Thursday, 18 November 2010


I am reclining, like a somewhat anorexic seal, on a plinth of speckled pink granite by the Loch Etive foreshore. It is two hours to high tide, but I have portaged my canoe above the high water mark, where she lies inverted like an elongated green turtle, hitched to a birch tree with a Mason knot[1]. It is mid April, the moon is in her first quarter and it is perhaps an hour after sunset, but I can see to write by the archived sunlight of the pine knots blazing on my campfire. It might be about half past nine - I don't know, and don't care, much. Only the natural rhythms - season, sunset, moonstate and tide – matter, because they affect my decisions. Numbers in a glass dial are just a virtual unreality.
And I feel the connectedness out there- from the faint hot-charcoal glow in the west to the sickle in the southern sky. I think of the hard rock beneath me, once a liquid incandescence, flowing, glowing, but now fused with the earth itself. I sense cool sea-scented wind on my face, hear waves on the sea loch in front of me, vaguely sense the birches dancing in the wind at the frontier of my vision.  I think of the day, of miles of boot on rock, and nautical miles of varnished maple through saltwater. I feel an ecstatic tiredness.
The pine knots have gone and the darkness steals in.
I fall asleep on the bedrock.

It might be about three in the morning - I don't know, and don't care, much, but I know why I have woken.  Once I read about the 'Apache alarm clock' – supposedly the canny brave made sure he got up early for hunting trips by drinking copiously just before hitting the sack. I reflect that this is another primitive skill I have yet to master, and extricate myself from the bivvy bag. 
A minute later and I am back in the warm bivvy, gazing up and north at the seven stars of Arctos shining like pinprick holes in a black curtain. I’m very much awake, and I am thinking.

The wilderness experience, like ecology, is about connectedness.
Connectedness has many filaments, the warp and weft linking plants and beasts, hunter and quarry, sea and sky, science and spirit, but the thread I am holding now is the connection between man and land.
It is a connection deeper than we know, living in our complex world of artifice and invention. At the dawn of the Neolithic, ten thousand years ago, man became farmer, and since then man has shaped the land. But before that first plough and that first stock fence, it was the land that shaped man, throughout many millennia of evolutionary change.
Thoreau saw people working ever harder to buy, maintain and improve their homes, and wrote that many men think they own their house, but in reality, the house owns them. With land it is different. Though we may make the error of thinking we own land, neither does it own us. It merely influences us, and its influence, whether directly or through our inherited genes, is deep and subtle. Land moulds us like a parent and changes us like a partner.

The land-as-parent concept can be dangerous - under Hitler and Stalin, millions died for their Vaterland or Rodina - but the idea should not be perverted into nationalism. I might call myself a Scot, but go back further and I’m really an African, and so are you.  So what about the land as partner analogy?

It is fashionable to talk of man being divorced from the land or separated from nature. Sure, divorce is messy and makes you poorer, but there is more to it than that. There is a fate worse than divorce. 
As a doctor I often see patients who have abusive partners. The striking thing about abusive partners is that they all behave in exactly the same way – it is almost as if they work off a script. They are controlling and possessive, preventing their victim from doing anything that doesn’t involve them. They expect their partner to provide for them constantly, to be always there for them. They can be superficially charming, and are often ‘good people’ outside the abusive relationship. At root they are insecure and dependent on the partner they abuse, and they become overwhelmingly contrite when threatened with her leaving. Sometimes it is too late.

So it is with man and land. Man is the domineering abusive partner. Nearly all land is managed –a euphemism for controlled - in some way, bar a few precious and diminishing outposts of wilderness where land and nature run free. We make our unsustainable demands, and like the abusive partner, one day we will be sorry. We are in urgent need of some serious relationship counselling.

If wilderness is land that shows no imprint of man whatsoever, then we have already blown it – there is no wilderness. Even in the polar regions, the effect of man - climate change and air pollution - can be detected with instruments. Here in Scotland there is certainly no wilderness, only ‘wild country’ – a lesser designation, where the effect of man, like fading bruises on a battered wife, is in some way apparent.

Consider the unstable highland ecosystem. Three hundred years ago, the last Scottish wolf died. Without predation, deer numbers have risen, and in turn this has prevented regeneration of ancient Caledonian pine forest. 

So now man is attempting to restore the forest, controlling the deer with fences. But the rare and beautiful capercaillie flies low and hits the fences with bone-breaking force. Our solutions create problems. Giving your partner second-rate first aid is a poor substitute for not hitting her in the first place.

            It might be 0630 - I don't know, and don't care, much. I wake to find the eastern flank of my bivvy bag is warm, awash in amber light, while the shadow side is stiffened by a sugar frosting of ice. I get up, set the Trangia for coffee, and scramble over a slippery – I cannot say treacherous, because it looks slippery - scree of boulders and seaweed for a look around.

I stand on the borderland of the foreshore and study the sea, the sky and the land. As if to emphasise the connectedness, the loch is in a reflective mood, and I can see all three without moving my gaze. I look, and listen, and wonder, and consider the promise of the new day.

            Abusive partners almost never change their behaviour, and perhaps I should feel pessimistic for the future of man and nature. But those of us who have camped in wild country know how beautiful that relationship can be. If we can see it, so can others.

            And like the dawn over Loch Etive, that gives me hope.

[1]               Bill Mason, Canadian outdoorsman: ‘I don’t really know any knots. But when it matters, I tie lots of them.’

Saturday, 9 October 2010

On Travel

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move
 R.L. Stevenson

"Use the quads God gave you!"
American fender sticker, referring to quadriceps rather than quad bikes

Drive through the highlands on a summer weekend, and you will find cars, tents and campfires by every scenic parking place. The Land Reform Act in Scotland allows wild camping, and undoubtedly it is a better way to spend Saturday night than watching The X Factor.

But I still feel these folk are missing out. Research by the Forestry Commission showed that 90% of visitors stay within 200 yards of their car. It’s as if they are attached to it by an umbilical cord.

You can also see this reluctance to leave the vehicle when walking the splendid South West Peninsula Coast Path. Often you will have the path entirely to yourself for miles, but it is easy to tell when you are approaching a coastal settlement - you start seeing people. Once you have gone a quarter mile past the village and car park it is deserted again.

Bill Bryson once observed that every fifteen minutes on the Appalachian Trail, he walked further than the average American did in a week.

On one occasion, Sigurd Olson travelled to a remote lake by float plane – a lake he had previously visited by the methode traditionelle: four days of paddling and four nights of bivouacking. The satisfaction of achievement and feeling of remoteness were no longer there – he had lost more than he had gained.

Remoteness, solitude and wildness depend on distance, but mechanised transport telescopes distance. Even the mountain bike is guilty in this respect. And one of the best guardians against desecration of wild land is the ‘long walk in’.

Friday, 8 October 2010

On the need for wilderness

In some men, the need of unbroken country, primitive conditions, and intimate contact with the earth is a deeply rooted cancer gnawing forever at the illusion of contentment with things as they are….I have seen the hunger in their eyes, the torturing hunger for action, distance and solitude, and a chance to live as they will. I know these men and the craving that is theirs…

                                    Sigurd Olson ‘Why Wilderness?’ American Forests 1938

Sigurd Olson wrote so intensely about the craving for wilderness because he experienced it powerfully himself. But why do people feel this desire to abandon comfort and head out with paddle or pack to wild country?  At best they will come back with insect bites and aching muscles, and at worst they may not return at all, like Chris McCandless. Why do they do it?

Polar bears do not thrive in the desert.  Our modern life is stressful for much the same reason: we find ourselves in an environment very different from the one that evolution adapted us for. The wilderness trip is a return to what is natural for us. Although the wild may seem superficially unfamiliar for the city-bred outdoorsman, on a deeper level it ‘feels’ right. Or, as John Muir put it: “Going out, I found, was really going in

Another reason is freedom. We may live in a democracy, but we are still subject to a particularly cruel dictator - the one on your left wrist. After the second or third day on the trail the modern concept of time is forgotten and becomes a virtual unreality. Instead we become more tuned into natural rhythms - sunrise, sunset, tides and moonstate - because they matter. You can speed ths process up a bit by leaving your watch behind.

On stoves

I have never trusted petrol camping stoves. One moment it is a practical domestic utensil:  a millisecond later, people are running away from you shouting ‘Achtung, Flammenwaffen!’ while you try to extinguish your tent.

The answer, for once, is alcohol. The Scandinavians in particular like using alcohol stoves, which should blow away the argument that they are no good in the cold. One of the best stoves for the wilderness traveller is the Swedish Army Trangia. I guess the Swedes had been stockpiling these for when the cold war turned hot, and now they are readily available as unused surplus.

It consists of a Trangia brass meths burner that is slightly larger than the civilian version, an oval billy tin with a hanging bail and hook, a windshield, and a combined frying pan/lid that has a short handle with D-rings to allow the fitting of a wooden handle extension. You make this yourself from a handy branch, and it makes cooking over a fire much easier.

There is also a fuel bottle that looks dangerously like a hip flask, but this is intentional – in cold weather you carry the fuel close to your body so it will ignite easier. Just don’t confuse it with your ten year old Laphroaig.

Some sets include a traditional Scandinavian drinking cup or kuksa, although it’s made of olive plastic rather than birch burl – the Swedes may be traditionalists, but they are practical too. It all fits together with room for a lighter, spork and brew kit. The only downside is the weight – about 1.2kg all in.

Nevertheless, it is ideal for places like the UK, where a fire is not always safe, legal or feasible. Much as I like a campfire, I often choose not to have one if I cannot be sure of leaving no trace. Ordinary cooksets are useless for cooking over a fire – they have no hanging bail and short handles. The army Trangia is designed for wilderness cooking.

A petrolhead once told me that his stove would run on anything from Croatian brandy to napalm, and would boil a litre of water in four minutes. It did, but sounded like a jet engine while doing so. If you have to melt snow for water, the petrol stove probably has its place, and for fast-and-light mountain travel I use a Brasslite and titanium pot. For everything else, the slow, silent, dependable Trangia is hard to beat.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

On silence

The horizon was black and gold, but not for long. The sun was flowing behind the mountains like sand in an hourglass, fast enough for the movement to be visible. It struck me that our sun must always cross the sky with such speed, but without a reference point we fail to notice it. Time can be like that too.

There were two islands in the loch – tiny forests arising from a watery looking glass that stretched away, beyond the bow, further than I could see. I considered the more distant island, but the wise outdoorsman does not choose to make camp in the dark.

A few strokes of the paddle and I was beaching the canoe on the shore, leaving bright smears of green plastic hull on the jagged schist. I rubbed them off with the back of my knife, uncertain if this was Leave-No-Trace ethics, or just Obsessional Compulsive Disorder. If I start picking up the bullets when deer stalking, I’ll get professional help.

Rigging the tarp and setting a pail of loch water to boil took a few minutes, and I sat on a heathery stool, on an unnamed island, in Loch Laidon, surrounded by Rannoch Moor. Rannoch Moor, for those who don’t know it, is big – at least by Scottish standards. Canadians might not think so.

And I listened to the silence. It was, after all, what I had come for.

City life does not lend itself to contemplation. That's one reason, I live in the country. But here too, it can be hard to escape man made noise. If it's not distant traffic, it's 50 hertz mains hum from electrical installations.

Even in our wild country, it can be hard to get away from the sight and sound of civilisation. The Peak District National Park of northern England is a gem; beautiful by anyone's standards. There, two thousand feet above sea level, lies the Kinder plateau, which despite the modest elevation is still serious mountain country, as the local rescue team can testify. And on the edge of the plateau is a very curious phenomenon - the Kinder Downfall. It's a waterfall, but when the wind blows the right way air is funnelled up the ravine, blowing clouds of spray into the air. It's the nearest thing to a geysir this side of Reykjavik.

It is said that you can see the spray clouds of the Kinder Downfall from Stockport, several miles to the north. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but the corollary is not: you can also see Stockport from the Kinder Downfall.

There is value in protecting any wild land, whatever it's size. But to be truly wild, it needs to be out of sight and earshot of civilisation. That means protecting large areas.

On the 'Che-Mun'

“The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores. . . . There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness , and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known."
                                                                                                            Sigurd Olson

The First Peoples of North America made technological marvels from scratch: the tipi, the stone tomahawk, the papoose and, greatest of all these, the canoe. It puzzles me that we use their original word for the first three, whereas ‘canoe’ comes from a Spanish word, in turn derived from the Haitian word for dugout boat – which is very different and hugely inferior to a birchbark canoe when it comes to wilderness travel. The Ojibway – the people who perfected the canoe - called it ‘Che-mun’.

The canoe is a magic carpet – it opens up places inaccessible to others. No other boat can be so easily carried from lake to lake. It will take you places that even Argocats and good hill boots cannot. Freedom and independence are built into the very thwarts and gunwhales – it is no great thing to carry a month of supplies. The man who has set out with a rucksack on his back feels the exhilaration of knowing he can be utterly self-reliant for the next few days, using only his outfit and what he can wring from nature by skill. The paddler can multiply that feeling by eight.

The 'Che-mun' opens up the best places to bivouac. Many of our lochs have islands within them - some are relics of iron-age crannogs, but many are natural. And although the surrounding country is heather moorland, these islands are refuges of Caledonian forest, wooded with ancient Scots pines that have been thankfully uneconomical to cut down. They are tiny pieces of the land as it looked before man came. Wilderness, if you like.

When seeking wilderness, we are looking for places where the hand of man is not apparent. It’s difficult, especially in this crowded island. Years ago, I realised that the only way is to make a lot of effort. Lonely, beautiful places are always protected by distance. If they weren’t they would no longer be lonely and beautiful.

A while ago I was paddling on the sea loch Loch Hourn, returning from Knoydart – romantically and erroneously referred to as ‘Europe’s last wilderness’. It’s not, but it is nevertheless a stunning place, and somewhat inaccessible. There are no roads in or out. The only way in is by six miles of boot on rock, or in my case, six miles of maple through saltwater.

The wind and tide were in my favour, and I was making six knots with little effort. I overtook a party of mountain bikers, who were finding the path on the southern shore unpleasantly arduous. It’s bad enough on foot, and I did not envy them.

I pulled into a bay, dragging the boat through greasy seaweed. I had planned to make a brew, but a loud ‘plop’ and the sight of concentric ripples made me reach for the rod rather than the kettle. For the first time in my life, my first cast was successful, and yielded a bonny sea-trout, or sewin, as they are sometimes called.

I looked up and saw the mountain bikers had caught up and were watching from the opposite shore. Another cast. Another fish.

I know when to quit. I laid the silvery fish on the bow seat and pushed off.

Monday, 4 October 2010

On autumn

There’s a hint of colour in the broadleaf trees, and the pink-footed geese are back in Scotland after their Icelandic summer. It’s autumn.

I prefer the American term ‘fall’ – it just seems more rooted in nature. Even better is the Finnish term ‘ruska’ which translates literally as ‘brown’. The Finnish people are very much tuned into nature all year round, but they still make a special effort to visit their forests at ‘ruska’. It’s a good time to be outdoors.