West Coast Scarba Shenanigans

  • by Ian Cooke

So today dear reader, across the next four chapters in this post, we’re going to visit the island of Scarba. It lies just south of Mull and is surrounded by fearsome neighbouring tidal challenges. We have the Dorus Mor, the Gulf of the Grey Dogs and most famous all…… the Hag, the mighty Corryvreckan.

Or that’s how you would expect a sea kayaking blog about Scarba to start and carry on. But let’s be honest, the best stories on these trips often happen when you’re on dry land and spending time with mates and family.

And on to our stories, three years, three sketches of life out on the edge and away from home. They involve modern cavemen,  vicious little biters and naked strangers. They are surrounded by a watching audience of white tailed eagles, otters and passing dolphins and porpoise.

Episode 1 – 2008 – Stig of the Dump meets the Deer Hunter

This particular story is one of well-meant intentions and unintended fear on this remote island. It takes place several miles and sets of islands from the mainland and uninhabited pretty much on a year round basis.

Myself and three friends, Chris Pennock, John Winterbottom and Steve Walsh were just paddling out and around the island. Whilst we waited for the tide to sort itself out in the Corryvreckan, we sat in a bay at the east end of the passage called Baig Gleann a Mhaoil on Scarba having a brew.

Left to right – myself, Chris Pennock, John Winterbottom and Steve Walsh at a derelict bar just south of Craobh Haven, a great base camp for exploring Dorus Mor, Jura, Corryvreckan, Scarba and the Grey Dogs

And that is where the series of events starts as I inadvertently left a pair of new and expensive Teva sandals there as we set off around the island………..

Having got around the island and back through the Grey Dogs, I remembered that I’d left my sandals in the bay. As it was a hot day I stripped down to a cut off ragged 20 year old Helly top and old neoprene shorts and ran barefoot across the island to get my sandals.

On the way I was delighted to find a huge pointed deer antler which I proudly picked up and jogged on to get my shoes.

So on the way back I’m running along, barefoot, a pair of shoes in one hand and a large pointy thing in the other.

Five minutes later I spotted a couple of people in camouflage who’d obviously been dropped off to do some bird spotting or deer stalking.

At that moment, in my mind, there was nothing more that these people wanted in life than to talk to me that morning so I shouted, waved and ran a little more quickly towards them.

Now flip this around from their view and the first thing they see on a totally deserted island is Stig of the Dump, howling at them, in a raggy arsed top and brandishing a makeshift weapon bursting out of the bracken and so they did the only decent thing and ran for their lives away from me towards the other side of the island……

I couldn’t catch them to explain as I was barefoot and they went into the rough ground.

So I calmly jogged on back to the boat and we went home.

I still wonder what they think happened that day and who they’d met?

Episode 2 –  2004 – Mountain Climbing, Beautiful Views and the Price We Pay

I guess that this cautionary story really starts in 1986 in the Menai Straits in North Wales, where I lived. The Straits was a regular playground and training ground, keeping skills topped up to throw ourselves down falls and torrents. We had no real guidebook information at that time as to what lay ahead, but that’s a whole different story and time……

So my flatmate and lifelong friend, Steve May had a sea kayak and one evening we set off on my first ever sea trip from Menai Bridge. We went past Beaumaris, Penmon Point and around to Red Wharfe bay. Steve was in his sea kayak and I was balancing a totally unsuited Nomad Marlin wild water racing kayak. I’d done several races in the boat, but I was now in a totally new arena and I loved it!

Moving forward to 1999 I remembered how much fun that day had been and was now the proud owner of a sea kayak. I was doing adventures like a kid in a sweet shop, hoovering them up by the bucketload. This was how Steve and I came to be on Scarba in 2004, with a mission to climb the mighty 449m high Cruach Scarba.

It was a beautiful day, the long grass was cool against our legs as we climbed and the view from the top was simply stunning. As far as the eye could see, islands stretched like pebbles in a jewel of a sea in all directions. Please make sure that you do this once in your life if you get the chance…….

Midnight paddling at Craobh Haven looking west towards Scarba and the Corryvreckan– photo courtesy of Chris Pennock

Now to the price we pay. The next day I got a call from a worried Steve that went like this……

Steve – ‘How are your legs?’

Me (thinking ‘what an odd question’) – ‘Fine thank you’

Steve – ‘Well have a look, I think I got bitten by some ticks’ (deer ticks)

Me (looking down at legs that now clearly had 40 little and not so little creatures half buried under my flesh with their little legs kicking delightedly behind as they gorged on my blood and shared their poison back with me) – ‘WTAF….. Aarrgh’

So off for some serious treatment to get these nasty little blighters out and luckily I didn’t suffer any lasting symptoms.

So the moral to this chapter through a lesson hard earned, was always keep well covered up on these remote islands, an afternoon of fun can lead to a lifetime of debilitating health conditions and nobody wants that……..

Episode 3 –  2014 – The Naked Adventurer

The third episode in this trio of fun filled fables relates to a circumnavigation of Scarba with a dear and lifelong friend, Chris Wiles, an excellent river boater, now in a sea kayak for the third time in his life and going through a fairly advanced learning trajectory.

The day before, we’d done 28 miles in an anticlockwise trip around Lismore, down the west side on the ebb tide down Loch Linnhe and back up the east side on the next flood, much of it in thick mist on compass bearings, simples!

Now, on for the next stage of the accelerated skills acquisition programme and it was off to challenge ourselves through the Corryvreckan and back through the Grey Dogs.

So we did all that, the day was beautiful and we paddled back up the big eddy system on the north side of Scarba in the opposite direction to the strongly flowing mid-flood Grey Dogs. Now for those people who haven’t experienced these places in action at mid tide, they are seriously impressive and committing features and are simply impossible to paddle against.

Due to the strong opposing current, we got out on the north east corner of Scarba and portaged across the boulders, thus sneaking around the main current at the head of the rapid.

So far, so good, the plan was a fine one and we were happy, but then the day took an unexpected turn. As we paddled into the bay below Kilmory Lodge, we landed and got out of our boats.

Silently and unobtrusively, an entirely naked man stood up at the top of the beach, lean, well tanned and shaven headed, he walked past us very closely, without acknowledging us and at that moment, we noticed a pink plastic touring kayak.

The naked adventurer got into his boat, no bags, no clothes, a 30 year old wooden river paddle in his hand, no spraydeck and no buoyancy aid and paddled out of sight across the formidable Sound of Luing, back towards the mainland.

Chris and I smiled at each other, turned around and looked up to see the resident three foot high white tailed eagle standing sentinel 30 metres away from us in a tree, quietly observing the scene.

So nudity is great and natural, we were all born that way, but no spraydeck and PFD in the biggest tidal features around, now that’s just mad!

If, dear reader, you were that kayaker, then you are the ultimate self-reliant adventurer and I salute you!

Oh and Chris just reminded me this morning, I then tried to set him on fire back at our camp site at Craobh Haven that evening, with a strange mixture of thoughtlessness, methylated spirits and a very hot Trangia, but I’ll leave that one to Chris to tell……!

Episode 4 – Lots More to Come………

The first time that Chris Pennock and I challenged ourselves in tidal rapids at full flow like the Grey Dogs. After the Grade 5 Fraser Canyon, Overlander Falls, Bhote Kosi, Marsyangdi, Norway, French and Austrian Alps, surely this was ok? Wow, four to five foot high glassy entrance waves and an eddy the size of a football field, that was a beautiful day and on a whole different scale.

Another time waking up at the north end of Jura, with Chris, Frank Hardcastle, John Winterbottom, Steve May and Mike Taylor in an unexpected force 6 with a tent blowing flat against my face was not a good start to the day. Anyway, we got home, mostly on a compass bearing and the last bit without exaggeration involved surfing 8 foot waves to a place of refuge.

Over the next few posts, we’ll see some random memories and hopefully a few nice photos and fun times.

Spent my life having fun in mountains, rivers, sea and surf. After 40 years doing it, still can’t get enough and hungry as ever to experience this beautiful world and nature.

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