Monday, June 08, 2009

from Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Elgol, the small fishing village to the west of Skye, has at least three claims to fame: it’s home to a good seafood restaurant – the Coruisk House, where we also happen to be staying…


(we’re in the building to the left – Robin, the owner, has turned it into a three room plus bathroom guesthouse); and, secondly, at the very tip of the village, there is a pier from which a small boat can take about a dozen people to the mouth of Lake Coruisk; and finally, Elgol is the beginning, or the end (depending on how you take it) of one of the most beautiful trails in all of Great Britain – from the lake, along the shoreline to Elgol.

You would think that hiking it would be a sure thing for us. But I’ve been waffling -- on account of the well known in the area, much talked about, and amply described in guide books “Bad Steps.”

But when you wake up to another splendid day of cloud and sun, you begin to think that maybe one should give the trail careful consideration. And so we set out – by boat to Lake Coruisk and from there, if the mood stays, hike back to Elgol.

I’m in a chirpy mood. It’s so beastly lucky to have this spell of bright skies. The breezes are strong and so the midges have stayed away, the rains have stayed away as well – all in all, it’s been near perfect out here, on the Isle of Skye.

We walk the meandering road down to the sea, passing the usual sheep of every size and hue.



At the dock, we look toward the mountains, hiding the lake that is our destination for the day. A small group has gathered for the trip. Most have binoculars. Bird watchers.



The captain of the tiny boat goes through safety advice and we set off. The waters are calm, the views toward the hills – magnificent!


He talks about the islands to the west of us. Once fishing communities (shark fishing was big here once), now nearly empty. These days, Skye fishermen bring in shellfish. Lobsters make their way to Spain, where they're sold at popular seaside restaurants. They're eating Skye lobsters and they don't even know it! -- the captain tells us. Yes, I've seen the traps on shore. Plenty of them.


As we get nearer to the lake, he shouts out – anyone walking back? Ed and I raise our hands. We’re the only ones. Well then, let me spin the boat around toward the Bad Steps. You should take a look and decide if you’re up for it.

We pull up close to the shore line: the Bad Steps are a cliff that shoots out at a very minor angle from the sea. There is no way to get around it except to lean flat against it and make your way across it (a distance of some 8 meters) by finding foot holds in the small crevices. There’s nothing to hold on to, nothing to keep you from tumbling to the sea below.


We heard stories about this place – how two tourists threw everything they owned into the water and plastered themselves naked against the rock, hoping to lighten the load, how two women started out bravely enough, then terror took hold and they remained for hours stuck, unable to move one way or the other, how our very own host, Robin, had to make his way across the rock to help someone who froze right there in the middle of the rock – on and on. Big tales, little tales, we’ve heard them all.

You would think that there’s no chance that I would want to join the list of tales. I remember well my most terrifying hiking experience to date – when I froze on a slope of endless scree high up in the Canadian Rockies. I have issues with heights and precipitous drops.

And in the end, this is why ultimately I decided to hike the Bad Steps: manipulating the rock is hard, but the drop isn’t significant: 10 meters down and you’re in the water. Rocky, sure, but I figure the price of a slip would be a few broken bones rather than certain death.

[I should insert a disclaimer here: in all our hikes, what I consider to be dangerous or terrifying, Ed calls tame and inconsequential. So do note that there is another perspective to all this. Neither is less real than the other. Robin, an expert rock climber, tells us of his friend who is world renowned in his ability to manage great climbs. When asked – how do you do it? He answers – I do very well at 10,000 feet what most people can do very well at 10. In other words – there’s a lot of mind play here. If you think it’s easy, it’s easier. If you think it’s hard – as I so often do – it becomes much tougher.]

The boat pulls away from the Bad Steps and moves slowly toward the tip of the lake. I take my mind off the hike and focus on the slabs of rock. Harbor seals are everywhere. Their heads bop out of the water and then disappear. Their cousins and friends are spread out on shore, resting, as if the very effort of lifting a flipper and rolling their blubber bodies over is too much on this pleasant day.


We pull up to shore and disembark. The boat will pick up the day trippers later. Except for Ed and me.

We hike to the lake first. Turner painted it, guides rave about it. Take a look at the jagged peaks, so majestic over the body of fresh water.


And now it’s time to start the hike back. It’s not a short walk under the best of circumstances. For us – five hours at least. If I can make it across the slab of stone.


This last photo shows just the beginning of the cliff part. I handed my camera over to Ed once I felt that even it’s slight sway was making me jumpy.

I wont go through all the minutes (hours?) I spent on that slab – the words of I can’t, alternating with I wont. My shoes had a decent grip, but often I could not find even a crevice to attach my hand to. My back against the rock, fingers searching for any nubbin of stone – it all was part of the drama. But the reality is that once you get your mind to let go of all the I can’ts, you move forward. (Especially if there is an Ed who makes the journey ahead of you and then comes back to suggest the best possible ways to navigate the cliff.) And so, eventually I inched across. As others have done in the past and will continue to do in the years ahead.

After that, I would like to say the hike was a breeze. And it probably would be for most anyone. For me, it remained a bit of a challenge because of sudden drop issues. Still, there was no more scrambling against stone slabs. In tough areas of sheer drop, I have learned to look anywhere but down.

And when it was okay to look across, the views were predictably stunning.





We pass almost no one. Just sheep.




One last glance back at the sea, the hills and cliffs, the flowers along the trail...



And by evening, we are back in Elgol.


Exhausted, spiritually upbeat, hungry.

At dinner (of traditional Scottish cod and the most wonderful Skye beer), Robin tells us – then there was this couple who went over the Bad Steps with their little dog. That was tragic!
Oh! Did the dog die?
No, but he fell into the water and broke his foot.