Cape Wrath Trail – Wayfinding

While processing the disappointment of a thru-hike ended-too-soon, I am looking back at our short time on the Cape Wrath Trail (CWT) and seeing reflected a reoccurring theme God lately has been placing in my life: quality of experience over quantity. Although our days out on the CWT were cut short, there were many gifts it provided us – one of which was increasing our confidence in our ability to wayfind.

I have always been a bit directionally challenged. I do not get lost … or rather, I prefer to say that I tend to ‘temporarily misplace myself’ … or unintentionally launch into a wander. This happens more often in a cityscape, but has certainly occurred in wild land as well. I eventually recalibrate and figure out where I am, but I have not held a lot of stock in my ability to keep myself (let alone anyone else) on the right route in any type of landscape. The CWT, however, demands this of you.

Even though we only experienced an abbreviated section of the CWT, it was obvious from the first moment that this was a route not a trail. If I were forced to describe the CWT to someone in only a few sentences, one of my sentence allowances would be spent on the following: ‘The CWT is fundamentally an wayfinding venture’. This is because the route of CWT consists of pathless landscape (often marshland), semi-maintained footpaths, desire lines (those of man and beast), 4×4 tracks, and occasional paved roads. Often the ‘trail’ you are seeking is invisible (or mostly so) to your boots-on-the-ground, and you only know the route to follow by comparing a map (or a narrative description) to the land you are looking at. For those who live in Britain, and Scotland especially, this type of walking is perhaps more familiar than it is to a North American. Not that the States doesn’t have trackless wilderness to walk on – I have certainly gone off-trail in the Sierras and scrambled up scree, navigating by reading land forms instead of following a visible trail – but more often than not, you have an established footpath in sight to orient yourself to, and to return to should you ‘misplace’ yourself in the landscape.

By contrast, the CWT has no single path, rarely has cairns, and certainly has no signposting. This is part of what draws hikers to the CWT – the way in which it demands you to sharpen your wayfinding skills. This is without-a-doubt part of what drew us to this ‘trail’.  In addition to promising to sharpen your navigation skills, the CWT’s unmarked character creates an additional allure. Knowing that you will have to find your own way through a remote, wild part of Scotland was, and remains, irresistibly enticing. In this day-and-age (dating my old-soul here with such a cliché phrase…) we so infrequently get the opportunity to experience a taste of the primitive. To get an invitation to see something relatively unchanged by man is a chance to travel back in time, and beautiful window into timelessness.  Certain sections of the CWT that were particularly unmarked (correspondingly the most boggy sections) produced a strange mixture of fear, awe, and giddiness. To walk in such a place provides the smallest whiff of what it must be like to be an explorer, to step into – to indeed seek and grasp at – the unknown.

Of course, it is not quite such a brazen act as actual explorers because we were also relying on OS maps, narrative descriptions gleaned from hikers who went that way before, and a GSP with GPX files as navigation aids. For us, the combined use of those three things was essential, and also fortified our wayward confidence regarding our location within the landscape. We relied primarily on a paper map and a narrative description. We pulled out and turned out the GPS only when we felt concern that we had gone astray – most often when instructed to look for a faint footpath or unmarked route, and then presented with 3 or more visible options that met such a description.

For anyone going after the CWT – or any type of hike in which similar wayfinding is required – I have a few strong points of advise:

  1. Go with the tools required: map, narrative description, and GPS with GPX files. This is not to say that you’ll have to use any of these aids (especially the GPS) but put them in your rucksack anyway. If the weather alters dramatically while you are out on a hill, or the hike (even a day hike) ends up taking you longer than expected, and light is fading, or the rain is making it difficult to read the landscape, you won’t regret having these things as backups.
  2. Get some basic navigation 101 from someone, or be sure you have someone in your hiking party who has at least some basic map-and-compass knowledge. Also, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from anyone you hike with who does know a thing or two about navigation prior to embarking on a wayfinding venture of your own.
  3. Communicate your concerns or convictions about the route with those you are trekking with. My friend and I, without premeditation or intention, were in regular conversation to confirm or challenge being on-route. In the process, we helped each other not stay too bogged (pun absolutely intended) down by making a navigation mistake. We had patience with each other, and with the circumstances, as we stopped to consult our navigation tools, even as we saw with dismay that we would to double back.

Before starting the CWT, I tried not to over think whether or not I/we had enough navigation know-how to manage this wayfinding way.  If you know me at all, over thinking is my specialty.  Prior to this experience, navigation had been more of an option rather than a vital necessity of my treks.  I have undergone some basic navigation training – through a forest certificate program, through a wonderful day-training program here in Scotland, and via the day-to-day duties of my two field seasons working for natural resource organizations in the States. However, through those experiences (save a few days of field work) I very rarely had to find my own way over a trackless landscape, or keep to a route that dissolves into the landscape. My hiking companion is an experienced hiker as well, with navigation abilities of her own, but neither of us would call ourselves experts of this skill. The thought (or stubborn hope?) was that together we’d manage. And we did. One of the big take aways from our days out on the CWT was that we found ourselves capable of finding our way through this intermittently unmarked land and kept (mostly) on route. This is not, however, to say that we didn’t make mistakes…

Since it is a well-known truism that ‘it is not an adventure until something goes wrong’, the following  navigation snafus solidified our CWT week as a true adventure:

Finding the Trailhead

If hiking north to the Cape by starting in Fort William, your journey begins with a ferry crossing in a tiny boat to Camusnagaul (less than 2 pounds for a one-way journey). You can then either follow a road north and then west along the shores of Loch Eil, or you can turn due south along the shores of Loch Linnhe and then turn up Cona Glen. We did the latter.

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After traveling 6+ hours by bus to get to Fort William, our goal for our first day of the CWT was to hike until nightfall and see how far up the glen we could get and then wild camp. Only thing is, in our initial getting-use-to the Scottish landscape (including the maps and narrative descriptions that corresponded to it), we managed to slightly overshoot the turn off into Cona Glen and instead turned into Glen Scaddle.   If you should take a peak at a map of the area you’ll see that both glens have a river that hug similar landforms. We knew to look for a river, and knew to hike along it until we could find a flat place to camp. However, as we continued into Glen Scaddle (thinking it was the Cona Glen) we referenced the map and saw we were on the wrong side of the river. When looking at the opposite side of the river we were walking along, however, there did not appear to be any indication of a track or very walkable ground. Something felt distinctly off.  As the sun started its very initially setting, we pulled out the GPS to see if we were on track, saw that we were not, and realized that we were indeed following the wrong river in the wrong glen.

This wasn’t an altogether encouraging start to this wayfaring trek. I don’t want to speak for my hiking companion, but I felt ashamed and massively disappointed in myself. I was the carrier of the navigation tools and the holder of the route knowledge in our hiking duo (the route research was my portion of the hike planning). How could I have failed us at this very first stage? What did this say about my ability to help us navigate the rest of the journey? It certainly did not inspire confidence.

However, this very first failure in navigating taught us to put more trust in the landscape itself (in this case, looking and seeing that we were on the wrong side of the river) as indications of being on the correct (or incorrect) route. Additionally, this mistake revealed that failures can be gifts in disguise: we saw a glen we wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and (after hiking back near to the entry of the wrong glen with plans to find the right glen the next morning) were able to find a prime wild camping spot with the white noise of a small rapids nearby. We slept soundly from the fatigue of wrong-ways taken.

Finding the Place to River Cross

Day 5 provided two navigation challenges.  Whether or not these challenges were indeed ‘mistakes’ we’ll never know for sure.

The first occurred within the first 2 miles of hiking that morning.  After having walked through a solid day of rain the day before, and having slept through an evening in which showers persisted with a vengeance (I recall waking in the night inside the bothy, hearing the heaviness of the shower and cinching up my sleeping bag good to block out the sound and the reality of what the morning’s hike was likely to bring…), we left Sourlies bothy in rain to cross the River Carnach. Normally, there is a footbridge over the river that makes this crossing (obviously) quite straightforward. However, as we had read prior to starting the CWT, the bridge had been recently removed and was yet to be replaced.

With the footbridge out, the exact ‘where’ to cross the river is a largely a question of judgement (as we’d heard from several other hikers we’d crossed paths with a few days before). When the river is not in spate, this is safe to do, and fairly easy to determine (so we’ve read). This section of the CWT is a described aptly as a ‘pathless marshland’, so, while there seems to be many desire lines leading you to potential crossing points, when we arrived at the shore of the river after following a few of these, each time the river looked far to deep and/or the current seemed far too swift for safe crossing. As we continued along the right side of the river headed north, continuing to look for a place to cross the river in order to continue on the CWT, we realized the river was only getting deeper and swifter. We turned around and headed back the way we came, towards the outlet of the river, keeping an eye out for shallower, less-swift-moving water.

When we got to the remains of the footbridge, we saw that the current was relatively less swift there and was (seemingly) shallow enough to wade. We decided this was probably our best chance to cross and went for it, recalling that just yesterday our bothy mates had said they’d crossed the river in near darkness without much trouble other than getting wet (shocking that).

Perhaps we missed a more straightforward option further towards the outlet of the river where it met Loch Nevis. Perhaps the proper crossing spot would have been more obvious if the tide had been out (the river connects to Loch Nevis which is connected to the Sea of the Hebridies). Perhaps there would have been multiple viable options for crossing had it not rained fairly heavily for nearly 48 hours with out much of a break. Whether it was the weather, the tide, or just our misjudgment, where we decided to cross felt like a mistake – but was not (thank Jesus) in the end a true ‘failure’.

About half way through the crossing I felt that definitive twist of guts that indicates you are in error. The current was much stronger than it initially appeared, and we were both quickly in water up to our hips. At this half-way point my reasoning (all too late) spoke up, indicating that, while the river may have been conducive to crossing yesterday when our bothy mates crossed, today – with high tide and after nearly 2 days of high rains – it was now in spate or well on its way to being so.

Realizing you are in error halfway through a river crossing means that it is just as dangerous to turn around and go back as it was to continue on. After an exchange of a quick panicked look with my hiking companion a few feet down stream, we both pressed on – there was really no other choice at that juncture. The sole focus became an effort of mind over matter: willing oneself to keep strong footing so to resist the currents apparent desire to inch you further downstream with each step toward white water.  My gaze was locked on the opposite shore, as if the intensity of the stare would strengthen my strides toward it? There was a lot of resolute jamming of hiking poles between river stones to aid in the effort.  I’ve never been so happy to reach a shoreline in all my life.

I never plan on being so happy for a shoreline again in my life.

There wasn’t a whole lot of time to process what had just occurred, nor to question whether we had made been unwise to attempt the crossing that day. We simply caught our breath for a moment, and then pressed on. Whether it was a truly a ‘mistake’ I’ll leave up to you.

Finding the Invisible Track Up a Hillside

This same day, perhaps an hour or two after the river crossing, the route map and narrative guidance indicated that we needed to ‘climb north to reach a clear path’ that would lead us over Mam Unndalain (a not-insignificant hill side). What that instruction indicates is that you are to essentially read the landscape and make your own route to eventually meet an established path further up the hill. The North American in us (or at least in me) did not fully understand this instructive at first, and, while reading the map and comparing it to the landforms around us, the way up didn’t seem clear. It was a fairly vertical hill side, and with the rain and wind both being fairly heavy at this point in our day, it was difficult to read if the landform above us would provide a safe ascent, or if we were turning up too soon to meet this path, which you can see no evidence of from below. This part of the route is a choice made on informed, but mostly blind, instinct rather than on observable fact.

I’m not describing this section in such terms as a means of complaint. It is rather an effort to paint a picture of how different hiking – a seemingly commonplace and uniform activity – can be in different countries. When most of one’s logged hiking hours have taken place in the States, it is difficult to commit to a make-your-own-way plan of action in a new type of landscape. The first desire line we followed upward, which seemed to jive with the landforms as shown on the map, felt a little off. So we turned on the GPS to check about halfway up the hill face, while being buffeted with wind and rain, and saw we were 400ft off. We traversed the hillside to get a bit closer – the idea of going all the way back down to then go up again was too much for our delicately balanced fortitude to bear.

This hiking up, then stopping to try to read the landscape around us, then checking the map, and then referencing the GPS happened a few times as the rain continued to come down (harder) and the wind picked up. Eventually we ran into the path we were looking for, and the obvious evidence of a footpath was akin to finding an oasis when desperately thirsty. We were then able to escape into mental autopilot.  My muscles seemed to exhale tension I had not realized they had been holding.  After being uncertain of our pathless route, seeing the path you were looking for makes you drunk with relief.

As with the river crossing – I am not sure that we make a ‘mistake’ in the route we chose to go up. This might have just been a section where all roads lead to Rome (so to speak). In an attempt to find the silver lining here: we were both encouraged that after the river crossing, and after this uncertain upward journey, and in the relentless wind and rain, neither of us panicked, nor broke down, nor got snippy with the other. In this case – ‘mistake’ or not – we got some hard evidence that the two of us hike well together, and have the equanimity required to address the obstacles wild land (and wild weather) will often throw our way when wayfinding.   Despite all the wrong turns, backtracking, and sinking thigh-deep into boggy terrain (true story), we made it to Barrisdale bothy with plenty of sunlight left and dried out for the night.

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Failure is part of learning how to successfully wayfind. I would argue it is a regular feature of wayfinding, or at least sprinkles in adrenaline bursts to the experience. The key is to do your best to no berate yourself too much for going temporarily astray. I am very thankful for my Hiking Kindred, and how well our minds were in sync to get us through the wildland of the CWT. I know in our future treks together, we’ll build off of this newfound confidence in ourselves and in each other as a hiking duo, to find our way through challenging terrain.

The love of nature is consolation against failure.

-Berthe Marisot

 

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