Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

A weakness for photo books & calendars

3rd December 2022

You might even say that I have a weakness for the photos captured by others, and you would be right. Wildlife normally is not part of this, but I recently acquired a copy of Remembering Bears from Remembering Wildlife. This is a charity project raising funds for conservation of some of the world’s at risk mammals. The photos were provided free of charge by major wildlife photographers, and any profits after costs of production and shipping go to the intended efforts. As well as bears, the series also has featured elephants, rhinos, great apes, among others.

Returning to the volume on bears, it is a coffee table book with numerous species of bear included. It has the best known ones along with others that I had not come across before I perused it. The range is as wide as the spectrum of behaviour being featured. While the acquisition was a spur of the moment decision, it also was an opportunity to experience a little more of these impressive if daunting creatures.

Usually, photos of wild or more natural scenery appeal to me, and there are a few of those that found their way into my possession this year. Curiously, these come from German publishers like teNeues, gestalten and Koenemann. They are all coffee table items in a larger format with large photos to survey.

The ones from Koenemann’s Spectacular Places series are heavy as well, at least in hardback format, since there are paperback versions as well. Nordic Islands from teNeues is not as heavy as these, but shows its subjects off well in pleasing light and with good presentation. Curiously, there is a multilingual aspect with these, since the latter showing text in German as well as in English. Koenemann’s offerings add four more languages to these. In contrast, my copy of gestalten’s Wanderlust: Hiking on Legendary Trails is solely an English language production with more descriptive text than the others, which adds route information and other practicalities.

That these are series of books to collect could inflict damage on your finances if you end up wanting too many of them, and that also means taking up a lot of space afterwards. Nevertheless, they are a great means of getting a sense of what is to be found in places that you have not visited. Without leaving your home, there is the possibility of feeling that you have glimpsed scenic delights from faraway places elsewhere on the planet.

For a variety of reasons, I have fallen into getting various items of German origin in recent times. The list now includes computer software and calendars, as well as books. It feels as if Germans like photographic publications to be large, too. When I felt that the large calendars from Colin Prior were too predictable (he no longer does the type of photography that defined him around the turn of the century), my search turned to other places like Linnemann. Their large format calendars now grace my walls every year, even if they are not cheap. Their Norway item always appeals to me, and I otherwise have complemented it with something else from their selection, be it Alpine or Nordic.

There is a new offering from Norman McCloskey on its way to me too. This is called Kingdom, and it features photos of landscapes from County Kerry in Ireland, hence the title. It was something of an impulsive purchase, since I spent a deal of time around those parts during the year and remember passing Peter Cox’s gallery in Killarney a few times (the opening times were later in the day, which intrigued me). Decent photography of Ireland can be hard to find, too, and that makes me more prone to consummating whims.

Some of the acquisition fever can be caused by a sense of urgency brought on by what else is happening in one’s life. Over the course of this year, I have been making some significant changes to my Irish affairs that have not completed and likely will overrun into next year. This kind of thing has made me vulnerable in the past, so what is needed is a bit of extra space for myself, and I am hoping to have a bit of that in a few weeks.

Americana

15th November 2022

In a previous post, I mentioned Ken Burns’ magisterial The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and even wrote a few words about this documentary film series. Not living in the U.S.A., I found this quite accidentally when reading an article on either the Outdoor website network (probably the Backpacker part but I am not sure now). Both are part of the same media group and I became a subscriber to Backpacker magazine in 2020. In Canada, there is Explore and they perform much the same function for that part of the world.

Before this, I was inclined to do long trawls through guidebooks for acclimatisation and awareness. This can work but it is not just time-consuming but also can be trapped within one’s own predispositions. After all, America’s National Parks are known by many around the world so it can be easy to gravitate towards them but there are other kinds of public lands that are amenable to exploration, some of which abut conurbations so they can be easier to reach. Here, I am thinking of what lies on the doorsteps of San Diego in California, Portland in Oregon or Phoenix in Arizona. Two of these came to my notice in a serendipitous manner, the first from a tragic story on the Backpacker website and the last from a Wanderlust webinar.

There also is the usefulness of a more gradual approach taken with an open mind. A concerted effort can and does help but the slower accumulation of insights and possibilities is how I got going in hillwalking in the first place. It happened so naturally that I hardly noticed what was happening and this also brought with it a growing cultural awareness. The same approach might help to restart nascent explorations of North America yet.

All this highlights background realities regarding the scale of North American wilderness as well as equipment choices offered by brands that are not so pervasive on this side of the Atlantic like Canada’s Durston. There are times when you need to watch for product placement though and Backpacker’s online webinar series from 2020 was a case in point, especially given they erred on the side of overdoing just that at the expense of conveying an experience of the wild places that were featured.

Still, knowing the cultural side of things remains ever useful and that returns me to the feature film series mentioned at the start of this piece. The history of the American National Park system was not that well known to me, even if I was well aware of the influence of John Muir from my reading of his writings during the winter of 2017/8. What happened after him and the issues surrounding the various contradictions of a motto like “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” became plainer to me as I watched the film series.

The tension of high visitor numbers is very clear to us now and it always has been a problem as has allowing people to visit using their cars. That there has been road-building in otherwise pristine areas is part of this, even if that was curtailed in Denali National Park in Alaska by a persistent campaign by one of the park naturalists. The conflict between conservation and having visitor services like hotels and other amenities pervades today and that is likely to continue. Even so, there has been progress too with a different attitude to wildlife meaning that we now need to keep away from wild creatures rather than mingling among them as once was the case.

There is much to learn about another continent half a world away and doing this one morsel at a time makes things stick better. The more gradual approach also allows for added serendipity so you get to find out about places that do not come to light from a concerted effort.

Season of transformation

5th October 2022

It is too easy for me to think that autumn is my least favourite season but it is also the one when many transformations happen and when it is possible to think ahead to the next year. The hours of daylight are shorter so there is time to think about other things. Admittedly, the ongoing pandemic stalled any forward-thinking but these still were times of change. 2020 saw me begin to learn new computing languages while 2021 saw me embark on spiritual explorations. Both journeys are still ongoing.

2019 was the last year when thought could be given to a future even if that was devoted to continuing my freelance consulting business. Until that was more assured, I could not think too much about overseas journeying and then the pandemic intruded. A possible trip to Colorado became unthinkable in July 2020. Going to Vancouver, Canada in July of 2019 became a reality because of reading undertaken during the autumn of 2018. The next steps that I took in my career during 2018 were made possible by a career break that itself began in August 2017. The rest of that autumn was taken up with decompression and healing before I could do a rethink at the start of 2018. This necessity was brought about by fatigue after heavy work done at the latter end of 2016 to fulfil my late father’s will.

In between the more weighty matters of 2016, much thought was given to mid-winter sunshine escapades that took me to Mallorca in 2016 and Tenerife in 2018/9. It may be tempting to think that a year is done for when you get to its final quarter so that there is an overflow to the following year only for surprises to come. Thus, mid-winter walking trips to Arizona, Malta, Madeira or the Azores can be kept in mind should an opportunity arise.

For 2023, Scotland again offers multiple possibilities and North America also looms again after my watching Ken Burns’ monumental documentary film series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. While I probably was after the scenery that was shown, the series mainly was about the history of the National Parks and was just as fascinating for that. Learning about the efforts of John Muir and other actors was as intriguing as seeing the learning journey where lessons that we now take for granted had to be learned on the fly with no precedents for guidance. That the winter of 2017/8 saw me reading the works of John Muir only helped things to resonate with me. It also helped that there was enough scenic footage to restart dreams of Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Park visitations, to name but a few, and the soundtrack was as alluring as the footage.

All in all, I am rethinking my appraisal of autumn. It no longer might be a season of mourning the passing of summertime and springtime, or indeed the year itself, but could be a time of inner growth and expanding horizons. That is how it is starting to appear now. Work for 2022 continues with there being some asset downsizing in progress but time flows ever onward to bring whatever comes our way.

Tops

4th September 2022

While I am not really focused on bagging summits of hills, a good number of them have featured on hikes this year. If conditions are clear, it often can be surprising how much of the surrounding countryside you can see from a lofty vantage point. Admittedly, some work better than others but it has been a noticeable trend and it is about the height above the neighbouring landscape rather than the actual height above sea level that matters.

That point has been proven on some trips to Ireland too. In April, I happened on the top of Feenlea Mountain near Killaloe in County Clare only to be stunned by the expanse of Lough Derg that lay below me with the nearby Arra Mountains in County Tipperary drawing my attention too. It helped that the morning was sunny and there are times when you need to try again with better conditions.

That was the case with Torc Mountain near Killarney in County Kerry. My first summit ascent was in poor visibility and only got done for the sake of personal satisfaction while the second was a diversion from the route of the Kerry Way that I was following from Kenmare to Killarney. Though sunshine was limited by cloud cover at that stage of the day and my legs were weary, the rewards were unmistakable; an American that I met on my way was awestruck by it all. The lakes of Killarney (Upper Lake, Muckross Lake and Lough Leane) lay below me and eastward views led my eyes as far as Lough Guitane and the hills that lay around it.

My encounter with Knockclugga in the Knockmealdown Mountains near Clogheen in County Tipperary was another case in point. While being surrounded by hills can limit what can be seen, this was no drawback on this rounded top. To the north, there were the Galtee Mountains while fellow hills like Knockshanahullion, Sugarloaf Hill and Knockmealdown brought scenic interest while the Comeragh Mountains lay to the east of everything mentioned so far.

None of the above hills is particularly high so it is their sitting that matters but I do not limit myself to those lower hills and trips to the Lake District have been a case in point. That did start with lower tops like Lingmoor Fell and Loughrigg Fell with the former allowing sightings around Great Langdale and Little Langdale while the former facilitated some photography capturing scenes around Grasmere that had been on my wishlist longer than might have been wise.

Greater heights were walked on the Fairfield Horseshoe and that included other tops like Heron Pike, Great Rigg, Hart Crag, Dove Crag, High Pike and Low Pike in addition to Fairfield itself. There were ample views of Grisedlae Hause, Grisedale Tarn, Helvellyn, St. Sunday Crag and Patterdale to occupy the time and the available if warm sunshine added greatly to the experience. One walk often begets another and so it proved in this case.

While part of the inspiration was provided by Terry Abraham’s feature film on Helvellyn, the reminder came from the Fairfield Horseshoe. Having some free time in July might have allowed the trot to happen earlier but for uncooperative weather, rail strikes, the prospect of a then-forthcoming trip to Ireland and my not having thought of using Carlisle as a base. The latter was to enable the escapade and get around rail travel constraints so I got to Glenridding and chose a route that avoided both Striding Edge and Swirral Edge to contain any sense of exposure. That may have limited my sightings of Red Tarn but I was glad of the gentler way via White Side and Lower Man. There was a punishing descent to Thirlmere but any sightings of Catstye Cam, Ullswater, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Thirlmere and other landscape features made it all worthwhile.

That was followed by a Scottish incursion that did not enjoy the same kind of weather. Ben Ledi near Callander stayed largely clear on a day with cloud-filled skies that limited any sunshine but the views round about it inspire thoughts of returning. There was an associated hike around the Ochil Hills with limited visibility and pervasive dampness that adds even more impetus to the idea of returning when better conditions are in prospect. Tops can be clear and they can be clouded so it is the former that we all seek. Nevertheless, having gained so much from hilltops this year means that there is much for which to be grateful.

Scottish return

3rd September 2022

It has taken quite a while but I recently enjoyed some Scottish hill-wandering around Stirling. Stirling also was where I went when I last was in Scotland so there is a sliver of continuity despite the break of over three years. The main cause of this was the arrival of the pandemic which added travel nervousness on my part.

In 2019, the main reason for my trip was photographic and I stayed near its castle even though part of the structure was covered in scaffolding at the time. Even so, I could not help admiring any views of the Ochil Hills that lay before me. These were to prove a lure for a return trip once I summoned the courage to do so.

Before that, I have been finding my feet in England and Ireland. The latter has seen a few trips this year and the former has hosted various visits to the Pennines and the Lake District. Before the trip to Stirling, I even enjoyed a hike from the Ullswater to Thirlmere that took in the tops of White Side, Lower Man and Helvellyn in pleasing sunshine. The way up was gradual but the same could not be said for the testing descent that was on the point of beating those who were coming the other way.

My time in Stirling saw me mount more summits but without the accompaniment of the sort of weather than blessed my ascent of Helvellyn. Because the second hill day was set to be overcast, I was divided over where to go because going to Callander for an ascent of Ben Ledi had entered my head. In the event, it was that which was done on the better day and got me back somewhere that I had not frequented for around fifteen years. Skies were largely clouded so another return trip is in prospect whenever bright sunshine and clearer skies are likely. Still, the sun did break through the clouds from time to time so it was not all gloom. The landscape was stunning though and seeing that in brighter conditions remains an attraction.

It must have been stubbornness that led me to hike the summits of Ben Ever, Ben Cleuch, Andrew Gannel Hill and King’s Seat Hill in poor visibility and it was just as well that I had wet weather gear given the enduring dampness on those tops. This was never a day for views but my navigation did not falter and the quietude of the experience was transporting. Perversely, the next day came sunny so a quick morning trip for some photography was in order before I needed to check out of the hotel. It was constrained by my not having charged camera batteries as much as was ideal but I still came away with much of what I had sought. Even so, a return in better weather cannot be ruled out since the incursion certainly got me away from everyday living and what I did get to see appealed to me.

Having reasons to return somewhere may be frustrating for any sense of closure but Scotland is laden with these for the weather does not always perform according to human desires. My only stay in Callander may have taken some of the sights around ben Ledi more than twenty years ago but it only was a halting point while en route to Fort William and Portree as I ran away from rain approaching from the east. As it happens, both Lorn and Lochaber have their share of sites where I fancy making better photos and even supplanting good images captured on film with digital counterparts. There is plenty of inspiration left yet.