Saturday, 30 April 2011

Lower Bann Canoe Trail, Day 2

Having had to abandon the hammock due to feeling cold I'd eventually got over to sleep in the bivvy bag but wakened at around 5.30am as the sky started to lighten. As everyone else seemed to be sleeping soundly I turned over and fell asleep again wakening at around 7.30am with the sun now shining brightly and sunlight filtering through the trees. Not quite ready to emerge from my sleeping bag I filled the Backcountry boiler and grabbed some twigs that had been laying under the upturned canoe and boiled some water for a cuppa. Ralph emerged from his hammock just then so we both had a cuppa and a wander around.

It wasn't long before Colin and Derek appeared so we decided to pool our resources for breakfast. With most of the camping kit stowed away we carried the cooking gear down to a picnic table near the jetty to prepare breakfast. Ralph using the Optimus Nova and the Eurohike frying pan made a start on the sausages and bacon while I started to fry up mushrooms, pancakes, potato bread and eggs. While the cooked breakfast was being prepared Colin and Derek boiled water for coffee and kept up a steady supply of cheese and salami. It was a bit tricky to synchronise everything so breakfast was eaten bit by bit as the various items became available eventually followed by some Kenyan ground roast coffee (I'd packed a cafetiere)

It was past 10.30am by the time the camps had been tidied up and left as found and the canoes and gear carried back down to the jetty. Already the temperature was high so water bottles were filled and stashed within easy reach before we set off towards the 1st of the 4 locks we had ahead of us.

The 1st lock, Portna was less than a a mile away and is reached by a short canal on the West bank avoiding the flood gates. On reaching the lock we checked the sign to see what the opening times were as the locks aren't attended continually.

According to the sign the lock should have been open from 10.30am but there was no sign of a lock keeper so we resigned ourselves to portaging around. Fortunately Portna is only a double lock but it would have been faster not to mention easier to have used the lock rather than having to portage. While we were getting sorted having portaged around to reach the jetty Ralph stopped to talk to a guy from the rivers agency, after a few phone calls it was arranged that the lock keeper would let us through the following 2 sets of locks at Movanagher and Carnroe.

It was about 11.30 when we set off again and after 1km we passed under the road bridge leading to the nearby town of Kilrea with 4km to go to the 2nd lock at Movanagher. It took us almost an hour before we entered the canal at Movanagher, this time on the East bank avoiding a weir so we tied up at the jetty while Ralph went to find the lock keeper. As it turned out the lock keeper couldn't be found although we did manage to find a guy who was working at the fish farm on the other side of the canal.

A few more phone calls to various departments failed to locate the elusive lock keeper but eventually contact was made. Of course by now we'd wasted half an hour and he was in Coleraine 20 or so km away and on his lunch break. Faced with a choice of portaging through with the assurance that he'd meet us at the 3rd lock, Carnroe 2 km away or waiting until after 2.00pm to get through the lock we were at we decided to portage again. The canoes were unloaded once again and after a few trips back and forth we were ready to go, one bonus was that we were able to replenish our dwindling water supply.

Although the next lock at Carnroe was only 2km away there seemed little point in rushing if there was going to be no one there until 2.00pm anyway so we sat about for a bit before setting off again.

We eventually arrived at Carnroe at almost 2.00pm and to our surprise the elusive lock keeper was waiting, wearing a red polo shirt I think the lock keeper may well be the Scarlett Pimpernell. Without stopping we paddled into the lock, Carnroe being a single and listened while the lock keeper offered advice on what we should have done i.e. let the appropriate body know that we were going to be "in the system", that failing to do so was "a bit silly", that they (who ever they may be) were "short staffed" and that it would have been "easier" if he'd known we were going to be needing to use the locks. Easier for us I assume as it could hardly have been any easier for him as he's thus far managed to open one set of lock gates while we'd carried around 4. There seemed little point in wasting time 'discussing' the situation, better to sit tight, say nowt and get on with it.

It was quite amusing though as we speculated on where he'd been and where he possibly should have been and whether he'd been disturbed by his employers after we called the head office (inadvertantly) to find out where he was. In the end I discovered that officially it's best to arrange to pass through the locks although it isn't mentioned on the Canoe trail guide. I found the information on the 'Waterways Ireland' website but it doesn't mention how much notice they need. In the end though it wasn't a big deal, it isn't like we had to portage around Neptunes Staircase on the Caledonia canal.

It only took 5 minutes or so to go through the lock and we set off again towards the next access point at Drumaheglis marina 7.5km away and from there the final 7km to the last lock of the day and indeed of the Bann itself at the Cutts, so named as the rock was cut away to form the channel allowing boats to continue on upstream. From the Cutts we'd only have a further 2km to go to reach our destination at Somerset Riverside Park, a total of 16.5km.

We had only been paddling for about 10 minutes after leaving the lock at Carnroe when we saw 2 kayaks heading towards us, it wasn't until they were right beside us that we realised they were another 2 guys from work. They had put in at Drumaheglis marina and were just out for a quick paddle up to the lock at Carnroe. We rafted up with them while drifting slowly downstream and chatted for a bit before they set off again upstream and we continued on our way. As we hadn't eaten since breakfast we decided to pull in at a shallow stretch for a late lunch.

It was now well past 3.00pm and while we were all suffering from the heat Derek was suffering more than the rest of us, not from the heat but from a sit-on-top that felt dead in the water and almost 5 hours effectively sitting in the water. With the prospect of a further 11.5km to go we reluctantly decided that we'd stop at Drumaheglis marina rather than continue to Somerset Riverside Park. Additionaly the next 6km or so were zoned for power boats so the decision was pretty much made to call it a day.

Ralph and myself reached Drumaheglis 1st but rather than tie up at the jetty which was busy with power boats we simply paddled up to the slipway and lifted the canoe out before returning to the slip to wait for the others. Although we were all on dry land we did briefly consider going a further 4km to the next access point at Camus but in the end decided against it. While Ralph went off to buy ice creams for us all Derek set about getting changed into dry clothes before phoning home to reorganise the pick up for himself, Colin and their 2 kayaks while I did the same for Ralph, myself and our canoe. We probably sat around for the best part of an hour before my wife arrived with my brother in law who was driving my car followed almost immediately by Dereks wife, strange that they should all arrive within minutes of each other as I only live about 10 miles away while Derek lives I'd guess about 35 miles away.

With everything loaded up we all set off and I guess we won't all see each other again until we go back to work. I definitely enjoyed it, it's over 20 years since I made the same trip and it's changed quite a bit since then, the facilities are much better, especially the new floating jetties and there's more activity, especially canoes/kayaks. Although we only saw 3 other canoes and 2 of them were guy we knew I can't remember seeing any others on the previous trip.

Obviously the weather being kind helped, had it been raining it would have been worse, perhaps not for Derek who was wet anyway but certainly for the rest of us. The winds when they were evident were light and on our backs and perhaps most surprising of all was that we weren't troubled by midges.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Lower Bann Canoe Trail, Day 1

I got back from the canoe trip on Thursday evening after 2 days of bright sunshine and intense heat. The trip was a good one but not without unforeseen problems that resulted in failing to reach our intended destination.

A late start on Wednesday morning meant we didn't leave the jetty at Toome until around 12.30pm but with scant regard for the 15 miles between us and the halfway point of our route we set off. Although we were going as a group of 4 we weren't operating entirely as a group nor were we operating as pairs and yet we weren't operating solo either. Cooking was something of a combined effort but only Ralph had a stove suited to group use in the form of the Optimus Nova and the only pan big enough to cater for 4 was the Millets non stick frying pan I'd received for review. I had the Backcountry Boiler and a Trangia 27k both of which are better suited to 1-2 person use and Derek and Colin had between them a disposable barbecue and an EK 750 woodstove, the EK 750 being a solo stove designed to use with an Alpkit Mitymug sized pot.

Although Derek and Colin had settled on their shelter by taking a tent Ralph and I changed our plans slightly and decided not to take a tent, Ralph provided 2 Hennessy Hammocks and also took a Belgian (I think) army bivvy bag and I took a TiGoat Ptarmigan bivvy and CCF mat in case we ended up camping in a spot with no suitable trees. The combined kit was something of a mixed bag which was to be expected as it was something of a 1st for us all and the final arrangements were made via text message/phone. Ralph who partnered me in the open canoe hadn't been in a canoe before and although Derek and Colin had canoed together before they hadn't undertaken a trip of this length/duration.

With the canoes loaded up the 1st thing that became apparent was that Derek's sit-on-top was quite low in the water due to a heavier than normal load, the result meant he was sitting in a few inches of water in the open 'self draining' cockpit, Colin had no such problem in his regular kayak while Ralph and myself took a little time to find our rhythm. With the sun shining brightly in a cloudless sky and with a slight following wind we left the canal passing the eel traps and soon slipped under the bridge towards Lough Beg.

Lough Beg is a nature reserve and is quite shallow apart from the actual navigation channel which is clearly marked, the West shore is mainly wetland which floods in winter. Church Island is also on the western side of the lough, the ruined church and spire dates back to the 18th century but the site was formerly a pre Viking monastery. Church Island isn't actually an island when the water level is low but like much of the western shore the low lying ground connecting it to the mainland floods in winter when the water level is higher. On this occasion we didn't visit Church Island due to time constraints but rather stayed on the eastern shore although we did stop briefly.

Shortly after leaving Lough Beg we stopped at the 1st official access point since leaving Toome. Newferry East and West has access on both sides of the river and we choose to tie up at the canoe jetty on the east bank to have lunch.

Although it's now a popular waterski venue (we didn't see any) there was an actual ferry across the river in the 1800's. The area around Newferry is designated as an area of special scientific interest due to the presence of Diatomite, used in the past in the production of gramophone records and dynamite, pretty versatile stuff then..

With lunch taken we set off once again and in an attempt to lighten the load and reduce the drag on the sit-on-top we took the waterproof barrel that Derek had been carrying. The next stretch was more interesting as as it wound it's way towards the village of Portglenone, home to Northern Ireland's only Cistercian Monastery. On this section there's quite a lot of woodland along the banks and rounding a bend we discovered a rather tired looking boat moored up under the overhanging bushes. A little further on the river passes through Portglenone forest and bluebells could be seen amongst the trees.

At yet another canoe jetty we stopped for a breather, we hadn't been stopped for long when a small powerboat approached slowed down and looked like it was going to come alongside, turned out it was another guy from work so we stopped and chatted for a bit. I noticed that there were some birch trees so collected some bark off one that had toppled over.

It was just past 5.00pm when we slipped underneath the bridge at Portglenone and with another 9km to go before we reached our intended stop we pressed on. It's probably fair to say we were all looking forward to setting up camp and getting a meal but for Derek on the sit-on-top there was an added incentive, with the canoe carrying a lot of gear and sitting low in the water the self draining cockpit had been flooded for the best part of 5 hours so he'd been more or less sitting in the water all day which I guess must have been pretty unpleasant.

Although it was cooler now energy levels were pretty low and we were glad to see the jetty come into view. With the canoes lifted out we began to look around for a decent spot to set up camp, the difficulty was in finding a spot that was equally suited to hammocks and a tent but in the end we found a spot amongst the trees that was clear enough to cook for the hammocks and another a few yards away that was reasonably flat and clear of brambles to set up the tent although unfortunately there was a high bank separating the 2.

Colin and Derek set up their camp and lit the barbecue while Ralph and myself set about getting the hammocks up and getting a meal under way. I'd brought a variety of food for the evening meal and in the end decided on 'Look What We Found' meatballs in a tomato and herb sauce with some Smash while Ralph prepared some rice, curry and sausage. I fired up the Backcountry Boiler using some of the birch bark I'd picked up earlier and a few twigs that were laying around and quickly boiled up some water for coffee while Ralph produced some tubs of fruit and custard which went down a treat.

With the evening meal over we walked up to the others to find that they'd had a couple of steaks on the barbecue and were using the still glowing coals as a base to build a campfire. Surprisingly although we could see and hear midges they were swarming around the treetops and we had no trouble from them at all. Not wanting to be outdone Ralph and myself went back to our camp to light a fire but having dug a shallow pit we didn't have quite as much success and were the subject of some ribbing from Derek and Colin.

We eventually all returned to our respective camps and while Ralph relaxed in his hammock I laid out my sleeping mat and leaned back against the upturned canoe with a cup of Starbucks Via instant coffee. At about 11.30pm I decided to turn in and shoved my sleeping bag, a Snugpak Premier 1 synthetic into the hammock. Although I was aware of potential heat loss due to a lack of insulation underneath I didn't bother to use my CCF mat which turned out to be a mistake. I hadn't previously used a hammock and as a side sleeper I was unsure how I'd fare but it was the cold that was the biggest problem.

While I was fine to begin with I only managed to doze and couldn't quite get over to sleep, I persevered until about 2.00am when a combination of cold and hunger had me out of the hammock and on the ground with the sleeping bag inside the TiGoat bivvy. After a chocolate bar I drifted off to sleep thinking of the sluice gates, flood barriers, weirs and locks not to mention the 24km that lay ahead of us.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Lower Bann Canoe Trail

I'm pretty much set for a 4 man/3 craft trip on the lower Bann canoe trail. Ralph and myself will be taking the Novacraft Prospector accompanied by another colleague from work and his mate using sit-on-top and closed deck kayaks respectively.

The Lower Bann Canoe Trail starts at Toome shortly after the river Bann exits Lough Neagh on it's way to the Atlantic. The trail is 58km although we'll be lifting out about 7km short for a variety of reasons not least ease of access for the pick-up the following day.

The river Bann as it runs from Lough Neagh to the sea forms the boundry between counties Antrim and Londonderry almost all the way, only swinging over to the Derry side as it nears the town of Coleraine. Points of interest along the way start with Toome itself, one of Irelands earliest hunter/gatherer settlements and within 200m of leaving the start point are the eel traps which are passed by staying to the East bank. From there on 4 sets of lock gates need to be navigated. Sites of historical interest stretch the length of the route dating from Mesolithic times to the present, the historical importance of the river Bann is evident.

The kit for this trip is quite different from the kit I'd take backpacking, space and weight are less important but as there's a strong possibility that the canoes will need to be portaged around the locks it's worth keeping things reasonably simple. That said some kit is being taken as a test simply because we can afford the extra weight. I'm taking the Vango Halo 200 but Ralph is also bringing 2 Hennessey hammocks which with any luck we'll get to use, I'm also taking the Alpkit Rig 7 tarp. Cooking is being taking care of with a selection of stoves between the 4 of us. Ralph is taking an Optimus Nova multi-fuel, I'm taking a Trangia 27k and Backcountry Boiler and and Derek is bringing an EK Kombi woodstove so cooking shouldn't be a problem. As far as sleeping kit goes I'm using a synthetic bag (Snugpak Premier 1) and a Millets CCF mat. As for food well that's going to be the main difference, rather than a selection of freeze dried/dehydrated food it'll be real food this time and a fry up in the morning is something to look forward to. As far as kit storage goes there were various options available but in the end we decided on a rucksack each with personal kit and a large water-resistant pack for food/tent/cooking gear etc. The large pack is from a lifeboat/liferaft and is the one I found washed up near the Giants Causeway last year.

Hopefully the weather will be kind, the midges will stay away and everyone will stay upright.

PHD Ultralight Quilts, a missed Opportunity?

I bought a 2nd hand PHD Ultra Minim sleeping bag last year and have been really impressed with it, more so than my Minim 500 bag. The Ultra Minim uses 900 down and has neither zip nor shoulder baffle as you'd expect on such a lightweight bag but comes in at an unbeatable, as far as I'm aware 364g.

After using it a few times I wondered what they could achieve if instead of making it a sleeping bag they made it as a quilt or top bag. With no insulation on the bottom it would be lighter or if they retained the same fill weight it would be warmer.

I just received an e-mail from PHD with the heading "PHD launch 2 Ultralight Quilts" so I was pretty excited to see what was on offer. Looking at them they aren't what I imagined at all, rather than being quilts in the form usually associated with ultralight backpacking they're quilts in the regular use at home form. I'm not sure that they haven't missed an opportunity here to be honest although what the intended market is would dictate the form that the quilt takes.

As stand alone insulation the lightest of the 2 is heavier than the Minim Ultra and at this end of the market weight is probably more important than outright warmth. That said it may well be a useful way to upgrade a lightweight bag.

As far as I'd be concerned it's something of a missed opportunity but of course I may be missing the point, I'd be interested in the views of others.

How light and how compact could a Minim Ultra Quilt have been?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

CQ CQ CQ SOTA and the 'Backcountry Boiler' on Trostan

I mentioned previously that I'd recently got my Amateur Radio licence and mentioned in passing 'Summits on the Air' (SOTA). 'Summits on the Air' is an award scheme to encourage the use of amateur radio in the hills. There are currently over 50 countries with active SOTA Associations, some countries have more than 1 association, Germany for example has an association for low mountains and 1 for Alpine summits, the USA, Canada and Spain have even more associations. The UK has 5 associations, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man with each divided into regions. Northern Ireland for example has 5 regions which include the Antrim Hills, Mournes and Sperrins with a total of 66 summits, Scotland on the other hand has 6 regions with a total of 1216 qualifying. Within each region summits are awarded points with less accessible or higher summits worth more points.

Participation can be as an Activator (the guy on the summit) or as a Chaser (generally the guy operating from home although if you're on a summit as an Activator and respond to a call from another summit Activator then you are also a chaser. To 'Activate' a summit and claim the points you need to make 4 contacts, a Chaser only needs to make one contact to obtain the points.

As with most things related to the outdoors it's a question of compromises when it comes to radio gear, do you carry a lightweight handheld (walkie talkie) operating on VHF with 5 watts or do you carry a heavier radio capable of longer distance and operating on HF/VHF with 50 watts plus but weighing perhaps 4kg and needing an external battery pack which may be in the form of a 'SLAB' (Sealed Lead Acid Battery). The same applies to antenna, even using a handheld there's a choice between the supplied whip antenna or an external antenna, either an omni directional or directional which needs to be mounted on a mast. There's plenty to choose from whether you're looking at radios or antennas and numerous pro's and con's.

I'm currently using a Chinese handheld, Wouxun KG-UVD1P Dual Band (VHF/UHF) which weighs 402g including whip antenna, an external waterproof microphone adds a further 116g. My total radio kit weight comes in at approx 800g, not heavy for a radio set-up but to put it in perspective some tents are lighter.

I find it quite relaxing to be honest as on the hill I normally rush from place to place but when trying to activate a summit and needing 4 contacts to do so I have to settle down stay in the same place for a while which is a nice way to spend a few hours on a pleasant day although I imagine it isn't quite so nice in wet weather.

I'd been out on Slemish on Saturday with Ralph who got me involved in amateur radio and we'd both managed to Activate the summit but I wanted to get out again this week to try to Activate Trostan. I'd finished my shift on Tuesday evening but spent all day Wednesday tidying up the garden, getting the grass cut and so on so that I'd be free to get out on the hill. Ralph couldn't make it but mentioned that he might listen out for me so I sorted out my kit ready for today.

I'd just received a new wood stove, the 'Backcountry Boiler' from Devin Montgomery so decided to take it along. While there are no trees on Trostan there's a forest section starting at the car park so I knew I'd be able to pick up some fuel on route, as a back up and to see how the 'Backcountry Boiler' worked with a meths burner I took the burner from my Trangia 27k. The BCB can with care be used to carry water, there's a silicone stopper but I'd recommend packing it carefully and not throwing your pack around too much.

It was warm and quite bright when I arrived at the parking spot but there was quite a bit of haze, I'd taken the Peter Storm fleece jacket and a Montane windshirt in case it was cool on the summit as I knew I'd be sitting around for a while. It was warm enough to begin with to wear only a long sleeve Heattech t-shirt and I also wore the Peter Storm Active trousers and Adidas Terrex Seamless trainers. I'd brought a small A5 Alpkit stuff sack to carry wood collected on route and had easily found enough but rather than put it back in my rucksack I'd tied it to the hipbelt.

Having left the forest and at about 1/3 of the way to the summit I stopped for a drink at a spot where the water flows out from underground and over a large rock. It wasn't until I was ready to move on that I realised I'd somehow lost the stuff sack with the wood I'd collected. I didn't want to go looking for it and as I had the Trangia burner as back-up I figured I'd be fine and could look for the stuff sack on the way back.

It didn't take long to reach the summit but there was a bit of a breeze and it felt quite chilly so I pulled on the windshirt to begin with but soon swapped it for the fleece and swapped baseball cap for a beanie although the Peter Storm trousers proved to be sufficiently windproof. Having found a reasonably comfortable spot I got my kit sorted out and sat down to try to make a contact. It didn't take long before I had a response from a guy in Armagh city followed soon after by a response from a guy driving near Portadown who kindly stopped to complete the contact. With 2 contacts made and 2 to go I set about making a brew, the Trangia burner fits perfectly into the fire cup of the Back Country Boiler and after a few strikes from a flint and steel I had the burner going. It took around 8 minutes to reach a strong rolling boil with the boiler filled to the maximum, I'd be happy with that level of performance given that I was on the open hill and it was quite breezy.

I'd just finished my coffee when Ralph came on the air, he'd decided to go up another summit (Agnews Hill) near to where he lives to help me activate Trostan so we chatted for a bit before another guy broke in to make contact. That gave me the required 4 contacts but Ralph still needed a further 2. We then picked up a very strong signal from from another user, this time an Activator working from the summit of Ben More on Mull, both Ralph and myself managed to make contact and it was a bit of a buzz to contact someone else out on the hill.

Having now had 5 contacts I decided to stand by to allow Ralph to try for the required 4th contact and I took the opportunity to fire up the BCB for another brew, in the end Ralph unfortunately didn't manage to get the 4th contact. I still wanted to try the BCB using wood as fuel and with plenty of time to spare I packed up and started to make my way back towards the forest.

Retracing my steps I eventually found my stuff sack and made my way into the forest following a stream to a spot I'd used before. Although I'd found the stuff sack of fuel it wasn't really needed back in the forest as the ground was littered with dry twigs. I used some cotton wool coated with Vaseline and in just over 6 minutes the water had reached a strong rolling boil.

It was pleasant and warm sitting by the stream as the haze had cleared and the sun was filtering through the trees so I relaxed while my Pasta meal rehydrated. Fed and watered so to speak there was nothing much to do but leave the forest by way of a gravel track and from there back to my car.

It was a good day out, I'm pleased to have 'Activated' Trostan and delighted with the Backcountry Boiler, it worked well with the Trangia burner as a back up and worked even better as intended, using wood as fuel.