Circumnavigating Bute – Mayday bank holiday

Anna’s trip to the Kyles of Bute was going ahead despite a forecast for a rather windy Saturday, when the proposed route would be passing round the southern tip of the island – the most exposed part. Her chosen put-in was Kilchattan Bay, then clockwise to take out at Kames Bay. This would avoid the most populated bit of the island, past Rothesay, and would work well with the tides.

I decided, partly because I didn’t really want the faff of the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay ferry, partly because I had no reason not to set off early on Friday, and partly because I saw a complete circumnavigation as somehow more satisfying, that I would do an extra day on the water, and save the the hassle of setting up a shuttle. Accordingly, I left 8 a.m. and drove via the little Colintraive ferry (only a five minute wait for a five minute crossing). A quick reccy to Kilchattan confirmed that a campsite within sight of their put-in was possible if my chosen location proved less suitable. Then back to Kames Bay and pack up, to be on the water at 15:40, just before high tide. It seemed as if I’d perhaps not got the trim right, as the boat was pulling to the right, away from the wind, but not enough to cause any real grief as I crossed the first bay. Rothesay Bay was only slightly more directly into the wind, but with bigger waves the problem went away. The issue here was that I could see that the ferry was in port and as it would take me twenty minutes to cross the Bay, I was pretty sure he would set off before I was across. As his route is close to the south side of the Bay, I was watching all the time and indeed he set off just at the time so that if I carried on at the same speed, I would be uncomfortably close. A sailing boat was also passing in front of me, so I aimed behind him, and hung around a bit… As the yachty passed and we exchanged cheery waves, I commented that all the traffic was a lot bigger than me, which got a smile. As I was setting off again, I noticed that the other ferry was now fast approaching on its way in. As he would be passing the outgoing ferry port-to-port I was now directly in his path, so put paddle to water with some alacrity.

Closer to shore and out of the traffic, I could relax a little, but not let up on the paddling, as I now turned even more directly into the wind. 8 km of this took me to Bruchag point, by which time I had been looking for a spot to camp for while – but everywhere was overlooked by various parts of the Mount Stuart estate or other farmhouses. However, I was keen not to use the spot I’d seen earlier from Kilchattan, as that would be exposed to the wind. Fortunately, as I approached the headland, small inland cliffs put the shore out of sight from the farm above, and a slightly rocky but manageable landing put me onto an area with really nice, short-cropped grass with a perfect flat spot for my tent. Perhaps not the world’s most scenic place, with a view of Hunterston nuclear power station across the Clyde, but certainly the best I could hope for on this side of the island. Plenty of dry-enough firewood ensured a pleasant evening after 2 hours 40 minutes of paddling. On most Bute trips, we cross the Clyde from Largs, so shipping is something to beware of. Here, I could watch the traffic with no worries, and soon the MSC Meraviglia hove into view. This turns out to be the biggest cruise ship ever to visit the Clyde (or any Scottish port), and the fifth biggest in the world, with room for 5328 inmates in search of exciting culture and beautiful scenery – at Greenock, “the cruise capital of Scotland” (I kid you not, see this news article). I’d somewhat over-catered for a four day trip, and thought my boat was a bit heavy, but dragging a 171,598-tonne ship up the beach would not be an option … besides, a 5.5m Nordkapp actually fits, where a 316 m long behemoth wouldn’t. I know which vessel I prefer (but then I hate not being the one driving).

Freedom Boat – Prison Ship, on the Clyde

On Saturday I was not quite as efficient as I’d hoped, but was on the water at five to nine – about the time I expected the others to arrive at Kilchattan. I shortly rounded the headland and as I got closer to the little jetty, I could see a car with sea kayaks – just before they spotted me, it turned out, as they started to unload the boats almost immediately. I’d intended to arrive after they’d had a bit of time to get packed up, so their waiting until they’d seen the whites of my eyes meant we were not off again for a while, by which time the water in the bay was completely flat, with the flags at the jetty barely lifting from their poles. Needless to say, this idyllic state did not last more than half a klick as we headed south. As the coast curved right, we got more and more headwind and correspondingly bigger waves as we fought our way to Rubh’an Eun. Headseas are hard work, but you can see them coming and stability is not an issue. We rounded the corner into beam seas, quickly concluded that it would be foolish to take a break in Glencallum Bay and got closer than was perhaps comfortable to Roinn Clùmhach. There are various other little coves with the name of “Port something” along here, suggesting that landings are possible, but none were really visible over the breaking waves inshore and we would have undoubtedly regretted heading in for a look, so we battled on another couple of kilometres to Garroch Head. Another corner to turn, and another change of conditions, as we now had a biggish quartering sea. This was new territory for me in the Nordkapp, which had so far felt very manageable in the conditions. Keeping a heading NW and not getting surfed towards the rocky shore proved no less hard work than struggling into or across the wind with the additional factor of the boat feeling a lot less stable. A couple of wobbly moments showed that the boat does have a reserve of secondary stability which keeps it up even when knocked so far over as the put hatch covers in the water – experience which will no doubt integrate itself into my reflexes and give me more confidence next time. This continued for another 2½ kilometres until we could round the corner into Dunagoil Bay where conditions were again flat calm. A lunch stop was called for ! This beach proved to be inhabited by cows (and a bull) which clearly have little to take their interest most of the time, so the appearance of four colourful people with boats provided them with the best entertainment they’d had in ages, and they made the most of it.

That looks more interesting than grass – can we have a lick ?

Back out after lunch, conditions were more benign and we made quick progress up to Ardscalpsie Point. Rounding this, the sea was again a bit lumpy, but flattened off again once past. Very shortly, we cut across to Inchmarnock, where there were some other campers in the little bay at the south end. We couldn’t see any kayaks, so we didn’t deviate to go talk to them, heading up the east coast to our usual camping place just on the northern tip of the island. Here the sun came out and despite not being a weather-facing beach, we easily found enough wood for a good fire, so had a longish evening. There are cows here, too, but they didn’t seem anywhere near as interested or as brave.

Looking back across to Bute from Inchmarnock

Sunday dawned rather murky – most of the time we could see across to Bute, but even this view came and went. However, it’s a hard target to miss and we headed diagonally NE to hit the coast about 2½km north of St. Ninian’s Point. By now the visibility had picked up and a similar distance took us to the north end of Ettrick Bay where we landed on a wide and rather flat beach. Knowing the tide was on its way up, we carried and/or dragged the boats a long way up, to be sure they wouldn’t float away whilst we visited the café for hot chocolate as our elevenses. After an hour, we dragged them nearly as far back to get to the water… 6½ km on and we stopped at the same beach as on my first sea kayak trip to Bute fifteen years ago, by the North Wood of Lenihuline. From here the flood tide helped us on our way through the narrowest part of the West Kyle, round Buttock Point and so to the designated campsite for the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail. At first sight, this seemed good, though there is a not a huge amount of flat places for tents. There is a shelter with a fire pit, and a composting toilet which must, of course, help keep the beaches clean. The shelter had a little lean-to intended for Bute Forest to “seek to maintain a supply of firewood”. There was none here, though some previous visitors had dragged some logs from the woods into the shelter itself. Mostly, this had not had time to dry out enough, so our fire was not very successful (and we added more equally damp logs we’d sought out ourselves). The deep fire pit needs quite a big fire (which we couldn’t achieve) to actually put any heat into the shelter, and is a bit too far away. As the damp wood made it smoky, it did help to quell the unexpectedly early appearance of midges (sited by a stream in woodland, this must be really midgey through the summer), though even they found the air clear enough to remain a hazard at the back of the shelter. The composting toilet had bolts both inside and outside the door, but the lack of any handle on the inside made it all but impossible to get the door closed tightly enough to use the bolt. Two holes drilled and a bit of rope from any beach would be enough to fix this problem. Although there were bags labelled as additives to make the toilet do its composting, these were empty. All-in-all, it seems like a campsite designed with the best of intentions by someone who has not themselves actually gone and tested it. It looks as though the commitment to maintain it has lapsed – the first bank holiday weekend at the start of the summer season would seem like the time to check everything was in order. Very little work would be needed to make some significant improvements. A few more nails knocked into the shelter to hang up kit, for example.

One of the rare moments when flames showed over the firepit walls

After setting up camp and having a rest and a snack, we set off to tour round the local islands in empty boats. Despite being around slack tide, there were some quite strong little tide streams flowing among the Burnt Islands, providing eddy lines and ferry glides to keep us amused. A trip across to Eilean Dubh showed that the tide hadn’t really started moving in the Kyles away from Burnt Islands.

Anna in a little tidal rapid between Eilean Buidhe and a skerry

Monday dawned bright and calm, though cool enough that the midges hadn’t woken up until we were nearly ready to put on. We had a short day today, for a chance to beat the bank holiday traffic and get home in good time. We were still aiming to be on the water for nine, for the tide, which proved to be negligible close to shore south of the islands. The ferry remained idling on the mainland side until we were safely past and the wind stayed light as we cruised down the East Kyle. A brief stop at Ardmaleish point for a snack didn’t see us getting out of the boats. Shortly after, we rounded Undraynian Point and hove within sight of my car. I shuttled Clive to get his car from Kilchattan and soon we were packed up and on our way. A good trip with a mix of relaxing and challenging conditions – thanks everyone !

  • Key to tracks: (total distance 70.7 km)
  • Red Friday, solo, 13.0 km
  • Orange Saturday, solo, 3.3 km
  • Green Saturday, group, 19.3 km
  • Blue Sunday, group, 18.5 km
  • Magenta Sunday, group – empty boats, 6.1 km
  • Black Monday, everyone, 10.5 km

and finally, here’s a synoptic chart for midday (GMT) on Saturday giving an idea of why we were battling with SSW force three:

Piz Daint 2968m

Today’s sports programme was really about driving the Stelvio, which at 2757m I think is the highest of the alpine passes I had not previously driven, and conveniently nearby. So I headed off up the Inntal and hacked left over Reschenpass and into Italy. The Stelvio proved a fun drive (if a little busier than one would like) but the weather turned pretty foul, with sleet at the top.

The east side of the Stelvio Pass, a fun drive despite the rain and traffic. Looks mean for those cyclists…

I dropped over onto the easier western side, then took the first right, dropping into Switzerland, then heading up valley towards the Pass dal Fuorn, a mere 2149m, which would take me back to the Inn Valley. The weather quickly brightened up on this side of the crest, and by the time I arrived at the pass, looked like a nice day for a walk. Unfortunately, the only accessible 3000m peak was back at the border in the clag, and Piz Daint was the obvious choice if I wanted the sunshine. The distance was not that great at 4 km, but it is well over 800m of ascent to its 2968m summit.

Minor path heading left and up onto the rockier ground of Piz Daint

Starting fairly gently on a good path, a shoulder is crossed and a bit of downhill ensues before a lesser path heads off left and soon reaches rockier terrain. A long section of zigzags was eased by the sight of a couple ahead on whom I was gaining ground – these ascents always go faster with a bit of competitive spirit.

On the shoulder before the steep – the orange section is like badly run-out scree and a little unpleasant

The route reached a bit of a col where a path continued down the other side, but my way was left, on up the ridge, and this soon reached a levelling where the view ahead showed me exactly what I had in store to reach the top. Unfortunately, another group who I was hoping to overtake on this stretch decided to stop for a break, giving me no competitive incentive on the final steep ascent. This proved to be quite exposed, with very steep sides and loose stones underfoot. Not really that hard going up, and I was soon at the top, just outside two hours, but well under the time signposted at the start of the walk.

Looking south over the shoulder of Piz Dora (2951m) to Piz Murtaröl, 3180m

The summit view was really very extensive, with no higher peaks in the foreground, so although the quality of the walking was nothing to write home about, and it’s always annoying to be so close to the 3k mark without hitting it, this was rather reminiscent of climbing a Corbett back home – never as high as a Munro, but almost always a better viewpoint. The view can only distract for so long, however, and soon I started the descent, which, as expected, proved a lot more delicate than the way up, with the exposure very much more apparent looking ahead and down.

The steep and rather loose path down from Piz Daint – the steepest (orange stained in view above) bit is over the immediate horizon middle-left

All went well, and from the shoulder, progress became very quick indeed, getting back to the car in under an hour and a half. The drive down into Inntal showed a river, the Spöl, that was not in the guidebook, but looked paddleable but a little inaccessible at the bottom of a steep V-shaped valley. Looking at the map, however, it seems that a dam steals the water and directs it to the S-Chanf hydro, so maybe it never gets enough water to run. Once back at Zernez in the Inn valley, the route was familiar from having paddled various sections of the river and didn’t take long back to the campsite at Prutz.

The Three Lakes Walk

Sarah and I drove up what proved to be a very entertaining single-track road from the back of Roche de Rame, unsurfaced from soon after leaving the village. There seemed to be a highish population of kids and dogs at the bottom end of the Plan de la Loubiere where we planned to start the walk, so drove a bit further to find a parking spot out of the way, then headed back to cross the bridge and onto a forestry track. This was pleasant enough, though steep, and mostly shaded by the trees. As we gained height, the track curved round and started to traverse into a valley. Suddenly, and rather unexpectedly (I hadn’t studied the map quite closely enough) it dropped rather steeply into the next valley to cross the stream. Hmm, that’s quite a bit of extra reascent, then…

We now plodded steadily up valley across a south-facing slope, still mostly shaded, but quite steep. This eventually broke out into pasture and rock scenery opposite a nice waterfall, traversed round past a rock face and up some more into a wider valley where the ascent was a bit more gentle, but we were in the sun. Grassy pasture with lots of flowers alternated with patches of bare limestone and the path wasn’t always distinct. Thus we missed the way to the largest of the lakes (which was hidden by the slope above us) and headed round more easterly towards the two smaller lakes. With no path now visible at all, it was very pretty, and we headed towards the outlet valley from the smallest lake, aiming to avoid too much up and down.

Sarah walking through flowery pasture below the three lakes cirque

We were now finding that the walk was proving a bit longer than we’d hoped and, seeing the steep ascent yet to come, curved round right, missing out the lakes and heading over more stretches of bare rock towards the col. Although this last bit was a little loose and rocky in places, it proved less strenuous than perhaps we had feared and we were soon rewarded by the view from the col.

The south side of the col was a little steeper with a lot less vegetation, and bits were loose enough to require a bit of care, but soon we were down onto a more gentle area (with Marmots) in a bowl draining into the valley where we had parked. However, the stream dropped into a deep V-shaped gully with much loose stuff and clearly wasn’t the way down. The path was very vague around the top of this, but once we’d skirted west, it became quite well-defined again and took us right back to our upward track where we turned sharp left and headed down. By now, the lowering skies had given rise to rumbles of thunder. Crossing the bridge, we upped the pace a little along the now-level track, and reached the car just as the first quite big spots of rain started to fall. Excellent timing ! The walk proved to be about 13.5km with 800m of ascent. We drove down fairly carefully, as the track was a little slick in one or two places over polished stones.

Tiring the dog out

Sarah having come home for the weekend to pick up all the internet-shopping parcels of shiny mountain biking clothing, we had to go out and try it. All the family was going, but Mary discovered that her front wheel was buckled and the only spare we had was a narrower-rimmed wheel with a less chunky tyre, so she sent the dog to deputise for her while she did gardening. The dog had neither wheels nor shiny new clothing, but was very well behaved and didn’t run off into the woods (it was all she could do to keep up, most of the time).

Sarah on the Grove Link section of the blue trail

Ten miles in Hamsterley Forest did just what it says on the tin. Fern is very low geared, and couldn’t keep up on the downhills, especially the long gentle one where we probably hit 50 kph. We did wait for her, though…. as we did for Michael who was having trouble getting the lowest range of gears.

Every picture tells a story…

Having set out with some trepidation about whether I would be able to keep up, I have to say there’s few things as rewarding as hearing your kids ask “How can you be so damned fit?”

Aft helmet-cam view about ¾ way round

A roundabout way up Beinn Bhàn

Since we’d come to Scotland for paddling in what turned out to be a drought, one group had set off to recce the River Meig, with its compensation-flow dam-release. They wanted to keep the party small and competant, with a view to taking others along later in the week. A second group were trying to paddle the Arkaig, or, if it really was too dry, just paddling on the loch. A third party went over to Aviemore for a day skiing. I took a day out for some walking, with the main aim of getting some personal points on geograph, and taking in a summit, but I hadn’t decided which one – it was going to depend how well things went. Unfortunately, one big block of potential goals was eliminated at a stroke when I found that the Loch Arkaig road was closed owing to major roadworks. I thus started from the same point as the Arkaig paddling group, and headed off round the foot of the Loch, and towards Glen Mallie.

There’s a very good track up Glen Mallie, though not quite where the OS map shows it, as it has been re-routed to avoid an area subject to flooding, and crosses by a new bridge. From beyond this, views improved of potential objectives, although, by now, I’d already decided that I’d got too late a start to head right the way up to Gulvain – a munro which formed a distant snowy backdrop to my view. By the time I’d got near where the track degenerated into a footpath, at a ruined building called simply Glenmallie on the map, it was clear that Beinn Bhàn should be the walk’s summit – a Corbett normally approached by a 3km walk from the south side. My 17 km route would therefore be unconventional, to say the least and I was hoping (correctly, as it turned out) that I would find some unphotographed squares for geograph. Glenmallie itself has changed a little since previous geograph pics were taken, with a new roof-shelter at the eastern end, under which were three rather faded pink plastic chairs with a good view back down the valley. This turned out to be a very convenient place to pause for lunch, as a brief shower passed.

My way now lay across the river (an easy crossing in the low water conditions which had me walking instead of paddling today) and up open slopes to the south. It was obvious that these would normally be a horrendous bog-flog but in the dry conditions, were merely springy underfoot and mostly very pleasant to climb. The decaying remnants of Caledonian Pine forest dotted the slopes, making for some fun photography, which led me into a slightly suboptimal location for the last bit of ascent onto Am Màm.

From here I juggled a desire to avoid losing height and having to reascend with an objective to cross at least the corners of every possible grid square, with some success as I probably only lost about ten metres of height in crossing the col to the slopes of the west ridge. As the view opened out to the south and Ben Nevis, I also got my first phone signal and was able to intimate that perhaps I would be a little later back than originally intended.

Here it did get rather steep and occasionally wet underfoot and, higher up, there was deep snow in some of the peat hags. The final ascent to the summit plateau was over hard ground with most of the snow avoidable up to the 771m west top. Easy walking then led east, with a fine view down into a big snowy corrie I’d glimpsed from the walk-in up Glen Mallie. There looks to be potential for a fine steep ski descent here, with the cornice avoidable at either side.

There were also by now fine views across to the Ben Nevis range, though this never quite came free of cloud. The last bit of climbing to the 796m summit was easy enough, and the cairn and trig point very obvious.

The best route down was less clear, and I was possibly a little nearer the north side of the spur than ideal. At one point I had to angle down across a steeper snow slope than I liked. Steep enough to slip on, but not too steep – I came to a stop immediately on sitting down. Further down, the terrain was much more confusing than you might guess from the map, and I had as my reference point the forest boundary and the buildings of Achnacarry I could see below. I might have been better quite a way south, but a steep slope gave me a choice of left or right to outflank it, and right seemed to involve retreating further from my destination, so I headed left as I could see a clear route that way.

The lack of any path, and eventually the proximity of the forest-edge deer-fence, confined me to a narrow corridor apparently much-used by deer, and definitely rather rough underfoot, so it was quite a strenuous descent. I worried that the narrowing of the stream towards which I was headed might mean I had to climb up by an obvious deer-track to the left, but on reaching this point, a path traversing above the stream became apparent, and no reascent was needed, for which I was quite grateful ! A bit more hacking led through a couple of gates and onto the road, with something like 28km behind me as I reached the car. The walk had netted me four geograph (first) points, my first since a similar day-off walk on last year’s Easter paddling trip.

White Nile – Day Two run

July 2012 saw the entire family out in Uganda to paddle the White Nile. We’d originally sketched a plan to paddle in Canada in aid of Sarah and Michael’s growing playboating habit, but really wanted somewhere with a bit of river running to keep Mary and I interested. Lowri suggested the Nile, which I was not entirely comfortable with – I really wanted some hardish, maybe steepish, but above all smaller rivers than this ! However, we went, we saw, and we paddled. The water was warm, the people were incredibly friendly, and however scary at first encounter, the paddling was brilliant ! Mary and I had taken the precaution of going on Chris Evans’ “The Bombproof Roll” course at Plas-y-Brenin, since we’d both struggled to take our perfectly serviceable pool roll out onto white water. A good investment which definitely paid off, but also, paddling the Nile was a perfect complement to the course, as we got plenty of real-life practice in warm water with very few rocks. I, in particular, just went out one evening near the end of the trip and rolled repeatedly in the current far more times than I could have managed at home in cold water, and I’ve really never looked back.

As well as playing on the Nile Special rapids from Hairy Lemon Island, and Superhole, nearer to Jinja, we did a couple of runs down from the Bujagali dam (mostly easy rapids) and twice ran “Day Two” from Kalagala Falls down to Hairy Lemon, on the 16th and 18th July. The first video was put together (and rather ruthlessly trimmed to the limit of four minutes) for the SOC Photo Competition, using footage from both our runs, with both Sarah and myself using headcams. There’s also bank and headcam footage from playing on the Nile Special rapid, which is at the end of this run, taken on the 17th.

The video was shot in HD,so watch it on youtube for the full 1280×720 resolution. The river is vast, and there is quite a lot of navigation simply to find a route down reaching the named rapids by the correct channel. Here’s a gpx track of our approximate route, on which I’m pretty sure I’ve got the line down the five major rapids shown correctly, but the line down the flatter bits in between is a bit speculative (the track has been put together by looking at the aerial photos not recorded on a GPS at the time). The lines there possibly aren’t that critical, but please don’t copy the track into your GPS and believe that it will lead you down a safe route on the river !!

Cutting the Day Two video down to four minutes was enough work that I had watched too much of the footage too many times to make a good job of the full video showing more of the trip, so I left that job for later. I’ve been making more of an effort to catch up in spring 2013 (there’s a backlog of getting on for a dozen trips which will make videos) and the longer video is now complete (at just over 17 minutes). The intro was made from footage later on the trip when we travelled west and south close to the Congo border, but most of the video is paddling on the Nile.

Wildboar Fell

A walk with Ursula, Mary and Fern, seemed quite long – the tracklog says 13.8 km.

The weather started out quite dull as we headed up the track to Hazelgill, then found our way under the Settle-Carlisle railway and onto the open fell. We were in no great rush up to the ridge, pausing to look at little waterfalls where bands of harder limestone intersected the streams. Having gained the ridge, I headed north a short way to ensure that I bagged the next square north for geograph, before we all headed south along the fine ridge. After a kilometre, this flattened out and opened into a wide plateau, with no more ascent to reach the very substantial summit shelter surrounding the trig point.

Approaching the summit of Wildboar Fell

After a pause for a snack, during which the weather started to brighten up, we headed down, to reach a tarn perched rather incongruously right on the col. Only a short ascent, though steep and zigzaggy, took us to the smaller plateau of Swarth Fell.

Climbing up to Swarth Fell, looking towards the Howgills

The sky had now largely cleared, and the view back to Wild Boar Fell was really rather fine.

Cairns on Swarth Fell, looking back to Wild Boar Fell

The continuing path, now a little boggy in places, stuck to the middle of the plateau. Where this started to become fainter, we cut down to the left for Aisgill summit (the highest point of the Settle-Carlisle railway).

Heading southeast along the Swarth Fell plateau

Crossing first the road, then, via a bridge, the railway, we soon encountered Hell Gill, which is known as a ghyll scrambling venue for outdoor centres. Not really canyonning, but fun nonetheless. As its valley opens out, the Gill has one last fling over Hell Gill Force which might make a fine abseil, though not really enclosed enough to be considered canyonning. It’s a very shallow rocky landing, so even with a lot more water than this, doesn’t look likely to be much of a paddling prospect.

Hell Gill Force – not a paddling prospect with its very shallow landing, even at high flows.

The bridleway continued above the river right side of the Uppermost Eden valley, passing various little streams and limestone outcrops. As we had Fern, our border collie (on a lead, of course) the sheep duly grouped themselves neatly as we passed, clearly in expectation that they were about to be rounded up (in the absence of wolves, I don’t suppose they get hunted very much…).

Sheep watching us carefully as we head back down above the Upper Eden valley

The track got a little rough underfoot in places, and was not always easy to follow, before dropping us through a very scruffy farmyard and back to the road.

Three trips to the Washburn

We’re having a very dry spring. The Swaledale Outdoor Club (Canoe Section) seems to have held a low opinion of the Washburn over many years, so that I had never paddled it, but with Wednesday evening releases being the nearest reliable water to keep in form for the summer alps trip, it seemed worth while putting it on the programme this year.

So 19th May saw Sarah and I driving down for our first play. Being there early meant it was relatively uncrowded, so we took the time to run the top bit twice before continuing down – this seemed to be a popular option with other groups, too. It’s a very fast river, which, despite its technical grading of II, makes it quite intimidating if you haven’t been in a white water boat for a few weeks. We settled down after a few wobbles, and soon got used to the small eddies. As we continued down, there were lots of tight breaks-out to make and it all seemed like very good practice for the alps – certainly better than rock-bashing on marginal rivers or paddling on slow-moving water. A horizon line with quite a bit of noise ensured that we popped out for a quick inspection of the biggest drop, before continuing most of the way to the bottom and then doing a walking shuttle back to the carpark.

Sarah on the biggest drop on the Washburn
Sarah on the biggest drop on the Washburn

It was good to have someone else with a car to do a shuttle on June 16th (Andy, Sarah and Iggy went on that one), but the all-afternoon June 2nd release (see below) had a frequent minibus shuttle.

Although it wasn’t on the programme, we found that there was an extra Wednesday release during half term, starting at noon for “Children’s day”, so all four Waddingtons trekked down to the Washburn on another warm day. We all managed two runs down in good order, although not everyone had got the hang of tight breakouts from fast water, so we were a bit economic on stops for photography. Sarah had met a friend and done the top section an extra time, and Andy and Sarah joined three others for a final run, by which time we were all getting a little tired !

Yellowstone Thorofare on horseback

Having survived being dragged across Iceland by pony (with only one day where I gave up and walked 40km), the family reckoned I’d love a six day trek through the remotest parts of Yellowstone… Have you ever tried western-style riding ? It’s not like you get taught in the UK – in particular, the stirrups are set very long and somehow at an angle such that you seem to spend the entire day with your feet at right-angles to anything remotely natural, which results in your legs being unscrewed at the hips, and your knees aching after ten minutes. It’s not as if you actually go faster or further than if you were walking, and horses are essentially what you’d get if Microsoft designed bikes. They second guess what you want to do (wrongly) at every juncture, won’t run continuously without frequent restarts, consume enormous amounts of resource, leave large piles of [manure] everywhere, and you can’t just switch them off and get on with the next task… They get viruses, too, although ours didn’t on this trip 😉 I did manage, however, to avoid giving up and walking on this trip.

We started on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake, where the road leaves the shore at the nine-mile trailhead. There was quite a lot of faff as we met up with the rest of the group and sorted out kit, what beast we were each to ride and the usual briefings that always precede any action on a trip like this.

There was no messing about with amateur horse-boxes – these were herd-sized

Then we mounted up and headed south on an easy trail through burnt Lodgepole forest. With the lake on our right, we weaved in and out of forest, variously burnt (mostly the 1988 fires) and in full growth, so views came and went. Eventually, near Columbine Creek, we turned off the main trail and went a hundred metres or so down to the lake shore, where we set up camp. This is where travelling on horseback shows its greatest advantage over backpacking, as great coolboxes of fresh food came out (despite the heat, we had fresh rather than dehydrated food, some still needing defrosting, for the entire trip).

Shore of Yellowstone Lake, campsite, first night

On the Iceland trip, we were mostly responsible for saddling up and organising our own ponies (and the cooking stuff travelled separately, so we didn’t have to hang around whilst it was packed up), giving us long days actually riding. Here, the folk leading the trip did all the packing up and organising horses, which made for much later starts in a morning, leaving us the job of packing up the tents and our own kit (which then had to be loaded onto mules).

Campsite locations allow for decent fires, despite forest fire risk

Unlike National Forests, managed with an eye to the value of the timber, National Parks are supposed to be more natural. Although forest fires were assiduously fought in the early years, it became apparent that this was changing the forest ecology and policy changed to let fires burn where they didn’t threaten infrastructure. The build up of brushwood from the early years resulted in these uncontrolled fires being fiercer and burning larger areas until in 1988, huge fires burnt a large fraction of Greater Yellowstone. We’d seen the results of this on our visit in 1992 when scars were fresh, but there are still large areas with standing burnt timber and young lodgepole pines growing up between. These are by no means all from the 1988 fires, as areas burn every year, though its unlikely that such an extensive burn will occur again. The area just uphill from our first night campfire was struck by lightning a day or two after we’d passed, and the Columbine Fire, as it was known, burnt for about three weeks, heading towards buildings at the east edge of the park, where the fire was fought. Mostly the flames were fanned by westerly winds and the area along the lake shore where the trail passes was not burnt.

The trail follows fairly closely along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake until well into the second day

To the south of Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows through a wide flood plain at about 2400m, with wooded slopes above, rising to bare peaks at around 3300m. The second and third nights’ camps were both on this floodplain, which provides rich grazing for the local wildlife, and for a limited number of livestock on treks like ours.

Tethering the horses in pairs stops them wandering off until they are dekitted and a temporary corral is set up

We camped away from trees and the river, but had the cooking area on the riverbank, and used trees to hang food against raiding by bears. The silty shores provided ample evidence of use by wildlife – we found wolf prints as well as bear. The prints we found on the third night seemed to be fairly fresh – made earlier in the same day.

This is certainly bear country – and don’t grizzlies have big feet ?

The third night camp was also haunted by a lone Mule Deer, which seemed to be an outcast from its herd and circled the camp at a short distance, giving us some photo opportunities, but in frustratingly low light. The river banks were also home to a variety of wading birds.

Camping in an open area by Thorofare Creek gave plenty of space to
see wildlife approaching, as well as grazing for the stock – site 6T1

The late starts and early finishes meant we had fairly short days in the saddle (very welcome for those of us who don’t do a lot of riding), but did mean that distances were quite short too. I suppose that was part of the point of the journey – to spend time in the park away from the tourists and roads, rather than to travel long distances each day. It did give us plenty of time to wander about the camp areas and socialise around the campfire.

The cooking and eating area was away from the tents, by the creek, just left of centre in this photo
In the distance, the dip in the horizon is the Lynx Creek drainage – tomorrow’s route

The camp at Thorofare Creek was about as far from a road as it is possible to get in Yellowstone. Indeed, it is close to the remotest point from a road in the whole of the 48 contiguous states. At 2400m this far from civilisation, the night sky is fabulous and brings home how much we are deprived of such views by light pollution at home. Clear skies at night not only gave us splendid views of the Milky Way every night, but also gave us some very hard frosts in the mornings.

The Trident Plateau forms a backdrop to our trail across the floodplain of the Yellowstone River

The fourth day of the trek saw a start back towards the road system, using trails not far from the park’s southern boundary. We first crossed the floodplain, from Thorofare Creek, and across the Yellowstone River, heading up into the hills to the west.

On the east side of Yellowstone River, heading north to find a fording point.

We retraced our steps a short way and headed north along the river where it was fairly deep with peaty banks, but soon found a place where it was wider and more silted. Although this area is very flat, it is surrounded by hills rising up to 1000m above the plain, giving us panoramic views all around.

In places, the Yellowstone River flows wide and shallow making crossing easy

Once over the river, the trail became very vague, but bright orange diamonds on posts at intervals make it not too difficult to relocate among the low scrub. Having a raised viewpoint on horseback does make these trailmarks easier to see !

On the west side of Yellowstone River, about an hour into the fourth day, heading for Lynx Creek

The changes in vegetation were very noticeable throughout the trek. Burnt areas of Lodgepole forest are quickly invaded by Rose Bay Willow Herb, making large areas very pink among the blackened timber and giving rise to its American name of Fireweed. We were a bit late in the season for the main flush of flowers which follows soon after snowmelt (giving the plants maximum time to ripen their seed) but there was still plenty to look at, especially in the damper areas where various species of Indian Paintbrush made bright splashes among the plants that they parasitise.

A short distance down the west bank of the Yellowstone, we cut west up Lynx Creek and were quickly back into the forest with our views restricted. The trails are much more well-defined in the forest, so our guide was able to relax, sit back, and read the newly-published Harry Potter book. He did have some work to do, however, since timber which has been burnt takes years to fall, resulting in a constant addition of dead logs to the forest floor. We’d passed a couple of rangers (on horseback too) with chainsaws heading for this same trail to do trail maintenance, but as we were now ahead of them, we encountered quite a lot of deadfall, meaning that Jett had to lead mules individually through the densest areas.

The guide, Jett, has seen it all before, the pony knows the way, he can get on with reading Harry Potter!

The high point of the trail, a little over 2800m, took us out of the catchment of the Yellowstone River (which eventually drains to the Atlantic) and into that of the Snake, which drains to the Pacific – so this was the great continental divide – not particularly noticeable in the forest amongst rounded hills. We dropped down Plateau Creek to meet another trail at the confluence, and a short distance later made camp on the left bank of the Snake River itself.

The fourth night campsite was quickly shady as the sun dipped below the clouds and hills

Now that we were among the hills and in a narrower valley, it was noticeable that we lost the sun quite early as it dipped first behind a bank of clouds and, soon after, below the horizon. We weren’t woken by warm sun in the morning, either, and seemed to take a long time to get going from this campsite, though this did give me time to wander around taking photos of more flowers. We now followed the young Snake River downstream, crossing occasionally, mostly through forested areas. As the valley opened out a little, the river took a turn to the south, where it makes a large loop. Our course at this point, however, lay north towards Heart Lake, an area with a reputation for a lot of bear activity early in the season, but supposedly much safer by late summer. We climbed gently for about 5 km, passing a site where a lot of trees had been felled by beaver (none of who were in evidence) and then to a wide fairly level area with a meandering stream and an extensive grassy clearing.

Finishing early to give time to sort the horses meant lots of campfire sociability for those not involved

The meandering stream provided some chilly bathing whilst some of the group went for a short walk to a thermal area across the valley. As we’d already seen a lot of geysers on our sea kayaking trip to Shoshone Lake, this side trip didn’t appeal to us greatly, and we were soon established at the camp fire getting warm. I think this was the coldest night on the trail, although it was actually the lowest altitude camp of the trip at under 2300m. There was a clinging mist in the morning and a hard frost on the grass and leaves making us reluctant to venture out of the tent until the sun came out.

Some of the morning mist at camp 8B5 was radiation fog, but some was from a thermal area across the valley

Frost on the leaves provided more fun photography but lasted only a short while as the morning warmed up, and breakfast called.

You don’t get bacon fry-ups and real coffee on the sixth day of a backpacking trip…

We continued NW climbing away from the Snake River, but turned off left before reaching Heart Lake, to cross a divide and drop into the drainage of Red Creek, flowing over very dinstinctively red rocks on its descent back to the Snake River.

Some steep descents as we drop into the Snake River basin

Red Creek occupies a steep-sided Vee-shaped valley, so we found ourselves on easier slopes high above the river, often in burnt forest. Reentrant streams gave us some zig-zags and steep descents, as well as climbs back up, before a long descent on the right bank took us down to the confluence. We crossed the main stream immediately – by now a considerably bigger river than when we had left its banks the previous day.

Our route now took us through patchy forest and grassy clearings to the south of the river, with some sapphire lakes and the occasional bog. The forest got denser as we descended, and views became more restricted.

Dropping back down to the Snake River basin via Red Creek (Photo: Mary)

After what seemed a long stretch on a well-defined track through dense forest with no views at all, we emerged suddenly onto the left bank of the Snake River, below its confluence with Lewis River. It was now quite deep but still not too fast flowing, as we crossed to the NW side and in only a very short distance we were back at the main road just at the Park’s south entrance. Noise, traffic, and goodbye to the horses as they were tidied away into their fleet of giant trailers.

Sea kayaking – at 8000 feet ?

Yellowstone National Park, ranging between 7000 and 10000 feet above sea level, is centred on one of the world’s biggest calderas, and still shows plenty of evidence of the hot mantle plume responsible for the volcanism, with many geysers and hot pools, including the world famous Old Faithful. It is the USA’s oldest National Park, well known for its bears, bison and huge numbers of visitors. It certainly isn’t the first place you’d think of to go sea kayaking…

Picking up boats from Jackson, some distance to the south, we drove through the magnificent mountain scenery of Grand Teton National Park to reach the southern boundary of Yellowstone and were soon at Lewis Lake. Here we packed up and put on, to paddle across. Keeping close to the shore, we passed bald eagles on some of the burnt trees still standing after the 1988 fires.

A bald eagle flies off its nest, Lewis lake

Some way across the lake, we came to the Lewis River channel, which flows into it and is the only bit of river in the Park on which boats are allowed. It’s not steep and certainly isn’t fast-flowing in summer, so we were able to paddle upstream until the low level meant that we needed to get out and wade, dragging the boats for the last mile or so to Shoshone Lake.

Cold water meant that not everyone was keen to wade towing boats. Guess who lost out ?

Here we had a relaxing half hour before paddling along the south shore to make camp on a sandy beach in the forest. The evening brought three river otters, but a walk revealed no moose (and, fortunately, no bears).

Evening at camp on Shoshone Lake

On the middle day of this three day trip, we crossed the narrowest part of Shoshone Lake to the north shore, and paddled west (passing a very laid back marmot).

Setting off from camp, second day

Towards the Northwest corner of the lake, we reached the Shoshone geyser basin – an undeveloped wilderness site without all the boardwalks and signage (and crowds) that characterise most of Yellowstone’s thermal areas.

No crowds or fences in Shoshone Geyser Basin

Back along the west and south shores (being buzzed by Osprey) to the camp, where the recent drought and sunshine had made the normally chilly lake quite good for swimming, as long as you didn’t dive down through the thermocline. There was lots of wildlife, and the ground squirrels reminded us that it’s not just bears on the look out for food to raid.

The final day involved rising early to avoid afternoon winds.

Jet lag made early rising easy (it was after lunch in the UK:)

Back to the eastern end of Shoshone Lake, we were soon paddling down to the river channel where the low summer level made getting down without exitting the boats something of a challenge, even though the boats were a little lighter after our hearty eating. Michael and I made a determined effort (plastic boats are the only way to do this) and stayed in the whole way – others had a bit more respect for the boats and paddle tips. The sound of a loon greeted us on arrival at Lewis Lake, and we were early enough (before afternoon winds picked up) to take a direct route back to the take-out. Not the most exciting of paddling (the Necky Amaruk doubles we hired would perhaps make better bathtubs) but unique for the scenery, wildlife, altitude and distance from the sea !