The Silence of the Biggles

The area we live in doesn’t seem to get much Autumn color; one minute the leaves are on the trees – green and happy – and the next they’re lying on the ground, brown and soaking wet from relentless rain, and there doesn’t seem to be much in between. The region around Callander however is different, so we headed there in the Beaglemobile one weekend when work eased off.

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Our first stop was at Bracklinn Falls, a popular beauty spot with an easy circular walk that takes in not one but two pretty waterfalls. It was while we were on this circuit that I realised why I don’t generally get a lot of Autumn photographs: the weather is usually really, really crap at this time of year. In this case we were fortunate and it was only moderately crap, but it still kept trying to rain every five minutes or so.

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The colors however were spectacular, as were the sniffs. This was one of those rare walks that perfectly hit the sweet spot between stimulation and excitement; Beanie and Biggles eagerly scampered around from one nasal treat to the next, their noses sounding like Geiger counters, and yet there was no desparate pulling or baying outbreaks. By the time we got back to the van the pups were seriously ready for a naptime, even though they hadn’t gone much further than on a regular walk at home.

We spent the night in the van close to Loch Lubnaig, and though Beanie and Biggles started out in their own beds on the van seats, they didn’t stay there for long; even before the clock had ticked over into the next day there was a bed migration. Beanie was the first, curling up neatly by Susan’s stomach, and shortly thereafter Biggles also burrowed into our bed. I’ve noted in previous years how Biggles often seems to acquire a new ability after each birthday; I’d have to say that his eighth birthday has granted him the power of extreme expansion. I’m well used to him taking way more space than his little 13kg frame requires, but on this night he took it to a new level. At one point he actually managed to force not only me and Susan out of bed, but Beanie too. If the Beanster hadn’t been so sleepy she’d probably have bitten his bottom, but as it was, she ended up perched on a corner of the bed with no covers and a look of drugged bewilderment on her face. I was actually grateful when my smartphone’s alarm sounded; it meant it was time to embark on my hillwalk in the cold and dark, but even that was preferable to spending more time contorted around The Incredible BiggleHulk.

The target hill this time was Beinn Each. At just over 800m high it belongs in the “corbett” class, but the actual ascent listed on the Walkhighlands site is only 693 metres, so I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly taxing. My feeling of confidence seemed to rub off on my furry companions as we walked; despite having slept poorly the Beanster had a spring in her step and Biggles was walking wide and tall, his back legs making extra room for an enormous pair of imaginary testicles. Perhaps it was those imaginary testicles that had forced the rest of us out of bed. Regardless, this morning he was a Beagle at the top of his game and he wasn’t afraid to let the world know it. He started aaarrrffing, not necessarily because he smelled something, but just because it felt good. About ten minutes later he really did have something to bay at – a couple of sheep – and his cries sent them scurrying away. Perfect – just the way things should be! He let out another warbling, grunting aaarrrfff in triumph as the sheep disappeared from view but then suddenly – out of the darkness – something answered him!

At first the response sounded a bit like a group of disgruntled politicians in the House of Commons, but then it grew deeper, louder and more piercing. It lasted for what seemed like an age, and when it had finished Biggles wasn’t in the mood for aaarrfffing any more. He had his head down, pretending to concentrate on a sniffy bit of the path, and his tail was lowered. Even Beanie was looking round at me in the torchlight, her face asking “is it OK Dad, or would now be a good time to put on my soothing Christmas jumper?” I didn’t answer her straight away; for one thing I didn’t have her Christmas jumper in my backpack, and for another I was still trying work out what had made that sound. After a second I reasoned that it had to be a deer, but one with a really, really powerful call – every bit the deer equivalent of Beanie’s Howl of Death. I relaxed now that I knew what I’d heard and this put Beanie’s mind at rest too, but Biggles stayed silent for the rest of the walk; his bubble had been well and truly burst.

It soon turned out I’d been over-confident too; despite its modest ascent and length, the later stages of the climb were surprisingly challenging physically. The weather didn’t help either; the forecast had promised sunny intervals, but all we got was mist, rain and wind. We made it the summit in time for sunrise, but the only visible confirmation of that was the mist turning a slightly lighter shade of grey. The three of us huddled by the summit for a few minutes. I figured it was worth hanging on a while to see if the weather would clear, but once we’d run out of cow ears and bone-shaped biscuits we had a show of paws to determine if we should call it quits, and I lost. On the way back down we got an occasional hint of the color and beauty that was hiding behind all that mist.

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The way back from Ben Each [IMG_9892]

About half-way down the hill I felt the irresistible urge to do one of the many things that bears do in the woods. As we weren’t actually in the woods at that point I just a took a little detour off the path and prepared to squat; the only complication – other than the absence of toilet paper – was that I had two Beagles tide to my waist, one of whom had previously snacked on her Mum’s forbidden brown fruit. Biggles genuinely showed no interest in the proceedings, but Beanie was watching me closely, and believe me, I was watching her right back. I held up a cautionary index finger as I finished and pulled up my pants, and she held her position. As I reached down to pick up my backpack my eyes slipped from hers for a split-second, and though she lunged forward slightly, my finger brought her to a halt before she reached the drop zone. Ever seen that Doctor Who episode where deadly angel statues can only move when you’re not looking right at them? The writer of that episode must have owned a Beagle.  Anyway, I was almost there.. I just needed my tripod now. I reached to pick it up but fumbled slightly and my concentration on Beanie wavered a second time; unfortunately this was long enough for Beanie to tick another item off her bucket-list.

I guess I learned three lessons from our trip to Callander:

  • Never trust BBC weather forecasts in Autumn
  • Never aaarrrfff at a deer because it might answer back
  • Never accept kisses from Beanie when she’s been on a hillwalk

Double munro-lite and a large serving of Oo-mox – Part 2

Susan and Rob’s visit was blessed by remarkably good weather, and as I checked the forecasts back at the campsite it looked like the trend was set to continue. We decided to spend one more day in the Stonehaven area, then head towards Loch Tay for a sunrise ascent of Ben Lawers. All we had to do now was find somewhere local for a nice, relaxed but hopefully sniffy dog walk. After a couple of minutes of searching, Susan came up with nearby St. Cyrus.

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The beach there is the equal of any we saw on our tour of the west coast, and ticked all the boxes from a Beagle persepective: weird-shaped rocks to explore, miles of untouched sand, and of course seagull guano.

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Few things are as versatile as Seagull guano: it’s good to sniff, good to roll in, and good to eat.

I guess the rule is this: just head north and just about everything gets more dramatic and beautiful. Another rule is: don’t think you can eat a Cornetto in peace when you shared your fish supper with Beagles the previous day. And don’t ever think you can have the back seat of the Beagle limo all to yourself either.

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After an afternoon of deep snoozing we set off for Ben Lawers. We spent the night in the car park and then, very early the next morning, I headed out with my two intrepid adventurers to walk up the mountain itself.

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Technically Ben Lawers is the tenth highest mountain in Scotland, but thanks to the height of the car park there’s less walking involved than you might expect – sort of a munro “lite”. What’s more, you walk over the top of a slightly smaller peak called Beinn Glas on the way, so you tick off two munro-class summits for the price of one. The path is excellent too; wooden walkways cover the bulk of the early boggy areas so you don’t have to play a round of “where did my shoe go” whilst desperately holding on to pulling Beagles.

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Sunrise from Beinn Glas, with Ben Lawers up ahead

I still wouldn’t describe Ben Lawers as a “walk in the park” however; for one thing, the later sections are quite steep and offer a decent workout, and for another, parks don’t have sheep, but Beinn Glas and Ben Lawers do. There were in fact only two sheep that caused problems during our ascent, but they were really pesky and had no respect whatsoever for Mr Biggles’ authoritah. Time and again he’d have choice words for them, but they’d just stand there, chewing grass insolently and mocking him like the French soldiers in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Biggles: “Woof, warble, aaarrff, squeal, grunt!!!!”

Sheep: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”

When we got close enough to them they’d move on, but only to a further point on the same path, causing the cycle to repeat over and over again. Finally, as we started up the last section of Ben Lawers itself, Beanie got rid of them for good. You see The Beanster has two levels of aaarrff; there’s the fairly standard Beagle cry that she uses when pursuing little birds on the beach, then there’s the Howl Of Death. Honestly, I’ve heard lots of other hounds in full cry, but none of them – not a single one – has come close to the volume and spine-chilling qualities of Beanie’s HOD. She doesn’t use it often, but when she does, other dog owners – even the most irresponsible ones – immediately lead-up their dogs and steer a wide path around us; young mothers hurriedly pick up their children and carry them away; and sheep – even really pesky ones with mock French accents and an appreciation for anarchic 1970s British humor – run for their lives.

“Well done Beanie!” I said as the sheep sped out of view. She looked round out at me and I gave her a little bone-shaped biccie as a reward. Biggles got a biccie too because, well, that’s the law.

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On the way back down we ran into other walkers making their way up the hill, some of whom had offlead dogs with them. One of them asked me: “are there any sheep up there?” I smiled to myself and replied “No. Not anymore.”

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The Magical Mystery Crate Tour Part 1: Game of Thrones

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It’s taken a while, but Beanie & Biggles have finally realized that their fabric campervan crates are magical. Every time our pups tumble out of them, they find themselves in a completely different place to where they started out. Only last week they climbed into them from our drive at home and emerged in Fort William.

To be honest, Fort William didn’t have much going for it; the weather was hot and sunny, but there were no ice-cream wrappers on the pavements, and no half-eaten sandwiches under the public benches. The pups did get a bit of ear fondling from passers by while they were waiting for their Mum to emerge from the local supermarket, but let’s face it, you can’t eat an ear fondle. As an aside, all of the fondlers were people who had previously owned a Beagle, and that got me wondering again why so many of the people we meet “once had a Beagle”. Why only once? It’s as if the experience of owning a pesky, relentlessly destructive, food-obsessed, furry little suicide-machine on legs somehow makes the Beagle breed less attractive second time around for some people. Honestly, I just don’t get it.

Anyway, once they’d established that Fort William was a dead loss food-wise, Beanie & Biggles climbed back into their magical crates and found themselves in Glencoe, about to embark on a very early morning walk up up a mountain that was sort-of named in their honor: Buachaille Etive Beag(le).

This walk was every bit as magical as the campervan crates; on the way up we passed through a cloud inversion, and saw the crescent moon hovering over a nearby peak (click to see larger version).

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We made it to the summit in plenty of time for sunrise, where I spent a bit too long trying to capture the sun as it spilled light onto the ridge. I know this because Biggles not only had time to chomp through all his chews and biccies, but got so bored that he had to embark on a digging project. In the end I had to time my shots carefully to avoid motion blur as a certain energetic white bottom reversed into the tripod legs.

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Things got a lot more interesting on the return journey. There may not be any sheep on the Glencoe mountains we’ve visited, but there can be deer, and I think his lordship’s sniffer caught scent of one..

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The invisible but smelly deer was the least of our problems on the way back down the mountain. Instead of using strips of Duck Tape to prevent Beanie Houdini-ing her lead off the harness attachment point, we’d used a short canicross “neckline” to make a second, fail-safe link between the lead and her collar. This was without doubt a safer option, but it quickly became annoying; about every minute or so she’d get one or both of her front legs caught in the line and I’d have to assist.

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Beanie’s canicross neckline is visible in this shot. This was captured on one of the rare occasions she didn’t have a leg caught in it.

By the time we’d got back to our starting point I’d trained Beanie to stop and hold up her paw in response to the words “You’ve done it AGAIN”. Still, I’d rather that than watch her disappearing after a deer.

After breakfast the crates worked their magic again, transporting the Beagles to Neist Point on the Isle of Skye. If you’ve flicked through popular landscape images you’ve probably seen photos of the huge crag with the lighthouse just beyond, but I can tell you nothing comes close to seeing it through your own eyes.

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You can walk right to the top of the cliff pretty easily, in fact I’d recommend it for two reasons:

  1. it’s one of the very few spots at Neist point that doesn’t have sheep, and
  2. all dogs who go up there but don’t pull their attached humie over the edge in pursuit of a seagull, get a Pedigree Mini-Jumbone each

It should be noted that point #2 above is based on a sample of only two Beagles called Beanie & Biggles, on a single visit. It should also be noted that the Mini-Jumbones are awarded even if death-by-seagull-pursuit is attempted, but unsuccessful.

Our next destination was a car park at the summit of the Applecross pass, and truthfully I’d have been happy to get there by means of a magic crate myself. The pass – or Bealach na Ba as it’s known – is not the easiest of drives. It’s a steep and narrow single track road with hairpin bends and fatal drops guarded only by thin, heavily dented crash barriers. The entry to the pass has a large sign warning that it is not for inexperienced drivers, large vehicles and caravans. No shit, Sherlock! Having travelled from Skye, our first taste of the pass came in the dead of night. To be honest that’s the best time to tackle it: there’s little chance of meeting anyone going in the opposite direction, and you can’t see the drops. It’s almost fun, because you get to play a round of “where the hell did the road go?” every time you get to a bend.

Once at the summit Beanie & Biggles were finally able to discover where the Magical Mystery Crates had deposited them, and the grass around the car park got a thorough watering. This was to be our home for the night, and in the morning I was due to walk up a nearby hill called Sgurr a Chaorachain. All we had to do now was get some sleep – something that had previously proved difficult in the van due to the bed only being built to accommodate two Beagles, not two Beagles plus their owners. We were so tired by this point that we didn’t even bother pulling out the bed; we just tossed some bedding on the floor of the van and settled down. Faced with the option of staying put in their comfy chairs (Beanie in the driver’s seat, Biggles in the rotating passenger seat), or joining us on the floor, our pups chose the former, and I got the best few hours’ campervan sleep I’d had to that point.  What’s more this one night set a precedent; for the rest of the tour Beanie & Biggles were content to sleep on their seats.

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In the morning I set out on my walk, leaving Susan and the Beagles tucked up safely in the van. The hill I climbed was only 1200ft above the car park, but given that the car park itself was more than 2000ft above sea level the views were not to be sniffed at, especially since I didn’t have the professional sniffers with me.

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Mast and ridge on Sgurr a' Chaorachain [IMG_6434]

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View from Sgurr a Chaorachain

Applecross lies in a region called Wester Ross and like its fictional almost-namesake, it became the focus for a “game of thrones”. The throne in this case wasn’t forged from a thousand swords, but from rigid white plastic, and had the words “Porta Potti Qube” written neatly on the front.

While I was heading back from my hillwalk, Susan was readying our portable chemical toilet for its most important duty. Beanie & Biggles were apparently sleeping on their chairs, the curtains were drawn, all was ready for that most private of bodily functions. Susan carefully positioned herself on the plastic throne, blissfully unware that fate was about deal a terrible blow (if only she’d seen the GoT episode where Tywin Lannister died, she’d have realized that bad things can happen when you’re on on the crapper). Anyway, just as her first deposit hit the bowl something strong and determined began levering her off the seat. She was ill-prepared to resist, lost her balance, and toppled bum-first to the floor. Looking round desperately to identify what had dethroned her, she saw Beanie dipping her snout into the bowl and retrieving the freshly laid prize.

The good news is that on my return, Susan told me what had happened before Beanie had chance to give me a “welcome back” kiss. The bad news is that I was due to brush her and Biggles’ chewing gear later that same day.