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Glen Affric - A Mini Adventure

This past weekend (14/15th May) I found myself in Glen Affric with a tent and my camera. I was there with Jason – whom I was with in Assynt back in February – of Icarus Owen Photography. The idea for the trip was first discussed back in March I think, we were considering another camping trip and had drawn up a list of possible locations and these included; a return to the Assynt area, Aviemore and surrounds, Torridon or Glen Affric. I was keen for Glen Affric as from the list it was the only place that would be completely new to me. I was also aware that Glen Affric is more renowned for its colours in autumn but I thought that spring would be worth a look, as the trees start to come to life there would be greens of various hues.

So, with a vague plan and a weekend set aside we departed Aberdeen on the Friday after work with the aim of being in the glen around 10pm, find a suitable spot and pitch the tent for the night. The forecast was promising, but as always not to be relied upon so we turned in with fingers crossed for a nice sunrise – the alarm was set for 4:30am…

We managed to drag ourselves out of cosy sleeping bags not long after the alarm call to find a cold, chilly dawn awaited us. The tent had a nice skin of overnight frost and the air temperature was hovering around zero as we slowly came to life. As we milled about sorting our kit and started to break camp Jason spotted a tendril of back lit mist creeping around the corner of the shoreline, just along from where we had camped. The sun was above the hills and there was also some mist, bonus! We grabbed cameras and set off (at a scramble) to try and find a location that would maximise the scene (we were a little disorganised - as we had arrived in the near dark we hadn’t really chosen our campsite based on a photo location).

We worked a small section of the shore watching the sky as there was a large bank of cloud also present - the sun was climbing toward this and we would only have a few minutes before it disappeared. Photos taken and the sun in the cloud we wandered back to the tent wondering if we had captured anything of note and our thoughts turning to breakfast. All this had happened in the space of about 45 minutes, it seemed longer but it was still only 5:15am!

Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin at sunrise.

After we had cleared ourselves of tent packing duty and with the sun now back out (albeit much higher in the sky) we once again grabbed our kit and wandered along the north shore of the loch. The water was still and looked like glass so we were hoping to capture reflections before any breeze kicked in and ruffled the water surface. It wasn’t looking good, the sun was a little too high and we had lost that early light softness. We both made the mental note that it appeared Glen Affric was a little bit rubbish for sunrise (in May anyway) due to the angle of the glen and the surrounding hills.

Jason wandering the shore of Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

Having captured all that we felt we could from our camp location we headed for the car and drove back toward Cannich looking for another location that would potentially make the most of the ever harder light. Our next stop was at the dam on the north end of Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin, this is part of a Hydro scheme that is connected to the loch and River Affric. The dam gave height over the surrounding trees and with the sun in and out of the clouds we gave it about 30-40 minutes to see if it would produce anything of interest. The serried ranks of greens made it quite a sight and I could see why the autumn colours would be such a draw to photographers, walkers and anyone who just likes the outdoors.

Benevean Dam - Part of the Glen Affric Hydro-Electric scheme.

Benevean Dam - Part of the Glen Affric Hydro-Electric scheme.

The varied trees that cover the whole length of the glen. The odd dead one mixing it up...

We left the dam, again wondering if we had anything of note, and drove the last section out of the glen where we did a U-turn and immediately set off back up the glen. We had spotted a potential sunrise location as we drove in the night before and were keen to find it again in daylight to have a proper look. We eventually came across it and parked the car temporarily by the side of the road so we could walk back the 30 or so metres to admire the view along the loch. It certainly wold have potential for a sunrise, so with a few shots taken for reference as much as anything we moved on - the plan was to stop at the middle of the 3 car parks for a brew and a recce as Jason had been there a few years ago and knew it would be worth a look.

The light was now really not in our favour, the sun was high and harsh (although it was lovely and warm!). The enthusiasm for landscapes was now waning rapidly as the lack of sleep caught up along with the lack of nice light so we just sorted through our kit and made sure everything was in order. With our cups of tea and packet of biscuits in hand we were quickly joined by a handful of Chaffinches, both male and female, who clearly associated people sitting at the picnic bench we occupied with food… Jason even managed to tempt a male to eat from his hand.

Now, we had also packed our telephoto lenses (we had the car and weight wasn’t much of a concern) to give us a few options should the landscape not play ball or the weather was rubbish. As the Chaffinches were clearly happy to be fed the odd crumb or two we grabbed our ‘wildlife’ kit and spent near enough the next hour taking photos of these little birds – the fact that the light was bright helped in this case!

Hiding behind a 400mm...

Hiding behind a 400mm...

Male Chaffinch enjoying our crumbs.

And the female with a beak full of crumbs.

Who you lookin' at..?

Once we had satiated Jason’s appetite for wildlife we packed up and drove to the end of the road and parked. The view from this car park is quite spectacular, it looks along the River Affric toward Loch Affric with the peaks of Sgùrr Na Lapaich, An Tudair and Creag A'Chaorainn dominating the northern skyline. These peaks still had large amounts of snow on them so although the May sunshine was warm where we were it was an altogether different story at 3000 feet.

Looking along the River Affric with Sgùrr Na Lapaich on the right.

We decided that this was as good a place as any for lunch, so we broke out the stove and rations and had lunch while enjoying the view. It was also starting to feel rather late but a check of the watch confirmed it was only around 1pm, being up since 4:30 was clearly affecting our concept of time! After lunch we walked along the 4x4 track that followed the river, making our way further into the glen. I was mainly keen to find out what lay ahead and make notes for any future trips should a walk through the glen with camping kit be an option.

The Scots Pines that line the southern banks of the River Affric.

Once back at the car we then headed back along the road toward Cannich, we planned to make a trip out the glen so we could pick up a phone signal (and I could check in with Anna) and have a drink at the local pub while enjoying the sun. Phone calls made and cake eaten we again headed back into Glen Affric with the intention to stop for the remainder of the afternoon at the car park for Dog Falls. After yet another cup of tea I picked up my camera and wandered the river bank trying a few locations and fighting the glare on the running water (it was to prove a lost cause but I still managed a few nice compositions – I think!). While I was busy doing this Jason was snoozing on the picnic bench enjoying the lack of midges and the warm sun.

The River Affric.

The River Affric.

The River Affric.

With it now late afternoon and our thoughts turning to dinner/sunset/camp site (in that order…) we packed up and headed off in search of a location that would fit all three requirements as by now the long day was taking its toll (despite being really slow paced and relaxing) and the thought of being in one place for the evening and overnight was quite appealing. We found a spot where we could park the car off the road and gave us access to the loch shore while also providing a nice flat section just below the road for pitching the tent. As we sat eating our evening meal we watched the shadows lengthen and started to consider our position for sunset, we realised that we would lose the sun quite early as it dropped behind the hills to our back – again we mentally noted that, in May at least, Glen Affric was a little bit rubbish for sunsets as well. It was just a case of make the most of what we had and then pitch the tent and head to sleep. I think we were in sleeping bags just before 9pm with alarms set for 4am…

The fading sunlight from the shores of Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

After gently falling asleep the alarm went off - in what felt like far too short a space of time - 4am was a little dull but the new day was beginning. After procrastinating in a warm sleeping bag for 30 minutes I eventually stuck my nose outside the tent – once again we had a skim of frost – and noted while the location was certainly idyllic there was no light worth bothering with and the sun was still below the hills. So, back to sleep for a bit… Jason then stuck his nose out around 5:30 and reported back with “It’s certainly gorgeous, but nae light” so further snoozing ensued until a little after 6:30 when I finally dragged myself out of the tent.

By this point the sun had been up for around 90 minutes and was finally above the hills and lighting the tops of the trees around us. The loch was again like a mirror but we had no mist this morning. Cameras at the ready we started to pack up while keeping an eye on the landscape to see what would happen. Eventually the shore and trees were sufficiently lit that we set up and captured the scene in front of us.

Early morning reflections as the sun creeps above the hills to light the banks of the loch.

Early morning on Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin.

Once we were happy (it’s a relative term here) and with the car loaded we headed back to the car park for Loch Beinn A' Mheadhoin. Once again we set up the stove on our preferred picnic bench. As we sat here watching the clouds gather and a few light rain showers dimple the water’s surface we grabbed the chance of taking a few photos when the sun finally broke through - lighting a lone birch standing on a sandy point on the far shore. It was only a brief moment before the sun disappeared behind the ever increasing cloud cover.

A lone birch lit by the early morning sun.

With a glance at the sky we realised that it was effectively the end of our weekend. The cloud was such that we knew it was to remain that way for the day. With breakfast eaten and cameras packed we made our way out of the glen for the last time. We were heading to Beauly and a café stop for an early lunch and then we departed for the drive to Aberdeen.

The rapids just upstream of Dog Falls on the River Affric.

Another trip is already planned, this time it’ll be in October when the colours are at their brightest. It seems odd to already be looking beyond the still to come summer but, I am certainly looking forward to a return later in the year to see the magic of Glen Affric in all its autumn glory.