The sky was sunny and the surface of the loch was still when I woke up about 7 in the morning. A few birds skittered along the gravel beach where I was camping–a perfect place to camp, by the way. One sounded like a willett, although I doubt it was. The air was cool and dry, like a late October day in Massachusetts. Now, at 9.30 a breeze has come up and is ruffling the water, which is making a rhythmic sound like breathing. On the tops of the four hills bordering the loch patches of snow are beating the clouds in their brightness.
I doubt I’ll find another place like this to spend a night in on the walk.
This is where I was headed.
I struck camp with reluctance, but not too much as it was such a beautiful day. I walked on the north side of a stream that flowed out of Loch Calavie. It was a two-tire track, sometimes dirt and rocks and sometimes flattened grass. It disappeared a little farther along than where the man who reviewed and approved my route (one of the Challenge’s “vetters”) said it would.
After that it was over heather, sphagnum moss and dried grass. Those three things are what’s underfoot in the Highlands in my admittedly limited experience. It’s not easy walking off the trail. You have to lift your foot to get over heather, sphagnum is spongy, and the grass is often hummocky and ankle-twisting.
A person quickly learns to read the mini-landscape–there it’s going to be too wet, that grass is boggy, this is a nano-watershed. You can’t walk a straight line in the Highlands unless you’re on a path, in which case someone else has gotten wet feet and figured it out.
Walking a couple of miles without a trail was good practice for what I knew I had to do soon, which was go a considerable distance with no trail. This apparently doesn’t intimidate most people doing this event, who disdain GPS and are willing (and able) to navigate by map and compass in the rain with limited visibility.
It was sunny and clear when I turned south from Pait Lodge, a nice house on a lake. I opened a couple of gates, passed a building that had some kind of machine (probably a pump) running inside, and passed an old aluminum-bodied Land Rover. I looked into the driver’s seat longingly. It wasn’t clear whether it was abandoned or just in need of preventive maintenance.
I followed a farm road up a hill, stopping at a rock to have a quick lunch (cereal bar and now-lukewarm mushroom soup), continuing on until I got to a metal building with a stone floor, probably something for animals. I took of the pack and took out the map and compass. This was going to be a test of my navigation skills, although with my 43%-charged iPhone in my pocket with my route and GPS function waiting, not a test for keeps.
I should say at this point that, as much as I hate to admit it, my native navigational skills are not very good. This was memorably displayed many years ago when I went exploring Zekiah Swamp in Southern Maryland with my son Will (then about 10) and a Chinese journalist visiting The Washington Post named Li Xiguang.
Zekiah Swamp (which John Wilkes Booth went through, trying to throw pursuers off his trail as he fled Washington after assassinating Abraham Lincoln) is a braided stream of many channels. Nevertheless, it has directionality, which is a helpful navigational aid. But somehow not enoujgh to help me.
This particular trip consisted of paddling as far up the main channel as we could go and then getting out and walking. Far into the swamp on foot, we stopped for a snack on a downed log that had three mushrooms of different sizes growing out of it. We remarked they were like the three bears in the Goldilocks tale. When we were done, we pushed on. I was leading.
About an hour and a half later we rounded a corner in the undergrowth and saw the log with the three mushrooms. A textbook example of lost behavior–walking in a circle.
By then it was late afternoon and getting cooler, and I admitted to myself things could get serious. (It was October, I recall.) Soon after, however, Will heard a cow mooing. We followed the sound, perpendicular out of the swamp. We ended up at a farm, saved by bovinavigation. The farmer kindly gave us a ride back to the car. We picked up the canoe the next day.
I hoped to do better this day, with navigational aids. My route was to walk perpendicular to the road starting at the animal house, which was a tiny square on the map. I would go over a hill and then turn right about 60 degrees and walk until I got to a path along a river. There, back on a track marked on the map I would go left toward my destination, which was still miles away.
Looking at the map, however, I decided a more efficient route would be to walk what would be the base of an equilateral triangle. So, sitting next to the animal house in the sun I got out the map and determined the bearing with the compass. It was 132 degrees the first time, 135 the second. Close enough for a beginner navigating a route with a clear line of sight on a sunny day.
I won’t make this dramatic because it wasn’t, especially since I checked my progress twice with the GPS. I figured that if if I opted for purity and found myself 90 degrees off course a couple hours later I would regret it. Still, it was a small accomplishment.
The top had quite a view (and was quite windy). This is the direction I was heading once I intersected the path along the river.
I intersected the trail very close to where I’d plotted the destination on the map (as confirmed by GPS).
There was still a long way to go, including an annoying mile-and-a-half climb and descent and crossing of two dams–all to avoid the chance the river would be too high to ford with the more direct route. (And it was essential to eventually get on the other side). Should that happen, I would have to walk four miles back to get to the annoying dam detour–not something I was prepared to do.
Even so, I stopped and camped at a place not as far along as I had hoped. There were two tents next to the road occupied by two guys named Steve and Dave. They had stopped short of their goal because it was starting get cold and the sun was going down. I admired their judgment.