Inspired by a buddy, I wanted to take the family on a multi-day, wild camp, through-hike experience. I wrote it down on paper two years ago in fact, so the idea wouldn’t get lost in a mix of hobbies or morph into something else as life and time march on. With the onset of our final summer in England, the time to make this happen is now.
I’ve eased the family into this adventure. We’ve done multiple 1-mile hikes with packs for a night out under the stars on the property we live on (at right). I took everyone to England’s Lake District for a more epic one-nighter involving going up into mountains (well, England’s version of mountains at least). I’ve even learned from mistakes along the way to make the experience more enjoyable and less like a “Survivor” episode (like bring rain gear). I think the Snakeye Clan is ready for The Big One. Of course I can’t just call it The Big One; every epic exploit needs a name:
Operation Overland (the concept)
I chose what should be one of the most memorable locations in the United Kingdom: the Isle of Skye. Most “must see” outdoor websites and lists usually include the Isle of Skye somewhere toward the top. A little research suggested that May/June is the best timeframe to go: the midges (little fleas with wings; I think they’re the same as sand gnats in the States) don’t swarm the island until July, and the month of May trends as the sunniest month across the isle (after all, I’m trying to avoid a repeat of the disaster in the Lake District). The kids’ week-long spring break at the end of May, along with the favorable conditions promised by research, set the time frame for a 3-day, 2-night epic adventure.
The Isle of Skye is around a 10-hour drive from where we live. I really didn’t feel like starting the hike immediately after sitting in a car for that long, so I started looking into accommodation for our arrival and departure days. Here was the first speed bump: since it’s spring break, every English family (and their French relatives) is on vacation and sucking up every cool place to stay. So I had to adjust dates slightly (a lot of ‘no vacancies’ on my original dates). In the end, we were booked into some castle hotel near Skye on the way up, we would have a 3-night, 4-day (even more epic!) camping trip, and we booked into a Pub (staying in pubs is the only way to travel in the UK!) in Portree, Skye.
As I searched for a camping gameplan, I found a 22-mile hike ending in Portree that I took a liking to. Ok, at first it seems a little long (22 miles?!), but broken into 4 days yields only 5-6 miles per day of walking, something the kids can easily do in a 24-hour span. I also noted that the terrain might be a little rough, but when I compared the elevation changes to that of the Lake District Disaster (which the kids handled just fine, by the way), it was actually less. So the 22-mile Trotternish Ridge trail was selected. We’d park the car in Portree, take a cab up to the start point, and be on our own to get back to Portree, the car, and the Pub.
On the days leading up to C-Day (Camp Day), I watched the weather forecast like a hawk. Unfortunately, it looked like the sunniest day would be the day we drove up. I even talked to the forecasters at work (UK Met Office): our first day in the bush would be marked by a front pushing through starting in the evening giving to low cloud, 20-30 mph winds, and moderate rain. I was assured, however, that it would die off overnight and that the sun would gradually overrule any patchy showers as the days moved on. Ok. I’m willing to suffer a “Lake District” night to get to the better weather because after the Lake District experience, we’re prepared. Besides, I’m pretty sure we probably suffered more like 30-40 mph winds in the Lake District, so no biggie.
C-Day minus 1
The predominant sun framed the beauty of the Highlands throughout the drive up. We arrived at our castle around 7pm. The place was huge: huge doors, huge windows, huge rooms. I almost felt like I had been invited to stay by Laird Texas himself (Why Texas? Because everything is bigger in Texas)… at least, that’s probably the feeling they intend to replicate. While Pam and the kids basked in the 9pm sunlight, I updated myself on the latest Skye forecast. Yep: the first night out was, in fact, going to suck, holding at 20-30 mph winds, rain and cloud. The crappy thing is that the forecast for Day 2 slipped a little more into the showers realm. The final two days, however, remained unchanged though.
In the morning, everyone was a bit apprehensive sitting in the car making our way to Portree; we left the castle (a 2 hour’s drive east) with blue skies, and it just got cloudier and cloudier as we went west. At the Portree checkpoint, we realized we were down five (out of five) liters of water. Oops: we filled five 1-liter bottles with water back at the castle, and at the castle they remained. I found some road bike bottles at a local hardware store that would suffice and bought two of them… it’s not like we won’t get our fair share of rain (free water). A thirty-minute taxi ride later and we were boots-on-ground at the trail head pushing to make as much progress as possible before the arrival of the weather front.
From the gusty winds, we could tell that the front was on its way. Our kids, 5 and 6 years old, have almost more energy than we adults do. The problem is you have to keep them motivated. Their energy is that of a greyhound: excelling at quick spurts, but falling well short in a marathon. I gave them backpacks, but only loaded them with a few dehydrated meals and their (lightweight) toy of choosing. Otherwise, I carried about 65% of the rest while Pam handled about 35% of the load. I also stocked up on about 12 kid’dle prods (they achieve the same results as cattle prods, except without the cattle): Snickers and PayDay candy bars… “Hey, you see that next ridge over yonder? Get there without whining and I’ll give you a Snickers.” Needless to say, my diabolical schemes worked. We stopped whenever the kids asked (probably every mile or so) and offloaded the packs to rest and scope out the area.
The scenery is bleak (especially when you consider the menacing clouds) and devoid of any trees. But this is what makes it unique and breathtaking. Like the Lake District, most of this land is like walking on a soggy sponge: years and years of plant growth (what they call ‘heather’) grows on top of each other almost like a colony of sea coral. The ‘no shit’ ground is probably 12 feet underneath where we were walking. We made it to the top of the ridge and were met with 40 to 50 mph gusts. High ridges, big drop offs, and really gusty winds convinced me that it’s about time to make camp, albeit a few steps back from our intended destination (so as not to be on the high ridges, fall from the big drop offs, due to the really gusty winds).
I found a high spot in a valley (the high spot = we wouldn’t wake up in the middle of a rain-made river) between two streams and set the tent up. It was sprinkling at this point, but the winds were a force to be reckoned with. I needed Pam’s help to set everything up (including just sitting in the tent so it wouldn’t blow away once it was up!). This is where a new mistake/miscalculation reared its head: the forecasted 20-30 mph winds that I’ve been reading about? Yeah, they only apply to the town of Portree at sea level. Higher up on a barren mountainside? They were more like 50-60 mph gusts.
The good news is that we’ve experienced this in the Lake District. We weren’t tackling new surprises here. But this was the Lake District on steroids. As I heated the water for dinner, I could only laugh at the situation as I took stock of everything: Pam was just thrilled about a repeat of the Lake District disaster, while Brenden couldn’t be bothered as he was working on a kid puzzle, and Marissa was more concerned about pretending (using her sleeping bag) to be one of the inch-worms she came across during the hike:
This was interrupted by the tent poles creaking and the tent material cracking like a whip every time a gust would hit. Pam took some stop-motion photos of its severity to the right (keep in mind, the tent is supposed to be symmetrical with a nice high ceiling).
An aside: We use a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL4 tent. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant for mountaineering (which isn’t necessarily what we were doing, but the conditions were the same). This is the second time this tent has taken a severe thrashing. It dumped rain on us with an excess of 50 mph winds and not one drop of water, not one, made it into the tent. My hat’s off to Big Agnes. You’ve won my loyalty. Thanks for designing something that can keep my family dry and safe.
After a skin of wine (for me) and a skin of port (for Pam), we hunkered down for the night and slept. Pam was smart: she put in ear plugs to abandon reality, while I occasionally awoke to assess the surroundings. No flooding, no wetness, no worries. Surprisingly, we all got a pretty good night’s sleep.