This weeks blog is written by guest blogger Pauline Symaniak, my fellow adventurer on the long cycle adventure across the USA in summer 2012.
It’s mid November, the evenings are drawing in and winter is coming to get us. But there is still so much wonder in nature as I discovered under the night sky and in the fall forests of the Cairngorms.
With a heavy pack and several days food, I jumped off the train in Aviemore and in the gathering dusk, climbed up through the ancient pines of Rothiemurchus onto open ground and the start of the Lairig Ghru, that most famous of Scottish mountain passes. Its gigantic gouge in the vast Cairngorm Plateau has for centuries linked Speyside to Deeside and the cattle trysts of Perthshire. Just where the pass steepens and squeezes between the dark, plunging cliffs of Lurcher’s Crag and the lower slopes of Braeriach, I have a favourite place to pop up my tent. And so I did, grateful in the inky night for a layer of snow that captured a smidgen of starlight from the sky above.
A bitterly cold winter wind whipped across the place. I huddled in my tent and sparked the stove into life. Meatballs served with a dollop of instant mash that had the taste and consistency of a wet snowball were followed by a warming cup of tea. In the pitch black of an icy mountain night, all there was to do was stare at the star-studded sky. But tonight there weren’t only stars up there. To the northwest, above the pointed outline of Carn Eilrig, the sky was illuminated by a pale silver, strobing light. Charged particles in the high atmosphere were getting excited and creating the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.
That spectacle was my last view of the sky for a few days as dense cloud and rain hunkered down over the mountain tops but I snatched the tail-end of fall as I skulked around in the forests below and threw my tent up each night under big, granny pines. A few birch trees stoically held onto the last of their golden leaves while the bare branches of the others cast a beautiful purple veil over the landscape. The larch had dropped their orange needles which gathered on the trails, turning them the colour of Irn-Bru, and on the open hill mountain hares were in mid-metamorphosis, with mottled grey and white coats. Fall’s fireworks were giving way to winter’s more subtle palette.
On my last day, determined to get up a hill no matter what, I dragged myself up through knee-high heather and low-flying grouse onto the top of Creag Dhubh above Gleann Einich. I picked my way along the summit ridge as thick mist and smirr were blasted through by Arctic winds and crouched down to eat my lunch behind the Argyll Stone, a huge boulder left behind by retreating glaciers. Just when I thought a view was lost and so was I, the sun punched a hole in the snow-laden, grey-blue clouds and shafts of weak sunshine flooded Strathspey below, looking breath-taking in the browns and golds of its autumn garb.
It lasted only a moment. The clouds drew in again like curtains at the end of a play. I made the long descent and trekked through the forests to Aviemore to catch my train home. Just as I turned back to the Cairngorms for one last look, the clouds dissipated and weak winter sun cast a peachy light over the Rothiemurchus woods. A final encore from the sky and the fall!