Packraft Camp at Whiteness Head – March’s Outdoor Sleep

Posted by on Mar 28, 2017 in Camp, Climate, Earth, East Highlands | No Comments

I’m now at 25 months of sleeping outdoors at least once a month. One might imagine that it would get easier after two years, but I still experience an inbuilt resistance to leaving my warm house and comfortable bed for the dark unknown.  Even when my logical mind knows that I am bound for a pleasant camp on a dry night, my subconscious mind manufactures fear and difficulty and attempts to resist.

This effect is more pronounced than usual, for I am in the midst of a significant change in my life and work circumstances (more of that later on). I’ve been reading self help books to aid my transition. The 1950s classic ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’ warns that fear is an inevitable obstacle on the road to success, but offers the reassurance that it is  easily fought and subdued with action. In the case of a camping trip the required action is simply to assemble the necessary equipment and pack it into my bag. The act of packing initiates an unstoppable chain reaction that propels me out the door towards fresh air and adventure.

The changing landscape of Whiteness Head

My destination was Whiteness Head, a long, narrow spit of sand and gravel that extends about northwest from the Carse of Delnies, just outside Nairn on the Moray Coast. On one side lies the open sea, on the other a deep lagoon which formed part of a platform construction yard in the early days of North Sea oil. It is earmarked for development, but for now it lies empty and abandoned, sheds, floodlights on tall posts and mounds of concrete rubble. Ever since my last trip there, during which I cycled up the spit with my daughter, I have had the idea of returning with my packraft, trading a long-ish cycle for a short paddle from the abandoned yard.

As recently as the 1880s Whiteness head was a short gravel bar, but since then it has been growing at a rate of between between 10 and 30 metres per year to reach its current length of 3.5 km. Longshore drift transports gravel from the Nairn end towards the growing tip, and it is topped in places with dunes of windblown sand. The winter storms create a steep storm beach of sea-worn stones on the seaward side. Over the longer term the transport of material from the base to the tip of the spit will eventually result in it separating from the main shoreline to form a ‘flying bar’ similar to that at Culbin to the east.

The McDermott oil platform construction yard was opened in 1973 to serve the North Sea oil industry. taking advantage of the spit to shelter the yard from the waves. The yard is an extensive flat area of reclaimed land. Dredged sand was deposited into settling ponds, raising the ground to around 4 metres above sea level.  Ongoing dredging operations to maintain the deep channel curtailed the extension of the spit until the yard closed in 2001. Since then the spit has become wild once more, the undredged channel has filled, leaving  extensive sand flats at low tide. The site will eventually be redeveloped as part of the nascent offshore wind industry. Planning permission has been granted for dredging and a reduction in the size of the spit to 2001 levels. Last year the owners went into administration and the site was sold for £5 million. The identity of the buyer is unknown. It really is a strange country when such an iconic piece of the landscape can be owned by persons unknown.

This then is perhaps a golden age for Whiteness Head, when the yard lies silent and dark, and despite its relative proximity to civilisation it is a wild place, with little light pollution save from Fortrose across the water. In a short while it could revert to an industrial landscape and be far less appealing as a camping spot. But for now, before any dredging takes place, the sands exposed at low tide are extensive, and the GPS trail of my morning wander showed that I had trodden where I had no right to be according to the map, out into the open sea.

Living on borrowed land

All that extra land created when the tide goes out made me think of how so many of us are living on land borrowed from the sea, land that would have been underwater before the present glacial period. At the last glacial maximum, some 20,000 years ago, when the ice sheets extended down to the temperate latitudes, so much water was locked up in the ice sheets that global sea levels were 125 metres lower than they are today. They have been more or less constant for the last few millennia, over which we have built our global civilisation, creating the false impression that the sea knows its place and can be relied upon to stay put.  Over the last two centuries we humans have become a geological force, burning enough buried carbon to raise CO2 levels, trapping more of the sun’s heat, raising global temperatures and accelerating the melting of our remaining ice caps and glaciers. There is almost 70 m of sea level equivalent locked up in that ice, and we have already emitted enough CO2 to raise sea levels by 25 m. The outstanding question is how quickly this will occur. The latest estimates are for up to 3 m of sea level rise by 2100. Just think about that – some readers of this post will live to see it, and their children or grandchildren will certainly see it. And that 3 m will not be the end, rather it will mark the start of some really serious sea level rise. These estimates have been creeping up since I have followed these matters, as reality and observation supplants wishful thinking and computer models, and I expect them to continue to do so.

We live our lives in an illusion of permanence, but in reality all around us is in constant flux. Just as trawler nets resurrect mammoth tusks and the artefacts of mesolithic life from the North Sea floor, revealing the past occupation of the now-submerged Doggerland that connected Britain to continental Europe, the trawlers of the future will snag their nets on the buildings, vehicles and other 21st century artefacts that will be abandoned as humanity retreats from the present coastline towards higher ground. I intend to enjoy our current coastline while it is still there – you should do the same!


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 I noted in the intro that my life circumstances are changing. After 15 years of solid corporate work I have left behind my salaryman life and am working to establish myself in self employment. My intention is to avoid the 9 to 5 for  at least a year while I build up a portfolio of income sources based on writing, teaching and science-related consulting and contracting work. This means that I will finally be able to finish the book projects that I have been working on over the last few years. Subscribe to my email list to receive updates and please share this post with your social media networks to help me build my audience.

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