Paddle faster, I hear banjos

Many years ago we used to holiday year after year in rental cottages on the banks of Loch Sunart. If the weather is fair – and in May and late September it often is – it’s a great place for a family holiday.

One of my lasting memories is sitting on the terrace enjoying a beer in the late afternoon sun watching a solo canoe being paddled quietly across the mirror-calm loch.

It struck me then that a canoe would be a perfect way to explore the convoluted coastline of the loch, the numerous islands and skerries, and to do a spot of fishing for summer mackerel.

Lunch on Risga

It still does.

Canoes and kayaks

I deliberately used the word canoe rather than kayak. They are often used interchangeably.

A canoe is usually used to mean an open boat, propelled by a single-bladed paddle. They are sometimes referred to as Canadian canoes in the UK. In contrast, a kayak is almost exclusively a closed boat, propelled by a double bladed paddle. Both are small, narrow and relatively lightweight.

Kayaks are faster, less affected by wind and waves and generally have a smaller load carrying capacity.

I’m in no rush these days and I want to be able to carry a tent, picnic basket, a Ghillie stove/kettle for a brew and all sorts of other stuff – portage trolley, cameras, fishing rod, a small sail, a nice bottle of Shiraz etc.

So I bought a canoe.

Specifically I bought an Apache Trek 4.5m canoe with oak trim. Many canoes are red or green. Mine is ivory. This was a deliberate choice as the inevitable scratches through the fiberglass gelcoat are less obvious. It can be used solo or, with the addition of a second seat, it can be paddled by two.

Are you sitting comfortably?

You can sit or kneel to paddle a canoe. I prefer to kneel, despite it being pretty brutal the first few trips on ageing knees and joints 1. When kneeling you actually have a lower centre of gravity, so making the canoe more stable. You’re also more in contact with the boat (essentially both knees and your backside), so you can make corrective movements more easily.

In addition – as you get more experienced – you can lean the boat to one side, so reducing the wetted surface and effectively making the boat shorter and more manageable 2.

The canoe was delivered with a kneeling seat. It looks like a normal seat (and can just about be used as such) except the front edge slopes down by ~25°. You sit on the edge of the seat, kneeling on a cushioned mat, with your feet tucked under the seat.

This works well except for my feet. After a few hours paddling ‘all points south’ from the knees are pretty stiff. Extricating my feet from under the kneeling seat in a hurry is inelegant, likely to cause cramp and a bit slow.

I don’t care how inelegant it looks, but I do want to be able to get out in a hurry if I need to.

For example, in a capsize.

Ride ’em cowboy!

This winter I’ve acquired a Stingray kneeling saddle. These offer all the advantages of a conventional kneeling seat 3, with none of the disadvantages.

Aiguille Alpine Stingray kneeling canoe saddle

I’ve yet to use it in the canoe, but it feels fine (but looks daft) sitting in front of the TV 😉

Loch access

There are plenty of places to canoe in Ardnamurchan and Lochaber 4. However, since Loch Sunart is on my doorstep it’s the only place I’ve explored so far.

Access to the loch is restricted because of the rocky shoreline, the properties on the south side of the B8007 and very limited parking opportunities. However, access is possible from the following points (from east to west):

  • Strontian – slipway available, free to use as far as I’m aware but a long way from the most attractive parts of the loch.
  • Resipole – good access to the water in front of the campsite. Free for residents.
  • Salen Jetty – free to use slipway for canoes and an excellent café with homemade cakes and other goodies. Highly recommended 🙂
  • Picnic area ~1.5km west of Salen Jetty (Grid reference NM680631 or 56.702219N 5.7899301E) with parking and reasonable access to the shore.
  • At high tide Glenborrodale bay (NM609610) or Camus Fearna bay (NM576619) are outside possibilities, though parking is problematic in both. At low tide you have a very long trek over mud and rocks. Not recommended.

Any further west than Ardslignish and the B8007 veers inland and shore access is not possible. However, by this point you are nearing the Sound of Mull and it’s a far less hospitable place to paddle.

Please do not park in passing places on the single track road.

Inaccesible private slipway. Pity.

There are a number of holiday cottages with direct frontage onto the loch and private slipways – if you rent one of these your parking and access problems are both solved 🙂

I am fortunate in that I can walk to the shore towing the canoe on a small purpose-built trolley.

Canoe on trolley

The canoe can be floated off and on the trolley, so no lifting is required. A series of cam straps are used to secure the canoe. When tied down securely it is possible to negotiate some very rough tracks without major problems (though it’s very heavy to drag up a hill).

Islands in the stream

Canoeing is a great way to explore the loch. There are islands – defined (by me) for convenience as something never covered entirely by the tide – ranging in size from a football pitch up to ~240 hectares. The largest, Oronsay, is uninhabited and at low tide is connected to Morvern by a narrow isthmus uncovered at low tide. It should probably be considered a tied island. Carna, at 213 hectares, is the only inhabited island with two rental cottages 5.

Between the islands, all along the coastline and sometimes surprisingly far out into the loch, are dozens of skerries, or more correctly since this is Scotland, sgeirean 6. These rocks often have no vegetation other than seaweeds and are covered at the highest tide. At low tide they’re clearly visible.

At mid-tide, they might be there or they might not, making progress sometimes perilous in larger boats.

Exploring the channel between two islands on Loch Sunart

The tidal range in Loch Sunart is at most ~4 metres. Some channels are only passable above a certain height of tide. They can be there on the way out, but gone as you paddle back later in the day. It all adds to the fun of exploring.

Fully loaded the canoe probably has a draft of ~10cm. Consequently you can explore all sorts of rocky inlets and isolated sandy coves. Reversing out can be a necessity.

Wildlife watching

Almost all of the shoreline is rocky so there is little sediment in the water. Underwater visibility is exceptional. You can watch crabs scuttling between rocks, flatfish burying themselves in the sandy bottom of inlets and the flash of mackerel as they turn away into deeper water.

There are also plenty of aquatic mammals. Common seals are, er, common. Dolphins and porpoises are regularly seen … albeit usually a long way off in the deep channel (~120m) between Carna and the north shore. Whales rarely venture too far into the loch, but are regularly seen in the loch entrance and the Sound of Mull.

Otter, Loch Sunart, Glenborrodale, October 2018

Otter, Loch Sunart, Glenborrodale, October 2018

I rarely see otters when out canoeing. They are plentiful in the region but, on the sunny days I try and choose they’re probably snoozing between the rocks digesting a bellyfull of crustaceans.

Using binoculars from the canoe is straightforward. Using a camera, less so. Even on a calm day the boat has a tendency to move, either up and down on the imperceptible swell, or to get gently blown offline.

Glenborrodale Castle from near Ross Rock, Risga

Practice should improve things.

Further afield

Planned trips for the future include the area near Castle Tioram, Loch Moidart and the North and South Channels around Eilean Shona. Loch Shiel offers fantastic canoeing, as does Loch Morar further north. The area around Arisaig and Morar is a famous canoe and kayaking venue.

Sanna Bay looking towards Ardnamurchan Point and the lighthouse

Closer to home, the stunning white beaches of Sanna are very tempting, but it’s an exposed shores so the weather would need to be good.

I missed the best of the mackerel in 2019 and intend to not make the same mistake this year.

Note – If you want a guided paddle in the area then both Source-2-Sea and Otter Adventures offer a range of expeditions in and around Loch Sunart.


Notes

Deliverance poster

Paddle faster, I hear banjos is a phrase from the 1972 John Boorman film Deliverance. If you know the film, you’ll be aware of the meaning. Loch Sunart and Morvern are remote, but there are no hillbillies lurking in the woods.

However, canoeing in the region is not without risks. The Admiralty chart highlights two regions of the loch (just east of Carna and the Laudale Narrows) where the tidal flow can reach 3 knots. If there’s ‘wind over tide’ these regions can be very rough and should be avoided. The tidal stream entering Loch Teacuis on either side of Carna can also be very strong. The north shore is intermittently populated but the southern (Morvern) shore is very remote. Note also that the phonebox at Glenborrodale has no actual telephone (!) and mobile reception is, at best, patchy unless you have ‘line of sight’ to the Mull transmitter above Tobermory.

Islands in the Stream was the first posthumous novel from Ernest Hemingway. It is a trilogy about a painter, Thomas Hudson, fishing off Bimini in the Bahamas, living on Cuba and hunting U-boats in the archipelago off the northern shore of Cuba. As you can see from the first picture in this post, Ardnamurchan can look at least as good as Bimini if the weather is fair 😉

Wordless Wednesday #10


Wordless Wednesday posts are images from Ardnamurchan and the surrounding regions – Sunart, Morvern, Ardgour, Moidart and the Rough Bounds. No description is necessary but further details may be provided with the linked full-size image. I will try and ensure they were photographed in the same month, though not necessarily the same year, that they appear online.

I hope you enjoy them.

Trees for bees

Well, not just for bees, for wildlife generally.

But bees in particular 😉

I’m a beekeeper and I’m keen to keep bees on Ardnamurchan. This isn’t the place to describe the pleasure I get from keeping bees – though here are some clues:

Local honey

A garden without beehives feels empty to me and it’s something I intend to fix soon.

Honey bees and bumble bees

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are the only species of bee managed in Europe for honey production. The clue is in the name; in Greek, Apis means bee and mellifera means honey-bearing. They are small, not particularly hairy and they live as a large colony – a superorganism – containing a single queen, up to 50,000 workers (all half-sisters and daughters of the queen) and a couple of thousand drones (males).

Queen, workers and a drone honey bees

Honey bees overwinter as a colony, using large amounts of stores (honey and pollen) to keep the bees alive through the coldest months of the year, until the days lengthen and the queen starts laying eggs again.

In contrast, bumble bees are (often) large and very hairy, they form small colonies containing perhaps 200 workers. The queen hibernates alone overwinter and starts a fresh colony the following spring.

Bombus terrestris – the buff tailed bumble bee

Ardnamurchan is awash with bumble bees of several different species. I’ll post something more about them when I finally get around to identifying them all 1.

In contrast, where I live there are no honey bees at all 🙁

Throughout 2019 I searched for honey bees. There are lots of wildflowers and heather for forage but no honey bees. The willow trees – more about these in a minute – up the hill are thick with bees on a good day. In late April, on a calm day, you can hear the bees working the willow from 25 metres away … but none of them were honey bees.

Where have all the honey bees gone?

There are honey bees on Ardnamurchan. I know of a few other beekeepers on the peninsula. None are particularly close to me – either via the B8007 or as the bee flies.

Honey bees forage up to three miles from the hive. So this suggests that there are no hives within range. But what about wild (or feral) honey bees? These live in hollow trees or cavities in a wall.

This is where the story gets a bit more complicated and I have to make a distinction between Ardnamurchan and ‘just about everywhere else’.

The vast majority of honey bees colonies in the UK (and globally) are infested with an ectoparasitic mite called Varroa. The mite feeds on developing honey bee brood and, while doing so, transfers a smorgasbord of unpleasant viruses that – quickly or slowly – kill the bee.

Beekeepers use a variety of control measures to reduce mite levels and so avoid losing colonies. If done conscientiously Varroa control is extremely effective.

Varroa parasitised honey bee

In the UK the average annual colony losses are 25-30%, largely because of the ravages of the Varroa mite and the viruses it transmits 2.

In the absence of Varroa control the colony will die within a maximum of two to three years. Many colonies die within just one season, often when overwintering due to the mite reducing the longevity of worker bees.

Which brings me back to wild or feral colonies. Before the mite was introduced to the UK (in 1992) wild colonies were commonplace. Now they are exceedingly rare; studies show they have high pathogen levels and probably only live for a year or two.

So does that explain why there are no honey bees in my part of Ardnamurchan?

Probably not … parts of Ardnamurchan, and other regions on the far North-West coast of Scotland, are still free of Varroa.

As a beekeeper this is an exciting prospect and something to be very carefully protected 3.

So where are the honey bees?

Climate

Although honey bees are distributed globally, northern Scotland is at the far north and west of their native range.

Global distribution of the honey bee (Apis mellifera)

It’s likely that the climate is borderline for the long-term survival of wild or feral honey bee colonies.

Rain (of which we have more than sufficient) reduces the time colonies are able to forage for nectar and pollen. Damp, cool conditions are tolerated well by bumble bees (this is one of the reasons they are both larger and hairy) but can leave honey bee colonies low on stores and close to starvation.

Loch Sunart, July 2018

Beekeepers can compensate for this. Hives can be supplemented with nectar or pollen, particularly very early in the season when natural forage is limiting and the weather is poor. This enables the colony to build up sufficiently to be self-sustaining through the remainder of the season.

This isn’t a luxury that wild or feral colonies have. If they starve to death there are too few other colonies on the peninsula to re-populate the environment 4.

Natural supplements

Although bees might be able to fly three miles when foraging, they’d prefer to fly 30 metres and would use up a lot less energy doing so 5. It therefore makes sense to try and enhance the pollen and nectar sources in the immediate vicinity.

Most importantly, sources available early in the season are likely to provide the greatest benefit.

Many of the best early season pollen and nectar sources are trees, not flowers.

Therefore, before I get bees I’m busy planting trees.

Willow and hazel are both excellent sources of early season pollen. Willow also produces reasonable amounts of nectar. The plan is to plant significant amounts of both.

Goat willow, male catkins

Both hazel and willow have additional advantages. They are native trees and are a focus for lots of wildlife other than honey bees.

Hazel provides almost year-round interest. Pollen-bearing catkins are produced in February to April, followed by the fresh green leaves which remain on the trees late into autumn.

Willow grows well in damp areas. We have some very damp areas which are of little use for much else. Willow is rich in salicylic acid which can make the leaves unpalatable to insects and browsing animals. Anything that is unattractive to deer has to have a better chance of surviving as there are far too many of them in the area 6.

It is important to try and provide overlapping sources of early season pollen and nectar, rather than just lots of a single type with short availability.

I will therefore be planting quite a bit of alder which, like willow, is good in damp ground and provides pollen. In addition there will be native fruit trees – hawthorn, blackthorn and cherry – all of which are great for wildlife and provide flowering interest and nectar early in the year.

Making space

I’ve been clearing the triffid-like rhododendron from large areas of the site over the last year. This has been backbreaking work, but I’m starting to make progress … and have generated at least a full years’ supply of firewood.

One day all this will be under rhododendron

All this now looks very different …

Rhododendron creates such oppressive ground cover that there were almost no native trees or plants left in the cleared ground. However, within the year, a few things are starting to sprout. I’ve scattered some native wild flower seeds in the hope that they will get established before the land is invaded with bracken or reinvaded by rhododendron.

There’s still (lots) more to do, but for the first time I have some space to plant trees.

Native transplants and willow cuttings

Most trees will be planted over the winter(s) as bare-rooted ‘whips’. These establish quickly and are relatively inexpensive. However, they are only available when trees are dormant and they can be lifted from the seedbed.

I’ve previously discussed the fate of the majority of self-seeded native trees. They germinate, grow a few inches or a couple of feet … and are then browsed to the ground by deer.

I’ve therefore spent the year ‘rescuing’ self-seeded trees from the area – mainly hazel, rowan and oak – and moving them to parts of the plot I’d prefer them to grow, protected by a tree guard 7 where appropriate.

Willow and rhododendron

I’ve also taken willow cuttings from some local trees up on the hill. Willow are dioecious – with separate male and female catkins on different trees – and there are (conveniently) one of each adjacent emerging from a sea of rhododendron within a short walk.

If you cut foot long willow twigs somewhere between a pencil and a forefinger thick they readily produce roots if left standing in water.

Willow cuttings

I took cuttings in mid-April and they were ready to plant by mid-June or early-July. Within 4-6 weeks there was new leafy growth and by the end of the growing season some had put on 12-18″ of growth.

Rooted and shooting willow cutting, early August

Others, less well protected, had been eaten by the deer 🙁

I’ve been reading the excellent Handbook of Scotland’s Trees by Reforesting Scotland which has a chapter on how to avoid the attention of deer. One suggestion is to plant huge 3m willow ‘cuttings’ i.e. entire branches, so that the growing tips are out of reach of the deer. I’ll be giving this a try in 2020.

In the meantime the first ~100 bareroot ‘whips’ have arrived and are heeled into pots waiting to be be planted. This is planned for Christmas and the New Year, each being supplemented with a sprinkling of mycorrhizal fungi and organic blood, fish and bone to help it get started.

Bareroot willow, blackthorn and gean (wild cherry) whips.

With a bit of patience and some tender loving care they should develop well over the next few years, providing pollen and nectar for the bees, and generally improving the habitat for other wildlife.

Happy Christmas and New Year