Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Highlands and Islands, Arrival

In late May 2018 Joan and I began a "Highlands and Islands" Scottish sojourn offered by Natural Habitat Adventures. After two connections (Philadelphia and Heathrow) we landed at Inverness, minds somewhat muddled by no sleep but buoyed up with coffee. We were met by Warwick, who drove us to Contin and the Coul House Hotel, our group's gathering point. Coul House is a restored 1820s mansion.
No two rooms are the same.
We were able to check in well before the nominal time, and after dropping our bags in the room we consulted with Susannah (Susannah and Stuart own Coul House) about good places for an afternoon walk. Joan and I decided on the "island walk," where fields of bluebells might be in bloom. Susannah gave us a photocopy of a map plus directions, most of which snuck off into hidden niches of our memory.

She suggested that we not walk down the long  hotel driveway, but to the far side of the hotel, past some dumpsters, and then along a gated footpath on a farm's edge. From there Joan and I headed downhill past a field with a week-old colt and its mom, through a residential stretch, and came to the main road (A835).

We turned in the wrong way along the road. When we decided to try the other direction we came across a red post box on the sidewalk that we suddenly remembered was our target landmark. From there a path led down to a wooden footbridge that spanned the Black River, delivering us to "the island," which is formed by a splitting and recombination of the Black.
Joan and I turned left and followed a quiet road to the southern tip of the island, where the asphalt crossed the Black. We stayed on the island by continuing along another footpath. The far side of the island was quiet and gorgeous, with gorse and bluebells in bloom.
Our footsteps carried us in proximity to the riverbank through a carpet of color, including a few white bluebells.
We hadn't encountered anybody else, although this was clearly a popular walk.
Further along we came to an old church and its cemetery, which we visited (click on the image to enlarge).
Also on this tramp we saw a bird that was zooming repetitively from bank to bank, a buzzing metronome that Joan characterized as a "killdeer on meth." We had broken one of our own rules and set off without binoculars, leaving us no chance of identifying the creature, which was likely harvesting an insect hatch.

Joan and I had dinner by ourselves, having arrived a day early to buffer against airline problems. As we  were eating, two more of our group arrived, Candy and John. We've traveled with Candy several times before and wondered if John was mythical. He isn't. At least, her companion claimed to be John.

After the exemplary dinner Joan and I had to cope with the unusual (for Scotland) warm weather. We had already opened the window, even though no window in Scotland has an insect screen, and Joan disassembled the utterly unnecessary duvet so that we slept under only the sheet. Fortunately we weren't bothered by midges.

The next morning, fortified by a large breakfast, Joan and I set out on a longer walk that would include View Rock, Loch na Crann, and Rogie Falls. We consulted again with Susannah, who was very helpful for the first part of the hike: most of the way down the drive to the main road, not through a farm field path, turn right onto a trail through the "Five-Acre Wood," then on through a small housing development, and then on to the routes and logging roads marked on our map. Although it sounded convoluted it went smoothly; we navigated the housing development successfully if uncertainly.

The way narrowed to a trail and then expanded into a logging road; after a short while we took a wide path heading up to the right. An expedition of about a dozen students soon passed us. We wove between, on one side, land recently cleared by the Scottish Forestry Commission, and on the left a plantation -- replacement trees that had been planted in regular ranks.
A stump sculpture!
Probably not a product of the Scottish Forestry Commission
A turn in the path gave us an unobstructed view of a soaring red kite through our binoculars. This raptor was extirpated from Scotland but has been successfully reintroduced from other European lineages.

Soon Joan and I were approaching View Rock.
Trees had regrown and narrowed the view, a phenomenon we've encountered elsewhere, including the crest of the Appalachians along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
From View Rock we passed through a hodgepodge of thinned woods, plantations, occasional wild patches, and in sight of occasional clear cuts. Other hikers and especially off-road bicyclists were enjoying the sunny Saturday. (The paths and roads we were tramping today are also used by the Strathpuffer January 24-hour cycling marathon.) When we saw one earnest cyclist for the second time, we asked how many laps he'd done. He was working on his fourth of the day.

We swung by Loch Na Crann and observed a grey wagtail, some ducks, and blooming white water lilies, thanks to our binos.
From the outlet of the loch ran a wide logging road, which merged into the "main" logging road paralleling the river. Some of Scotland's investment in renewable energy poked above the skyline.
Then a short path down to Rogie Falls.
Many visitors park off the A385, on the other side of the river, and saunter down. That's the lazy approach.

Looking back from the bridge the stages of the salmon ladder are visible. (Click on the image to enlarge.) At this time of year was was not being diverted to fill the ladder.
The wooden structure is the approach to the bridge.
Taking a closer look at the upper falls.
I was entranced by the swirling patterns of foam beneath the bridge.
Is that a satellite photo of a hurricane?


Joan and I walked along the far bank searching for a good lunch spot, but between the sun and the steepness we found nothing suitable. A shoreline path also wound upstream from where we'd approached the falls, and it offered up a good sit.
Here we munched our energy bars.
We climbed back up to the logging road, and soon encountered Candy and John heading the other way. They had attempted to follow a path along the river to reach the falls, one which appeared on the map Susannah had given us but which, she warned, didn't really go all the way to the falls. Apparently some bushwhacking ensued.

Joan and I continued on the logging road and encountered a sign indicating a river-side path. We descended through mixed vegetation, much more agreeable than the logging road, coming close to but never seeing the river. Occasional bicyclists passed us. The path broadened and we emerged into a glade with picnic tables, parked cars and backhoes, temporarily out-of-service toilet facilities, and an asphalt approach road. Joan and I turned up a side path for View Rock and reached our original route.

When passing through the housing development we paused and Joan chatted with an amiable woman digging in her garden, hair in curlers. Everybody was maximizing the wonderful weather!

Our NatHab group gathered before dinner for an introductory session and briefing, except for Bob, who had been delayed by a pet emergency but would arrive that evening. Our leader, Jonathan, and his "shadow" on this trip, Louise, dispensed water bottles, advice, and an overview of the coming days. Jonathan also solicited stories from us about the places from which we'd come.

Tomorrow (May 28th), our group of ten would embark on our first adventure. It would start early and end late. Very late.