So. Events, Happenings. But first, I’m going to backtrack to cover one or two other points I wish to share. This is likely to be the last piece for a short while in Vague Wanderings, I will soon be cloistered away, first finishing my Christmas presents and writing a few letters, then working on my novel. I imagine I will write another piece or two on my adventure; there are things I can’t yet talk about as they are to do with the aforementioned Christmas presents. Also expect some text to accompany the wealth of (rather good) photographs that will appear here soon… I also have no doubt that this time living out in the wilds will be mentioned in my second Vague Preoccupations Retrospective of the Year; being as it has almost a quarter of that time.
This leads me to my next point; some cold hard facts and damned statistics. While I have been out here I have:
- Seen late summer, all of autumn (or fall, as I prefer) and an early, severe and exciting start to winter.
- Sourced, collected, carried, sawn, chopped and burnt an estimated (conservatively) two thousand five hundred feet of logs (anything over an inch and a half diameter I class as a log, factor in small fuel, twigs etc and you can more than triple that).
- Learnt the names and locations of twenty four constellations, and several stars, nebulae, clusters and other celestial objects.
- Eaten twelve kilos of pasta, six of oats and four of rice.
- Located, carried and purified around four hundred litres of water.
- Gathered blackberries, blackberry leaves, rosehips, rowan berries, bilberries, crowberries, beech mast, hedgehog fungus, velvet shank, honey fungus, penny bun, laver, oarweed, sea belt, dulse, pepper dulse, carragheen, sea lettuce, yarrow, heather, dandelion, winkles, limpets, mussels, cockles, shore crabs, prawns, shrimps and edible crabs – and processed and eaten or drank them all.
- Seen, or seen signs of, stoat, hedgehog, bats, red deer, badger, fox, wild cat, wood mouse, shrew, otter, common lizard, frogs, toads, common seal, grey seal, porpoise, dolphin, many birds and many, many species of plant, tree, lichen etc.
- Other than on resupplies, seen three people. And no one at all for four weeks…
- Handwritten, photographed and sent twelve blog pieces.
- Completely filled two Moleskine notebooks and a good way through a third and fourth.
- Crafted, or started, sixteen poems.
- Sketched out all twenty four sections (not necessarily chapters) of my novel, and (hand)written rather a lot of it.
I think that will do for the figures. I’m going to jump backwards slightly in time, before leaping once more to the near and current.
I ended this piece with mentioning how there were still firsts to be had. The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed how I glossed over Saturday in my last piece, leaping to the night time temperatures and neglecting the few hours of daylight. This was deliberate; I wanted to talk about something exciting that had happened, and talk I shall.
Saturday was another cold and snowy day, but incredibly beautiful, almost hauntingly so. When I went to check my phone in the morning I saw the tracks of a lone deer; he or she had gone to the watering hole I had been using but found it dry. I went to survey the glen, looking down upon this world of white for any movement below. The buzzards were out, the two adults flapping wildly, trying to find thermals upon which to soar and struggling to do so, the cold air making their lives difficult. As I watched I heard an odd squawking from the trees on the opposite side of the valley and watched as the juvenile buzzard attempted to join its parents, for a minute or so it pumped its wings furiously, before giving up with the not-quite-keeee of the adult birds and disgustingly returning to settle in a tree, where it continued to voice its protest at this new and not entirely welcome experience. This process was repeated three times while I watched.
Although I had refilled my water on the previous day, I had mostly finished this; realising just how the cold, dry air dehydrates, sucking out the moisture from my body, I made a conscious effort to drink more than I would usually. I gathered a few more logs before heading down to the pool in the burn to fill my bags. I almost left my camera behind, before remembering that I wanted to take some photos of where the birds had been at the holly trees, scattering scarlet berries in the snow. On my way I found no fresh deer tracks but continued to scan the ground for sign. As I descended the steep slope there, as clear as daylight, was a perfect wildcat track. I approached carefully, lest I muddle any other sign and could see where it had paused, sat for a moment, then turned in direction. The prints were huge, bigger than the single wildcat track I had found in the mud previously. I took photos, using my steel mug for scale, and also my camera lens cap.
There is no mistaking a wildcat track – it looks remarkably similar to those of a domestic cat print, only a lot bigger. To say I was excited is probably an understatement. To know that a wildcat walked the same way I had less than twenty four hours previously, and about a half mile from where I sleep is indicative of the wildness of this place. I scanned around the tracks for a few yards in every direction but failed to find another track, scuff or even slight disturbance. How it managed to move without leaving a clear trail is quite amazing. Rather pleased, I started the descent down the slope to collect my water. And found another track. And another and another. It took a lot longer to get to the pool than usually, as I kept taking photos of every sign or track I found. Half way down I realised I was tracking a wildcat, who at some point around dawn had passed this way, tracking me. This connection with one of the rarest (estimates suggest only four hundred remain) creatures in this country, him (for the size of the prints marked the cat as a large male) showing an interest in me? Truly incomparable. I managed to piece together about one hundred and fifty yards of trail, and it took every bit of my skill and knowledge to do so. I took rather a large number of photos too. I think he probably visits this area regularly, or even has a den nearby, since this trail was around four hundred yards from the lone print I had found previously. After collecting my water I called the Editor to share my excitement at this discovery, then went back to see if I could find more of the trail. I managed to add another hundred yards to that I had already determined, including where he had stopped at the burn to presumably drink.
On Sunday I didn’t need to collect any further water but, when I headed that way on Monday I spotted new wildcat tracks in the same area. The snow had turned into ice overnight on Saturday, so these must have been made around dusk on that day. I did of course take more photos and follow the tracks where I could, but these were fewer and harder to distinguish. The sequence of events, therefore, is thus:
- Friday afternoon – Collected water.
- Saturday morning – Wildcat followed my trail.
- Saturday afternoon – I followed wildcat, following me.
- Saturday evening – Wildcat follows me, following him, following me.
- Monday afternoon – I follow wildcat, following me, following him, following me…
Rather amusing and splendiferously exciting! As I said – still firsts to be had. I will return to this subject later but let’s now move back to the Events and Happenings…
As I mentioned in the final paragraph of my last piece, the folks were supposed to be collecting me from Fort William on their way back from England on Friday the 3rd of December. As you may have guessed, the weather put an end to that plan (damn good job too, or they would probably be still stuck in a snowdrift somewhere en route). On Tuesday they decided not to risk the journey down there and let me know this. They wouldn’t be able to pick me up from Fort William, but could possibly collect me if I could find my way to Inverness. It was decision time. What to do?
My options were simple – either head to Fort William on the train, then get the bus to Inverness (the train route would take me back south as far as Glasgow, before heading north again and wouldn’t be possible to complete without an overnight stop somewhere) where I could be collected, or walk to Arisaig and resupply, staying out in the wilds for another couple of weeks. Each had its own pros and cons.
To stay would most definitely involve a resupply, I had enough food to last a little while, but it was becoming increasingly bland, nourishing, yes, boring, yes. And if I were to resupply, then I might as well purchase enough to last another couple of weeks, taking me to the middle of the month. I wasn’t worried about the cold, I was thriving in the sub zero temperatures, to camp out when the mercury falls to -20°c at night was proving exciting. What I was worried about was what would happen when the thaw set in. The ground was solid, sphagnum like concrete (incidentally, this was making cleaning my pans troublesome, since I used the stuff to scrub them, I was having to hack chunks out with my knife and either use it frozen, or melt it first) and icicles that were measured in feet. Admittedly, where my camp is received no rain for the preceding two weeks and only a couple of inches of snow, but when the thick cover that blanketed the hills and mountains began to thaw, the burn would become near impassable, raging and dangerous.
To go would make life easier in many ways; I would be able to take the necessary collecting of water and fuel out of the equation, no cooking, no sawing, no chopping, no cleaning. This would mean I would have substantially longer to finish my Christmas presents than if I stayed out in the woods. Coupled with the rapidly decreasing availability of daylight, this was a strong argument to leave. I would miss the place, but it wouldn’t be going anywhere. Another reason to leave was simply the amount of messages from family and friends I had started to receive, worrying I may freeze to death (I wouldn’t, I’m allergic to death, but it was good to know that people care), this would ease their worries somewhat. I had already made a decision to leave the shelter up, rather than take it apart and disperse the materials as I have in the past. A couple of reasons were behind this thinking; the shelter was now home, not only to me, but also to a wood mouse and a family of shrews, both my robin and wren roosted within the walls and, perhaps even more importantly, several seedlings of oak and scots pine had started to do rather well – without the protection of the shelter, the deer would quickly eat them. Also, I am fairly sure I’ll be returning for a few days (at least) at the end of winter or beginning of spring, this time with Dr EW and hopefully another good friend. It simply made sense to leave it, I would be hugely surprised if anyone were to find it; without knowing exactly where it is it would be pretty impossible to see unless you happen to walk past the door, and even then you’d have to be within very close range. This is an added benefit of a natural shelter versus a tent, or even tarp and hammock; it blends in so well as to virtually disappear (you will be subjected to several photos of exactly how well closer to Christmas).
I checked the weather forecast on a number of sites and they all concurred to say the cold conditions would last for a while, before a thaw would set in, around the time I would be leaving if I resupplied. So, I made the decision to leave and, rather than wait for the snow to get worse in the north, possibly causing issues for the folks heading south to Inverness to pick me up, I decided I’d leave the following day – Wednesday the first of December. As I previously mentioned, I always wanted to stay out until December, how long into the month was always going to depend on supplies and other factors. Part of me wanted to stay out longer, but cold, hard logic won out. My sister organised my bus ticket from Fort William to Inverness and I started to pack up my kit. When I made that decision I thought about how soon I’d be able to have my hot bath and glass of wine. What I didn’t know was quite how difficult things were to become…