I will apologise in advance if this piece is overly long and ‘wall-of-text-esque’; I want to wrap up the adventure in a cosy blanket of words in order to move on to another few projects, and it only seems fair to the last few months to ensure I do them justice; no matter how long this becomes. So, without further a-do, on with the last day of adventure (for now).
After I had made the last dinner I would be eating out in the wilds for a while, any supplies I had left that wouldn’t keep were put in my billy can and cooked up, then dispersed here and there for the mouse, birds and anything else that wanted free food. I bagged up some supplies and firelighting materials and hung these carefully from the shelter; along with the logs I wouldn’t burn they should prove useful come March. The majority of my packing would be completed in the morning before dawn – I still needed most of the kit before then, for making pints of tea, breakfast and sleeping purposes.
I awoke at 0600 and gently blew the fire back to life before starting taking down the smoke stained tarp and tightly packing my sleeping bag and other gear. By the time I had my porridge, everything was ready to go into my bergen, piled in a mound where I had been sleeping. The morning was the coldest so far and I knew to keep warm I’d need to keep drinking warm fluids; I came up with the rather bright, if slightly bizarre (or even romantic) idea to supplement my dwindling water supplies by melting some of the massive icicles. It worked a treat and before I left I ensured I had a couple of pints of tea. I took some photos before departure; of the first glimmer of dawn, with the crescent moon just above the peaks, of the icicles in the billy can and of myself with my pack in a nearly empty shelter.
I left the fire burning merrily and started the cold walk to catch the train. I allowed plenty of time, as my pack was heavy and the ground treacherously slippery. Strangely I found the pack easy to carry; admittedly it was lighter for having no food within its voluminous innards, but I was carrying all my rubbish out, including dozens of batteries and of course the extra bits of kit I had been sent and bought. I think all the weeks of living a far more physical existence than I had been used to when I first headed out into the wilds had conditioned me to a level I didn’t think I would achieve. There was no struggle at all in carrying the pack and I made excellent time.
As I mentioned in my previous piece, a brief return to the wildcat story. As I was heading down the slope towards the burn I found yet more prints; this time the cat had imperiously marched across the length of a fallen birch tree; its elevation from the ground had prevented the snow from turning into the thick ice everywhere else was clad in. I was annoyed at myself as I had packed my camera away in my bag, but I knew I had plenty of excellent photos of the other tracks and carried on to cross the now frozen burn. Perhaps foolishly I thought it may be a good idea to test the ice and hit it as hard as I could with my staff. When I made no indentation or crack at all I decided to step on to it. It not only held my weight (63 kilos before I set off, or 140 pounds), and that of the pack (around 45 kilos, or 100 pounds) but didn’t even creak or crack in the slightest. It was, however, somewhat (perilously) slippery.
Just before I reached the railway I came across one of the deer I had begun to know so well. She was one I had tracked before and for some reason, instead of the usual habit of barking and running off to melt into the trees, she just calmly stood and watched me. My guess is that she was either bemused by the giant turtle that was walking towards her, or she was thinking ‘I’m glad he’s clearing off, maybe things will get back to normal now…?’. Either way, I managed to carry on walking towards her to within about thirty yards before she finally turned away and sauntered casually up the hill.
Descending the railway embankment to cross the track (yes, I know that’s technically illegal, but it is a single line with very few trains) was tricky, water had frozen as it flowed down the side and I had to use the trees to stop myself slipping into the ditch at the bottom. Once on the platform I took off my over-trousers, ate my last apple and waited for the train. As the station is a request stop I made sure I was standing in plain view and waved to the driver once he rounded the corner. Since I was the only person (of course) to be picked up from there, I was very conscious of everyone onboard staring at me, my massive pack with bow saw visible and my fishing pole tube and staff in hand. The conductor was impressed I’d been camping out even with the extremely low temperatures. He mentioned that the sea had begun to freeze near Corpach and Fort William and that he couldn’t remember such low temperatures. This made me secretly pleased to have not only survived, but actually enjoyed my spell of winter.
The train journey to Fort William, as I have most likely mentioned before, ranks as one of the best in the world; passing through some of the UK’s most spectacular scenery and indeed the ‘Harry Potter bridge‘, as any child on the journey always shouts. It is a journey I have made several times before, yet it never ceases to amaze and inspire with its beauty. This journey was different. It was simply stunning. The snow on the mountains, the frozen waterfalls, icicles twenty feet long and several feet thick, the deer covering the hillsides were all awe inspiring, but what made it even more incredible were the areas where fog had frozen on the grass and trees, turning every blade and branch into a sparkling, diamond encrusted wonder. And the sea had indeed frozen, waves stopped and super chilled into solid sculptures of ice.
We arrived in Fort William on time, the first leg of my journey complete I headed to get some food. I was later to learn that that was the last train to call at the station for several days so I was very lucky indeed. After the majesty of Lochaber and the Road to the Isles, the coach journey along the Great Glen, along Loch Ness, was dull by comparison. The bus was also incredibly hot. As we neared Inverness we started to enter snow storms and, with the sun having set long before I alighted at 1600, the temperature dropping rapidly.
My Mum was waiting for me at the bus station and we wandered off around the corner to meet Dad, who was circling the block like a combustion engine buzzard… I was impressed with what I saw of Inverness; it is a long time since I had been through the city on anything other than the train and the wealth of expensive shops and rather classy restaurants and bars proves a testament to how it has reinvented itself as a mecca for high-tech business and (after a quick google), ranks as the Scottish city with the best quality of life, and fifth (out of 189) in the UK. Impressive for a city I remember as dying, shops closed left right and centre, with little hope in the eyes of those who lived there. But that was a long time ago. I am getting old and the world changes.
Strangely, I wasn’t at all disconcerted by all the people; all the bustling Christmas shoppers simply made me feel more Christmassy. It was also strange how little I was stared at; Inverness being such an important communications hub in the Highlands, I suppose they are used to seeing wild, bearded men, carrying huge packs and chunky sticks. We set off north and decided to stop for a coffee at Alness. A couple of hours later this act proved a lucky one.
The further north we went, the more snow there was laying on the ground. There was fog in the air and the corona effect it gave around car headlights demonstrated how this fog was freezing. Then we hit Golspie and things began to get slightly worse. The car thermometer was showing -11°c and thicker flakes of snow began drifting through the darkness, illuminated and distracting. In Brora the car started skidding on the ice, after the car in front had suddenly slowed down; our momentum gone. The snow was now falling very fast and rapidly covering the road (and I don’t mean with just a dusting). It was difficult to see very far in front at all, few other cars seemed to be braving these conditions and our problems became confounded when we were forced to stop behind an oil tanker that had given up trying to plough its way forward. Dad somehow managed to get the car to overtake this, wheels spinning, slipping and struggling to get out of the icy ruts on the wrong side of the road, the fear that any traffic coming down the hill would simply be unable to stop and hit us head on was certainly present. He made it though and we were slowly inching forward once more.
The lights of Helmsdale were a relief. Those of you from The North will know the A9 and how, from Helmsdale, it climbs up towards the infamous Berriedale Braes. We started to question whether we’d be able to make it in the snow and we had barely gone half a mile out of the village before we were once again sliding all over the road, Dad using all his years of driving to keep us on the road, moving forward at a speed I could easily have beaten on foot. It was frightening; when I’d been out in the wilds, even in the fiercest of storms or the coldest of nights, I had never been truly worried – I knew how to cope with these, knew my level of skill and that my kit and knowledge would keep me safe. Now I was seriously worried – I suppose as soon as you put someone else in the equation, you start to become more concerned and I most definitely was. If we came to a stop out there, in those temperatures and deep snow, I knew I would be fine, but I was concerned about the parents; they’re not getting any younger after all (sorry, Mum and Dad!).
I have issues with police, for my own reasons, but I can safely say I have never been so pleased to see a blue light appear. Two policemen in their 4×4 pulled alongside to check we were OK, suggesting ways to try and get up the hill. I could tell that this had eased both Mum and especially Dad’s minds and Dad practically leapt out of the car when one of the policemen suggested he try and get the car to the top of the hill. He struggled and the clutch started to burn. He consulted his colleague, asking if he thought we’d make it. He shook his head. He told us that if we wanted to continue trying, not to worry as they’d be around all night, but that his advice (which was offered calmly, sensibly and without judgement) was to turn around and find accommodation in Helmsdale. It didn’t take us long to agree this was the most sensible option and the policeman turned the car around and we were soon gently coasting down the hill, giving the clutch a chance to cool down.
We had been in constant communication with the sisters who were safe and warm in Wick, and opinion was divided as to whether we should book ourselves in to somewhere to stay, or try and catch the last train of the day north. We decided on the latter – there was no guarantee at all that the car would make it the following day either, and it would be cheaper to catch the train then, rather than after having paid for a night’s stay. The train was running late, and the sisters began to liaise with Scotrail and try and establish when it would arrive. After we had parked the car (not at all easy in the thick drifting snow) we located the station, but it was bitterly cold, with an icy wind picking up and snow covering the train tracks to quite a depth. It was time to put the foot down and we headed back into the village to warm up in a pub. Coffee was something I had missed and it, and the double brandy, were exceptionally welcome. I was bemused by just how many of the voices in the bar were locals who were from England, and also found the large TV showing football a little odd after months without it. Needless to say I got a few stares, dressed as I was in my outdoors kit, thick beard and wild eyes! After we had warmed up we decided to head back to the station to await the arrival of the train. It grew progressively later and later and the waiting room wasn’t exactly the warmest, being simply a wooden structure with a large pane of glass missing. I had become quite accomplished at temperature rating, and I estimated it to be below -12°c. Dressed as I was in my wool, fur and ventile outer layer I was still chilly and again I began to worry about the parents. When asked how they were, their response of ‘fine’ didn’t exactly ring true and I soon had them pacing the length of the shelter to keep warm while I kept up to date via the phone and sisters as to where exactly the train was.
Those hours at the station, no heating and no lights (which had turned themselves off about half an hour after the train should have arrived) rank as one of the more concerning episodes of this adventure, I really didn’t want Dad or Mum to start suffering hypothermia and bullied them into staying inside, moving around constantly. The train finally arrived, 142 minutes late. Apparently the brakes had failed because of the extreme cold, and another train had been needed. We drew into a winter wonderland of Wick at about 045, nearly nine hours after I had been picked up from Inverness and at least six hours later than we should have. It was gone three in the morning when I finally had my first shower in nearly three months. I have to admit I was slightly distracted by the mirror; it was interesting to see just how much my body had changed over the time out in the wilds. I mentioned this previously, but the mirror showed just how much weight I had actually added, not lost; taut and much larger muscles pretty much everywhere, including places I’ve not had them before. Most interesting; anyone wanting to get into seriously good shape should head out into the woods for several weeks… (I have however, now reached the point that I cannot wait to be rid of my fluffy hair and huge beard, clippers are at the ready and the date is set for comedy-de-hairing in amusing fashion [wax ready for beard/moustache shaping] when my other sister arrives here for Christmas; hurry up please!).
We were lucky to have made it back when we did – it turned out that was the last train for nearly ten days, the cold meant that the trains simply failed to operate and the snow and ice meant that bus replacements were also cancelled. It took ten days before the thaw set in and we were able to retrieve the car and when we did watching the raging River Helmsdale was quite spectacular; huge sheets of ice were being smashed up on their journey to the sea, it looked more like a spring melt river in Canada or Scandanavia.
So, I am now safely ensconced in the far north. The snow up here was lovely, each day it was as though someone had shaken a giant etch-a-sketch and cleared any tracks or marks, leaving a new fresh and clean canvas. I have taken some photos of Milly-prints (the family cat) with the same scale marker as I had with the wildcat – the difference in size is quite impressive. The birds here are a strange combination of those I remember from being brought up in Orkney and also smaller woodland and town species. Large herring gulls vie for the food that is put out daily with flurries of chaffinches. Jackdaws genuflect as they pick up scattered seeds, joined by rooks they look like a bevy of black-clad clergy. I do not begrudge, nor moan about the snow – I don’t understand that, it adds a frosting to everything, making the dirty look angelic and reflecting light in a special way. I am looking forward to seeing the Merry Dancers, or Aurora Borealis soon; this winter is supposed to be a good year for them. Thank you, solar wind!
I have spent some time on writing since returning to a computer, bought a new sketchbook for some illustrations and, since I got my pack back, I have also carried on with the completion of my Christmas presents; having to hoover up the chippings and scrapings of bone, wood and stone; no longer can I simply let them fall on to an earth floor. I have also written a couple of letters; the good, old-fashioned kind, eschewing email at present in favour of the fountain pen. Of course, whether anyone will receive these with the postal service being so backed up (we even had a delivery on Sunday), is another matter.
Although I am officially leaving any Big Decisions until after Christmas, I have already sketched out a long list of options as to where Vague Wanderings will next take me. As I have said previously, exciting plans are afoot.
Amusingly, I have less phone signal here than I did out in the woods, but I am working to redress that and will soon return to the world of social media. I have peeked in on Facebook recently and have to admit I found it difficult to relate to many of my friends’ statuses. Maybe this is a result of being away from day-to-day life for so long? I can see how the mountain men found life difficult to adjust to once they came down to sell their furs and resupply, yet I am acutely aware that I will not be returning to the mountains for any great length of time any time soon. I have too much to do, too many people to see, too many places to visit. There’s a big world out there and I am keen to experience as much of as many different parts of it as I can.
And the crux of this will be my words, my writing. I don’t want to become one of those people who ‘travel’ and look down condescendingly on those who have chosen not to, choices are individual and to be respected, but I do want to experience more and more, follow notions I once thought I’d be unable to and generally continue having adventures. Where will I go next? What will I do? Could I find myself teaching English in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Istanbul or North Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) or perhaps doing some voluntary work somewhere. Or any one of the several pages of journal recorded options I have sketched out. Who knows? I have no regrets at all for the decision to leave for the wilds and intend to thoroughly enjoy Christmas, as I am already enjoying my time up here. I will return to these subjects in my Vague Preoccupations retrospective of the year, coming soon to a ShiverWriggle near you.
For now though, I will leave this here, I have immensely enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to share it with you, and would like to once again extend my heartfelt thanks to The Editor for all the work she has put into this site and, finally, a big thank you to you too for reading and sticking with this to the end of this chapter. Thank you one and all, have a great Christmas and I hope 2011 brings you all you wish for.