Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Day 3: Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond

Stupid midges....
Sept 10: During the night, I could feel condensation starting to form, so I flipped half of the tarp I was sleeping on over me--wrapping me up like a burrito. By morning, my tarp was soaking wet, but the rest of my gear and myself stayed largely dry.

Karolina and I started hiking shortly after sunrise, and within a few miles were headed up the biggest climb of the trail so far--up 558 feet (170m) to Conic Hill overlooking Loch Lomond--our first really good view of Loch Lomond. When we arrived, two hikers had paused to rest on the trail, but Karolina and I took the short path 5 minutes off trail to the very top of Conic Hill which we had to ourselves. The views were breathtaking! The photos can't really do it justice, but my words can't really do the photos justice, so I'll just let the photos below tell that story.

The views alone were worth the stop, but I had another motive for hiking the 5 minutes off trail to the very top of Conic Hill: a letterbox. I had clues for a letterbox here and--if we found it--it would be my first find in Scotland and Karolina's first find ever! (Needless to say, Poland isn't exactly known as being a hotbed of letterboxing activity.) For the most part, I gave Karolina the clues and let her go at it. She's never found a box before and I wanted her to have the "experience" of finding it. I was really hoping that the box was still there--it had been planted two years earlier and who knows if it might have gone missing in that time. It would be kind of a letdown if it were missing, I think, for Karolina. Especially since I hadn't found clues for any other letterboxes so close the West Highland Way. There would be no second chances if this box turned out to be missing!

But we found the box without trouble. It was a bit further off the main trail than I had expected, but a relatively easy box to find and it was in mint condition since we were the first people to ever find the box. Karolina excitedly stamped it into her journal and now has dreams of carving her own stamps and hiding boxes all over Poland and the Netherlands. I wished I had thought to bring some carving supplies to show her how its done, but I hadn't. I usually don't carry carving supplies on backpacking trips! (I usually pre-carve any stamps I intend to hide before I even get on the trail.) So I told her about how stamps are carved, but there wouldn't be any impromptu carving lessons from me.

By the time we stamped in, signed the logbook and headed back to the very top of Conic Hill, a crowd had formed. Half a dozen people had followed us up the trail and were now spread out eating snacks and enjoying the views. Karolina spread out her tent to dry the condensation that had formed overnight and I spread out my tarp for the same reason.

About a half hour later, we packed up again and continued down the trail towards the small town of Balmaha.

We stopped at the Oak Tree Inn there to fill up with clean water, get our passports stamped and use the restrooms--events that normally I wouldn't bother to put in a blog post because they're so boring and uneventful (at least you hope they're uneventful!), but in the restrooms here.... they had chewable toothbrushes! Neither Karolina or I had ever heard of that, and we both wanted to try it. So she paid a pound and got three chewable toothbrushes, giving one to me. We'd try them out later. After dinner.

From here on out, the West Highland Way would follow the banks of Loch Lomond, or at least very close to it. The lake wasn't always visible through the trees, but it was always close by.

We stopped in Rowardennan only long enough to get our West Highland Way passports stamped again. The passports were styled in the model of the Camino passports, but there were a few differences. For one, they had the name of the town in each square where the stamp was to come from. The Camino has more of a "free-flowing" grid where you could get multiple stamps from one town, and maybe miss other towns. Here, there was space for one stamp per town, so Karolina and I felt pressured to make sure we got a stamp for every town. The other difference disappointed us even more--the stamps were all identical except for the name of the town written on it. Whenever we found a business with an actual custom-make stamp that was different from the rest, it was an exciting event. A precious few of the businesses had 'colored outside of the lines' and made truly custom-make stamps, and we definitely appreciated those.

But I digress.... our sole reason for stopping in Rowardennan was to fill in the stamp on our passport for that town which we did at the Rowardennan Hotel. It would have been nice to stop for a drink at the bar there and rest our weary feet, but it was late in the day and we were still stuck in the "no camping" zone along Loch Lomond. To be legal and good citizens of the world, we had several more miles we needed to cover before dark.

Eventually, we crossed that line where camping was once again allowed and then it just became a matter of finding a good place to camp. We still wanted to push on a few more miles since Karolina had a schedule to keep to if she was going to finish the trail in time to go to work, and my guidebook had two route options we could follow. The main path followed through the woods away from the shoreline but sounded like because it was in the woods. The scenic shoreline route, however, was described as being more difficult, more ups-and-downs, and although it's the same distance, took longer to hike.

Realistically, given our time, the straight and easy but non-scenic route seemed like the wiser choice. On the other hand, both of us preferred the more scenic route when we could!

When we reached the trail junction, however, we found a sign saying that the scenic route was closed for trail work. You'd think that would have made the decision for us, but you'd be wrong. I considered the "trail closed" sign a mere suggestion, not an order. =)

But it did lead to us spending another couple of minutes debating the merits of continuing on that route or not. Earlier in the day, we had seen signs warning of "trail work" which showed heavy equipment like trackers and stuff ripping everything up. I think it wasn't so much that they were working to improve the trail as much as they were working along the trail--adding sewage lines or who knows what--that was meant to improve civilization near the trail rather than the trail itself. The trail would just be affected by the work. The day before, we saw another trail detour due to work on electrical lines or something. I didn't really think it was trail work as much as it was work that happened to occur on the trail.

Conic Hill, straight ahead! You can see the West Highland Way
snaking up almost to the top along the right side.

So I assumed that something similar was happening here as well. At this point, it was fairly late in the afternoon--a bit after 6:00--and I made the argument that whatever heavy equipment they were using on the trail was probably shut down and not working this late in the day and it wouldn't be a big deal for us to walk through.

So we decided to follow the scenic route which, technically, was closed to hikers.

Within minutes, we passed a couple of people who were camped on a beach along the trail. One of them waved to us and said hello, and we waved back in return but didn't stop to talk. We had miles to do before it got too dark! We were planning to reach a series of "small beaches" described in my guidebook which we thought like an excellent place to camp for the night. If we could just reach it before dark....

The trail along this stretch was definitely more strenuous than anything we had experienced so far. Knotty roots grew across the trail as tripping hazards, and the trail was narrow and overgrown in areas. It also went up and down small but steep hills, going around cliffs that plunged into Loch Lomond. Our speed slowed down dramatically.

Then we reached the work site that caused the trail closure and, to my surprise, it was actual trail work. A steep section was having a staircase built into the hillside. It was no big deal to get around, but I suddenly had a new worry. I figured the trail work involved heavy machinery and that whoever worked on it probably drove into town each night for civilization, but this looked like actual trail work that would take a week or more to complete if a team were working full time on it. It was fairly remote too. No roads in the immediate area for trail workers to drive home every night.

"Karolina," I said. "The people working on this trail... they might be camping on it too! We might not be able to sneak through without anyone noticing!"

I sentence her to the equivalence of radio silence. Just in case the camp workers were in tents, I hoped we could still sneak by undetected. I wasn't really too worried that the workers themselves would fine us or turn us in. If it was like any of my trail work experience in the United States, the people who were doing the trail work probably had no authority to hand out fines or cause much trouble. At the same time, though, I didn't want to make it awkward for them (or us!) as they explained that we were hiking through an area that was off limits--which we already knew in any case.

Karolina asked if maybe the people we saw camped at the beach were the trail workers. I had forgotten about them, but she was right. They could have been the people working on the trail here. It was close enough! I was a little surprised when they said hello to us as we passed by--most people aren't so forward towards hikers passing by, but trail workers might be. Especially if they saw people hiking through an area that was supposed to be closed to other hikers.

But I couldn't be sure that was the case either. I didn't see any work tools in their camp (not that I was looking for it at the time), and since the trail was closed to hikers, they probably would have left their tools on the trail anyhow. No reason to carry them back to camp every day. (And, in fact, there were plenty of tools laying around the work site.)

We continued hiking onwards, stifling our talk for the time being so as not to make any unnecessary noise that might draw attention to ourselves. The further away we got from the work site, though, the more comfortable I felt that the workers were behind us. After a half hour of walking, I felt certain that they weren't camped ahead--the beaches behind us would have been closer, larger and a more natural place to set up a work camp. Then we saw another "trail workers ahead" sign and wondered if there were a couple of teams working on the trail and therefore might be a second camp of workers along the trail.

We hiked in silence again, and while we did find a few tools laying on the side of the trail, we didn't see anything that looked like a major work project. If anyone was doing trail work here, they weren't doing anything more than brushing the trail.

In any case, we saw nobody except for those campers on the beach and I was more certain than ever that they were the work crew. And I was glad we didn't stop to chat since they might have tried to "encourage" us to get back off of the closed trail.

It was nearing 8:00 in the evening when the darkness started impeding my taking photos of the trail. I could no longer take photos at all under the tree cover, but along the shore I was still able to get a few photos in the dwindling light. Even that was getting increasingly iffy and we needed to find a place to stop soon. Karolina looked exhausted too. I was tired, but wouldn't go so far as to say I was exhausted. Karolina looked absolutely exhausted, though.

"Next place we find to camp," I told her, "we should stop." The small beaches we had been shooting for couldn't have been much further ahead, but I didn't think we'd reach them before full on dark anymore.

A few minutes later, we found a tiny beach off the trail and climbed down to it and set up camp. It almost certainly wasn't one of the "small beaches" described in my guidebook--but it would have to do.

Karolina started setting up her tent when I heard her call out, "Jesus Christ!"

"What?" I asked. And she showed me--the pole for her tent had broken. Snapped in two.

We studied the problem, but neither of us could think of a good solution for it. I might have tried using duct tape to temporary fix it, but I didn't have any on me. I had given away the last of it I had to a guy I met on my last backpacking trip whose shoe was falling apart. Karolina's tent came with a repair kit, but she wasn't carrying it because she hadn't wanted the extra weight in her pack.

Ultimately, she strung her tent up in the trees as best she could. I gave her a bunch of extra rope I was carrying to help out in that regard, but we'll have to see what we could find in the next trail town to help with her tent problem.

I, in the meantime, spread out my tarp as a groundsheet to sleep on.

"If it rains," I told Karolina, "we both so screwed...."

Fortunately for both of us, rain was nowhere in the immediate forecast!

Karolina admires the stamp from her first letterbox find! =)
Views from Conic Hill overlooking Loch Lomond were awesome! Albeit getting pretty crowded by the time this photo was  taken. When we first arrived, there was nobody except Karolina and myself.

I set out my tarp for drying after condensation the night before got it all wet.

Chewable toothbrushes?! YES! Oh, and you wanted to know how well they worked, didn't you? After dinner, I tried one. It was a little weird, but my mouth didn't feel fully clean and ultimately I ended up brushing with a regular toothbrush and toothpaste like I usually did every night anyhow. In my book, it's a fail! Better than nothing, though!

The sheep say YES! to Scottish independence!
A wee apple on a barbed-wire fence. No, I don't know why....

Who'd have thunk?!

Karolina takes a snack break on a beach.

My guidebook had this to say about Loch Lomond: It's 23 miles (37km) long, up to 5 miles (8km) wide and 623 feet (190m) deep at its deepest point. It was carved out by glaciers 10,000 years ago, has 38 islands (almost all of them in the south part of the lake) and provides up to 450 liters of water per day to the people of Central Scotland which--amazingly--only lowers the water level by a mere 6 millimeters!

Karolina asks: Which one is me (Ryan), and which one is just the end of a log? Apparently, it's more difficult to tell than I thought because I kept having to wave at her and say, "Hello? I'm OVER HERE!" =)

Karolina found this swing to play on.

Normally, I take photos of the trail and sometimes Karolina is on it. This time, I wanted to try to get a picture of Karolina hiking with the trail in the background. So I sneaked up behind her and took this photo with the camera high in the air while following her. The focus on her is surprisingly sharp--I didn't really expect it to turn out so well since we were both hiking when the photo was taken--but the trail is blurry. Which is partly because the image was focused on Karolina and not the trail, but also because we were walking and therefore the trail wasn't sitting still! And although Karolina wasn't standing still, relative to me, she was stationary. All-in-all, I kind of liked the effect. =) I totally didn't think this photo would turn out at all, though!

Karolina imitates the statue in the lobby of the Rowardennan Hotel.

War memorial

Finally! We're free to camp pretty much anywhere once again! =)

Well, except for the closed trail. The trail is closed. Karolina? Where are you going...? Hey! Get back here! Ahh, shoot. Fine, but if we die, I'm totally blaming you. =) (Disclaimer: I may not be totally blameless in our going this way.)

With so many false alarms along the trail, I was actually a little surprised when I saw that they were doing actual trail work at this location!

The sun is getting lower and lower....

I wouldn't call this section of trail "hard" on an absolute scale, but it's easily the most challenging section of the West Highland Way.

By the end of the day, Karolina was looking exhausted! This is the only photo
I have of her not smiling. THE ONLY ONE!

Hanging her broken tent from a tree probably didn't improve things either! =)

Dusk over Loch Lomond.


Sharon Madson said...

Great post! TFS

Karolina said...

There might not be many letterboxes in Poland, but recently I visited the AtlasQuest website and to my surprise found a letterbox allegedly planted in my hometown! Well, ok, it was planted in 2008 so it might be gone by now, but I'm totally gonna check that out when I visit Sopot at Christmas! =)

Andrea Palma said...

Looks like you hooked a new letterboxer, Ryan. Those trails looked amazing.