all of its own. There are days when you can see the Isle of Skye across the Inner Sound, partly shrouded in mist as the rain bounces off the surface of the water (and days, you can't see the Isle of Skye at all!). In early Autumn, towering cumulus clouds sweep across the sky, casting shadows on the water and leaving dustings of snow on the mountain tops. On clear days, as the winter closes in, and the air turns colder, the whole sky turns pink and red at sunset, and the snow on the Cullin hills does the same. Such experiences are open to all who venture to this place and take a chance on the weather.
As almost complete beginners, our first morning was spent learning the basic strokes to manoeuvre the kayak on the water. We launched from Applecross Bay and paddled 50 metres offshore to escape the midges. (One of the great advantages of sea-kayaking is that the Scottish midge rarely ventures far from the shore for its dinner). We spent a very pleasant morning in warm sunshine learning the basics of forward paddling and turning strokes. After a short stop for lunch, we set off South towards the island of Eilean nan Naomh. We stopped in the shelter of the island to admire the seals and enjoy the sunshine before paddling the four kilometres back to Applecross Bay.
I gathered my thoughts that August evening from the beer garden of the Applecross Inn while the sun made the ripples dance on the water, and the Isles of Skye and Rassay framed the horizon.
Day two dawned to reveal low cloud and drizzle. If I'd been hill walking for the week, this would have been one of those days when I'd have put my head back under my sleeping bag, only to surface later in the day to sample local hospitality. Not so with kayaking. We paddled out from Applecross, North West this time to a beach called Sands. The rain bounced hypnotically on the water as a slight swell assisted us in our travels. The seals, curious as ever, stuck their heads above the water periodically to see what was going on. Sands is a wonderful broad beach, usually deserted even in the Summer. The tide was flowing so we carried the kayaks across the sand before settling down to lunch - watching your kayak drift away over the horizon can seriously spoil your appetite! Sandy fingers and soggy sandwiches reminded me of childhood sea-side holidays but no donkeys ice-cream vans or deckchairs to complete the experience.
We spent the next two days away on expedition, staying in a bothy at a place called Uags. Bothies are unmanned shelters, many of which are maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. They usually have two or three rooms, a stream for a water supply nearby and a fire place. Highlights of our trip included eating mussels collected from the shore and drinking whisky by the light of the bothy fire as darkness fell. We had to wait several hours before the weather was calm enough for us to paddle back towards Applecross, and when we did set out, the swell on the sea kept us concentrating! The kayaks we used were very stable and tended to rise and fall on the waves without tipping us out. We just had to take care not to catch the paddle in the waves in order to avoid swimming. When we were back in the shelter of the Bay, I lay back in the kayak and tipped my head back to look over the stern. If you've not done this, it's worth a try - the world seems to recede at an alarming rate but you actually feel quite stable (always check the view to the front before commencing this experience in order to avoid colliding with rocks, fishing boats etc)
For our final day, we travelled by road to Upper Loch Torridon and paddled its length, finishing at Shieldaig. There was a breeze blowing straight down the loch opposing our direction of travel. The clouds raced across the sky bringing gusts with them and making patterns of light and shade on the water and mountains all around. The sea flung spray in our faces leaving behind the taste of salt. I felt so alive, battling with the gusts and remembering to close my mouth when spray landed on my face. It was exhilarating to paddle in these conditions and then take a break in tiny coves which were sheltered from the weather to watch the shadows of the clouds race across the mountains of Liathach and Bein Alligin. All too soon, we came to a narrow strip of water which links Upper and Lower Loch Torridon at high tide and is just wide enough for kayaks. From here, we paddled down to Shieldaig and thus, my first week of sea paddling came to an end. But as Winston Churchill so aptly said about a very different course of events, it was not the end, it was not even the beginning of the end, it was only the end of the beginning.