Friday, July 28, 2017

Equipment Failure and a Shieling Salvation

I made several hikes on Lewis over the past three weeks. One of them did not go as planned. I had bought a new pack in June, and before heading to Scotland I took it out for a test drive on an overnight visit to Blake Island in Puget Sound. It was a sunny and hot trip, and the pack worked well.

So fast forward a couple weeks to July 16 when, with my new pack, I set out on a two day hike on Lewis from Stacaiseal to Shawbost. A route that would take me by several beehive cells and shielings.

The hike started at the middle of the Pentland Road, eight miles southeast of Carloway. Just after my wife dropped me off, and I began hiking north, it started raining. It was not too bad at first, and I was able to get some good photos of the cells near the summit of Stacaiseal, a hill that rises to 700 feet, a mile and a half north of the Pentland Road.

From Stacaiseal I turned to the northwest to head to Uiseal. It was then that it started raining hard, with a fierce wind that blew the rain sideways. I did not know it at the time, but the rain was being driven into my new pack through its strap-down lid. Around 7 pm, just as I reached the shielings of Uiseal, I noticed my pants were getting wet; the way the pack was riding on my back had opened up a gap in my overtrousers, allowing the rain running down the pack to pour in. I was going to have to set up my tent, and try to dry out as soon as possible, or I'd have a miserable night. 

But the terrain was mushy, soggy, and boggy; terrible for setting up a tent. I have seen many shieling sites in the past that are surrounded by close cropped grass on solid ground, perfect for pitching a tent, and I kept hoping I'd find such a spot. But eight o'clock came and went and no decent campsite came along. I was about to give up looking when I noticed a stone structure on the hillside above me. Maybe it was a ruined shieling, whose walls would give my tent some shelter from the wind. 

As I neared the little building it looked like its turf roof was intact, and the one doorway had been barricaded with an iron crowbar to keep the sheep (and the fairies?) out. Had my prayers been answered? Would I have a dry place to sleep?

Inside the structure I could see that half its turf roof was intact, and under the intact bit was a narrow plywood bench I could lay my sleeping bag on. It was only then, as I opened the pack to get the sleeping bag, that I discovered the rain had got inside. My sleeping bag was wet, as were my spare clothes. There was nothing to do but make the best of it, and so I spread the damp sleeping bag out on the bench.

Inside, next to a fireplace, was a pile of dried peat, along with an assortment of rusted peat cutting tools. I tried to build a fire, but I had no kindling or newspaper. I did have an emergency candle, one I've carried on every backpacking trip over the past 20 years. I'd never used it in all that time, and I tried pouring melted wax from it on the peat, and then lighting it. But it did not work. 

Around 10 pm, in my damp clothes, and with my candle burning on the ledge next to me, I slid into the damp sleeping bag. It would be a long night, and between bouts of shivering I managed to get some sleep. Fortunately I was shielded from the wind and rain. In the morning I packed up as soon as it was light, and then went out to take photos of the many shielings that dot the terrain east of Loch Rahacleit. Around noon I reached the public road at Shawbost where my wife picked me up. Lesson learned: Always test out your gear in miserable conditions near to home, before using it in miserable conditions miles from home.  

Although all did not go as planned, the memory of finding a surprise shieling shelter, on a stormy island night, is one I will treasure.

Wet lens view of my accomodation

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