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No such thing as ordinary in far north’s seas

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Loch Gaineimh.
Loch Gaineimh.

It’s been a windy spell with only the occasional weather window for getting out in the kayak, and I really need some practice in ordinary places after the long winter.

Of course what is ordinary for Caithness would be extraordinary anywhere else.

It was almost the first day you might have kidded yourself that spring had arrived. The mid-March sun had warmth to it, and with light winds the air soon warmed up after early frost.

Braving the awful potholes I drove carefully out to Loch More with the boat – the loch was high with water pouring over the dam so the twisty channel up to the next loch, Loch Gaineimh, would be passable.

It’s a favourite morning’s outing of mine, across the loch and under the bridge carrying the track to Glutt, where a swallow’s nest on a rusty girder underneath await this year’s arrivals in a few weeks’ time.

Launch at Freswick Bay.
Launch at Freswick Bay.

Although not far from plantations and forest roads you can enjoy guaranteed solitude on this paddle, with only birds and deer for company. A seemingly endless series of tight bends gives plenty of opportunity to practise all your ruddering strokes till suddenly you come out at the big Loch Gaineimh, feeling like Speke on first discovering Lake Victoria.

Across on the far shore a decrepit fishing hut still remains, now sheltering a young spruce. A lovely spot for a mid-morning snack and cup of tea, with the storm-battered landscape almost blinking in bewilderment at the calm sunshine.

I paddled back the way I’d come, amazed at the height to which debris had been washed beside the channel by winter floods. In one of the pools I managed my first outdoor roll of the year, the water was icy and one was enough!

Back at the Loch More road end not even the anglers were out, only a solitary motorcyclist also making the most of the fine morning. But already the wind was picking up again.

Ness Head.
Ness Head.

Just two days later and another brief weather window with a forecast for a week of strong winds and gales to follow. A big easterly swell was subsiding but the sea was still a bit choppy given that I hadn’t yet been out in the open sea. In the early morning sunshine I dragged the boat down to the beach below Freswick Castle, I’d just see how far I’d get.

The canoe club used to be based at Thurso beach so out of necessity you soon learnt the techniques of launching and landing through surf. It’s an important skill that does not get practised so much now the club is based at Scrabster!

When going out from the beach, basically wait for a gap between the bigger sets and then paddle hard.

It was lovely to be out in the bay, a nice rolling swell breaking on the shore and the cliffs. Eider-ducks had gathered in a small group, curlews and oystercatchers called from the shore, a few guillemots clustered on the water and fulmars flew low overhead, hoping for fish discards.

I paddled along the beach and the bouldery shore to Skirza harbour, then on towards the headland. The swell was bigger here, with an additional swell coming from the north while the tide, even on a neap, was trying to carry me northwards towards Duncansby.

Landing at Freswick Bay.
Landing at Freswick Bay.

Nothing I shouldn’t be able to cope with, but I had not yet got my sea confidence so turned round to paddle across the bay towards Ness Head.

It’s always a good paddle down to Bucholie Castle but I just didn’t feel happy in the bigger seas outside the bay. If in doubt, don’t go out, they say, and the sea will still be there tomorrow! So instead I turned again to paddle under the low cliffs where fulmars already occupied ledges, encouraged in my decision by the height reached by some of the breaking spray on the rocks.

Coming in through surf you either boldly catch a big wave and surf in on it – prepared to brace strongly if and when you are turned sideways – or wait for a gap and paddle in hard on the back of a wave. With rocks appearing between the waves I chose the latter option, arriving safely but unexcitingly on the beach.

The Freswick Burn has been excavated again by winter floods and you can save some of the distance to drag the boat by paddling up past the spring daffodils to the bridge below the castle. I rolled once in a pool to wash the salt off, again the icy water made sure I didn’t try a repeat!

So two very unadventurous kayak trips. But good to be out in lovely weather in what are, really, extraordinary places.

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