A cabin in the woods

We’re sitting on the balcony of our log cabin, Silver Birch, surveying what will be our view for the next month. There’s an expanse of trees set among heathland, with snow-dusted hills beyond. This will do nicely.

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The cluster of dwellings that make up the hamlet of Ault-na-Goire lies on the south side of mighty Loch Ness, which carves a path so deep through the Great Glen that the body of fresh water it contains is greater than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. The south is considered the ‘quiet’ side of the loch – and being 600 feet above sea level  means we’re even further off the beaten track of hikers and tourists.

Behind the cabin, bracken-covered moorland slopes steeply down to a burn, beyond which there are acres of forest to explore. It’s dark and quiet among the trees – there’s little birdsong and the carpet of pine needles softens our footfalls enough to surprise Sika deer, which bound away emitting short high-pitched barks that send Morris into a frenzy of excitement.

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With few distinguishing features on the various trails through the trees, I find it hard to get a sense of where I am on our first few walks and runs, or how one trail links up with another. To compound the issue, many of the trails lead on to rough roads created for logging, and these all look the same. So it’s no surprise that on a long run one Sunday, I get truly lost. I’ve already been out for more than two hours when I emerge onto a 4×4 track and have no idea which way to go. I turn left and go for around a mile before deciding it doesn’t feel right. As I make my way back, I see a man heading my way. Thank God, I think, I can ask him where I am. Not only does he know where I am, he knows where I am going, too; it’s Alex, husband of Janet, who rented us Silver Birch, and who lives next door. He just so happens to be the Scottish cross-country and 5K champion in his age group. He ‘runs’ me home (the opposite direction to which I was going, oops), and although he’s nearing 70, I struggle to keep up with the fleet-footed veteran. To add irony to insult and injury, Jeff’s been away all day on a course learning how to teach navigation…

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I discover a new method of finding my way around the area shortly after, on a walk with Morris. Spotting a piece of bright orange tape hanging from a tree, I walk towards it; from there, I can see another, and then another. The tapes take me down a previously undiscovered-by-us trail that is all but grown-over in places. It passes through a magical dingly dell, which wouldn’t look out of place on a Tolkien film set. I keep expecting Bilbo Baggins to come bumbling down the path with a reel of orange tape, but it turns out that it’s Alex we have to thank – he puts the tapes out to mark his trickier running routes.

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Our days take on a similar shape at Silver Birch as on Luing. The only difference is that packing in two good walks, creative hour and a run or cycle before the daylight runs out is a race against time. December evenings set in at four o’clock. After so much time on our own, it’s nice to have the occasional company of Alex and Janet. Whenever we pop over to theirs to ask a question or pick up fresh bed linen, we end up sitting beside their Aga, chatting over tea and cake. It’s a bit like having a surrogate mum and dad to look after you.

The cabin itself is small but perfectly formed. There’s one main living area with a cathedral ceiling and windows on three sides – then a bedroom just big enough for a double bed, a single room, in which we keep all our stuff, and a tiny bathroom. It’s warm and cosy (it was imported from Finland, Janet tells us), which is just as well, because a week and a half into our stay we wake up to snow.

It’s dry and powdery – issuing faint squeaks when compressed by our feet and coating everything like elaborate icing. It looks beautiful and, in such an isolated place, remains unsullied for days. On most tracks, our footprints are the only ones, save for those of deer and pheasants (and occasionally, our landlord).

As on Luing, we don’t have a shop or pub on our doorstep up here in Ault-na-Goire – the closest is four miles away, in the village of Foyers. We stay put for a couple of days when the snow comes, but when we do venture down to Foyers for supplies, we’re amazed to find it snow-free at the lower altitude. But on the way home, the now-hard-packed snow and steep gradient prove too much for the van, and we end up stuck in a ditch – blocking the single-track road. We trudge home and sheepishly knock on Alex and Janet’s door. They inform the police and local council that the road is impassable and help us organise a rescue truck for the following day. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Janet, pouring more tea. ‘We once had a lady staying at the cabin who got her car stuck in a ditch twice in a week!’ I’ve had more than my fill of the white stuff after all this. And frankly it isn’t doing my running any favours – my forward progress hampered by my battle to stay upright.

Once the snow melts away, we’re rewarded with some unseasonably warm weather (read: 5 degrees instead of -2). We manage to get in a couple of bike rides – the roads are great for cycling; smooth tarmac, sweeping vistas and barely any traffic.

While Silver Birch is a match for Luing when it comes to setting and views, there hasn’t been much in the way of bird life. But, one morning I look out the window and see a large bird of prey soaring above the heathland. I’m resigned to it being a buzzard (the ‘default’ bird of prey) until I notice the forked tail. Grabbing the binoculars, I can clearly see the rusty underside and long-fingered wings that define the much-rarer red kite. I watch its aerobatics with awe. The only other birds we have a close encounter with are Alex and Janet’s chickens. They go away for the weekend, leaving us in charge of the brood; a responsibility we take very seriously. I’m constantly terrified that a marauding pine marten will get in and leave a blood bath but thankfully there are still seven birds when they return on the Sunday.

On the night of the full moon in December, we take the tent out to the forest and camp overnight. We get a fire going, cook on the stove and drink whisky and hot chocolate. Before bed, we walk out into a clearing and marvel at the giant, gleaming moon. It’s the kind of evening when you say to yourself ‘remember this.’

After a week’s respite, the snow returns and this time, it means business, laying six inches through the night, with no sign of stopping. There’s no chance of getting the van down the hill in this, so when we need groceries, we wrap up warm and hike down to Foyers, treating ourselves to coffee and cake at the Cameron Tea Rooms.

It’s really hard work walking in such deep snow (nine inches now, in places) not least if your legs are barely longer than six inches each. But the wonderland the snow has created is well worth witnessing.

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Given that we don’t have a Christmas tree to decorate at home this year, we decide to dress one of the thousands of trees in the forest and use a photograph of it as our Christmas card. The end result looks good, but the process isn’t as fun and romantic as you might imagine: we bicker in an un-festive manner about which tree to pick and Jeff manages to step in a deep, icy hole while trying to administer the tinsel. Snigger.

 

When it’s time to leave Silver Birch, shortly before Christmas, I’ve finished writing my story (it’s too short to be described as a novel) and learned to run a little better on snow. But I still haven’t got my guitar out of its case, nor read half a dozen of the books I brought away. The end of the year is fast approaching, sending me into a panic about how much I’ve yet to explore, experience and learn and reminding me how precious this time is. We’re going to see our families in Edinburgh and London over the Christmas period and, given that our tenants move out at the end of the year, we debate whether we should call The Crazy Thing a day, and head home to start the New Year. But, we decide – not yet.

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From two legs to four wheels

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

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IMG_3922img_3859.jpgIt’s colder now, too. But we’re travelling by van – not on foot – so we have the luxury of being able to carry more camping gear. When we pitch up I’m grateful for the foam roll mat under my Thermarest and the blanket on top of my sleeping bag – not to mention real milk from the cool box for our hot drinks!

But camping is now a choice, not a necessity. And while that might sound like a positive thing (if it’s a little chilly, why not treat ourselves to a hotel?), the element of decision-making it presents is unwelcome. It’s an illustration of the difference between the hiking life, where your focus is narrowed to a single task, and ‘real’ life, where your attention and desires are pulled in many directions at once, creating conflict that saps your energy.

We drive to Achiltibuie on the remote and sparsely populated Coigach peninsula 20 miles north of Ullapool. It’s a moorland-dominated landscape strewn with lochs and mountains, including the spectacular Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Polly), whose tall jagged peaks are etched against the sky.

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We climb it on a day so windy that I am literally blown off my feet more than once (which doesn’t bode well for the next day’s local half marathon, which we’ve both signed up for). Morris looks otter-like, his ears flattened to his head.

The view from the top is awe-inspiring so we’re glad we went up but I mentally add tired quads to my list of excuses (pre-race sleep in a tent, 40mph wind, post-trail fatigue, fearsome hills) for any forthcoming poor performance in the race!IMG_3879IMG_3876

Jeff needs no such list of excuses, winning the race comfortably in 1hr 19 mins. I hate him. I love him. I run 1.47 – which I think is my second-worst half marathon time ever.

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But I console myself with my list of excuses and a generous share of the selection of sandwiches and cakes being doled out in Achiltibuie village hall. In true Scottish style, the race celebrations also include an evening ceilidh – surprisingly good for loosening up post-race muscles. After Stripping the Willow with vigour (while Morris hides under the table in embarrassment) we’re relieved when we get back to the campsite to find the tent hasn’t blown away. However, there’s much talk of Hurricane Ophelia winging its way towards this part of the west coast and the next stage of our adventure involves a ferry crossing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr & Mrs

Even though Jeff and I have been married seven years, it is a new experience to be together 24 hours a day – much of it in just a few square metres of space.

The mundane intimacies of hiking à deux become our new normal. We know each other’s cat shovel habits, we inhale each other’s unwashed skin when we undress, check each other for ticks like a pair of grooming monkeys – we even share a toothbrush.

img_3786.jpgIt’s not just the being together that is novel, it’s the absence of anyone else. Some days, we walk in virtual silence for hours, lost in our own worlds; but it never feels awkward (unless one of us is sulking). Other days we talk incessantly or we play games, like Mr & Mrs, Who am I? or The A to Z of… fruit/sports brands/songwriters/positive adjectives (the options, as Jeff will attest, are endless).

We learn a lot about each other, and some of what we thought we knew before the trip is challenged. Jeff is a surprisingly good motivator (‘we’ve broken the back of it now, Sam’ ‘Just over this hill and it’ll get easier…’). The more I wane, the greater use he makes of his Mr Motivator act. But he’s also more of a worrier than I expected – and I learn early on that he operates best with a firm plan and goal for the day (or any given time period). Being the sole competent navigator, he feels a weight of responsibility for us out here. My tendency to vaguely hope for the best in a non-committal fashion drives him nuts.

He also finds me stubborn (especially when it comes to the consumption of caffeinated drinks) but is surprised by my resilience and my ability to cope with situations that I know in advance I’ll find difficult (see Pride comes before The Falls for an example).

One of the more challenging things is being under each other’s constant observation. It’s not intentional, but when you only have each other for company, you become hyper observant of every nuance of the other’s mood, every aspect of their behaviour. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘You’re in a funny mood…’ ‘Why are you doing that?’ we say to each other.

Morris is our saviour, because he gives us a different – external – focus and, quite frequently, makes us laugh our socks off. All three of us have become closer on the trail. I just wonder how we’re going to wean him off crawling under the bed covers when we get home…

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Get up? No chance, mum

 

On footstep roulette, cantering cows and being unfashionably early

Twenty miles is twenty miles, but the route out of Ullapool eases us in gently, tracing the northern shore of Loch Achall on a wide, even path. The tranquil loch creates pristine reflections of the trees that line its banks and the sun shines benevolently.

 

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IMG_3653Ahhh. All is well – for at least seven miles. But as woodland gives way to farmland, where cows roam free, we grow slightly nervous.

Out of the blue, a herd of cattle rounds a bend on the path ahead, heading straight for us at a light canter. We clamber up the steep and muddy bank to get out of the way, and to our alarm, a few of the beasts do the same thing, as if they really are in pursuit. We’re still slipping around on the muddy slope – Jeff clinging on to Morris, me flailing my trekking poles – when a couple of walkers with a border collie appear, revealing the reason for the herd’s panicked flight. ‘Morning,’ we say brightly, as if we have a good reason to be up here and are not, in fact, terrified of cows.

We continue along the glen and then begin to climb. It’s not super steep, but it is a long, stony ascent. I curse Iain Harper (the guidebook’s author) because this is meant to be a day of ‘easy walking’. The climb is followed by a descent on a path so wet it could easily be mistaken for a stream. At the bottom, our feet get still wetter fording the River Einig before picking up a path that undulates through pine forest on its route to Oykel Bridge, where, the guidebook informs us, there is not only a hotel but also a POSTBOX! Requiring neither, and since the light is still good, we carry on (first pausing for a quick game of Pooh sticks on the beautiful stone bridge). But it isn’t long before the night starts to draw in and we have a slight panic finding somewhere to camp before it’s too dark to see. We end up on the mosquito-infested grassy verge of a logging road – not our most picturesque stop – but we’re relieved nonetheless.

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We’re up early the following day, and have the tent packed away by the time the first trucks trundle along the road. There’s a reason for our eagerness to get going; we have a booking at the hostel in Inchnadamph (the one and only place we pre-booked before we set off) and owing to what must be a miscalculation of mileage per day on our schedule, we are due there tonight. Stiff but resolute, we set off.

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We make good progress along the River Oykel – one of Scotland’s best salmon rivers. It’s beautiful; water tumbling over copper-coloured rocks, gnarled trees teetering on its banks. We stop for a strict 15-minute break and for the first time all trip, I pop a couple of painkillers; the skin on the edge of my heel has hardened into a ridge, which every step pushes painfully into the softer skin surrounding it.

By early afternoon, as we pick our way across increasingly high pathless ground amid rocks, heather, moss and peat bog, the easy walking of the morning feels like a distant memory. It’s like footstep Russian roulette: sink, trip or slip? We’re heading for a ‘V’ on the horizon, a mountain pass (a bealach) squeezed between Conival and a ridge to the west.

We’re both tired yet still intent on getting to Inchnadamph, so we stop to brew coffee shortly before we reach the pass and begin the tricky descent that follows. Somehow, Jeff knocks the almost-boiled water off the stove and, unlike last time, I erupt in tantrum and insist we start again.

Though slightly ashamed, I’m glad of the caffeine boost once we start the descent from the pass – it’s narrow, rocky and precariously close to the edge, and it takes an age to reach ground level, 450m below.

 

Even when we do, things don’t get much easier. My legs are like jelly, my heel is throbbing and the marshy terrain makes every step arduous. Our customary 5.30pm break-time slips by – we’re so anxious to get to the hostel that we press on. Finally, at almost 7pm, our feet hit tarmac and we walk along a short stretch of road to reach the lodge.

When I give the receptionist our name, he looks at me blankly. ‘Did you book?’ ‘Yes, weeks ago,’ I say in a tight voice. He scans his sheet again and then gets up and goes into the office behind him. Jeff and I look at each other, horrified, as we await his return. ‘Ah, found you,’ says the man. ‘Actually, you’re booked in for tomorrow, not tonight, but that’s fine, the room is free.’ I have to restrain myself from hugging him – even more so when he tells us that breakfast is included and tea and coffee are freely available in the kitchen. Bedraggled, exhausted and pathetically grateful, we climb the stairs to our room.

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Our room has a porthole window

 

 

Hunger, midges and the ‘vicar walk’

There are two ways to start the Cape Wrath Trail: you can catch a ferry from Fort William across to the immediately wild and remote Ardgour peninsula, or you can ease yourself in by following the Great Glen Way (a 79-mile national trail) for a couple of days, which travels along the Caledonian Canal (ie. pancake flat!) before encountering more challenging terrain. The two routes converge a few days’ north.

After much consideration during the planning stage (will people think we’re lightweights? Will we miss some of the best bits?), we opted for the Great Glen route, and just hours into day one, we are glad we did. Simply carrying 15-20kg for the best part of a working day is enough of a challenge for two inexperienced hikers.

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We have to keep adjusting our rucksacks: cinching in the waist a bit more, loosening or tightening the chest strap… and we sometimes find we don’t know what to do with our hands. We catch each other doing the ‘vicar walk,’ with hands clasped at chest height. And then there’s the dance of the waterproofs: stopping to fish out our jackets and step into our trousers as the first few spots of rain appear and then becoming unbearably hot not 15 minutes later when it’s stopped and the sky has brightened.

While Morris seems to have no problem coping with seven-hour walkies,  me and Jeff are ready to call it a day when we reach the banks of the imaginatively named Loch Lochy, where the guidebook assures us we’ll find a good wild camping spot. We’ve covered 14-15 miles. We pitch our two-man tent just off the trail, crawl inside to wait out a sudden shower and fall sound asleep. It’s not even 5pm.

Luckily, there’s just enough light left to cook dinner by when we wake up, and time to wash up and refill our water bottles from a nearby stream, which we can hear tumbling down the hillside all night.

I wake up on day 2 feeling stiff – and ravenous. We have porridge with dried fruit and nuts and get packed up, which, despite our best intentions, takes ages again.

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We’ve devised a routine that involves two-hourly stops. The morning and afternoon stops are shorter than the lunch break but we still take off our packs, sit down and dig into the snacks. Our haul includes Pepperami, Babybel cheese, salted peanuts (protein and sodium) along with mini Soreen loaves, oatcakes and Haribo Tang-Fastics (carbs). All of them become utterly delicious in our perpetually-hungry state – but are strictly rationed, as we have to carry enough food with us to last five days, which is when we’ll next encounter a shop.

It’s only just after our morning break on day 2 when we come across a moored boat on the canal called the Eagle Barge. ‘Tea, coffee, sandwiches, soup, cakes’ reads the signboard on the towpath, and – oh joy! – a little sign hangs in the window saying ‘open.’ We don’t even debate whether or not we should stop – we make a beeline for one of the tables on deck and soon we’re drinking mugs of coffee and eating doorstep sandwiches.

Up to this point, we’ve still been following the reassuring blue waymarkers for the Great Glen Way but the unexpected feast gives us enough energy to press on past Invergarry, where the CWT veers off and where we’d thought we’d be making camp.

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We climb up a good track through a forest of spindly pine trees – and emerge into much more open, less peopled surroundings. Farewell, flat, gravelly trail! Hello, small, slightly boggy, undulating path. My bag – not to mention my legs – are feeling heavy by early evening and with the light fading, we search anxiously for a non-marshy spot in the long grass beside Loch Garry. Finally, we find a place to pitch beside a slightly eerie burned-out ruin of a house. As soon as we stop and start unloading our gear, we find ourselves in a cloud of midges and have to put up the tent and cook dinner wearing our midge hoods. We look like bank robbers. But after nine hours and around 20 miles of walking, we’re far too tired to contemplate a life of crime and have an(other) early night.

Dress rehearsal

On the drive north, we stop in the Lake District for a practice long hike and overnight camp to test all our kit and get used to the weight of our packs. The plan is to pitch the tent, walk a circular route from Great Langdale and then return to cook a dehydrated meal on the stove and bed down on our foam mats. Even though we’ll have the van parked close by, we’ll forbid ourselves from accessing it for luxuries like towels and pillows, since that won’t be an option once we’re on the Cape Wrath Trail.

‘Even if it’s pouring rain, we’ll stick to the plan, right?’ says Jeff, adding that we might well face such conditions when it comes to the real thing. ‘Definitely,’ I reply earnestly, praying it will stay dry.

We wake up to rain. In fact, we are woken by rain; it smatters loudly on the outer of the tent and it’s only my desperate need for a wee that drives me from the tent. Once outside, I realise it sounds worse than it is; tents have a way of magnifying the sound of falling rain. I don my waterproofs and get the stove on for tea and porridge while Morris peers suspiciously out of the tent flap. ‘What fresh hell is this?’ he thinks. ‘Not long ago, I lived in a warm and comfortable house with an interesting garden. Then it was a tent the size of a garden shed. Now I’d be better off in a kennel.’

Packing up takes ages. On Shane’s recommendation, everything lives in its designated dry bag, each with a specific place in the rucksack, based on when it needs to be accessed in the pitching/unpitching process. It’s a sensible system but it’ll take time to get used to.

It’s still raining when we finally shoulder our packs and set off. The route begins with a stiff climb up a narrow, flint bracken-bordered path, mist drifts around the hilltops. Within minutes, I’m too hot but I can’t face the rigmarole of stopping, taking off the pack and removing a layer, so I soldier on, sweat trickling down my sports bra and doubt trickling into my mind about this whole long-distance walking lark.

We eat our lunch under a tree to keep the worst of the rain off, silently considering just how dismal the Cape Wrath Trail could be if it rained all the time.

But by the time we get back to the campsite, our moods have brightened a little. We’ve done over nine undulating miles wearing our packs and intended clothing and footwear in non-stop rain and we’re not broken. We pitch the tent and unload our dry bags. Thanks to Shane’s tip, our sleeping bags now reside permanently inside waterproof bivvy bags in our rucksacks. So no matter what the day throws at us, no matter how drenched we are when we climb in the tent, we’ll always have a warm and dry place to retreat to. And that is how we end our dress rehearsal, hands thawing around enamel mugs of instant hot chocolate.

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Hillwalking for dummies

A friend of ours, Shane, is a qualified mountain leader. On hearing about our Cape Wrath Trail plans, he offered to give us some tips on hillwalking and wild camping. Even better, he invited us to his woodland for a practice run.

It was invaluable: we learned  how to lay and light a fire, how to choose where to pitch the tent and how to pack our rucksacks in a way that allows everything to be accessible in the right order and remain dry. Even though we only needed enough supplies for a single night in the woods, it was enough to reveal that my rucksack, a trusty but admittedly ancient Lowe Alpine 45L affair, was unlikely to be big enough for everything we’d need to take with us for a 3-4 week trip that offered few opportunities for re-stocking.

Thanks to Shane, we also learned how to register our mobile phones with the Emergency SMS service, which is advisable if you’re hiking in remote areas.

All starting to feel quite real now! The Cape Wrath Trail guidebook is my new bedtime reading…