Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

Feel free to leave comments.

Thursday 31 May 2012

I have seen the future - and it floats....

Having walked pretty extensively in my beloved Scottish Highlands, I have developed a sort of instinct for route planning. This has helped me out when considering taking the bike too. So many lovely tracks disappear into bogs, end unexpectedly or meet an unpassable body of water, so routes often take circuitous detours or are avoided altogether. It was therefore with some interest that I chanced upon Packrafting. The theory is quite simple; carry a lightweight raft, inflation device, paddle and Personal Floatation Device (PFD) and then use it, where necessary, to cross lochs and/or follow rivers. There is also a natural affinity with Fatbiking - a sense of "go anywhere". Youtube is now awash with videos showing these rafts in action - many linked to bike journeys in a whole new niche called Bikerafting.

It's typical of these new toys that they are invented and developed in North America, where they seem to have enough folk ready to buy and build them for exploring remote parts. Imagine my delight then at finding out we have our own small Bikerafting community here in Scotland, with the guys at Back Country Biking, based in Aviemore.

Through a series of contacts, I found out that they were going to run an Introductory course, so I found myself heading up the A9 to Aviemore in some blazing sunshine, bike in van and all prepared for a new challenge. Andy from BCB met us all outside the Old Bridge Inn and went over the itinerary for the weekend, but he'd also brought one of the rafts with him. Frankly, I was rather taken aback. Packed onto a padded rucksack harness, the complete set of kit weighed a lot less than I'd imagined and was very compact, both factors influencing how much one would actually be able to travel with it.

Saturday morning was very warm, even at the 9:00 start time. After a bit of kit juggling, me strapping some additional gear onto the Jones handlebars, we set off in convoy up to Loch Morlich where we were taught how to inflate the raft. The technique (involving a large nylon bag) was pretty effective, even in the still air, and it didn't take much topping up with the blow tube to get the raft ready. 

For our first efforts, we paddled around the loch-side unladen. This was useful for getting a feel for the boat, practising paddle strokes and getting back into the raft on the open water. I was also able to try out the different models of raft. The small one I'd been allocated was an older, less pointed model whereas the newer, slightly larger and re-shaped version seemed easier to paddle in a straight line. 

After a short break on-shore, we were taught how to load the bikes onto the raft. It all looked very unstable, especially with all of the weight concentrated onto the bow. However, once afloat, it all made more sense. The weight of the bike seemed to help tracking as it offset my weight in the stern. 

Another "transformation" saw us folding and re-packing the raft ready for a ride, proving that the initial compact size wasn't a fluke and could be achieved by the relatively unskilled. A short ride round Loch Morlich took us to the Allt Ban where we all transformed again, ready to get some feel for the raft on moving water. Paddling out onto the loch and then round to the beach cafe, we all chilled out (as much as was possible) with a drink and an ice cream, fielding questions on the raft and bikes from many of the sun-worshippers.

Paddling back across the loch to the start point, we packed up and had a relaxed ride down to Aviemore again. We'd not covered a massive distance in the day, but we'd certainly learnt a lot and I was already feeling there might be a place for a packraft in my life.

Sundays itinerary was to be a little different. Again, we'd not be going far, but with a ride up the Spey valley and then a paddle down, it would have the flavour of a true expedition. Andy and Rob took us round some fascinating sections of singletrack, mostly in the woods, of which I'd often seen an end of and wondered how and where they went. That kept us busy all morning until it was time to visit the nursery and cake shop at Inshriach. 

After cake, coffee and lunch (in that order), it was but another short ride down to the riverside and a small shingle beach where we once again set up the rafts and packed on the bikes. 
Having previously travelled through this section on a kayak, I knew that there was the potential for a couple of obstacles, so I was pleased when Andy and Rob took us through observation and avoidance techniques, highlighting just how dangerous this could be. Once we'd all made ourselves ready, our small floatilla headed down the Spey. At times, it was possible to just drift along, watching what the leaders were doing and positioning the rafts for a good sight-line. On a couple of occasions, we stopped to investigate obstacles and discuss how best to bypass or avoid them. Having a big bike strapped to the front of the raft certainly encourages no risk-taking!!

After what seemed like no time at all, we passed under the road bridge outside Aviemore and arrived at the wee beach beside the Old Bridge Inn. That MUST qualify as one of the best ways ever to arrive at a pub!!

In summary, a fantastic weekend. Even though it was their first attempt at running this course, Andy and Rob got it spot on. Everyone was full of smiles, we all seemed relaxed, if suitably aware of the inherent dangers in water sports. The days were about the right amount of education and enjoyment and their obvious enthusiasm for Bikerafting was somewhat contagious. 

As an activity, I'm convinced it has its place for my type of travel. A brief look at a map of Scotland shows lots of linear water features and I can already think of some great routes - some walking, some riding - which would be made possible or simpler with a packraft. 

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Sometimes, you don't have to go far....

When I've been out on journeys with my bike and tent, I thought it was just off-road touring. Now, we have a whole new word for it..."Bikepacking". I have to admit, that sounds way more cool and exciting. The magazines and forums seem to be developing a taste for it and we are also seeing the emergence of new gear - particularly for load-carrying. Having thrown a few fits struggling with panniers through waste-deep heather, or those stupid stiles on the Speyside Way, it's good to see that someone is getting to grips with the problem.

One of the advantages of this kit is that many more bikes are suitable. No longer is load-carrying demanding rack mounts and a rigid bike. With this in mind, Mark has been getting his gear together and we decided it would be a good idea to do a "dry-run" somewhere local to see how it all works out. For me, I also wanted to try the Fatbike with a bit of weight on the bars and see how my new sleeping bag, mattress and stove/pan set all worked out.

Being typically 2012, we watched the planned date approaching under grey, leaden skies calculating just how wet we'd get on the way to our planned bivvy spot in the Pentlands. As it didn't seem to be drying out any, we had a last-minute change of plan, opting for what would likely be drier terrain out in East Lothian.

Saturday dawned and, miracle of miracles, it wasn't actually raining. In fact, it looked like May had decided to put in an appearance after all. I headed down to the shop to pick up Mark and discuss packing/carrying arrangements. While his Mojo certainly looked "awkward", we couldn't find a technical fault with what he'd achieved. Knowing here was no hurry, we set off and stopped at Aberlady for a drop of liquid refreshment. That was a rather pleasant start to a Saturday evening which then led on to a couple of photos and the start of what would be a very short ride round some of the coastline.  

We certainly got lucky with the weather. Beautiful blue skies and a lovely quiet bit of coastline made it feel like we were a long way from home.

It got cool as the sun set

This felt like a long way from home

I'd been all "Blue Peter" the day before, making a pot cosy. After boiling up some water, I added the pasta, did a quick re-boil and took the pot off the stove. 12 minutes later, the pasta was ready. That adds up to quite a saving in fuel cost and weight. The cosy also kept the pot warm as I was eating out of it.

Mark eating while I wait for my pasta to cook
Food consumer, the evening was spent chatting and drinking malt whisky - just for the warming effect you understand.

A lovely morning
I had a very comfy night. The Pacific Outdoor Elite sleeping mat was warm and comfy and I wasn't slipping off it, though I've bought some seam sealant to add some grip "dots". 

It was about 6.30 when the sun started warming the tent up and it got too warm for me to lie there in the sleeping bag. Mark snoozed on while I cooked and ate my breakfast. The poor soul hardly gets a lie-in these days, so it seemed such a shame to wake him :-)

It didn't take us long to re-pack everything and we set off for Falko in Gullane, the Fatbike tyres coping admirably with the sand, Mark having to push both up-and down-hill on occasion. It was a rather forlorn Mark and Colin though when we found Falko to be still closed. Not to be thwarted, we headed instead for Dobbies 2 for 1 breakfast. £6.00 for two full breakfasts, toast and tea/coffee. Now that's what adventure biking is all about!

Monday 28 May 2012

A weekend out West


The generally poor weather this year has really cut back on my longer trips away. The combination of cold, wet, windy and generally unpredictable weather has resulted in a few last-minute call-offs and a general reluctance on my part. It was therefore useful to have the incentive of agreeing to go with some other riders and not wanting to call off. The plans for the weekend had been fairly fluid, but the main event was to be a ride alongside Loch Morar on a route which has been very highly recommended.


It's a fair trek out to the Morar area so the plan was to break the journey up with a couple of circuits of the Laggan Wolftrax trails. This is probably my favourite trail centre as the Red routes are around the limit of my comfort zone and just that bit more challenging than the likes of Glentress. I'd been round Glentress on my Fatbike a few days previously and, having really enjoyed it, I thought I'd try the same at Laggan. 

Well, it was different. The rather rockier nature of both the upper and lower red loops didn't really suit the lack of suspension and the undamped rebound from the tyres was in danger of making the whole thing uncontrollable. It was much better on the smoother sections , like the zig-zags on the upper red and the bottom "jump" section on the lower where the tyre volume and grip could really be appreciated.

After a wee snack break, I decided to go round again on the Blur. I'd had it round here previously and really enjoyed it, so I set off up the hill with a big grin and with great expectations. 

Unfortunately, it all went to pot. The bike seemed uncontrollable; I was finding it hard to get the correct amount of steering input and to keep it pointing where I wanted to go. The slower I went to counter this, the more the bike seemed determined to fight against me. Eventually, I had to get off and walk a few sections. I was mortified. I'd never had to do this at Wolftrax before but I just couldn't seem to ride it. My first thought was that there was something wrong with the bike. something loose or incorrectly adjusted. However, a good check seemed to indicate that the bike was just fine. That meant it was pilot error. I can only assume that having ridden the Fatbike for so long, I was just failing to adjust myself to the different steering and handling. 

Either way, I was really despondent when I left Laggan headed for Morar.

Choosing a camp-site around Arisaig isn't simple. There are quite a few and they all have lovely views. Having tried a couple previously, I noticed that the site at Camusdarach was closest to Mallaig where I'd be meeting the others for food and drinks, so that got the vote. It's a lovely site, even though it's a little walk to the beach. However, the beach is probably the most famous in Scotland....



In an uncharacteristic break in the prevailing 2012 weather pattern, Saturday dawned fair and even fairly warm. That was great as it meant less spare layers to carry. Meeting at Morar meant I got to cycle to the start, so I was already warmed up when we set off. The route starts on the "old" road through Morar before cutting off onto the dead-end road along the north bank of the loch. This had a fairly big hill near the start, which had us all huffing and puffing a bit, but also gave a great view along the loch and a nice easy descent almost to the end of the tarmac. leaving the road here and carrying on along the good track was great - a real sense of heading into the wilderness.

The track itself is mostly rideable. There are a few steep, rocky climbs heading East and one section which is made up of boulders under a cliff which involved a short carry. It's all fun though - mainly dry, rock or gravel with oodles of grip and enough ups and downs to maintain interest and provide a variety of views along and across Loch Morar. 

P1040088 Reaching Swordland - all two houses - was almost like arriving in civilisation and after a short climb up the landrover track, we could see the cairn marking the top of the pass and the descent down to Tarbert. 

There's not much at Tarbert. A couple of farm buildings and a church  - now converted into a bunkhouse - are all you'll find. The view north to Knoydart and Skye is rather curtailed by the narrow bay, which does at least have the advantage of being a nice shelter, although the cold breeze we'd been shielded from all day had us donning jackets as we sat around, ate and generally chilled.


When the cold started to feel too much, we headed back up the hill we'd not long descended and were soon at Swordland again. Almost immediately, it was time to remove the jackets and we enjoyed another lovely ride along the singletrack, descending the bits we'd struggled or pushed up on the way out and trying to remember what line choices we'd picked out. 

Louise HAD to go for a wee swim - brave lassie, so we stopped for a few minutes at the lochside before the end of the track and then set off up the tarmac road. Stopping briefly at the top, we set off on a gravity race - no pedalling allowed, see who gets the furthest. I'm sure I would have won if I hadn't been knocked into the verge :-)

Upon arriving back at Morar, all that was left was to enjoy a pint in the sun, taking in the general ambience and reflecting on what must be one of the best bike rides in the Highlands.


I had eschewed all attempts to get me riding at Fort William in favour of a little exploring round Camusdarach beach. While the morning wasn't quite as warm as Saturday not helped by a cool on-shore breeze, it was fabulous to be riding no "Bens Beach", made famous by Local Hero. This is a fantastic little movie which regularly ranks amongst the professionals favourites. Witty, charming and still very relevant. I guess that any remake would feature wind-farms rather than oil facilities, but the conflicting messages are still there; protect the landscape - hoping that it has its own value plus that of tourism, or allow development, bringing jobs and relative prosperity. 


So, from being rather despondent by my performance on Friday, through an excellent evening and ride on Saturday, to the fulfilment of a dream I've had since I acquired the Fatbike, my mood was much better when it came to pack up and head home, dreaming of more good days out!

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Springing into action

It's been a while since I posted on the blog. Initially, this was due to me being pretty idle. Apart from that lovely week in March, it seemed like we were having a re-run of November and, despite my best intentions, I was struggling to get enough enthusiasm to head outdoors. On the bright side, the van conversion is almost complete. It now only requires a couple of hard-to-find trim pieces to cover up some wiring.

After a bit of prevarication I decided to make the most of the van and head down to the 2nd UK Fatbike Gathering. One of the major attractions for me is that it was taking place in the English Lake District, and area I'm forever promising myself to visit and cycle in. The other was a chance to catch up with and meet some folk I've chatted with online.

The first surprise of the trip was due to my sheer laziness. Rather than looking through maps, I'd simply programmed the destination into my Garmin Dakota GPS and I was idly following the prompts when I noticed I'd turned into Ferry Road. No - I don't mean the one in Edinburgh, this was the ferry across Windermere, something I didn't realise even existed. I had a brief "moment" when I realised I might get charged as a minibus but a convincing reassurance saw me across for the car rate. As surprises go, this was rather pleasant and it really made me feel I was somewhere a bit special. 

Arriving at the site on Friday evening, I found the festivities already under way and the chat turned easily to each others bikes and gear, to firewood and to the planned ride for the morning where semi-drunken bravado added a few extra miles on to the route to enable us to ride to/from the site.

We were, magically, all ready to ride the next day as planned and it was a fair convoy of fat-tyred bikes that wove its way along the road to Hawkshead and then on to the Fells. Unusually for me, I had no route loaded in the GPS, no idea of where we were headed and I relaxed and let Andy guide us up hill. down hill, along adjoining roads, pushing where necessary and enjoying some cracking stony descents along the way.  All in all, it was grand riding. The weather was great, the company more so. Any walkers we meet were mostly agog at the fleet of bikes and everybody seemed to be in a fine mood. 

By the end of the day, we'd covered almost 51km, given a test-ride to a solo girl rider who was intrigued by the lake-riding, "suffered" a late lunch and enjoyed an ice cream along the way. A grand day out altogether, even if legs were getting a little weary at the end. 

Our plans for a pub meal, listening to whatever the live music was going to be were dashed when we found out the the pub was already full, but a fantastic offer from Mike to collect pizzas for us went some way to make up for that, even if we couldn't quite get the camp fire to generate the same amount of heat we'd enjoyed the night before.

Guaranteed to draw attention....

Sunday morning was a little less relaxed. The saying "time and tide wait for no man" has a very literal meaning in Fatbike land and we had to be off sharpish to make the most of the beach at Walney island. This proved to be pretty chilly, but it was a very relaxed bunch of fatbikers who played around on the beach, comparing tyre prints and experiencing the roack-crawling capabilities of the 5" Moonlander tyres. We made it back to the cars just as the rain started and   enjoyed each others company over Sunday lunch before all drifting off to make our individual ways home. 

All in all, a great time and my thanks to everyone who was there, especially Andy and Mike for being such great hosts. 

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Stuc a' Chroin

Mim is back from Nepal and the plan is to keep the fitness going throughout the rest of the year, so at the first weekend available we decided to head off to knock off a Munro - the first "new" one Mim will have done for 4-5 years. I've climbed Stuc a'Chroin twice already - once by each of the publicised routes. While the "normal" route from Ben Vorlich has a lovely little scramble for added interest, I'd a feeling that Mim would prefer the more leisurely approach from the South. 

Having found our way to the little car parking spot at the end of the public road, we were both a bit surprised by just how chilly it was, despite the intermittent sunshine. So, it was an with all the layers and up the good track, past the farmhouse of Braeleny and we could already see most of the days route out ahead of us. At the river crossing at Arivurichardich we briefly considered running across the pipeline, before sensibly opting for the double river crossing, the water being low enough for a bit of boulder-hopping. Even the two geese honking loudly at us didn't put us off :-)

The path then climbs, steeply at times, to the col on the long SE ridge and then up that same ridge all the way to the summit. Mostly, it's a straightforward walk, but there are a couple of really steep sections that would require some care in more slippy conditions. Perhaps the best thing about this rote is the splendid isolation one feels. The scenery ahead and to each side is more reminiscent of Affric or Kintail than Stirlingshire, especially with the light covering of occasional snow patches, still lingering from the last few weeks. The view behind gives the game away though. Being on the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault, the views to the South cover all of the central belt as far as the distant Pentlands. 

Two and a half hours after setting off, we found ourselves at the summit - just as three other walkers were heading back towards Ben Vorlich. They were the only folk we saw on the whole trip and Mim remarked how peaceful and quiet it all was compared to the Everest base Camp route. We were also being buzzed by three ptarmigan, colours now swinging back towards summer plumage. I'm sure there would have been a nest nearby, so I made sure we moved to a spot where they were happy to leave us alone.

Mim at the summit

A wee spot of shelter just off the summit made a pleasant enough stop and the sun came out again to warm us a little and make it a bit less unpleasant to be hanging around. I was rather enjoying the experience, but Mim was already getting cold hands, so it was a quick pack-and-go and we were off down the hill again. 

All in all , another great day out and another Munro in Mims collection (I need to fire up the old spreadsheet and see how many that is now. For somewhere so close to home, it's really given me an incentive to be heading north soon.