The lonely spaces, and why I seek them out.

I like to be outdoors as often as I can. While it can be very relaxing to sit with a book and while away a day or two, there is always something to be said for getting outdoors and feeling the wind, rain or sun on your face.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have driven out to the west, into the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, in weather that could best be described as poor. When traveling alone, the trip gives me a chance to reflect. At this time of year, as autumn gives way to winter, the tonal palette of the landscape changes from the greens and yellows of fields and trees, to the burnt oranges and browns of winter. Often cloudy, the skies possess a beauty not seen during the rest of the year, as tendrils of water vapour coil their way among the shattered crags of the biggest geological car-crash between here and the Pacific Ocean. The worst weather often puts off the multitudes of tourists who normally jam up the roads with their people carriers and waddle about waving selfie sticks. I understand and accept the need for tourist-generated income for local towns and villages, but find the self absorption and utter lack of awareness of anyone else around them that such tourists generally exhibit quite annoying. I mean, when people are stupid enough to step backwards into moving traffic, in order to get a better photograph of their friends on a sidewalk, doesn’t that tell you something fairly basic about what’s going on (or not) inside their heads?

This past couple of weeks, I headed off the main tourist trail near Banff, to Lake Minnewanka. This is a favourite of mine, especially once the lake freezes, giving access to the interior on snow shoes. This time, it was the kind of day that I normally associate with the Pacific Northwest, whenever I think of the art of the Haida. Rainy, damp, not really too cold, but lots of moisture in the air, with dark still lake waters. Even here, on a day like this, it was impossible to completely evade the selfie-brigade, but their numbers were greatly reduced. I don’t like crowds, in case you haven’t noticed. Lake Minnewanka is ten minutes from Banff, but I suspect that most shoppers have never seen it. I really like Banff, girdled with mountains of different characters and possessing a river that I could sit and watch forever, but it isn’t the main reason I head west and north. The Palliser Expedition passed though here just before the American Civil War, heading out from the Great Lakes, with the remit of surveying everything to the west. Standing at the monument above Lake Minnewanka and looking out at wind ruffling the surface of the lake betweeen Cascade Mountain and Mount Girouard, I can’t imagine what that trip must have been like. I find the character of the people that set out to the west inspiring.

Lake Minnewanka from the Palliser Memorial

Lake Minnewanka from the Palliser Memorial

I like to get as far away as I can from cities sometimes. I don’t deal well with crowds, and the braying jostling masses sometimes make me want to shout at them. The view below is of the Crowfoot Glacier, on the Icefields Parkway, during the summer. I’d like to see this in full winter, with sharp clear sunlight and air that burns your lungs. Better still, I’d like to take my gear and get off the road, so often crowded with more tourists, and strike out into the back country across the lake to the west. There’s a lot to be said for breaking your own trail, and learning the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. Wilderness camping, under the stars, with only what you can carry, is one of life’s luxuries. Thoreaux and Emerson had it right when they talked about the wild. You can keep your satellite TV and two hundred channels of pap. Give me a good backpack and an ice axe and my own company. Chances are, I won’t fight with myself, and the trip can be a source of considerable catharsis.

Crowfoot Glacier

Crowfoot Glacier

Again, to find solitude, it isn’t necessary to get far from civilisation. Sometimes getting a couple of hundred feet higher up can do the trick. The picture below is from high above Lake Louise in Alberta, another destination for the busloads of tourists. Going off-piste, led on by a sign warning of danger of serious injury proved irresistable, and rewarded us with this view. Not many people from the carpark make it up here. The silence was palpable, and the light special. These are ancient rocks, from the Cambrian period, 540-480 million years ago.

Snowy crags at Lake Louise

Snowy crags at Lake Louise

Moving down the frozen expanse of Lake Louise, it was possible to leave the selfie-stick wavers behind, and enjoy the magnificent mountains towards the Victoria Glacier. The only people out here were snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Out here, there are endless miles of trails, of a fairly serious character. Need to get fitter before I can tackle them.

Toward the Victoria Glacier

Toward the Victoria Glacier

Mind you, Canada isn’t the only place where you can find peace and quiet. The high tops in Glencoe, in the western Highlands of my native Scotland, offer good places to get away from it all. The first peak I managed in this group is below, Buchaille Etive Mor, the Great Shepherd of Etive, looking over to Bidean nam Bian. I have the First Midlothian Scouts to thanks for teaching me to navigate, camp, and most of all, to love the mountains of my homeland. I’ve not got the skill or head for heights needed to rock-climb, but scrambling is fine. On a clear day up here, you can literally see for miles. Choose the wrong day, as I did on Beinn a Bheithir, and you can’t see the end of your nose, with potentially fatal consequences. Those are when you learn hard lessons. I have never been happier to see the Clachaig Bar.

Bidean from Buchaille Etive Mor

Bidean from Buchaille Etive Mor

One of the last true wildernesses in Scotland is Knoydart, often referred to as the Rough Bounds. If nowhere has a middle, it is somewhere in there. The hills are serious, and carrying in everything you need focuses the mind. It helps to forget the humdrum and banal elements of “everyday life”, and sometimes the day can be distilled down to breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Again, these are ancient rocks, cooked and compressed over geological ages. We’re privileged to be able to witness their testament to hundreds of millions of years of rains and snow. The span of time is almost impossible to imagine. Beside all of this, we are less than ants.

Between Streap and Sgurr Thuilm.

Between Streap and Sgurr Thuilm.

Glen Affric is another good escape. It is possible to walk all day here and not see many people. The shot below was in the Autumn, looking to the west. Typical for many highland rivers, the water was peat-coloured and shockingly cold. The trees were just on the turn, as the country slid into winter. I remember the smell of the foliage after rain.

Looking west in Glen Affric.

Looking west in Glen Affric.

The far northwest has some of the most ancient mountains, including mighty Suilven, here seen from the east, near Loch na Gainimh (Sandy Loch). These massive butresses rise from the underlying rock, dwarfing everything around for miles. These are names to conjur with, Canisp, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Cul Beag. I have seen these mountains lined up in the gathering dusk, casting massive shadows on the ancient land. They will still be here when Man has ultimately passed back into dust. Again, good for getting a sense of our own lack of significance.

Mighty Suilven

Mighty Suilven

The eastern side of Scotland also has great places to get peace. Here, under the gaze of the Cairngorms, there are many tracks giving access to woods and water. Funny to think that the blathering crowds aren’t actually that far away. If this reads as though I am fairly antisocial, it isn’t the case. I just prefer to be able to choose my company, and those people tend to be those that don’t constantly fill the air with prattle and noise. They’re the kind of people who can sit in the car with me for an hour and not feel the need to say anything. Sometimes just being there is enough. Wind and water, tree and hill. Give me moss and bracken, and rain in my face, and I will be happy. Cities are for other people.

Loch an Eilean, Cairngorms

Loch an Eilean, Cairngorms

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Hiking in Kananaskis – Part 1

I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and being prompted by the presence of a friend from Luxembourg, decided to get off my backside and do some hiking. My general fitness level can best be described in terms of a large walrus, i.e. heavy and not much good out of water. In fact, if I do enter the water, Greenpeace come and relocate me in the Pacific – their Vancouver HQ is not a million miles away.

With this in mind, we selected a hike that suggested lots of wildlife, good views, and a low chance of killing me. I recently bought an excellent trail book for Canmore and Kananaskis, and the hike from Pine Top day recreational area looked good. 5 kilometres it said, with some more strenuous uphill sections and an easy riverside walk. Turns out to be about 6 klicks, which is fine, and since the catastrophic floods, the river has diminished greatly, but the northern section that runs above Highway 68 is lovely.

Immediately after we got out of the car, we were greeted by screaming and shouting children’s voices, carried on the wind from a nearby camp. This didn’t initially bode well, as we didn’t know if the kids were in one location, or moving around the same trail as us. It turned out that they were penned into one location, and hey, they were just having a good time.

Crossing Highway 68, we headed up into meadows of spruce, aspen and birch. All around were abundant plants and flowers, most of which I can’t identify, but we took photos of. I say “we”; in truth, Di did. The weather was warm, with the sky largely clear, and dominated on one side by some rather large mountains.

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The walk begins. Suspiciously gently.

Kananaskis is in the foothills of the Rockies, and if you like endless voews of trees, rising up to smaller hills then massive ones, then this place is for you. The hiking covers a wide range of grades, from what we were doing, through to some pretty strenuous but amazing hikes. All around you, life is running wild, and it is hard not to feel optimistic. Particularly on a day when the sky was free of rain (here at least. It thundered pretty spectacularly on the way back from Canmore later), the path was littered with large noisy crickets, and myriad butterflies fluttered about, doing their stuff. We were interlopers, but what a place to interlope in! Even the air smelled good. There’s nothing too strenuous about the meadows north of the highway, which make up about half of the walk. I was surprised to see later that the route had an ascent of about one thousand feet. It certainly didn’t feel like that. I’ve been on walks in Torridon and Knoydart which felt like torture, because you could see the route away above you, always moving on up. Mercifully for me, most of this route was hidden by a thick blanket of trees and vegetation. Also, there was so much to look at and enjoy that the general pace was pretty easy. Di’s patience made it easier still.

The photographer, out from behind the lens for once.

The photographer, out from behind the lens for once. Dinosaur t-shirts rock.

IMG_0343The flower above is apparently called something like “red paint brush”. I’m sure some enraged botanist will be in touch, with the answer wrapped around a brick!

Another thing about walking here is that the views just get better and better. In keeping with many trips into the Rockies, we ran out of descriptive terms, and even gave up on saying “wow”. One thing I was surprised to see was lots of different species of fungi. OK, so I come from Scotland, where it is so damp that hundreds of species flourish, but there were many unfamiliar types here, or differing morphologies. I’ve never actually seen some of these particular physical forms before.

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The south side of the trail, where it crosses the road and heads toward the river, is very different. Clearly this side of the trail doesn’t bask in sunshine like the meadows above, and the abundant flowers and grasses noted above are absent. Also, the trees here are mainly spruce and pine. Fungi abounded again though, and there was the smell of wild garlic. The river itself was low, though large piles of rocks in the stream bed indicated high energy material transport – presumably during the recent floods that devastated Canmore, Calgary and High River. Even without a lot of water, the riverside walk was pleasant. The guide book gave the impression of it being down beside the river, but it’s actually higher up above, only coming down close on two occasions.

IMG_0439More unusual fungus, this time inside a dead tree.

IMG_0451A flower. Pretty, but still need to check my book to identify it.

So to recap, this is a really nice walk in summer, and would probably be fun to snowshoe in winter, if you could get the car in here.

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There are toilet facilities on the south side of the road, at a small parking area. In keeping with many other places in Alberta, they are rudimentary, but far better than the backwoods alternative. We did encounter a small group of elderly Canadians, who treated us like most others I have met, in an open and friendly manner. It was a relief to be able to walk somewhere with scenery of staggering beauty, and hardly run into anyone at all. In fact, at some points, the silence really was deafening. From here, it is possible to drive west until you hit Highway 40, and then head north-ish to Canmore, which boasts a nice Dairy Queen, and the town can certainly do with some financial stimulus after the floods. One thing to watch for on the road is cattle. We encountered a herd of cows, which looked to be enjoying its new-found freedom, but did cause something of a slowdown! Another thing to be aware of is the fact that the weather can change with startling rapidity. When we reached Canmore, a thunderstorm rolled east over the mountains, following us along Highway 1A, all the way to Cochrane. Watching lightning bolts strike trees a few hundred metres away is exciting enough from inside an earthed motor vehicle, but unprotected outside, a completely different matter.


Walking wish-list – Part 1

This is probably going to be a short-ish post, and different to my normal ones, as it will cover places I haven’t been yet.

As a walker in the United Kingdom, I have been blessed with some spectacular scenery, most of which is pretty close to hand. Even a long drive, by UK standards, is only about ten hours or so. I’ve decided to turn my attention to some places on my wish-list. If money were no object (if only!), where would I love to walk? Well…
Canadian Rockies – Banff and Jasper National Parks

Do you really need to see why? OK. Have a look at this:

Moraine Lake

(Photo from CCEL.ca)

The Rocky mountains – how can two words conjur up such amazing pictures? OK, as a geologist / geochemist, I have something of a crush on rocks to start with, but surely even non-geologists can appreciate this? When I think of the Rockies, I think of wilderness hiking and camping, and the chance to get away from the city. OK, as with many other national parks (Yellowstone, Wyoming and the Lake District, England spring immediately to mind), you can end up viewing beautiful scenery in the company of many, many people, but hey, that goes with the territory. Some of my favourite moments have been in the remote hills of Knoydart (Scotland), reaching the head of a mountain pass before my friends caught up, and enjoying the sound of the wind rushing over the barren broken rocks. Other times, it has been knowing that the nearest main road is 30 miles walk away, 26 of it on a dirt track, or looking at the eroded roots of mountains in the northwest Highlands of Scotland, and knowing that you are looking at pretty much the dawn of time.
Jasper National Park also seems to offer what I am after – the chance of getting away from everything. Have a look at this beautiful image:

Jasper National Park

That looks incredible. I am planning to start canoeing again, and this would be one of the places I’d love to do it. Ray Mears eat your heart out. This looks stunning.

Forgetting the Rockies (if you can), Canada has a wealth of walking opportunities, and pretty decent people, from what I’ve heard. I look forward to someday exploring this beautiful place.

Nova Scotia

Cows – in a field (From Truths and Half Truths blog

http://truthsandhalftruths.typepad.com/truths_and_half_truths/my_island/

Cows, in a field, near New Brunswick. This could be South Lanarkshire, but the cows’ accents give it away. Not mountains, I know, but Nova Scotia is a place I would love to visit. Apparently it does have a lot of good hiking trails, so I’ll have to get my boots on and explore.

The Appalachian scenic trail

Mt Avery (Pic from National Park Service)

2184 miles in length, crossing 14 States – what’s not to love? I first read about parts of this in a book by Bill Bryson (A walk in the woods), and was hooked. Geologists have described the Appalachians as having formed in a similar way to rucks in a carpet or rug. That’s some rug! You’d have to be mad not to love this place, mad.

Just about anywhere in Norway

The Norwegians have great mountains. I mean, just look at this! Again, how can you not be impressed by the majesty of nature?

The Troll Wall

Photo: Romsdalsalpene.com

The Troll Face is apparently popular with people base-jumping. Why someone would want to jump off a vertical mile-high cliff is beyond me, but hey, each to their own! Here’s a link to a video on Youtube of some fearless people doing just that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjdqGZdzUDU

This list could run on for quite a while. I’ve not even started with the Alps, Austria, Africa or South America. There are so many places that I’d love to see and do some walking in. I think this post will have sequels…


Walking with the Moray Ramblers

When I first moved to Aberdeenshire, I thought that it would be easy to find a walking group. It turned out to be a little more difficult than I expected, and I ultimately joined a group over in Elgin. Over the years, they have made me feel very welcome, and I would recommend them to anyone in the Moray area.

This post is about some of the places in the north of Scotland that I have visited with the Ramblers, and why I enjoy walking with them so much. While I’m at it, here’s a link to their web page: http://www.morayramblers.org.uk/

One of the things that I like bout rambling groups is that you often get to see parts of the countryside that might otherwise have passed you by. In my case, with a number of groups, this has included a Covenanter’s grave, a great canal walk near Linlithgow, an iron-age fort in the Scottish borders, mountain-biking tracks in Strathpeffer, Glen Affric, and Torridon in perhaps the worst weather I’ve ever seen!

Another thing that I like is that within such a group, people with a wide range of interests and knowledge come together. My own area of knowledge is geology, but I’ve walked with an opthalmic surgeon interested in botany, ex-squaddies who could tell you what insects you were looking at, a blood donor whose tally I will never reach if I live to be a hundred, and many more.

In common with most of the people I’ve encountered in the hills, the Moray Ramblers have also shown me a great deal of warmth. You probably know the same kind of people. Most times, when you drop into a bothy somewhere, the people you’ll encounter will be friendly, and a good time will be had by all. Even if you do find the occasional “unusual” person. I think that there is a particular mind-set for the people that love being outdoors. On that very rainy day in Torridon, nobody moaned or griped, despite the overall experience being similar to standing in the shower. We saw very little, and unlike my shower, the hills didn’t have a handy thermostat 🙂 Still, you pays your money and takes your chance… I am glad to have been with them that day.

Loch Muick from Broad Cairn

The first time I got into the mountains in Grampian, it was with the Moray Ramblers. While the views were magnificent, I wasn’t very fit, and felt as though I was dying on the way up.

Loch Muick

This view was shot from the far end of Loch Muick, looking back up at Broad Cairn. What started off as a rainy cold and strenuous day turned into an epic trip, with some truly stupendous views. Reminds me why I get into the hills.

Rogie Falls

Strathpeffer is one of my favourite haunts as well – this shot was at the Falls of Rogie. It was a beautiful day, and I had always driven past the falls on my way somewhere else. Again, the Ramblers showed me some great walking that I might have missed otherwise.

Mighty Suilven

Any excuse to get a photo of Suilven is good enough for me! This was a Ramblers trip again, and unseasonably warm for April. Arriving in Ullapool the night before, with the sun turning Loch Broom silver, was a sight I will never forget, as well as the ancient sandstone outliers rising from the Lewisian plain, catching the last of the evening sunlight as the lower ground faded into darkness. Sometimes I forget how fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful country.

Anyway, to return to the original theme, I would probably never have seen half of the places I’ve been to, without the Moray Ramblers. I would certainly have not had as much fun in the process. If you live in Moray, I can’t recommend them highly enough.