The Isle of Rum is an island seated across the Isle of Skye, with the jagged red and black Cuillin Ridge rising above the skyline. This island reminds me of my own magical days as a child, dreaming of fairies, gnomes, and hobbits. Scotland has a way of instilling a sense of imagination and even the possibility of believing that fairies are real. Rum is also home to some of the most perplexing conundrums I have ever witnessed. The epitome of this statement is embodied by the deer on Rum who eat the nesting shear water birds. Deer that eat birds…Wait, what? I remember thinking that there was no way that could be, not in this world. Deer eat grass and other green things, right? The answer lies in their need for calcium from the bones of the birds to supplement for the lack of calcium that cannot be found on the island due to its geological history and also because the other source for calcium is their antlers which they shed, which are collected by tourists and saved by deer researchers. Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with the title of this piece…and with that the story begins.
I have never witnessed a sunset as gorgeous as the one I saw on Rum the night of our hike to see the shear water bird population. Rum is home to 1/3 of this sea bird population and going on a night hike to observe them was a part of our course: Ecology and Field Studies. That night, we had a forecast that was supposed to be dry but given the Scottish weather conditions, it was wet. Very wet. We began our hike to the top of the mountain at around 9:30pm and it was completely pitch black at about 10:30 once we were almost half way up. The mountain trail was partially maintained and the rest was navigating through heather, milenia grass, and over slippery rocks. The darkness was exciting and gave way for luminous views of island mountain ranges in the distance. Their forms and peaks were the only visible skyline and our headlamps dictated where our feet must tread.
We arrived soaking wet at the research hut below the final ascent to the top. It was a small wooden hut that was filled with small amounts of provisions and fuel for bird researchers. Squashing into the corners and nooks, we all began to get warm…slowly. Our professor spoke to us about how the shear water birds fly all the way from Brazil every year, just to nest on the Isle of Rum. His voice echoed as eyes struggled to stay open, for it was almost 11:30pm at that point. Then he opened the door and said, “Right folks, time to make our final ascent…nearly there.”
Manx Shearwater Call That’s when the noises began. We had finally begun to reach the level that the birds were nesting in small holes and burrows on the sides of the mountain. Their guano had created the greenest of grasses that lined the outside of each burrow. Flash. One flew right over our heads making the scariest bird call I have ever heard. Flash. Then another. The next few flew past us in a flurry. Our professor called out, “Oh here we go! Our first shear water in a burrow!” Gathering round we all anxiously peered into a burrow to see a small chubby bird with small wings and short feet peering out at us. These birds could not fly away quickly and they looked like small penguins trying to scatter away from us on their bellies.
Two of my friends and I decided we would huddle together in the rain and listen to the sounds because by that point two of us were frightened and one was loving every minute of it. It was raining, we were freezing, the birds were loud and I was scared. Out of nowhere popped another one of our equally wet friends, “Hey guys! Want some Doritos?” We all laughed really hard and said that sounded like the most random and delicious treat at that moment. Avoiding making the crisps soggy he quickly handed them to us.
Those moments atop the mountain were scary because it was so dark and wet, but the scariest moment of all was yet to come. Hiking down from the trail was treacherous, since the mountain was slippery and wet. My headlamp had begun to die and my walking stick named Gandalf was helping me to avoid slipping. Turning the scary-ness of it into fun, my dear friends began to sing with me and we then of course were laughing and in bits the whole way down. It is always wonderful being surrounded by such positivity when faced with a difficult situation out of doors. We had reached a trail again – yay! Just as we all relaxed and began walking briskly I fell. I still don’t quite remember exactly how it happened, but somehow my right foot missed the narrow trail and I fell off the side of it. POP. I heard that noise and immediately knew something wasn’t right. Of course, the waterworks began and I was in agony, along with being utterly frightened to be on the side of a mountain trail at 2am in the rain, freezing and going into shock. My dear friends immediately were at my head and at my feet checking me to see what was wrong. I sure picked the right people to go hiking with – outdoor ed. master’s students sure know their first aid and rescue skills! Once I calmed down a bit, I began to feel really cold and I started shaking. Immediately they pulled out a sleeping bag and emergency blanket and covered me in them while feeding me chocolate raisins and again, “Want a Dorito??” So great. The main obstacle we had was how I was going to get back to the road and into the castle we were staying in. We still had a long hike down the mountain and there was no way I could walk. AT all. Needless to say, three of the men on my course (including my professor) carried me on their backs down the mountain while I went through my many phases of laughter, tears, silliness and grateful-ness. Once I could no longer hold onto their necks, they made a stretcher out of walking sticks and backpacks, thus creating a seat for me to sit on and be carried the rest of the way. Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, with everyone’s help spotting, navigating, comforting me, etc. we all felt a huge sense of relief…we were back, safe and sound. Those scenarios that we had practiced in First Aid courses and WFR certs. had just gotten real.
I have never had an injury like this one before that has rendered me incapable to doing all that I love on a daily basis. I think it has really taught me a lot about being so grateful for everything that most people can do on a daily basis. Being able to walk normally, run, explore, climb are luxuries that not everyone has and I think it is important to be mindful of all the many things we are gifted with as human beings. Never have I been more scared on a mountain and never have I ever felt such gratitude for the amazing people that helped me that night, and always. I truly feel so blessed to be able to have these experiences, as scary as they might be sometimes, and grow from them while maintaining positivity and learning lessons as I go.