Walking at the Forest’s Edge

Despite having spent over a decade exploring the Caledonian Forests of the Rothiemurchus estate, there are some areas of these woods where I have very rarely set foot. The higher reaches of the forest, where it fades and blends into the mountainsides of the northern Cairngorms, is an area of huge photographic and emotional potential that I have barely begun to explore.

For the last several months, though, I’ve known that this is where the future of my forest photography lies. For many years I have been deeply exploring the more easily reached parts of the woods; investing myself in them in all seasons and weathers to discover their nuanced beauty. It has been a remarkable and wonderful journey. But now, with deep familiarity of almost every tree and rock in those places, it is difficult to find an image that does not feel like a repeat from years gone by. In those places, I’ve reached the limits of my ability to see, for now. The woods are urging me to look further in.

The difficulty of exploring up there, in the treeline, is a very physical one. It is some of the hardest and most difficult terrain to walk through I have ever encountered. Despite the relatively short distances involved, the difficulty of making progress has often turned me around. Slopes of 45 degrees, covered in ancient heather so deep you can do little but flounder and flail through it, desperately searching for solidness and grip. Integrate that into moss-covered boulder fields, where a patch of secure looking heather might conceal either a weight-bearing boulder for your foot, or an 8 foot deep post hole that could trap and break your leg. Traversing this terrain is bad enough. Trying to go up through it is nightmarish.

Stunningly beautiful, but rather difficult to walk through…

For that reason, I’ve only tried to get up there on a handful of occasions, though I’ve often stood and looked up into the woods of Coire Buidhe above Loch an Eilean, imagining and dreaming. I worried that I didn’t have the stamina, especially during the last couple of years. But, with increasing confidence in my fitness once again, I finally knew that I had to give it a go.

The perfect opportunity was never going to announce itself in advance, so it was simply a case of deciding to head out. Next morning, I packed my bag as lightly as I dared and set off for Whitewell. A sunny but blustery day greeted Scout and I as we stepped out. This was excellent to see. A simple rule of thumb if you want a good day for photography is to choose one where the sky is changing a lot. Lots of energy in the atmosphere, with plenty of wind and clouds at all levels, with the chance of rain or snow showers, are the conditions that often deliver the best light. So I was happy to enjoy the warmth of the sun as we set off, but excited by the prospect of dark clouds and snow showers on the northern horizon.

Turning off the path at Lochan Deo, I pointed myself toward the thickest part of the woods. I had no clear plan or route in mind, but wanted merely to get as high as I could into Coire Buidhe, up among the trees, where I could look out and down across Loch and Eilean and the Monadh Liath. Gradually the woods thickened and thickened around me, clutching with heathery fingers and mossy hummocks. In front was a view of endlessly serrated trees, rising and rising into the rough land. I mused at how few people ever truly experience a landscape like this in Scotland – even the hillwalkers. Real ‘Old Forest’. A dense and unruly landscape so far removed from the conveniences of civilisation that some would find it overwhelming. It does not compromise with you on anything.

I worked hard for the first hour, stepping up and up and up over endless hummocks of heather and moss, threading a way through. I was good and sweaty by the time I broke for some lunch, but I was glad to find that I still had plenty of energy in the tank. As I munched on my sandwiches and poured tea from my flask beneath the shelter of a pine branch I watched the clouds drift in from the north, stroking the hillsides with snowy skirts. Little blizzards passed across Aviemore and Glenmore, hiding them behind grey curtains.

Soon enough I knew that snow would arrive here too, and I pressed on. My eyes had been caught by the highest slopes of the forest, where the trees thinned out. Up there, among the highest and most remote granny pines, was where I wanted to be. I angled uphill, measuring myself against the flat top of Creagan Bun Suinn. It was the only other place I had visited nearby, years ago, and I well remembered how difficult the push uphill had been

I felt myself craving the effort as I pushed the pace to the limit of my ability to breathe. I was sweat soaked in places, with my jacket open and sleeves up, cooling off as much as I could. Despite my earlier decision to pace myself I was again hungering for speed, defaulting to maximum effort. Partly suffering and partly relishing the pain of it, demanding strength from my body that had been missing for years, and finding there was something there again

On and on, moving constantly, trees passing by, yet never seeming to reach the goal. At last my body had enough and resisted my command to step up and over. Instead an involuntary sideways surge and pivot turned me around and brought me to a halt. I dumped my bag, wiped sweat from my brow, and faced downhill to watch.

The approaching snow was gliding in over the lower slopes of the forest, where I had threaded my way only a short while ago. In moments it arrived, and the trees were full of white and grey streaks of motion. I turned my hand to it, palm upward, and it was filled with bouncing white peas of snow. Darkness slid into the forest, snatching away the views of wood and loch, making the world small and full of mystery.

I still had some way to go, so I pressed on again, higher and higher. The trees began to thin out at last. I was fixated by a single tree – the highest I could see – determined to make that my goal. Plodding now, tired, with hood over my head and the pattering snow bouncing from my shoulders and arms. I desperately wanted to make it to the top of the tree-line before the snow passed on, and took away its wonder. I did not want to experience this place in blue-skyed banality. I wanted its spirit, its life, its wonder.

Finally, I stopped. The last tree was still at least a hundred metres off, but I could not make it come any closer. The wet heathery soil soaked up every effort. The snow whirled and darkened the slope ahead. My chest heaved, my legs were in agony. I sat and breathed uncontrollably, feeling every breath stretch me a little, then ease the pain a little more. I could feel my whole body right down to my fingertips pulsing with the thumping in my chest, rocking slightly. The wind cooled my sweat and left my brow feeling salty. I tucked my knees into my elbows, with my head bent, and the snow bouncing on the back of my neck. I gave in, accepting that I did not need to go any further anyway. I was here; among the wildest reaches of the wood, surrounded by dark trees, with only the drumbeat of heart and the patter of snow.

I gazed out at the view that I had won. The sunlit vista of green trees and distant hills was long gone; replaced by a much finer and more subtle beauty. The silver air was streaked by grey and white; blending the ground into itself; hiding detail but revealing a layered depth in the landscape. I had a sense of fleeting but self renewing perfection. The land concealed itself, and in so doing was revealed.

The Dark Forest – available as a print in the Highland Wildscapes shop

Coldness flowed in the wind. It must be the very last breath of winter, I thought. The cold snap that had unexpectedly extended winter by a few extra weeks would end tomorrow, and then the fecund and vivacious life of spring would erupt throughout the woods. One last day, then, of cold intrigue. One last day of winter skies and light, and beautiful twisted pines high at the forest’s edge.

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