Leave Only Paw Prints – Part 1

We’re just back from a mini-holiday on the Isle of Arran. It was a holiday packed with drama and unexpected events, and the excitement started even before we got on the ferry.

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We were booked on the last sailing of the day, which is always a bit of a concern as there’s no second chance if you miss the check-in or the ferry itself is cancelled. We arrived at the terminal in plenty of time, but the place was deserted; the ticket booth was unoccupied, and there were no other passengers parked in the queuing lanes. This immediately set me wondering if the ferry had been cancelled. In due course we were joined by four other vehicles, but this was still an unusually low number for such a popular ferry.  We let Beanie & Biggles out of their travel crates as we waited, and they helped pass the time by ramming their bums, paws and noses into our faces as they tried to get comfortable on our laps. Last check-in time came and went without anybody coming to inspect our tickets. Ever the impatient little madam, Beanie beeped the horn with her bottom but still no-one came. As the sailing time rapidly approached the ferry remained conspicuous by its absence. Eventually I checked the ferry website on my phone and discovered that all was well; the ferry had been delayed some fifty minutes minutes on the Arran side due to an unusually low tide, but it was still on.

When the ferry eventually appeared both Beanie and Biggles sat up excitedly to watch the proceedings, but things were still moving desperately slowly; there seemed to be some confusion as to where the ferry should dock to unload its current cargo of vehicles, and it began a very lengthy and precise turning maneuver. Biggles vented his frustration by verbally abusing the ferry staff – they were all sporting high vis jackets and hard-hats, both of which are clear violations of the Beagle dress code. Five minutes later the ferry was still turning, and Biggles was all woofed out; when the front end of the ship lifted up on its hydraulics he was out cold on the floor of the van between our seats. All that waiting, and he still missed the Thunderbirds moment!

It was close to sunset when we finally boarded the ferry, and very very cold. We spent only the briefest time checking the external seating areas (no dropped chips or other edible debris were found) before retreating to the pet-friendly lounge. Ordinarily this is a no-go area for us; the chances of seeing another dog are high, and the resulting woofing from our two would likely get us thrown off the ship. Fortunately there were so few passengers that we got the lounge to ourselves. Unfortunately the crossing was quite rough, and more than once I wondered if I’d be cleaning Beagle vomit – or my own – off the decks before we made it to Arran.

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In the end no lunches were lost and we reached our first destination – the car park below Corbett-class hill “Caisteal Abhail” – just as darkness was falling. This was a completely new hill to us and given that it’s rated grade 4 on the Walkhighlands site, I decided it would be best to try it solo this time around. At 2am I dragged myself out of the van, leaving Susan and the pups snuggling in bed.

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Sunrise on Caisteal Abhail [5D4_1755]

Cir Mhor from Caisteal Abhail [5D4_1773]

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The ascent went very smoothly and I found Caisteal Abhail to be both Beagle-able and visually spectacular, however on the way down my adrenaline ran out and lack of sleep started to take its toll. As I trudged down the steeper sections – fighting to keep my eyes open – the emergency shelter pack that was hanging from my camera bag really started to bug me. It was bouncing around, banging into my legs and unbalancing me every few steps just like.. well, like an excited Beagle. In fact it was so Beagle-like in its behavior that I named it “Biggles” and began telling it off, first in my head and then verbally in order to stave off the fatigue. Although he never stopped being naughty, little windproof nylon Biggles got me safely back to the van where I received an enthusiastic welcome from Beanie, and the real Biggles.. well he just hogged the back seat and demanded a blanky.

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Yeah Dad, I know you’ve been up a mountain and have had barely one hour of sleep, but I’m trying to get some quality nap time here, so keep the noise down OK?

We now headed to a campsite – our base for the next two nights. In between catnaps I walked the pups, helped erect our tent, and drank my way through half a box of instant cappuccino sachets. By the time we drove out to Machrie Moor to see the ancient standing stones, I was back to being mostly functional.

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It looks like a giant foot Beanie! Imagine getting hold of one the socks that fits that thing!

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Like most Scottish islands Arran has a big sheep population, and a good number of them stood between the car park and the stones. Two things however were in our favor: firstly, the sheep seemed remarkably calm around dogs, and secondly, they’d covered the ground with some of the finest tasting poop in the UK. I usually do my best to prevent our pups munching on poop (especially when I’m due to clean their teeth later the same day) but on this occasion it seemed the lesser of two evils; at least they couldn’t bay while they were gulping down the brown stuff. Still, they both consumed an awful lot, and an alarm bell was ringing somewhere at the back of my sleep-deprived brain.

That night I stumbled through my final chores: feed the pups, take them for a final loo visit, brush their teeth, brush my teeth and finally collapse onto the bed. I had hopes of getting a full night’s sleep, but it didn’t happen; in the very early hours of the next morning, Biggles came into our bed and seemed very restless – the kind of restless that is usually only resolved by a trip to the outside loo. I absolutely did not want to leave the bed; I tried to talk Susan into handling it, but she was still recovering a from a gym session and wasn’t budging. In the end, I went for the half-arsed solution. I crawled out of bed and onto the drivers seat, opening the door just enough to let His Biggleship out on his lead. This had a low probability of success because both our Beagles are very particular about finding the “right spot”; still, if he was desperate enough, Biggles might just be happy to pee on the front tyre. I couldn’t see what was happening out there, but I waited for what I thought was a reasonable length of time and called him back in, instructing him to settle down. And so he did, albeit in our bed, along with Beanie. I went back to bed myself and just as I was starting to nod off, Biggles’ rear-end released the most noxious fart I have ever experienced. It was like those new Doritos “Heatburst” nachos that hit you with one flavor first, then follow up with a second, hotter and more intense taste as you crunch down on ’em. Only when the worst of the stench had dissipated could I finally get back to sleep. However, it wasn’t long before Biggles was requesting another trip to the outside loo.

I knew the half-arsed solution wouldn’t cut it this time, so grumbling and cursing, I dressed and took him out for a proper toilet walk. My eyes were barely open as Biggles tugged me into the lane by the campsite, but still I half-noticed that something seemed to be smeared on his bum and the base of his upright tail. My brain wasn’t sufficiently awake to ponder on this, so I just did my best to concentrate on the task in hand.

Biggles found his spot quickly and squatted. As I swayed in the breeze waiting for him to finish, my gaze landed on a council dog-fouling notice stuck on a telegraph pole. This was different from the ones I’d seen on the Ayrshire mainland – its main slogan was “leave only paw prints”. I quite liked the sound of that, and took pride in the fact that I’m never without a healthy supply of poo bags. Speaking of which, Biggles had just finished his business. I looked down at it, and instantly saw that it wasn’t normal; this was poo Jim, but not as we know it. For one thing the quantity was way higher than normal (multi-bag scenario), and though conventionally shaped, this poo was dark green in color and very slick. Regardless, I bagged it and binned it, then headed back to the van.

As I climbed back into the van my higher brain functions came back online and began to deal with the backlog of visual information I’d collected on the poo walk. The image of the smearing on Biggles bum and tail sprang back into focus, and with a sense of dread I made the connection between it and the otherworldly poo he’d just done.

“Er Sue, I think Biggles has done a poo somewhere in the van” I said, quickly checking the likely places: the foot-well by the side door, the space between the two front seats. But all was as it should be.

“Don’t worry about it, we can clean it up later” mumbled Susan.

Usually I prefer to deal with such things straight away, but on this occasion I was still so tired that procrastination seemed like a good idea. I shed my clothes and pulled back the covers as I prepared to climb back into bed. And there, on the bed sheet, I saw it.

I guess I could describe it as a “skid mark”, but that wouldn’t entirely do it justice.  “Skid mark left by a rally car drifting at high speed round a particularly muddy corner” would be closer to the truth, but that’s a heck of a long description.

Instead I’ll just go for “monster-truck skid mark”; that involves a bit of exaggeration, but then let’s remember that this particular monster-truck skid mark wasn’t rubber, or mud, it was sheep poo that had been reprocessed and deposited by a little Beagle boy in our bed, while we were in it.

Leave only paw prints? Big fail on that one, Mr Biggles.

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Ben Ledi Revisited

Just over eight years ago The Biggly Boy experienced his very first hillwalk: Ben Ledi. He made a ton of noise on the way up, a ton-and-a-half of noise on the way down, and we never got so see any views because the summit was in cloud. We revisited Ben Ledi last weekend, and I’m happy to say that things went very differently, in all respects.

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Ben Ledi is one of Scotland’s most popular hills, and if you’re going up it and don’t like crowds, you’d better get an early start; we started so early we actually left home the previous day. I parked up the Beaglemobile below the mountain just before midnight on Saturday, with the intention of snatching a few short hours of sleep before heading to the summit on Sunday morning in time for sunrise. Ordinarily something like this wouldn’t make me the least bit apprehensive, but Susan had a big gym session the next day and wanted maximum rest before it so it was going to be me and two naughty Beagles alone in the van overnight, with no responsible adult to guide us.

Things didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. Some other people had also parked up, presumably planning the same thing, and the best spot I could find was right by a really big puddle. I reversed in, hoping to make my exit the next morning as easy as possible, but this put the puddle right by the van’s sliding side door. Ever since we got the van, Susan’s been thinking up ways to keep Beanie & Biggles from bolting out of the door the instant it opens; as it turned out, that muddy but not particularly deep puddle worked really well. Neither of our two pups was at all keen about stepping down out of the van into the murky, wet brownness below for a leg stretch and piddle. I actually had to lift Beanie over it, and Biggles only jumped out after a lot of encouragement and an excited countdown.

Back in the van I put the lights on and served up a late snack for myself, and two cow ears for my furry companions. Biggles finished his lug in record time, but still not quite fast enough to grab a piece of my pork pie before I’d consumed it; after all these years with Beanie & Biggles to copy I’ve become quite good at speed-swallowing, though I do still chew things a bit first, so haven’t quite achieved Beagle mastery level yet.

I checked my watch and realised that I only had at most three and a half hours of sleep ahead of me. It was time for bed! I pulled the rear seat out into it’s sleeping configuration and now, without Susan to hold the pups, I had to play several rounds of “transplant the Bigglet” as I struggled to get the bedding into place without any furry lumps underneath it. Oddly Beanie seemed quite content to sleep on the drivers seat, but I called her into bed with me and Biggles to maximise warmth. We all slept remarkably well – there was only minimal fidgeting and bed-hogging, but when the alarm went off I awoke to an atmosphere thick with fart gas. It was arranged in layers – a stack of three distinct aromas – one of which was presumably my own contribution, fueled by that pork pie. It made that first lung full of clean, cold air all the sweeter as we exited the van.

The path up Ben Ledi is the best I’ve ever seen; clear and easy to follow, relatively bog-free and very well maintained. Unfortunately, maintenance was ongoing at one short section we encountered. The path suddenly turned into deep, sticky mud with a JCB digger somehow floating on top of it. I didn’t float of course, and neither did  Biggles; I had to carry him through it, keeping one hand free to use the side of the digger for purchase. Had we been going up in daylight I might have seen the little diversion that bypassed all that boot-swallowing muck..

Despite that small hiccup we made it to the summit in plenty of time for sunrise, but to my surprise we discovered that someone had beaten us to it! A hardy fellow had actually spent the whole night up there in his tent, and he hadn’t had two furry hot water bottles to keep him warm. Beanie greeted him by doing a particularly frantic version of the biscuit-summoning dance, while Biggles gave him a stern woofing. I tried to have a conversation with him in between Biggles’ outbursts, but my mouth was malfunctioning from the cold and everything came out a bit like John Hurt in The Elephant Man. I suspect the guy thought we’d all just escaped from a local care home, because he packed up and headed off down the mountain in short order, leaving us alone on the summit.

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Although Ben Ledi has a summit cairn and trig point, its most natural focal point is the large metal cross sited just a little way down from the highest point. This is a memorial to Sgt Harry Lawrie who died while on duty with the Killin Mountain Rescue team in 1987. It turns out that early April is an ideal time of year for a visit because the sun lines up spectacularly with the cross just a little after sunrise.

Ben Ledi - Lawrie Memorial [5D4_1393]

We walked on past the summit to see what views lay beyond. There’s an alternative route down the mountain from here that passes through “Stank Glen”, however it’s not particularly easy to follow and since we’d already experienced “Stank Van” we just turned around and went back the way we’d come.

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Things got warmer as the sun rose and our height reduced. We paused at a particularly nice spot for a couple more cow ears and a slug of water before continuing on.

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The closer we got to the bottom, the more people we encountered starting out on their own journey up Ben Ledi. The car park was beyond full by the time Biggles had announced breakfast to everyone, eaten it, and been safely zipped back up in his travel crate along with Beanie for the journey home. It took nearly twenty minutes of queueing to get back out of the car park, with some new arrivals having to reverse back round a tight bend and over a bridge to let us out. If you ever get a chance to visit Ben Ledi, remember this: go early, really early, and always park facing out. And of course, take plenty of cow ears and a can of Chappie!

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Oh Biggles!!!

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Prior to my ascent of Beinn Luibhean every single major hill I’d climbed had involved zig-zags; they’d either been part of the path – trading increased distance for a gentler gradient – or had been forced on me by natural obstacles. More than once I’d considered them irritating and unnecessary, and wondered what it would be like simply to set my sights on the top of a hill and head straight for it in an uncompromising straight line. If you’ve ever wondered that too, I can tell you right now exactly what it’s like: awful, especially if you’ve got deep snow to go through.

It’s even worse if you’ve got little boy called “Oh Biggles!!!” tied to your waist. Yes, during the course of our most recent hill climb I did indeed change my boy’s name from plain “Biggles” to “Oh Biggles!!!” with no less than three exclamation marks, but sometimes five or six. He earned this new appellation by constantly – and I do mean constantly – getting himself tied up in his own lead, forcing me to grind to a halt and untangle him. On several occasions he even got himself caught up in Beanie’s lead while I was still trying to free his back legs from his own.

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Munching on cow ears before the final push to the summit, and Oh Biggles!!! has got himself tied up yet again

The supreme irony of this whole venture was that I’d chosen Beinn Luibhean as a nice “warmup” hill for 2017 due to its modest height, easy path-free navigation (set your eyes on the summit and start walking), short length (less than 5km) and safe grassy surface. Thanks to the snow and my little furry numpty on legs it mutated into the freezing cold mother of all workouts. At times I was forced to scramble on all fours to get past the steeper snow-covered sections; Beanie & Biggles were scrambling on all fours too (it is after all their default state) but it wasn’t working for them. There was one particularly rough bit that went something like this:

  • Dig my hands into the snow for extra purchase and take one big step up and forward
  • Discover that Biggles is stuck behind me; pick him up and lift him forward, and in doing so, slip back one foot
  • Extract Biggles from the tangle he created almost immediately on being released
  • Discover that Beanie is stuck behind me; pick her up and lift her forward while sticking my head under Biggles’ bum to stop him slipping back
  • Extract Beanie’s lead from between Biggles’ legs (he’s just re-tangled)
  • Repeat all the above, over and over again

I’d long given up hope of getting any decent photograpy from the summit due to the white-out conditions; now it was just about beating what should have been a pretty trivial hill. Beanie at least was fully behind the “get to the top” plan – she was the first to get moving again after our cow ear-break.

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Onward and upward! Beanie’s never happy until she’s reached the top.

By the time we reached what appeared to be the highest point I was more than ready for my traditional summit treat – chocolate milk – except that by now it had frozen solid. Fortunately other treats – specifically a packet of meat and cheese nibbles with a picture of a happy labrador on the front – were unaffected by the conditions. I saw no point staying up there in the cold with nothing to see, so we started back down even before all the nibbles had been fully nibbled.

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No Dad, one serving is not going to cut it this time!

If going up a steep snow-covered hill is extra hard, going down is extra easy and extra fun. Even if you slip you’re guaranteed a soft landing! The lower we went, the more the white-out cleared, revealing glimpses of neighbouring mountains. And of course it got it warmer too; as our van came into view at the bottom of the hill my chocolate milk had thawed enough to drink, and I gave myself a thumping ice-cream headache with my first gulp.

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Doggy breakfast was served at the van, after which we drove just a couple of miles up the road to visit an old pictoresque stone bridge known as “The Butterbridge“. I’d had the satnav coordinates for the bridge in my phone for over two years, but had always given it a miss, often citing the excuse that the weather was “too good” – it’s one of those sites that looks disappointingly bland under sun and blues skies. On this day, there was no such problem :)

Butterbridge [IMG_3515]

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