Wild Camp on Etive – with a few Spurs thrown in

I do like this time of year – the nights are long but it’s not too cold, and the worst of the bugs are back in hibernation. The autumn colours are still around and the summer crowds have largely gone. And last weekend the weather and the tides lined up nicely too, so I sorted out my tent and loaded up the rucksac again. Time for another wild camp on Etive, fishing right alongside my tent in a very quiet spot where deer were the only likely intruders.

Solo wild camp and fishing on Loch Etive

To me the long walk in is part of the attraction of this mark. The track is rough and quite arduous in places, but it runs through wonderful scenery and quite splendid isolation – a very rare commodity, even in Scotland.

Fording a small burn along the track between Glen Etive and Barrs.
Fording a small burn

Travelling light is a relative term, but everything goes in the rucksac apart from the rods themselves, and I keep gear to a reasonable minimum. This time I was relying on a campfire for cooking and hot coffee, so the gas stove was swapped in favour of a little fatwood and a couple of mini-firelighters. A few leads, traces and a little coolbag with mackerel bait was pretty much all I needed to fish, as the loch doesn’t tend to be too tackle-hungry.

A couple of hours later I arrived at my destination, having worked up a decent sweat in the process with only a single tumble into the peat bog on the way in. Mild embarrassment and a wet fleece were the only casualties, but a reminder of the reason I carry a PLB on these trips – the line between merely looking silly and potentially crippling injury is a fine one, and easily crossed over.

Campsite in sight. A beautiful location to spend the night
Campsite in sight. A beautiful location to spend the night
Scots Pine with Ben Starav in the background. Fine autumn colours on Loch Etive.
Scots Pine with Ben Starav in the background.

Set up, bait up and cast in – it doesn’t take long to get fishing on this mark. I am pretty lazy when it comes to fishing here, and I don’t tend to spin or float fish for the pollack which also swim around here. However I did need to sort out my campsite for the night, and darkness comes early in these parts at this time of year. My “semi-detached” style of fishing allowed me time to get on with collected kindling and firewood, and to set up the tent.

Sunset over Loch Etive. Fishing near Barrs on a calm November evening
Sunset over Loch Etive

Finding dry wood can be a bit of a challenge on the west coast, as anything on the ground gets saturated quite quickly, so I’d to tramp around a bit to find decent chunks of dead but still standing timber. My efforts were rewarded by a couple of nice pieces of oak to form the core of the fire, and a good bunch of dry-ish bracken to act as tinder. Happily it didn’t take too long to get a decent fire set up and burning steadily.

Campfire catches hold - a welcome sight on a cold November evening
Campfire catches hold

Almost in parallel, there was a steady run of spurdogs taking my baits. I missed a few due to my fire raising, but the body count was respectable and rising as I put the coffee pot on to boil and tucked a couple of potatoes into the fire to cook away.

Striking into a spurdog, early November morning on Loch Etive. Cool, clear and beautiful.
Fish on!
A small thornback ray from the shore, near Barrs, Loch Etive
Thornback ray

The light finally faded as I returned my one and only thornback ray of the trip, and the steak and mushrooms went on to cook – I felt I deserved a little treat for braving a long November night. All fairly primitive, but I dined well and in very contented fashion as I contemplated the stars reflecting in the calm waters of the loch. Not a light or trace of humanity disturbed the quiet.

Steak and mushrooms over the campfire. Treat and a half!
Steak and mushrooms. Treat and a half!

I’ve not had a baked apple since I was a kid, but it was a perfect follow on to the steak. Apertifs came from a slug of Talisker and then it was time for an early night.

I slept pretty well, waking only to the sound of some light rain on the tent and later on to the pitter-patter of tiny feet as a tick traversed my torso. Uugh! Not really what you want at two in the morning and it was duly trapped and despatched after a slightly desperate search by torchlight. The morning light revealed a neat line of bites across my middle which suggested I’d moved the wretched thing on a few times in the night before it woke me up for real…

Five in the morning, moon and stars brighten the long night
Five in the morning, moon and stars brighten the long night

A New Day

Next morning dawned clear and cold, with the sky clearing after the last shower departed, so I struggled free of my warm cocoon and back into thermals. The gear was pretty much ready to go so it was a matter of minutes to bait up and cast out. Then back to trying to re-awaken the campfire and get some breakfast on the go.

Early morning - calm, cold and clear on Loch Etive as I watch my rods for a sign of fish biting
Early morning – calm, cold and clear

My backup was in the form of muesli, so there was a strong incentive to get the fire going and polish off an early morning smorgasborg of sausage, bacon, mushrooms and eggs. The overnight rain dampened everything enough to give some anxious moments, but I eventually kickstarted the fire and breakfast got underway.

Bacon and eggs on the campfire. And a fish biting...
Bacon and eggs on the campfire. And a fish biting…

Just like the campfire, fish were a little slow to come out to play, but started to appear just as breakfast got to the critical stage of pre-burn perfection. A little careful juggling kept everything edible whilst still pulling in a few more spurdog and a rather more grisly whiting head – its body presumably forming the equivalent of spurdog bacon and eggs.

Whiting head - with the rest forming part of a spurdog breakfast. Not a good start to his day!
Unlucky whiting

Over the next couple of hours I had a coffee or two, pulled in a spurrie or three, and generally organised my backpack until, rather slowly and reluctantly, I packed up camp and prepared to move back down the track towards civilisation. I wanted to fish a mark about half-way back to the car that I hadn’t tried for 2 or 3 years. Whilst I fully expected to repeat previous experience and find it stuffed full of micro-spurs in the sub-12 inch category, I felt it was worth a shot, just to see.

Early morning spurdog, caught near Barrs, Loch Etive
Early morning spurdog

Micro-spurs

My expectations were fulfilled, and faint hopes dashed, as a succession of micro-spurs dutifully gobbled up the bait and were dragged ashore. An hour of this was more than enough, especially given a blustery northerly wind, so I was soon heading back towards the car. Given it’s a fine spot to camp and fish it’s a shame that there don’t appear to be any larger fish around here.

Casting out - upper Loch Etive
Casting out – upper Loch Etive

A final splosh through the sodden moorland saw me back at the carpark at Glen Etive, with a couple of final treats in store on the road home. The first in the shape of large numbers of deer (there are loads in Glen Etive), and then a very fine sunset as I crossed over Rannoch Moor on the way back east. A reminder that Scotland can be magnificent at times, and not just a prisoner of Atlantic weather systems… Definitely an A-list weekend!

The pier at Glen Etive, a well photographed location!
The pier at Glen Etive
November sunset over Rannoch Moor
November sunset over Rannoch Moor
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Meandering my way to Cape Wrath

I’ve paid two or three visits to the far northwest in the last couple of years. Wonderfully remote and isolated country in which to escape for a day or three, it makes for perfect chillout territory, especially if you pick your weather. My latest trip to the extremes of Cape Wrath was more hiking than fishing but I did take a light spinning rod along for the journey…

Cape Wrath is just about the most isolated spot on mainland Scotland, with no real road access. It’s also the only actual Cape in Scotland that I’m aware of. Good enough reasons to pack a rucksack and set the alarm for very early. Sneaking quietly out the house without winding up the dog too much I set off before Edinburgh woke up. The sun was rising nicely as I crossed the Forth Bridge and even the A9 was empty enough to be bearable as I ploughed on.

Trail into Sandwood from Blairmore
Trail into Sandwood from Blairmore

Time to get my boots wet

Finally, by mid-morning, a 5 hour drive from Edinburgh saw me setting off on the track to Sandwood. I was deliberately trying to pack light, so it was only a 30l backpack with a tent, sleeping bag and cooking kit. Probably rather too much camera gear and not enough fishing kit, but much less effort required than hauling a 65l pack around. The first part of the trip, along to Sandwood Bay, is an easy hike along a well maintained little trail so I made rapid progress and was descending into the bay after 90 minutes or so.
Approaching Sandwood Bay, with Cape Wrath in the far north
Approaching Sandwood Bay
Sandwood is an iconic beach flanked by high cliffs and backed with grassy dunes and a fine peaty loch, and you get a great view as you drop down towards the sea. Way to the north, the lighthouse at Cape Wrath is just visible above the hills. Sandwood wasn’t my destination this time, but I felt obliged to give it a little shot to see if anything was hungry so stopped off towards the end of the beach and dug out some gear.
A stray Warrior boat arrives at Sandwood, presumably from Kinlochbervie
A stray Warrior boat arrives at Sandwood
My little 6’6” spinning rod was mightily outgunned by the surroundings but we gave it a couple of casts with a 1oz lead and a mackerel sliver. Nothing seemed terribly interested, but it was an ebb tide and a hot, sunny day, so I wasn’t hugely surprised.
Big beach, little rod - fishing Sandwood Bay with a spinning rod
Big beach, little rod – fishing Sandwood Bay

Beyond Sandwood

The sun was hot by now so I filled my water bottle from the nearby river and then sweated my way northwards over the low hills that guard the route to the Cape. There isn’t really much of a trail here and you make your own way across the mixture of peat bog, heather and machair style grasslands. Nothing much grows higher than six inches or so, and the areas of bare grit and rock bear witness to the ferocity of the wind along this very exposed coastline. None of that today though, and the light breeze was definitely welcome in the strong sunshine as I marched on towards my campground.

Camping at Keisgaig Bay, just above the Keisgaig River
Camping at Keisgaig Bay
Keisgaig Bay isn’t pretty in the way Sandwood is, but it is a fine, lonely spot to spend a night. I pitched the tent on a small promontory overlooking the most northerly salmon stream in mainland Britain – a mere shadow of its normal self in these dry conditions – and made a well deserved coffee as I took a short break. My plan was to leave most of the gear in the tent and then head up to Cape Wrath and back before nightfall, so I couldn’t hang around for too long.
To get out of Keisgaig involves a 600 feet climb up the hills to the north, which took a little while on a hot day, but was then followed by a fairly easy trek across dried out peat bog. Further on I encountered progressively wetter conditions and it didn’t take much imagination to appreciate how much more difficult this territory would be after a decent spell of rain. By comparison the final stage to Cape Wrath is almost an anti-climax along a rather beaten up army track.
Looking east from Cape Wrath towards Durness
Looking east from Cape Wrath

There was no-one else around as I took a few photos and nibbled on a snack before heading back south. This time I hugged the coastline a bit more closely which was quite a bit harder going but also let me identify any opportunities for a man with a rod in the future – and there are definitely some spots where the shoreline is accessible without abseiling gear. All in all I was feeling more than a little tired as I stumbled back down the hill into Keisgaig and unzipped the tent door.

Keisgaig and some trout

I awoke the next morning to find the sun had returned after some overnight showers, so it was time for some breakfast and to watch the seals lounging around the bay whilst I had a coffee and sorted out my plans for the day. The idea was to give my rod a little bit of both fresh and saltwater action as I made my way back to Sandwood and then to the car, so I tied on a little Mepps 00 lure to some light braid and set off in search of a trout or ten.
Striking into a small trout in a burn near Cape Wrath
Striking into a small trout

I spent the rest of the morning exploring, trying a couple of lochs and several burns for any stray trout. These proved very obliging and easy to catch, although quite small (hardly a surprise in such a harsh environment) and I only drew a blank on one loch.

Small but beautiful - a brown trout from a hill loch near Cape Wrath
Small but beautiful – a brown trout from a hill loch

After amassing 13 or 14 very prettily marked fish (all returned) I rather reluctantly decided to return down towards Sandwood and try a beach a little to the north.

Surf rolls into a lovely little beach to the north of Sandwood
Surf rolls into a lovely little beach to the north of Sandwood

Back to Sea

Washed by a light surf and crystal clear Atlantic water it was almost a privilege to mark a line of footprints in the sand of this fine little beach as I headed towards a large rock outcrop in the middle. Even the rock felt hot to my fingers as I climbed up under the sun and made myself comfortable. Armed with only a little spinning rod, and able to see the sea bed quite clearly through the surf for a long way out, I can’t say I was terribly confident about actually catching anything. However I went through the motions and slung another mackerel strip out into the breakers before settling down into my usual coffee making ritual.

A flounder caught to the north of Sandwood Bay
A flounder caught to the north of Sandwood Bay

Twenty minutes later I noticed the line was slack and felt a decent weight on the rod. Even with light gear I can’t say there was much of fight, but you certainly knew that there was a fish on as the little rod hooped right over. A flounder isn’t exactly in exotic territory but it was certainly welcome and I was pleased to add to my species count for the year.

Light surf fishing near Sandwood Bay - just a spinning rod and mackerel strip
Light surf fishing near Sandwood Bay

Confidence boosted I rebaited and cast out again, before settling down to be roasted again. A combination of snoozing and some complacency meant that I was very late to wake up to another slack line bite, and my line was hopelessly snarled up in the kelp at the base of my rocky perch before I realised I’d a fish on. I could even see it clearly 30 yards out in the surf as it swam effortlessly in the waves – a small sea trout. It took another thirty minutes before the tide cleared the bottom of the rocks sufficiently to let me clear my line and land the fish. Not large but it was still welcome proof that there was something worth fishing for!

A small sea trout caught on mackerel strip from a beach just north of Sandwood Bay
A small sea trout
By now it was getting closer to my “I’m still alive” check-in with home, and I still had a fair way to go and no mobile reception. Rather grudgingly I packed up and gasped my way up the hill and then back down to Sandwood. The beach was busier now, with 2 or 3 tents and at least a dozen people strung out along its length, so I was quite glad not to stay this time and content to head back towards the car at Blairmore.
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New Year Spurrie Boot Camp

Spurrie boot camp! The concept was simple – an early start to the New Year and a comfortable camp overnight chasing spurdogs in nice, calm conditions. Trevor was up for it so late morning on New Year’s day saw us meeting up before heading west.

Now spending an afternoon hauling rods and a hefty backpack  through miles of sodden peat bog might not be everyone’s idea of a good time and,  by the time we stumbled over the final ridge and found our target over two hours later, we were certainly wondering ourselves.

However I wasted no time in setting up my usual mackerel baited pulley rig on one rod, and kitting the second out with a two hook paternoster style setup. A modest cast out confirmed we were in deep water as the gear took a good while to reach the muddy seafloor.

Sundown - and only 16 hours to sunrise this far north at the beginning of January
Sundown – and only another 16 hours to sunrise

The sun was disappearing fast and it would soon be dark so, once we were both safely fishing, it was time to get the tent up and sort out a fire. There’s a decent fire ring here, put together by generations of hikers, kayakers and the odd fisherman so we could build our camp fairly easily.

A level site, sheltered from the wind and with a nice sized fire ring in front of you - what more do you need in winter
Comfortable overnight camp in January

By now the light had pretty much gone, and the rods were banging away with the first bites of 2017. A few minutes later my first fish of the year appeared, in the shape of a small spurdog and even smaller LSD. They’d taken the smaller hook rig and were quickly photographed and returned.

First fish of 2017 - a spurdog and LSD come up together
First fish of 2017

The wind had been gusting quite hard but dropped after dark which helped keep some feeling in my hands. Both Trevor and I pulled in a few more fish, mainly small male spurdogs, as we sorted out some dinner.

This was definitely gourmet cuisine compared to my usual standards, with a smorgasborg of sausages, chicken and baked potatoes. All washed down with a decent slug of Glenkinchie malt 🙂

Dinner cooking on the campfire
Dinner cooking on the fire

We hit the sack fairly early and managed a decent sleep in temperatures that couldn’t have dropped too much below freezing. Next morning saw us popping the coffee and bacon on whilst fishing in beautiful calm and clear conditions. Even the ebb tide helped make this mark easier to fish by keeping our lines clear of the snaggy rock wall close in.

Ironically, given this is the west coast of Scotland, the only problem was getting fresh water. In the end we (i.e. Trevor) had to scout about 400 or 500 yards to find a small stream.

Trevor with a spurdog from wild country, early January 2017

Trevor bends into another spurdog on a calm, grey morning
Trevor bends into another spurdog

We both had more spurs and a scattering of LSDs, but nothing else to bump up the species count. It stayed pretty much windless but the sun disappeared as the morning wore on and it became heavily overcast with a little light rain.

A small shore caught spurdog

Trevor with a small spurdog taken on mackerel bait

We called time around 2 o’clock, as it is a long trek back to the car and we didn’t fancy finishing by wading through a peat bog in the dark. The woods were eerily silent as we marched through them in the fading light, with no birds or other animals making a sound, and no sign of humans at all. We reached the carpark just before dark, both pretty knackered but happy with our early start to the year.

Also, I’ve not camped out in January before (at least not in Scotland) so that’s bonus on top of the fishing itself. 🙂

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Into The Wilderness of Ardmeanach

Ardmeanach lies on the exposed, lonely but very beautiful west coast of Mull. Only twelve miles in the round, it is almost inaccessible in places due to trackless terrain and boulder strewn hills that drop 1500 feet into the sea. The emptiest and most remote part is called simply “The Wilderness”.

Ardmeanach peninsula from the south, with layer upon layer of lava flows clearly showing
Ardmeanach peninsula from the south

I’d no idea how much, if any, of the Ardmeanach is fishable, but The Wilderness is a name that oozes potential, and I’ve fancied exploring it for a couple of years now. With a few days of calm and dry weather forecast I grabbed the opportunity before the midges woke up for summer.

Arriving on Mull, a short stopover at Gribun gave an introduction as to what to expect, with layers of ancient lava flows stacked one atop the other to build a very dramatic coastline.

Across to Gribun cliffs
Across to Gribun cliffs
The Gribun Cliffs, Mull. Around 1000 feet high, with the road creeping along the bottom
The Gribun Cliffs, Mull

If only the fishing at Gribun proved as exciting as the surroundings – but a couple of hours fishing the end of the cliff line you can see above generated not one hint of interest to either mackerel on the bottom or float fished ragworm.

Fishing Gribun - very deep water at the base of the cliffs
Fishing Gribun

Ardmeanach itself lies just round the corner from Gribun, and was an intimidating sight, partly hidden in the clouds.

View to Ardmeanach
View to Ardmeanach.

It is trackless, apart from the meanderings left by goats and deer, but the initial approach isn’t difficult as you pick your way across fairly typical heathery grassland.

Approaching Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull
Approaching Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

As the sheep thin out towards the edge of The Wilderness the going gets quite a lot harder. I dropped down over the cliffline and down towards the shore, to make my way across the slope towards the tip of Ardmeanach.

Only goats make the trails here - rough country in Ardmeanach, Mull
Only goats make the trails here

In retrospect this was a mistake, as the scree and boulder fields were daunting, especially combined with constant switchbacks and climbing around inlets and across streams. The winter had clearly inflicted a lot of damage, with fresh rockfalls and washed out shorelines. Progress slowed to an exhausting crawl!

At least the wildlife showed up pretty much on cue – with a pair of golden eagles circling the cliffs and wild goats aplenty.

Golden Eagle, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull. One of a pair that circled the cliff line.
Golden Eagle, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

Almost 4 hours after I started off I pitched up for the night at the tail end of a massive old scree slope – hoping it was as inactive as it looked, as other areas had plenty of fresh falls.

Camping in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull. The base of an old scree slope provided a sheltered spot for the night
Camping in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

The solid cloud base thinned for a little while, to allow the moon to outline the cliffs above my little tent, but I was pretty tired and hit the sack early.

Nightfall, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull
Nightfall, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

A solid night’s sleep was followed by an early morning wander across the shoreline in search of Mull’s famed fossil tree. In the event I didn’t quite have enough time to work my way round to it, but there was plenty of other geology to marvel at, including these basalt columns which were guarded by a wary herd of feral goats.

Herd of feral goats on the beach near the fossil tree, Ardmeanach
Herd of feral goats on the beach
A herd of goats contrast with basalt columns, Ardmeanach, Mull
A herd of goats contrast with basalt columns, Ardmeanach, Mull

The coastline here, and around most of Mull was dictated by the lava flows that covered the whole area 65 million years ago and created the likes of Fingals Cave on Staffa a few miles away.

Small Atlantic Swell, Ardmeanach Wilderness
Small Atlantic Swell, Ardmeanach Wilderness

Most of the area around the peninsula was fairly shallow so I wasn’t too bothered about giving the fishing a miss in March – more possibilities in late summer and autumn I’d have thought.

Tip of Ardmeanach peninsula
Tip of Ardmeanach peninsula

Striking camp, I headed back but kept higher than the previous day in an effort to keep away from the deep gashes in the shore. The goat tracks kept pushing me upwards until I hit the base of the cliffline a few hundred feet up.

The Ardmeanach Wilderness, Isle of Mull
High in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Isle of Mull
About 500 feet above the sea, near the base of the cliff line
About 500 feet above the sea, near the base of the cliff line

This part of the route was definitely easier going than the previous day, although a little hairy in places, especially with the mist swirling around. The downside came a little later, as it proved very difficult to pick the best layer of rock to traverse – too low and you end up climbing up again all too soon, whilst too high and you find yourself with a serious cliff between you and the car.

Leaving the Wilderness, Ardmeanach
Leaving the Wilderness, Ardmeanach

In the event it still took the best part of 4 hours to get back to the car, although I reckon another trip would be quicker now that I’ve got some on the ground experience of the route.

So, what to make of Ardmeanach and its wilderness? Fishing-wise it was a washout, although there are some decent rock stances worth another look. On every other level it’s a jewel of a place – visually spectacular, lots of wildlife, amazing geology and quite challenging physically. The only other person I met was the farmer and his dog at the start of the hike (both friendly). Definitely recommended for a prepared hiker, with or without rods.

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The High Sierra Trail

“Awesome” is a wildly over-used word in the US, but the High Sierra Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California really is just that. If you’re into hiking, camping or fishing and you want to trade in a cool, wet, midge-ridden summer for something hot, dry, bug-free and spectacular then you should seriously check out the High Sierra Trail, which has the bonus of summiting the highest mountain in the continental USA (outside of Alaska) – Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet.

Mount Whitney at sunrise
Mount Whitney at sunrise

Ian asked me the other day why I wanted to go to the Sierras, and I found it a difficult question to answer. Struggling up a steep track in 90 degree heat, or lying awake in your tent at over 11,000 feet because you can’t quite get enough air to breath easily and you do wonder why. On the other hand you are simply overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the landscape; the tremendous sense of freedom that your experience in the backcountry; and the simplicity of the challenges you face.

Valhalla towers above us as struggle up to Hamilton Lakes
Valhalla towers above us as struggle up to Hamilton Lakes

Having my son, Mike, along was an added bonus for me, with the hope he’s absorbed some of the rewards of exploring wild and lonely landscapes. I’ve never climbed much above 10,000 feet before, so the chance to camp at that level and hike a good bit higher was an added draw.

We're headed over the distant mountains
We’re headed beyond the mountains in the background

I did very little fishing in the Sierras, mainly because I didn’t want to bore Mike too much, but for anyone who appreciates the context in which they fish it was superb. Alpine lakes in the 8,000-11,500 foot range held rainbow and golden trout, whilst the Kern river was a stunning little trout stream well filled with rainbows. Most were small 8-10 inch fish, but a couple of Californian teenagers who basically fished every chance they got had trout up to 17 inches on spinners.

Anyway, check out the little video of our trip and make up your own mind.

Hiking the High Sierra Trail and Death Valley

Having spent too many decades in Scotland I am fully conditioned to the need for warm, waterproof clothing, decent tents, insect protection, etc., etc. Switching to an environment where water and heat are major concerns takes quite a bit of adjusting to.

Kern River Valley
Kern River Valley

We had no rain at all and no bug bites at all on the trail in early September (both are more likely earlier in the summer though), and could have hiked the whole trail without a tent or waterproof. On the other hand the heat in mid-afternoon was exhausting and the need to be disciplined with water was pretty novel to a Scot.

Only about 20 yards away
A young black bear, only about 20 yards away

The wildlife is another consideration, but not one to get unduly bothered about. There are mountain lions, but these are very rarely seen and they almost never attack adult humans. There are no brown/grizzly bears, only black bears, and taking proper precautions to store food in bear canisters will greatly reduce any chance of one saying hello during the night. We only met two bears on the High Sierra Trail, both quite young, and one of these was in the trail head car park, so doesn’t really count.

Mike on top of Whitney
14,500 feet – Mike on top of Mt. Whitney

Numbers on the trail are heavily restricted under the wilderness permitting system used by the national parks, but early September does fall outside the main US holiday season and you’ve a good chance of getting access. It’s a one way trail rather than a loop and one of the biggest challenges is actually sorting out the logistics of travelling from the eastern Sierras to the western side, as public transport is limited. If anyone wants details of what we did then please add a comment and I’ll try and reply.

In parts the trail is blasted from solid granite
In parts the trail is blasted from solid granite

It would be unfair to the other parks we visited not give them a mention, as Death Valley (in my previous post), Zion and Grand Canyon national parks are all amazing in their own right.

Wading Zion Narrows
Wading Zion Narrows

Zion is famous for its slot canyons, where you ford your way through very narrow canyons with almost vertical walls 1,000 feet or more high. A mild adventure on a hot, dry day, but a flash flood killed 4 hikers a few days later.

Canyon viewpoint
North Rim, Grand Canyon

And the Grand Canyon is just as described. We headed for the more remote North Rim and were lucky enough to get a reservation at the lodge overlooking the canyon. The scale is hard to take in (a road trip from North Rim to South Rim is over 200 miles), and makes it rather hard to photograph.

A fantastic trip, and definitely one to grasp with both hands if the opportunity arises!

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Camping in Death Valley

We paused as we heard the distinctive rattle of yet another Death Valley local warning us to stay away. It had been quiet in the cool of the early morning as we climbed, but the sun was now hot in the sky and the reptilian inhabitants were waking up all around the trail as we descended from the 9000 foot high Wild Rose Peak.

Looking over Death Valley from Wild Rose Peak
Looking over Death Valley from Wild Rose Peak

Rattlesnakes warned Mike and I off over half-a-dozen times as we made our way back down the mountain, but none showed themselves and we didn’t look too hard for trouble.

Mike gets comfortable, 9000 feet up in Death Valley NP
Mike gets comfortable, 9000 feet up in Death Valley NP

We’d landed in Vegas a couple of days earlier, and had explored the real hot bits of Death Valley the day before, then headed into the surrounding mountains for an overnight camp.

Exhausting heat in Death Valley
Exhausting heat in Death Valley

And the hot bits are hot! We saw 118 degrees around the Devil’s Golf Course, a barren landscape of rocksalt nodules.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley - rock salt nodules
Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley

Devil's Golf Course Panorama

Almost as roasting at Badwater Basin, nearly 300 feet below sea level, with a strong hot wind desiccating you as soon as you dared to leave the safety of the car’s air-con.

Spot the sea level marker - 286 feet above us
Spot the sea level marker – 286 feet above us
Well below sea level, and 118 degrees.
Well below sea level, and 118 degrees.

Fortunately the surrounding mountains are much cooler and we had a very comfortable night at around 70 degrees at the fairly basic Wild Rose campground, about an hour off the main road through Death Valley.

Sunset over Wild Rose campground, Death Valley
Sunset over Wild Rose campground, Death Valley

We set out on the climb to Wild Rose Peak next day as a warm-up (in more ways than one) for the more serious leg of the holiday, but it was an interesting hike in itself, with great views and a chance to explore the old charcoal kilns at the start of the trail, which still smell of smoke well over 100 years after they were last used.

Start point for Wild Rose Peak, at the Charcoal Kilns
Start point for Wild Rose Peak, at the Charcoal Kilns
On the trail to Wild Rose Peak
On the trail to Wild Rose Peak

Later in the day we came across another hungry Death Valley inhabitant, although this one was wheedling rather than hunting.

Hot and hungry coyote, Death Valley NP
Hot and hungry coyote, Death Valley NP

I’d been a bit wary of Death Valley for camping, given the potential heat, but it was actually no problem at all in the surrounding mountains. The wind died to nothing overnight, there were no biting bugs and it was warm rather than hot. Happily do it again, although the campground was fairly remote and you wouldn’t want a breakdown getting there (we saw no-one at all in the one hour drive from the main through road).

Impressive as Death Valley was, the next step was the main aim of our trip – the 70+ mile High Sierra Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a chance to hit the highest point in the continental USA outside Alaska – Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet…

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A Pilgrimage to Sandwood Bay

Very remote, often stormy, and always stunning, Sandwood is a broad sandy bay guarded on either end by sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high which sits in the extreme and rather inaccessible NW corner of the Scottish mainland.

Camping at Sandwood Bay
Camping at Sandwood Bay

Over the years it has acquired an almost mystical reputation as a place to visit, complete with the ghosts of drowned sailors and the odd mermaid. Remoteness and grandeur certainly attract legends, but unfortunately what Sandwood doesn’t possess is a reputation for top class fishing, with the few reports available suggesting the odd flatfish, seatrout and possibly a bass.

I’ve trekked the 4 mile access track from Oldshoremore to Sandwood a couple of times before, but never with a fishing rod and not for over 25 years. However I’ve fancied a trip north for several years now and this time I took a rod along with me, along with a tent for an overnight stay.

Something like five and a half hours and 280 miles after leaving home I arrived in the car park at Blairmore, to find I wasn’t the only person interested in the Bay, as there was a good fistful of cars and camper vans there already.

The first part of the walk along was dominated by sheep and a load of lambs.

Lamb
Lamb

The view down the coast was wonderful – it’s amazing how a little bit of sunshine transforms the Scottish countryside.

Looking back to Blairmore
Looking back to Blairmore

Another of the local wildlife, although there were relatively few beasts of any sort after the first mile or so.

Highland Cow
Highland Cow

The path is in good condition (there was a volunteer party from John Muir Trust working on it) and easy to walk or bike along.

Footpath to Sandwood Bay
Footpath to Sandwood Bay

First view of Sandwood is both sudden and dramatic.

First view of Sandwood Bay
First view of Sandwood Bay

I worked my way along the beach towards the northern end, not far from where the river hits the sea. Exposed by the winter storms there are the remains of a WWII Spitfire which crashlanded here in 1941.

Sandwood Beach with Spitfire engine in foreground
Sandwood Beach with Spitfire engine

The other famous occupant of Sandwood Bay is the sea stack Am Buachaille.

Am Buachaille sea stack
Am Buachaille sea stack

I set up my gear and fished with a combination of mackerel strip and lugworm, hoping for a flattie and possibly a turbot. Nothing for the first couple of hours, until the tide had covered the very shallow part of the sand, and then this little seatrout took the mackerel strip.

A small seatrout from Sandwood Bay
A small seatrout from Sandwood Bay

The rest of the afternoon was spent fishing near the old Spitfire (the pilot escaped unharmed, incidentally), and it yielded several more sea trout in the run up to HW.

Remains of a Spitfire engine lie in the sand
Remains of a Spitfire engine lie in the sand
Seatrout swims off
Seatrout swims off
Nice sea trout
Nice sea trout approaching the 2lb mark

I set up camp on the beach itself, largely so I could fish on into the evening. Normally I’d prefer to get some more solid ground but it wasn’t forecast to be too windy, and I can handle a little bit of dry sand getting blown into the tent.

Camping on the beach at Sandwood Bay
Beachfront camping
Returning another bar of silver
Returning another bar of silver

As the tide ebbed the fishing died off, so I’d a little look around the beach and dunes. A little surprisingly there was very little in the way of flotsam or driftwood (any hopes of an evening bonfire were soon dashed), but I did find this old iron fishing float.

An old iron fishing float cast ashore
An old iron fishing float cast ashore
Looking inland towards Sandwood Loch
Looking inland towards Sandwood Loch

The sun set around half-nine and I took a few pictures of it disappearing, although it never really got fully dark – a mixture of the clear sky and the distance north that Sandwood Bay is compared to most of the UK.

Last of the sunshine
Last of the sunshine
The sun nears the horizon
Going, going…
The sun goes...
Gone!
Nightfall at Sandwood, with Cape Wrath to the left of the image
Nightfall at Sandwood

By now the last of the other visitors had left and the beach was mine for the night. Undisturbed by the local ghosts I fell asleep to the sound of the surf on the beach and had some much-needed kip for a few hours. Next morning saw me awake fairly early to get a bit of breakfast and have a short try for more fish before the tide ebbed too far.

Early morning on Sandwood Bay
Early morning on Sandwood Bay
Breakfast in the early morning sunshine
Breakfast in the early sunshine
Looking inland towards Foinaven
Looking inland towards Foinaven

Unfortunately things were a little quiet and nothing else appeared before I packed in and headed back along the path.

Last chance for a fish
Last chance for a fish
Rod watching at Sandwood
Rod watching at Sandwood
Seatrout heads back
Seatrout heads back

 

Simple short range fishing
Simple short range fishing

And finally… It’s easy to say that catching isn’t the central experience of a trip, especially if you haven’t actually caught so much as a baby flounder, but it’s very much true for me in such splendid surroundings. Immersed in magnificent isolation a fishing rod gives some sense of purpose, a little figleaf to fend off those who ask why you journey there, but it’s very much an accessory rather an essential requirement.

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Mount Robson and Snowbird Pass

A few days of R&R and some substantial driving following our kayaking adventure in Desolation Sound, we kicked off a 4 day backpacking trip in the Berg Lake area of Mount Robson. Coming from the south and west, Mount Robson remains well hidden amongst other mountains until a turn in the road suddenly reveals this snow covered giant (it is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, at over 13,000 feet high). It looks huge, is huge, and every tourist on the road promptly screeches to a halt in the layby to take a better look. Explorers 150 years before us described it as a “giant amongst giants” and they were spot on – it really hits you between the eyes on a clear summer day.

First glimpse of Mount Robson, approaching from the west
First glimpse of Mount Robson, approaching from the west

After registering for our trail passes at the information centre and watching the obligatory video on 10 ways to die/100 things not to do in the park we were set free to find our way into the backcountry of the Rockies, hopefully avoiding the bears along the way.

At the information centre, to collect our trail passes
At the information centre, to collect our trail passes
On the bridge marking the start of Berg Lake Trail
On the bridge marking the start of Berg Lake Trail

It was early afternoon and very hot as we made our way along the first few miles of the trail, weighed down by our rucksacs but otherwise happy enough on a fairly easy track. Up to Lake Kinney it was fairly busy, mainly with day hikers returning to the car park, but from there on it was quiet with only the occasional backpacker all the way up to the campsite at Whitehorn. At the 11km mark this campsite is not too far along the trail and I’d originally planned on heading straight in to Berg Lake, but the damage done from a broken leg back in March made a reassessment seem sensible, and I was quite glad to split the journey in over a couple of days.

Blue skies and emerald green water
Blue skies and emerald green water

I wouldn’t say Whitehorn was an exceptional location, but it does exemplify the care that BC Provincial Parks take with their campgrounds – each tent pitch is set out nicely with a proper tent pad and access is controlled to prevent overcrowding. I have to say that I was consistently more impressed with the Provincial Parks such as Desolation Sound and Mount Robson than with the National Parks like Jasper and Lake Louise.

Mike on the steep, narrow trail between Kinney and Berg lakes
Mike on the steep, narrow trail between Kinney and Berg lakes
Steeper than it looks, this is a serious haul in the sunshine
Steeper than it looks, this is a serious haul in the sunshine

Day 2 meant a steep hard climb from Whitehorn to Berg Lake, past a series of waterfalls (“Valley of a 1000 falls” is the exaggerated official name!). The most impressive of these is the Emperor Falls, and the cooling spray from this was most welcome after a long slog up the hill.

Thick spray from the Emperor Falls blankets the forest
Thick spray from the Emperor Falls blankets the forest
A chance to cool down in the mist from Emperor Falls
A chance to cool down in the mist from Emperor Falls

Twenty minutes later we burst out into the flat open braided streams just downstream of Berg Lake and into the full heat of the sun as we made our way along the rocky trail. By now Robson was truly dominating the skyline, almost 3km above our heads.

An area of bare rock and scree, close to Berg Lake
An area of bare rock and scree, close to Berg Lake
Simple wooden bridges make life much easier on the trail
Simple wooden bridges make life much easier on the trail

Berg Lake gets its name from the small icebergs that calve off the Robson Glacier as it runs into the water, and over the next few days we were treated to the regular rumbles and thunderous noise of ice protesting as it was forced down the mountain side. Being fed by meltwater also gives the lakes the very distinct turquoise colour as light reflects off minute particles of silt ground down by the ice and suspended in the water.

A stunning location for some lunch
A stunning location for some lunch
Feed Me! - a campsite visitor
Feed Me! – a campsite visitor

We set up camp for a couple of days at the Berg Lake campground, on a tent pad with a spectacular view of Robson, and close to the river below. A short snooze later and we were climbing well up the trail above Berg Lake, making for the Toboggan Falls and the Mumm Basin beyond. It was extremely hot in the sunshine and we were using water at an alarming rate, so we dropped the more ambitious plan of completing the Mumm basin trail (which would have taken several hours) and turned back an hour or so above the Toboggan Falls. Even at this point we were above the tree line and could see the route of the Snowbird Pass on the valley opposite us – our target for tomorrow.

View of the glaciers feeding Berg Lake
View of the glaciers feeding Berg Lake

Day 3 saw us going for my personal goal – the Snowbird pass. This 23 km trail only opens on the 1st July each year and we went for it on the 3rd. The first few km are very easy, flat, walking but you then start to climb up the side of the Robson Glacier moraine which is pretty hard going even in the morning sunshine.

Just about to get steep - we head up the left side of the glacier
Just about to get steep – we head up the left side of the glacier
Even travelling alongside it is pretty hairy in places...
Even travelling alongside the glacier is pretty hairy in places…

Once on top of this huge lateral moraine, you try not to stumble over the edge as the trail takes you along the steep and pretty unstable scree slopes. Most of the trail is fairly well marked, but there are a couple of areas where it’s both easy and dangerous to lose your way – I’d be wary here if the weather turned poor! It’s easy to see why the trail is described as “challenging”

Lush greenery thriving above the tree line
Lush greenery thriving above the tree line

That said, the lush and very green alpine valley at around 6,500-7,000 feet is both a surprise and stunningly beautiful. We saw quite a bit of life here, mainly marmots and ground squirrels, but the valley is also a caribou calving area and has a population of wild goats.

The reddish, bare scree of the actual top of the pass can’t quite compare to the valley below, but it does afford a spectacular view of the Reef Icefield beyond the crest of Snowbird. At 8000 feet it was a little chilly even in the sunshine so we didn’t linger too long before starting the long trek downhill.

Looking over the icefields on the far side of Snowbird
Looking over the icefields on the far side of Snowbird
Bare rock and snow at the crest of Snowbird
Bare rock and snow at the crest of Snowbird

Next day saw us break camp and prepare for the hike back to civilisation, some 21km away. Robson’s peak was covered in cloud, but I managed a few shots of the icebergs drifting across the lake as we marched along making good time for the first few km.

Small icebergs that give the lake its name
Some of the small icebergs that give the lake its name

As the sun got hotter and the packs heavier we were glad to take the chance of a break where the forest and trail allowed – even with sore feet the whole place is simply awesome.

The icy Robson River tearing through the forest
The icy Robson River tearing through the forest

 

A rather defiant looking rodent keeps watch
A rather defiant looking rodent keeps watch

We were back at the trailhead for lunchtime, although definitely feeling the pace a bit and looking forward to a cold drink just down the road.

Wildlife-wise we didn’t see anything bigger than a marmot in Mount Robson, although a few bears did materialise as we headed south along the Icefields Parkway towards Calgary and our flight home.

The only grizzly bear we saw - captured on a camera phone
The only grizzly bear we saw – captured on a camera phone
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