Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kayaking the Isle of Skye

I'm just returned from my honeymoon in Scotland, three weeks of sight seeing, hill walking and a little kayaking. Thanks to the gracious Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures, my wife and I had boats and gear for four days of paddling on the Isle of Skye, the largest island in Scotland, just off the west coast.

Skye is a beautiful place with some of the most rugged mountains in the country (the Cuillins), as well as rolling green hills, glacier carved valleys, volcanic rock cliffs, and protected water wherever the weather is coming from. It's really hard to beat as a paddling destination and our four days provided only the shallowest of introductions to this spectacular land.

The first couple of days had high winds and we took it easy, sticking close to protected shorelines on the south and west side of the island. The scenery wasn't dramatic but simply the calm beauty of Scotland - green hills, lots of sheep, and castle ruins from several hundred years ago. Coming from America, the sense of history and spirit of the past that linger in the land always gives me a moment's pause, soaking in the fact that countless generations of people have plied the land and fished the waters. Kayaking among the remnants of ages long past adds to the peaceful feeling of the place.

With a break in the wind, we moved on to Staffin Bay on the northeast end the island. It was strange to paddle on an exposed coast with no discernible swell, the water as flat as a Sierra lake with a steady sprinkling of rain. The rocks here are old, basalt columns created when lava flows cooled and condensed, leaving a colonade of sharp angles and cracks that time has worn into caves and tunnels on a scale much greater than our little boats. Poking our noses in lead to giants caverns rising way beyond our heads with multiple entrances and exits, rock garden heaven.

The calm water made it easy to explore, but the rain made picture taking a challenge, often forcing me to shoot from inside the cave where I was protected from the elements. We spent hours exploring the rocky coast, but I'm afraid my pictures don't do it justice. It really deserves to be seen in person.

Our last day of paddling took us back south, the the bottom on the island and most dramatic landscape yet. Launching from the little town of Elgol, we crossed the bay (or loch, as they call it. Lakes, bays, harbors - they're all called lochs in Scotland) to land at the foot of the Black Cuillin, not the tallest but the sharpest of mountain ranges in the country. This is where the great climbers from Scotland learned their trade, fighting their way up to the jagged peaks in miserable weather on crumbling rock.

Against this backdrop we landed on a small beach for a short hike to Loch Coruisk, a tiny lake nestled between the waterfall covered hills and the granite shoreline at their base. Unfortunately the rain hit once again and the clouds swallowed up the view as they so often do in the island - Skye is actually from the Norse and means 'island of the clouds'. But it was still a beautiful paddle and amazing place, the water running freely down the steep green slopes and blue skies breaking through on our return to Elgol.

We could have happily spent another week paddling in new locations on the island and only scratched the surface. Returning our boats to Gordon, he talked about the other nearby islands and all they have to offer, lighting up even more when discussing the further options like St. Kilda and the Outer Hebrides. I still feel that California has some of the best kayaking coastline in the world, but with the hundreds of islands, large and small, round and jagged, Scotland clearly has more variety and more options, all in less space. There are many places I would like to go paddle, but I think I could spend a lifetime exploring Scotland and never do the same route twice.

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