Experienced endurance mountain biker Naomi Freireich – based in Edinburgh, Scotland – is writing another series of invaluable blogs for Chain Reaction Cycles, this time tackling a packrafting challenge in the highlands.
If you’ve read my first blog about the packrafting trip, you’ll know all about the planning process. May arrived, and the UK was finally experiencing that heatwave we were so in need of.
Sunny days stretched on and on and we were optimistic for a glorious adventure; just us, our bikes and our rafts. So when the day arrived and the wall-to-wall sunshine was perforated by heavy rainstorms we couldn’t quite believe our luck. But we’re from Scotland. What’s a bit of weather? It all adds to the adventure, right?
The trail to Scorraig was everything I’d been promised. Narrow, technical terrain, not dissimilar to other trails I’d ridden in the far north of Scotland, with some nail-biting exposure thrown in for good measure. And in the wet the rock was slippery. But after a bit more time on the bikes, feeling the way they moved beneath you, learning to accommodate the extra momentum gained from the weight of your bags as you bumped off a rock, we were soon relaxing into it.
The plan was to cross Little Loch Broom at low tide, capitalising on a faint, North-Westerly wind and the sea ebbing back into the Loch to prevent us being carried out into the Atlantic. But first, for a small donation you can stop in at the schoolhouse in Scorraig and make yourself a cup of tea. And we were gasping for a cuppa. We hadn’t planned for the children’s party tho, and as we huddled, dripping in the kitchen while one of the kind mums made us a brew, we got to see the community in action. They enquired about our plans and we discussed our trepidation over the sea-Loch crossing, to be greeted by encouragement and a feel of camaraderie. They willed us over the water, informing us comfortingly, ‘we all have binoculars so will keep an eye out for you’.
This was a massive leap of faith. Trusting in our own abilities, in the rafts’ integrity, in the elements and our planning and setting off across the water was all the adventure we had hoped for. And despite initial nervousness, by the time we reached the far side of Little Loch Broom we were whooping with delight and grinning from ear to ear. We packed up, changed into dry clothes (the rain finally giving way to sunshine once more) and pedalled off to our beach camping spot for the night.
The wind must have started some time during the night. I woke, cold, with the doors we’d left open for the view flapping about. I battened down the hatches a bit and drifted off again. There was no let up come the morning, and although neither of us verbalised it, we both knew this would make the day’s paddle a challenge.
Loch na Sealga was a short 9km from where we camped, following the river that flowed from it to the sea. The headwind was fairly brutal on the bikes, I always get irrationally angry when riding in a headwind. Thankfully, this was definitely a ‘for fun’ ride so we plodded on. When we got to the Loch though, the wind was starting to pick up, and gusts were now well in excess of 20mph. We’d spent so much time planning for the sea crossing that we’d neglected to think about the ‘easier’ Loch.
Heads down and battling against the waves on the Loch, we knew we were in for a (literal AND metaphorical) bumpy ride. Thinking we’d been paddling for a while, we turned round and saw we’d barely gone any distance. OK, so these aren’t the slick beasts that sea kayaks are, but could you carry your bike on a sea kayak? Or your sea kayak on your bike?? I don͛t think so! An hour passed, two maybe, and we pulled into the side to take stock. It wasn’t getting easier. In fact, the wind was definitely getting stronger and white horses were even forming on the crests of the waves. But there was no path along either side of the Loch, only boulder fields. We would have to paddle on.
We had been paddling for close to 4 hours when the wind picked up again. Exhausted form the battle with the wind I knew I was now in danger of losing ground and being blown backwards. I took the call to pull in and rest and see if the wind dropped. I turned to see where Cat was and saw no sign. Panic. I knew she was a confident kayaker and experienced outdoors but all the same, we were a team. I paddled into the side of the Loch, to slippery boulders, and tried to climb out. The waves tugged at the raft, pulling against my hold on the rocks until I had no other option but to capsize. Feet on the shore I was able to right my raft and pull it up the bank. I changed immediately into dry clothes to prevent me from getting cold, then clambered back along the shore to find Cat.
Thankfully she was fine. She had made the same call as I had and pulled in (although hadn’t fallen in!) and was all packed up. I took her rucksack and she pushed her bike back along the shore. We gathered my kit up too and sat for a while, eating and talking through our options. My hands were covered in blisters. My gloves protected them a bit but even the thought of more paddling hurt. The pushing wasn’t much of a picnic either though. But, we could see we were perhaps no more than a mile and a half from the other end and while the wind was strong we pushed on.
Pushing a bike (bike-a-bike) is tough over rocky terrain. The front wheel jams against the rocks and your shoulders get tired from lifting. Hike-a-bike with packraft and bikepacking gear is exhausting. We could almost touch the beach at the far end when we rounded a small headland and were greeted with an almighty rock face. At its foot an idyllic sandy cove, but the route around was limited to a narrow grassy bank covered in trees and not suitable for pushing, or the water. By now we’d had it with pushing. A paddle seemed like a welcome break, plus the wind had died down, the sun had come up and the Bothy and warm food was tantalisingly close.
I’m actually glad we got the rafts out again. Had we left it at the slog up the Loch into the headwind, almost going backwards I’m not sure I would have said I’d enjoyed it, but back on the calm waters, the sun beaming down past the mountains and bouncing off the water, I was in love all over again. One thing is for certain though… I’ll never get angry about a headwind on a bike again!
The Bothy fire was already alight as we climbed the path towards it. There were 4 hillwalkers already there, sharing tales by the fire and preparing for a big walk the next day. We made food almost silently and ate in a trance-like state. We’d only paddled 5 miles but it had felt like 50 with the wind. Tired and sore, we chatted a little with the others and were glad when they turned in for the night upstairs in the sleeping room. We took spaces on the floor by the fire and slept. That sweet, restful slumber of utter physical exhaustion.
In the morning we took our time over breakfast. Feeling recovered from a tough day we packed up our gear in the sunshine and were already discussing our next adventure. It was only a short ride out from here, over a Corrie and down to where we’d left Cat’s van. And we’d have been home and eating cake 2 hours sooner but for my freehub breaking as we pulled away from the Bothy. And so, unfixable without my chain whip and cassette tool (there are only so many tools one can realistically carry) it was more bike-a-bike for me. And then the most glorious descent, rocky, loose and flowing, now comfortable on my weighted bike, back to the van and grinning from ear to ear.
Packrafting was a new concept to me. It works well with a bike if you’re happy to carry extra weight and would work just as well hiking too. Either way,they make it easy to link together paths that would otherwise not be an option either by bike OR on foot. Most of all, headwind excepting, they are a whole heap of fun!
See the incredible pictures in the gallery below: