Our friend Andy Toop was the one that introduced Annie and I to the idea of bikepacking, with soft bags as opposed to racks and panniers, a few years ago – we have a lot to thank him for! Somewhere along the way, he also opened our eyes to packrafts, assuring us that they were nothing like those cheap inflatable dinghies that you see in the supermarket, although it took him a while to convince me that this was the case.

It was Scotland’s watery geography that convinced me in the end. A map of the north west corner of our country shows as much water as it does land. Faultlines and glacially eroded glens splay out in every direction, sometimes filled with water to a depth of hundreds of metres and presenting impassable barriers to land travel. The Scottish Highlands are home to some great trails, but the many inland and sea lochs dictate which routes link to others and which don’t, and if only you could cross the water to access the other side…

Boat travel was the primary way of getting about here until the recent arrival of modern roads – one village on the Outer Hebrides was only linked by tarmac in 1990! Bikerafting, to me, is the modern equivalent of human-powered travel that opens up new possibilities at the same time as putting you in a better position to understand and connect with the landscape through which you are travelling. It combines the excitement and novelty of modern equipment with some of the oldest methods of travel.

As the snows melted and the boggy landscape of the northwest began to stir back to life in May, Annie and I took a quick two-day break to use boats and bikes to connect what would otherwise be an impossible loop, riding trails that were new to us and which definitely don’t see many tyres. It was a short overnighter in preparation for a longer bikerafting trip later in the summer, but the conditions were perfect, and when Scotland puts on a good show there is nowhere better to be.

Bikerafting Loch Maree
The mountains hadn’t yet cast off their brown winter coat, but as we rode into them the first green signs of spring were beginning to show themselves.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
From the Heights of Kinlochewe, one our favourite trails winds its way between moraine hillocks and ice-smoothed rock outcrops towards Lochan Fada. The mountains of Fisherfield Forest in the distance are one of the most remote areas of the Scottish highlands
Bikerafting Loch Maree
Scottish trails are prone to leaning on the boggy side of things, but in early summer we often receive spells of dry weather that put them in great condition following the wet months of winter. This was a low snow year for Scotland, so conditions were prime, with fast rolling singletrack and the satisying crunch of quartzite gravel under tyre.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
This was the first time we had tried adding a sail to our bikerafting setup, and on the first day the winds proved a little too light…
Bikerafting Loch Maree
One of the most peaceful beaches in Scotland. Lochan Fada is high, deep and remote, so the waters stay cold well into summer. With boats unpacked and inflated, it becomes a perfect highway into the hills when the trails run out.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
With a breeze picking up across the loch, we got the sails up and the tiny armada enjoyed some effortless crusing. It’s funny what such a small piece of kit can do to change the way you travel!
Bikerafting Loch Maree
10km or so down the loch, we were off the water and back into bike mode. Or bike pushing mode, at least for the time being. A short, sharp hike-a-bike led us away from the water and up to the faintest remnants of an old stalker’s path, built around a hundred years ago to get ponies into the hills to extract the carcasses of deer shot on the hill by stalking parties. As we approached the summit it became more clear at the same time as the view expanded outwards.
Scotland doesn’t have the highest, the most remote, or the coldest mountains, but catch the light right on a good day and they still take my breath away. For such a small country there’s an awful lot of space tucked away here. A’Mhaighdean (‘A-vane’) looms in the background.

 

Bikerafting Loch Maree
We approached the col in the early evening, and as the skies were set to stay clear and the winds light, we decided to go for the rare treat of a bivvy up high under the stars.

Bikerafting Loch Maree

Bikerafting Loch Maree
Carrying a boat, paddle and buoyancy aid forces some light packing elsewhere, but fortunately this was the perfect weather to go super light and sleep out. Waking up to a light frost in the morning we saw the skies set clear, promising another bluebird day. We drank a morning brew as the sun slid over our bivvy spot, chasing away the cold and warming our chilly bones. Magic.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
Dropping from the bealach towards Loch Maree, we wondered how many tyres, or even feet, pass this way, as both ends of the trail end in water. The packraft was proving itself to be a perfect tool to explore these unloved, forgotten and isolated snippets of trail! The surface was dry and crunchy under our wheels, rapidly drying in the morning sun, as our eyes constantly scanned to see where the ghost-line of the faded trail was taking us.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
Slioch, ‘the Spear’ still casting long shadows behind us as the trail dropped towards this small fishing bothy beside the loch.

 

Bikerafting Loch Maree
For simplicity’s sake, we carried the boats and associated paraphernalia in rucksacks to reduce the changes we had to make to our usual bike setups. This meant a pack weight of only 4 kilos or so on our backs, which is lighter than my usual guiding bag and didn’t feel like much of a burden.

 

Bikerafting Loch Maree
Only halfway down… Loch Maree began to emerge in the distance, the next watery step in our journey. The trail continued to improve as we descended, becoming a well-established track used by the estate to access fishing.

 

Bikerafting Loch Maree
The birch trees were coming in to leaf and spreading a flush of fresh green across the hillside. In years to come we hope that a lot more of Scotland’s hillsides will be restored to the forest that used to coat them.

Bikerafting Loch Maree

Bikerafting Loch Maree
Transition complete! Back to paddle-mode for the journey along Loch Maree. It has taken us some experimentation to come up with a solution for securing the bikes to the rafts, and each bike/raft/luggage combo will be different. One thing that has made a huge difference is using Voile-style ski straps to secure the bikes, which is quicker and more secure than anything else we’ve tried.

Bikerafting Loch Maree

Bikerafting Loch Maree
The waters were calm in the morning air, but Loch Maree is a long, deep loch and bad weather can appear on it more quickly than we can paddle to shore. For the time being we enjoyed the paddling and tried to forget the hundreds of metres of water beneath our tiny blowup boats!
Bikerafting Loch Maree
Paddling past Letterewe Forest in spring sunshine, with the ever-present Slioch still in the background. A small group of deer ran along the shore parallel with us for a while, and one of Loch Maree’s many white-tailed eagles made use of the morning updrafts to inspect us from above.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
Our destination for the morning: Isle Maree, the small wooded island visible in the background. On it there is a holy tree, as well as the ruins of a small chapel and graveyard, believed to date from the 8th century.

Bikerafting Loch Maree

Bikerafting Loch Maree
The wishing tree of Isle Maree, with coins old and new hammered in to it. The best we found was a Barbados dollar! It’s reported that bulls were sacrificed on the island well into the 18th century, and the place certainly doesn’t have the quiet atmosphere that the other islands do.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
The scattering of ancient gravestones in the small graveyard beside the chapel ruins. Local tradition says that two of the graves belong to a Viking prince and princess…

Bikerafting Loch Maree

Bikerafting Loch Maree
Sails up! As he temperatures rose a stiff north-westerly wind picked up along the loch, blowing in the opposite direction to the day before and therefore perfect for our journey home! With the sails full and the paddles deployed behind us as rudders we blew across the water deceptively quickly for such an unlikely looking setup.
Bikerafting Loch Maree
Annie’s bike-mounted packraft. The lazyman’s way of packing the boat is nice and easy, as long as you don’t need to ride between any trees…

 

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Beers and Rafts, Sept.2017 Bikepacking Roundup - BikeShopHub.com

  2. Sweet trip!
    Looks like your partner had the smaller scout sail, while you had the bigger adventurer? Any notable difference?

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