Summer Isles by Sea Kayak

By Colin Hogarth

There are places in this world where only a canoe will take you. Places so spectacular, so dramatic, yet so hidden from view and so inaccessible to man that you wonder if perhaps you are the first person to go there. A sea kayak will take you into caves so deep and so dark and through narrow cliff-lined channels where the only regular visitor is the gently ebbing tide. Yet these hidden gems are not marvels of some far off land. They're to be found much closer to home, on the west coast of Scotland. And it was moments like these that made a long weekend paddling around the Summer Isles such a voyage of discovery.

My inspiration for the trip was canoeist Brian Wilson's excellent book 'Blazing Paddles', an account of his epic 1800-mile solo sea kayaking adventure around the coast of Scotland. We would not be going to such extraordinary lengths, but I re-read his paperback between packing dry-bags and buying midge repellent.

Our base was Tanera Mor, the largest and only inhabited island of the Summer Isles. Aside from a handful of people, it is home to otters, seals and various species of bird. It is owned by Bill and Jean Wilder who I first met a year earlier on a canoe trip down the River Spey. They swapped a mainland farm for this piece of paradise but their early dreams were very nearly shattered when, before they'd taken delivery of the keys, a fierce fire destroyed most of Tanera Mor's vegetation, leaving the island black. Thankfully, a profusion of grasses and colourful wildflowers now carpet the fertile slopes once again.

Tanera Mor is unique in that it is the only Scottish island to operate a regular, year-round private postal service. Since December 1970, it has issued its own stamps and these are highly sought after by collectors, to the extent that the Summer Isles has its own philatelic bureau. The island Post Office - housed within the tearoom providing sustenance to a regular stream of visitors taking Summer Isles cruises from Ullapool - stocks a selection.

Thanks to a costly moment of motoring misfortune on the A9, I arrived at the pier on Badentarbat Bay, near Achiltibuie, in the dead of night, some hours after the rest of the party had crossed from the mainland. Thankfully, Bill was there with his boat, MV Patricia, and it wasn't long before I joined the other nine novice kayakers and our three instructors at base camp.

The following day, we returned to the mainland on Bill's boat and drove a couple of miles up the coast to a sheltered natural harbour at Old Dornie, a relatively calm spot for some basic kayaking lessons. Aside from a persistent breeze pushing us ever closer to some cherished yachts moored in the bay, we made good progress and, after lunch, we departed from this safe haven and headed through the channel of Caolas Eilean Ristol, out in to the open sea. We didn't stray too far this early on, however, and our trip took us just half a mile down the coast.

After tea and scones in the Tanera Mor Tearoom, courtesy of Jean, a second night was spent on the island. The next day would be the start of our island adventure proper.

Eager to get underway, we boarded Patricia after breakfast for the crossing to Badentarbet Bay pier where our craft awaited. The first task, once we'd been fitted for wetsuits, buoyancy aids and spraydecks, was to paddle back to the island. The weather was fair and the water tranquil, ensuring our first real test was not too stern.

The kayaks glided effortlessly through the rolling grey-blue ocean but all the same, I must admit to a certain feeling of vulnerability - such a small craft and such a large, deep expanse of water. Thoughts of what may be lurking in that dark marine kingdom beneath my fragile hull were quickly put to the back of the mind as we steamed on towards the safety of The Anchorage, Tanera Mor's harbour.

Once ashore, there was a real feeling of achievement. We'd only paddled a mile or so, but we'd all made it in one piece - no capsizes in the chilly west coast waters. The Summer Isles may benefit from the warm stroke of the Gulf Stream, but the briny was far from inviting.

After lunch we began the task of dismantling base camp and stowing everything aboard the canoes. Each boat has a waterproof hold at either end, bulkheads separating these from the cockpit, and sealed hatches giving access. The storage space was surprisingly generous and, as it sits lower in the water due to the extra weight, a loaded kayak is more stable than an empty one.

Sea conditions were becoming increasingly rough as we prepared to set off again. Our route took us across The Anchorage to its southern end and, even in this sheltered bay, the water was alarmingly choppy, the canoes rising and falling as waves rolled rhythmically underneath.

As conditions deteriorated, our instructor, Myles Farnbank, who manages an outdoor centre near Arrochar, decided, with the wind blowing the way it was, it was too early in our kayaking careers to go tackle the rocky point at Rubha Dubh, the south-eastern tip of the island. However, if we were to continue round Tanera Mor, we'd have to negotiate this obstacle somehow. The decision was taken to haul the boats out of the sea and carry them overland - our first (and, thankfully, only) experience of portage. Like crocodiles, kayaks are fast and graceful in their natural environment - the water. But take them out and they become heavy, ungainly creatures.

With each laden vessel carried by four people using a selection of makeshift rope harnesses gathered from the beach, we manhandled the canoes up and over the grassy headland before plonking them back in.

With the wind coming from the north, the island afforded shelter as we cruised east along the south coast, pausing occasionally to spot sea urchins clinging to the rock below the high tide line, or to marvel up at impressive natural rock formations in the high sea bird-strewn cliffs. From a kayak you get a whole different perspective on the land. You can explore inlets and coves too tight for larger boats, or too steep for walkers to reach.

From the west coast of the island, we set out over open water, crossing the channel of Caolas a'Mhill Ghairbh to reach Eilean Fada Mor, a chunk of land wedged between Tanera Mor and Tanera Beg. We rounded its northern end and, as we skirted a tiny islet, we spotted a family of seals playing in the shallows, life as nature intended - undisturbed by human influence, apart, of course, from a shoal of inquisitive sea kayakers.

Our campsite on Tanera Beg was rough and ready, but the deep bed of springy heather beneath my ground sheet provided a wonderfully comfortable mattress. The evening brought rain and midges in equal measures, but things perked up later and we turned in beneath a golden sky, the promise of better weather to come.

We were not to be disappointed. Day three dawned bright and sun cream was liberally plastered on to pale skin as we prepared to hit the water once again. So calm and clear was the water, so bright the sun, that our surroundings could easily have been mistaken for somewhere far more exotic.

The day was not to be without its challenges, however. While the sea on the south coast of Tanera Beg was tranquil, the wind was whipping down the west coast and it wasn't long before we were paddling headlong into it. A worrying swell was building as we reached the Cathedral, a spectacular high-roofed cave. Here I came close to capsizing, my canoe lurching perilously over to one side as I caught a wave. Thankfully only my stomach flipped, and the experience strengthened my resolve to concentrate on the job in hand, rather than admiring rock formations, however impressive they may be.

A stony bay littered with washed-up fish boxes heralded lunch. We were ashore in time for Radio 4's shipping forecast. To the casual listener, this transmission sounds like an odd, if, some say, romantic, jumble of names and numbers. But, once explained, you quickly realise what appears to be secret code is in fact detailed information that could mean the difference between life and death for mariners. It played a vital role in the safe planning of our expedition and certainly made more sense than the cricket commentary that followed.

Unfortunately, the forecast predicted gales. So, with the wind strengthening, Myles decided against taking us north round the next point and we backtracked to Caolas a'Mhill Ghairbh. We paddled north through the channel, up the east coast of Eilean Fada Mor where we discovered a sea arch and a deep, dark cave occupied by breeding shags, before heading for the west side of Tanera Mor. The final part of the day's voyage took us round the rocky north coast of the island and back to base camp.

After a windy night, we paddled across the bay to the mainland and transported the canoes by road to the harbour at Old Dornie. From there, we set off up the north coast of Isle Ristol, then out and round Eilean Mullagrach. Our final night saw us camped above a glorious white swathe of sand on Isle Ristol, a perfect end to the adventure.

The Summer Isles may not always live up to their name weather-wise, but the scattered chunks of land provide a perfect playground for paddlers.

Click here for photos from the trip.

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