Combat de la Rouge-Mare

Slow Traveling is exciting because it is not about the big and expected stories of visiting major landmarks or tourist traps, but rather the surprise of an unexpected small and beautiful story around a not well-known monument or place.

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Walking to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy

Last week we visited the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy. Quite an achievement for us, because of the many kilometres travelling by car. We had pushed it a bit because we were tired at the start of the holiday. It was nice but also very busy and not so surprising. Everywhere you see the postcards and images, and it is almost of you already saw the best bit before you got there. Going around, the beauty of the island has to compete with the tourist shops screaming “buy my stuff!!”.

Now we are on the way back and trying to find a place to park our mini camper, relax a bit and get a good night sleep. We drive through this string of small county roads reading the landscape. We like the mix of forest and agricultural landscapes because the edges give good opportunities for nice stealthy camping spots. Then we see this old tourist sign. It is probably of placed in the 50’s, based on the look of the lettering of the enamel sign. “Monument de la Rouge Mare” reads the text. We follow the little lane into the forest and end up at a huge monument. It’s a good place for the night and I start drawing.

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The monument reads “Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants” and just the names of 4 men and Octavie Delacour, almost the name of a Harry Potter character. Another old tourist sign reads “Embuscade Allemande (16 Septembre 1914)”. My French is not too good but this sounds like an ambush of Germans. While drawing, I get more and more intrigued. We are far south of the Great War frontline, Germans here??

There is no info panel so the research starts at home. I won’t go over the full story, but in short, it is a German raid on the Seine. Three German vehicles with sappers were loaded with 500 kg of explosives and en-route to the bridges of the Seine near Rouen. They are able to drive through France just because people think they are English soldiers, although they are in there German uniforms and drive cars with German licence plates. As one of the vehicles breaks down, the farmers in the area offer their help to the “English”, who answer them in English and bad French. After the repair, and after shaking hands with the French farmers they drive on.

This, I find the first funny fact. It would be impossible nowadays, with the internet, television and travelling. You would recognise a Brit or German just by their posture and accent alone. But in those days they never did hear a foreign language or saw a foreigner.
Then the Germans halt in a forest, hiding for the day. This is where the 56-year-old lady, Octavie Delacour comes in the picture. She walks through the same forest and is temporarily halted by the Germans. The let her go probably convinced that the pass as Brits again. However, she recognises the Prussians from the 1870 war who had occupied the area, when she was just 12 years old.

Walking to the nearest village, she informs the brigade commander of the Gendarmerie in Gournay-en-Bray. He, however, is not taking her completely seriously. In the end, he sends some men but they go ill prepared. The spot the German sentinel but three gendarmes are killed instantly and the local guide is fatally wounded. Is this what happens if you take half your population not serious in matters of war?

Pencil drawing on brown paper by Alexander of the Monument of Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants. In France

Drawing the Monument of Combat de la Rougemare et des Flamants.

In the end, the commando is arrested, the bridges are saved and Octavie becomes a hero. Honoured with a monument somewhere hidden in a French forest. And for me, it might be a story that leaves a bigger imprint in my memory than the grandeur of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Alexander.

 

 

Story on wiki (in French)

LA COURTE EPOPEE DU COMMANDO TILING ET LE COMBAT DE LA ROUGEMARE

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Training in France

Sorry, the story will be late. This week we are in training; writing, painting and cycling in France.

Watercolour of the barbwire gate of Natzweiler-Struthof, german concentration camp

Natzweiler-Struthof was a German-run concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller.

Watercolour of a french field with a sunlit tree line and looming thunderclouds

Back, just in time, before the thunderstorm. A nice atmosphere for a watercolour.

How to improve your mermaid spotting skills.

One of the seven metal gates closing the former salt cellars at Wick Harbour depicting a mermaid based on childrens pictures

One of the seven metal gates closing the former salt cellars at Wick Harbour

Paddling around this enchanting landscape of the Scottish coastline, illusions of magical creatures under the waves start floating around in my head. It is almost tangible that there must be mermaids around.
Mermaids, sirens and selkies are all part of the seafaring folklore. They have been depicted at maps of the world from the middle ages. Shakespeare wrote about them in a midsummer night’s dream. Columbus reports having seen mermaids in the Caribbean. Although he thought the mermaids he saw, were ugly, mermaids are usually considered as gorgeous and seductive creatures. Nowadays the coffee brand Starbucks has a mermaid logo. So I’m not the only one with this fascination for these lovely half humans. I definitely want to find one and ask if she wants to go on a selfie with me.

But where to look for those shapely, long-haired, fishtailed women with enchanting singing voices of the deep in real life?

To find an answer to that question I start a scientific investigation to find mermaids in Scottish waters. What comes close to a woman’s figure? A dolphin or an otter?
The only creature that I can think of is a seal. Especially the harbour seal with its lovely round face and big dark eyes, though I’m not sure about the cubby body and bald head.
They love to sunbathe on the rocks and stones near the sea and curl their body, tail up, in a banana-shaped form just to have a good look at the approaching boats.
They swim close to the shore and are very interested in humans, they pop up right behind our kayaks just to have a curious look at us. But they are quite shy and when I look around, they quickly dive underwater. Very mermaidish behaviour if you ask me…

Sunbathing seals on a rock acting mermaidish

If you  use your imagination and squinted realy hard….

Perhaps I am looking at the wrong time of day, maybe I should look for mermaids at twilight or in semi-sleep moments.
The only sound I hear are the cries of the seals, which is similar to a howling dog, not very attractive to listen to. But no beautiful singing women’s voices.

Perhaps I’m in the wrong state of mind.
So I sat on the beach and try to find the 14th-century person in me and be more superstitious and open up my vivid imagination. Every unexplainable thing that is happening I will contribute to ghosts, monsters or gods. Expectantly I pear over the water and beaches, will I see a mermaid? One night does not yield any result, the mermaids are elusive, I sit there for 14 nights…
Alas, too much education I’m afraid. Science in that sense killed off all the monsters of the past.

Perhaps I’m not tired or hungry enough.
‘No’ I said to Alexander. ‘No food today, I want to see mermaids! This is a scientific investigation, very serious’.
He looks at me amused. ‘Have it your way’ he replied.
During the day I felt my energy dwindling. Yes, it is working. I should be seeing mermaids this evening’ I thought delighted.
I was getting behind and paddling slowly and in no fit state to pull the kayak above the tideline.
‘How is the experiment going?’ Alexander asked interestedly.
‘Brilliantly, I’m getting in the right state of tiredness and hunger.’ I answered enthusiastically but feeling absolutely lousy.
It all went downhill when Alexander started cooking. The smell of the food was too much for me. I could not resist and wolfed down the entire pot of pasta, only leaving scraps for Alex.
No backbone to endure the hunger experiment. And no mermaids.

Perhaps I need to be ill.
The perfect opportunity came when I had a blister gone bad and needed antibiotics badly. In a stupor of fever and medicine, we went out for a paddle. The only thing that happened is I tumbled over out of my kayak and no bloody mermaid came to rescue me.

Perhaps I’m not drunk enough.
Sitting on the beach with a bottle of whiskey I try to get drunk. I’m not a practised drinker so a few sips will make me completely lala. A perfect state of mind to see mermaids. The world went woozy, I saw a lot of falling stars and then passed out on the beach. Damn, I just need to practise more….

Perhaps I’m not desperate enough.
An abstinence of sex must be sufficient for me to see mermaids, shouldn’t it? I mean, all those 14th-century guys didn’t see a woman for months. They must have been pretty desperate and crave sex. They would jump everything that looked remotely female, desire makes everything look good even bald, chubby seals with moustaches on their faces.
Five weeks, I think, is not sufficient time to try this one in order to see mermaids. And I’ve got a man lying next to me in a tent. Too much temptation, I think I pass this one in my investigation.

Watersplash, just missed the mermaid

Was it really there!?

To wrap up my personal research I must conclude that having a vivid imagination, or being hungry, tired, ill, or drunk in itself is not a sufficient condition for seeing a mermaid. We have not ruled out however, that they might be a necessary condition for seeing a mermaid.
Therefore my recommendation for further research is to test whether a combination of these factors might bring flocks of mermaids to life. For the single traveller, the abstinence of sex could be a very promising field of further investigation. So many sailormen and fisherman can not have been wrong in the past for seeing mermaids, can they?

Charlotte Gannet

Foraging companionship and the taste of seaweed

Crispy seaweed, baked in the fryingpan by Charlotte Gannet

“Do you know the different types of seaweed?” the guy asks, he’s one of the 14 nephews and cousins we just met. They stay in the large house for the yearly work party on the currently unpopulated island of Ensay or Easaigh in Gaelic. Standing side by side, the house and chapel shape the deep sandy bay on the east side of the island surrounded by the fast flowing water of the Sound of Harris. He is lucky, this year I had decided to learn the names of the seaweeds we normally encounter and brought an identification guide to the most common seaweeds. Brian, the guy just asking about the seaweed is interested in eating them.

I know my seaweeds in a way. I know the different species by their toughness because I like to tie my kayaks to them. I also recognise them by their slipperiness by just carrying heavy boats over them. Especially Charlotte is very good in the sliding bit. But most importantly I used them as my watch. Each seaweed species identifies a period in the rise and fall of the water and by knowing the high and low water times of the tide it easy to derive the time from them. This year their names interested me and during the trip, I took little expeditions with my identification chart to name some of the seaweeds. I had hopes that with the names I could find recipes to cook them in the future.

View over Ensay house, chapel and standing stone taken by Alexander Gannet

So I said “yes” to Brian “I know some seaweeds” and we decided on a foraging trip at low tide the next day. One of the other nephews joins; he wants to find razor clams. We had heard about the trick of sprinkling salt around the holes that appear in the sand at low water. For us, this is normally a problem, because salt is a commodity that we don’t carry in a quantity that is useful for hunting razor clams. They have plenty of salt in the house so we give it a try. We are not very successful and with hindsight, I think we didn’t find the right holes. Apparently, you have to look for keyhole like shapes in the sand to find your meal of razor clams and we only found round ones.

After a while, we started going through the seaweeds on the rocks left and right of the beach. Not only collecting the Sea Lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and Dulse (Rhodymenia palmata) but also Common periwinkles from between the different types of Wrack. He returns the favour by inviting us into the large kitchen. There is a nice atmosphere in the house. The large group of people, mostly in their 20s hanging relaxed and loose on chairs and in couches. They join in small groups for all kinds of activities. Some fanatically play games on the table beside the window and others sing accompanied by the sound of a guitar, a nephew takes his fishing rods and goes out for some rock fishing. Brian is joined by one of his nieces and starts experimenting with cooking and frying the seaweeds. He goes around like a chef, tasting and then trying something else. This is the part we never tried, afraid that we would burn the non-stick coating of our frying pan. When he is happy with the results he prepares the whole bunch of seaweeds. The blanched Sea lettuce radiates a bright green colour while the Dulse is a crispy snack fried in very hot oil.

At dinner time everybody joins around the long table in the kitchen. Our bounty of the foraging trip proudly presented as the appetiser before dinner. Everybody agrees on the fried Dulse, it tastes delicious. I judge the Sea lettuce as okay but not so special as the Dulse. Eating periwinkles, however, is for some a little bit too much, the idea of eating snails turns their smiles into expressions of disgust.

This problem is quickly solved by those who like them. It involves some work to gather around 70 periwinkles on Ensay. Usually, it is not a big problem to collect them and it is the amount Charlotte and I normally would eat together with a glass of cider. With 14 people, however, this only accounts for five periwinkles per person. The leftover periwinkles are quickly gathered and redistributed to the people who enjoy their flavour.

Charlotte Gannet picks out a cooked periwinkle out of its shell

After dinner and some tea, we leave the group and head back to our tent. What a wonderful day, just sharing and learning with a person you’ve never met before and meet on an “uninhabited” island. We should add seaweeds to our diet because we now experienced how delicious they taste.

If you look for a simple seaweeds identification chart you can use one from the Field Studies Council (FSC). This is an environmental education charity providing informative and enjoyable opportunities for people to discover, explore, and understand the environment.

http://www.field-studies-council.org/publications/pubs/seaweeds-identification-chart.aspx

Alexander Gannet

As dangerous as a visit to my mother-in-law

Charlotte Gannet in kayak followed by Basking shark in South Uist, Outer Hebrides

Charlotte Gannet followed by a Basking shark in South Uist, Outer Hebrides.

‘Are you sane?’ she asks when we tell her we will round the Mull of Kintyre the next day. We are not surprised by the question, ‘Is that not dangerous?’ It is regularly asked when we arrive somewhere with our kayaks. People and especially my mother-in-law, think that we risk our lives when we go out on the ocean with our kayaks. The perception is that that we are adrenaline junkies involved in extreme sports and having a deathwish. But is it so dangerous compared to some of the more accepted hobbies? In this blog post, we will put the dangerous reputation of sea kayaking into perspective.

So first of all, to put the risks in perspective, we need a measurement to compare different events in our life. Luckily for us a Stanford professor, Ronald A. Howard created a tool in the 1970s [2]. He introduced the micromort – a one-in-a-million chance of acute death. This equals the same chance as tossing a coin and getting 20 heads in a row.

Then we need some solid statistics and a good sample size. The Netherlands is too small as a country, and not many kayakers die while practising the sport. For a good sample size, it’s easier to look at a large country and with the statistics freely available. America seemed to fit the bill. The American Canoe Association keep a well-stocked site with all the statistics we need on one page.

In 2014, the USA has 13 million kayakers [1], which are participating in the sport. On average they made 8.1 trips. Unfortunately, about 75 of them died during their trips. So to calculate the micromort for a kayak trip we divide the number of fatalities by the number of trips. The total number of trips in the US is 13 x 8.1 = 105 million, with 75 fatalities. So a day of paddling will add 0.71 micromorts of risk to your life.

For sea kayakers, the statistics become even better. According to Plyler [3], sea kayakers account for around 5% of the total paddle sports deaths. So if we take the 167 paddle sports fatalities of 2016, only nine would have died while paddling on the sea. According to the 2015 special report on paddlesports [1] 2.9 million people were participating in tour/sea kayaking and had an average of 8.1 outings. Which makes a day off sea kayaking about 0.4 micromorts per trip.

So what does that mean? Is sea kayaking an extreme sport? Let’s start with a high-risk sport, climbing Mt. Everest is 37,932 micromorts. That is about 150 years of kayaking. Skydiving, with 10 micromorts is still not close to sea kayaking. Scuba diving in the UK is also 10 micromorts. But The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) shows that training and preparation can help in limiting the risks. Their training has the emphasis on rescue training very early in the programme. Limiting the risk per dive to 5 micromorts.

Dark goat skull in a window with a brighty lit landscape in the background, in Ensay, Outer Hebrides

Vanitas, still life on Ensay

Sea kayaking is a very safe sport as long as you are properly trained and equipped. Sea kayaking has its dangers, drowning and hypothermia – falling into the cold water when not wearing a wetsuit or a personal flotation device are the biggest killers. Not capsizing means training for a solid kayak technic and knowing your environment. Understanding the weather patterns and tidal currents are necessary not to end up in wind and wave conditions beyond your limits.
We experienced only one capsize in 600 days at sea, and that was caused by inattentiveness influenced by the use of an antibiotic. The only thing that got hurt was an ego but the problem was quickly solved by a partner rescue.

To get back to the comparison, more acceptable sports, for example running a marathon is 7 micromorts and according to some statistics riding a bicycle is more dangerous than a day of paddling.

From time to time, my mother-in-law shudders with fear at the idea of us paddling on the ocean. So when she expressed her unhappiness I told her jokingly “If you don’t like us doing dangerous stuff, I won’t drive the highway between you and me. I believe that’s more dangerous than kayaking in Scotland”. If we drive to her by car, it takes about 290 km, which calculates to 0.81 micromorts, a little bit more than a day of kayaking. Funny enough, it is much more acceptable that Charlotte’s brothers ride on a motorcycle. But when her brother rides his motorbike, just to wish Charlotte a happy birthday, he adds 33 micromorts of risk to its life, that is more than our whole holiday combined!

Tell us, are you surprised and how “dangerous” is your life?

Alexander Gannet

[1] 2015 Special Report on Paddlesport
http://www.americancanoe.org/resource/resmgr/General-documents/OIF_PaddlesportsResearch_201.pdf

[2] Ronald A. Howard (1989) International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care
Microrisks for Medical Decision Analysis

[3] Jennifer L. Plyler, Ph.D. American Whitewater, March/April 2001
American Whitewater Boating Non-motorized human powered Boating
Safety Report: 1995-1998,

The lazy way to calculate a micromort: http://rorystolzenberg.github.io/micromort-calculator/

All other statistics from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromort

Silence is a troublemaker

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‘Our thinking is like a boat on the water, pushed along by the waves and influenced by the wind.’

Hazrat Inayat Khan

And what happens to our thinking when the boat is on the water but there is no wind nor waves and only silence?

What does it do to your mind if this happens at the start of the trip, scorching sunshine and a temperature of 30 degrees? Yes, this does happen in Scotland! Blue skies, no wind, no waves.

My thoughts go haywire in the boat! I’m towing all the work I did not get round to do before the holiday, in a plastic inflatable boat behind my kayak. My boss is staring stern at me, like a figurehead on the bow of my boat. There are colleagues hanging on my paddle whispering things to me that slipped through my fingers. And I’ve got students clinging on at the back of the kayak. Some whining, others crying or looking seriously displeased. All blunders and mistakes of the school year pop up like seals next to my boat scaring me half to death each time they emerge.

Kayaking is a hazardous buzziness in fair weather, silence is a troublemaker in my head.

In windforce 4 or 5, with a bit more waves, the occupants of my boat cannot hold on in these conditions. I’m way too busy to pay them much attention, let alone rescue them!

My boss will be bashed from the bow of the boat and one by one my colleagues can not longer hold on to my paddle. My students stick around for just a bit longer, they need windforce 6 to wash off the back of the boat.

The sturdy imaginary inflatable boat lingers around until week three of the journey. It needs to be punctured on some rugged rocks. As I don’t want the plastic thing to litter the beach, I stow it deep in a recycling bin. #befantasticpickupsomeplastic, as my contribution to clean oceans!

With the weather fronts coming from the ocean, also the silence drifts slowly in from the south-west. With every paddle stroke I make, life and thoughts slow down. The vast nature around me nurtures my soul. Silence becomes bliss.

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Do you regognise this thought proces during the holiday’s? How do you cope with annoying thoughts hanging around like a cloud of angry midgies. Leave me a comment.

May the fish be with you.

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Kayaking makes you hungry. We had some romantic ideas and mouth-watering dreams about catching fish as we went. Easy peasy, fish swim by them self, no need to carry extra weight. Just throw out a line and catch fish, simple…..

Or not…..It took us three years to learn how to seriously catch fish.

We both have a hand fishing line. A round spool bought in Greece with 25 meter of fishing line and 3 hooks. We make our own lures with some recycling of silvery insides of coffee bags and a small red tube that once belonged to a sunbed. This reuse house thrift really works!

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When we tried fishing in the first year we had no clue on how to go about catching a fish. We tried trawling the line behind our boat. We were very fanatic and we really thought that we would catch fish. All we got was in a better shape because towing the line was heavy work. But no fish. The hooks were too close to the water surface and we did not catch anything.

In the last days of the trip, we saw two fishermen in a boat moving a line with a heavy weight on the end, up and down in a stationary spot. And they got loads of mackerel. We asked advice on how to catch fish. First, they made good fun of our lead weight, it was way too small in their opinion. They told us to fish at a deep level closer to the bottom and to use a heavier lead.

The fisherman, feeling a bit sorry for us, threw our cockpit full of mackerel. On the beach, we altered our fishing equipment. We found some rusty nuts lying around on the beach and put them on the line to make it heavier.

But the good advice did not land us much more fish in the first year.

The next year we ended up in a fishing competition, grandparents with grandchildren in boats catching mackerel by the dozen. They advised us to look for a headland in the landscape because that is where the water flows a bit faster. Right, that was good advice. And we lowered our fishing line at the same spot as the competition. This really worked and we had a good mackerel dinner.

But the luck did not last. Fishing on a headland and a heavy line and in deep water wasn’t a guaranty for success. Fishing took us hours and we got cold while doing it.

The third year we asked a local fisherman why we were not always successful. He told us that the hour before and after high tide and the first hour after low tide is the best time for fishing. We gave that a go and it worked!!

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When in Scotland act like the Scottish! Good advice. But be sure to talk to the locals on tips and tricks when fishing.

Nowadays fishing only takes us about 15 minutes for a good mackerel dinner. And when the fish is not ‘on’ it means there is no fish to be caught, not the right place or not the right time. Better move on.

The naked lady on the beach

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Look just a bit behind the set of teeth, the naked lady is on the beach!!

Travelling by kayak involves a lot of changing from one outfit to another. Usually, I have a dry set of clothes on land and a wetsuit when paddling on the water. This means that I have to be ready to change outfits anywhere. Since it is unlikely to find changing rooms or toilets in sight, I will stand in my naked backside in towns, parking lots, along roads and public beaches…everywhere,for the whole world to see…

Oh noooo, it’s so embarrassing!!  On a wet skin nothing goes on easily, clothes are always inside out and because I want to dress fast, I put my shirt on the other way around. I am quite conscious of my body shape. I just know that everyone will see me and have an opinion about my body. Off course I have a six pack! But it is well hidden underneath some other layers of body tissue.

I can sympathise with people who change their clothes underneath a towel but I have not enough room in my kayak to carry a towel that size. On the other hand, the towel thing is such a hassle, I can guarantee everyone will be watching. Looking for the moment the towel drops at the most inconvenient time. That will stir up some laughs.

My husband is always angrily commenting: ‘Stop acting ridiculous, nobody’s watching’. But then again, every time I have to change my clothes, even when it is in the middle of a forest and haven’t seen anyone for an hour, on the most awkward moment, someone passes with a dog, trying not to look.

Once I had an entire Tiree tourist boat passing by while I was changing into my wetsuit, never saw them coming. Arriving on the island of Tiree I heard I had quite a reputation for being ‘The naked lady on the beach’. That is too much of a coincidence, I think I attract it. Just think about all those holiday pictures the people on the boat made of me and my naked ass.

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During the years I got a bit fed up with being so stressed out about it every time. Was my husband right? Is nobody watching? Is it all in my head, the negative thoughts, the panic? So I tried to relax a bit more and change quickly and efficiently without the stress, and just mind my own business instead. I must say, I felt a lot better.

Today when we arrived at Inver Tote on Skye there were a lot of people visiting the derelict dynamite factory and the beautiful waterfall. Not all tourists came down to see the factory close up and were using binoculars. Coming out of the sea, naturally, I had to change into my land outfit. So I did, without even thinking about all the tourists. Only realising it when I heard a lot of whistling and cheering.

This only enforces my reputation of ‘The naked lady on the beach’ and I am proud of it! I have come a long way. Nowadays I am happy to make somebody’s day when I change my clothes.