The Best-Laid Plans…

Hasteful MammalOF HELPFUL Mammals oft gang agley! I said before that I’d had a mad plan concerning Cape Wrath and that it didn’t work.  I initially wrote this up as normal but later deleted it as it involved doing something that was definitely dangerous and, while I was confident that I had been duly cautious, I didn’t want to encourage anyone else to endanger themselves.  I have now decided to put back up a rewritten version, which is this.

Cape Wrath

The Problems

The main problem that I was facing was I couldn’t do the there-and-back trek to Cape Wrath if I couldn’t get to it, which I couldn’t because the Cape Wrath ferry had ceased running for the year. This had been prompted largely by the military wanting to use the bombing range that covers the cape. Avoiding a spectacular death by being bombed was a potential second challenge to be avoided.

Sign: Next Ferry crossing will be at 2020
Of course, as it turned out, 2020 would bring its own dangers in form of a global pandemic.
The Solutions

The most obvious solution was ‘don’t go,’ which is also the only sensible one if the military range is in use. I had checked and double-checked, however, and confirmed that the actual bombing wouldn’t start until the day after I wanted to execute my plan.

This left crossing the Kyle of Durness as my main problem.  I knew that it was possible to go around it by backing up all the way to the lowest footbridge over the River Dionard and then trailblazing my way back to the ferry slipway on the far side, but this would double the day’s distance from around 13 miles to 27. This was a distance that I could do most days, but my dodgy knee had been twinging and there was a significant chance it would give up somewhere on the way back.

Map showing the footbridge route.
Well, I guess that’s that, then.

And then I read an account by someone who had forded the kyle.  This was, I feel the need to emphasise, a potentially suicidally dangerous choice. They got away with it, partly by judgment and partly by luck, but I figured I could cut down the risks with some very careful planning.

The Dangers

The most obvious dangers pertained to the waters of the Dionard. Obviously, you can’t cross it if it it’s too deep without actually swimming, and you don’t want to do that for most of the year on account of the risk of hypothermia. Or being swept out to sea by the current, if the flow rate is high enough. In fact, you can’t even wade across a river if it’s flowing too quickly, it only takes a few inches of water to carry you away if they are fast enough.

There are two main factors affecting how deep the water is in the Kyle. One is how much in spate the Dionard is, which in turn depends on rainfall and thus the time of year. The other is that it is tidal.  You definitely can’t cross it if the tide is going out, or the chance of being swept away is magnified. And crossing it while the tide is coming in just means it’s getting deeper while you try. No, you need to cross it at low tide slack water.

Compounding this is another reason for not trying to cross it at any time other than low tide: if the tide is on its way in or out, the bed of the kyle turns into quicksand.

Did I mention that this was a mad plan?

Careful Planning

Having consulted the relevant tide tables, I knew when low tide would be.  It would actually be an ungodly hour before breakfast, but that couldn’t be helped. So, now I knew when to cross. I had also carefully studied several maps and the Kyle itself and was confident that I had deduced where to cross – and you absolutely want to pick the right spot. 

I had observed the kyle carefully the previous day and had concluded that, providing it didn’t rain overnight, the current should be manageable.  Fortunately, it hadn’t rained. Nor was any rain forecast for the rest of the day, neither over the Kyle nor (more importantly) over the watershed that fed the River Dionard – I didn’t want to cross one way but not be able to get back!

Unfortunately, water temperature would be cold enough that I wouldn’t want to submerge any part of my torso in it, but getting my legs and feet wet would probably be okay, so long as I didn’t spend too long in the water and dried them off immediately I got out.

Deciding to Do It

At this point, I figured I had controlled everything I could except for one niggling point: The optimal time of year to try this would have been August. It was actually October and so might be too late. How high the water was at low tide would prove the deciding factor. Did I want to go ahead and try it?

Map showing that I had returned to the Keoldale turning beside the Kyle of Durness.
Er… okay then. I guess.
The Attempt

I arrived at my chosen spot at a time not too long after dawn and was pleased to see that the tide was right out, as it should be.  There was, however, still more water than in the kyle than I had hoped for, though not quite enough to stop me giving it a go. I stripped down to some more suitable swimming gear and, with my bag hoisted high upon my shoulder, began my way cautiously across. With every step, I reassessed my situation – was the sand ahead firm? (I tested this with a walking pole.) How strong was the current? And how deep was it now?

The water was, as expected, pretty cold. The current was strong enough to feel, but not so much that it exerted any appreciable force upon my legs and feet.  The limiting factor was definitely going to be depth, and that kept increasing as I splashed my way across.  It rose above my knees, which had been the optimal depth I could hope for, and then kept climbing up my thighs. I’d made it about a third of the way across the deepest channel of the Dionard when realised my mad plan was doomed – at its deepest point, the water was easily going to come up to my waist. I was absolutely not prepared to subject my torso to the water temperature and thus risk chilling my body core.  I had been defeated by October!

Reluctantly, I turned around and splashed back out again. The sand was getting pretty soft, though not yet properly dangerous, as I emerged from the water’s edge. It had been a bold plan, a mad plan, but ultimately a failed one. I would not be going to Cape Wrath.

Map showing that my attempt had ended. But not showing exactly where I made that attempt.
I’m not actually going to show you where I attempted to cross, as that would make it too easy for someone else to try it, and then get themselves into trouble. This was a stupid plan and I do not recommend copying it.

Hasteful MammalThis time: 0 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,858 miles

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