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.
There’s something uniquely exciting for me about being out of my comfort zone. That feeling of pushing my limits, riding at the edge of my ability, the imminent sense of potential peril – you might say I’m a bit of an adventure junkie, and you’d be right. So when I was asked to try Packrafting, well, I think we all know what my answer was going to be.
I first met Catriona Sutherland (Cat) last year in a rather similar situation. She was preparing to race the Glacier 360 MTB stage race in Iceland and was looking for a partner. Barren, remote, rocky landscapes straight out of ‘The Martian’, this was not a race to take lightly. Are you spotting a theme here? It turned out Cat and I had a similar thirst for adventure.
The draw of the wild and the desire to chase new experiences drew us together, it was as if we were separated at birth (and by 10 years). We discovered during the race that we worked well together as a team. A complementing set of skills and a mutual determination meant we raced each day to the top step of the podium and the overall win.
So imagine my delight when I discovered Cat was going to be joining me as an ambassador for GORE® Wear. Oh, the schemes we could plan and adventure we were going to have. Cue packrafting invite!
We met Andy Toop (of Backcountry Scotland) to talk all things packrafting in January this year. We saw the kit, chatted routes and capabilities and left with armfuls of books, maps, guides, and heads swimming with ideas.
Cat has recently moved home to Scotland from where she was living in the Lake District and has been enjoying life near Inverness, with the rugged highlands on her doorstep. She’s been capitalising on this by getting out and exploring, and had come upon a glorious trail that runs out to Scoraig, a community living entirely off-grid. A lot of digging around, seeking out local knowledge and studying Google Earth later and a route was devised. We’d ride this path to Scoraig, cross Little Loch Broom (a sea loch) and then skirt the coast to camp in Guinard bay, with its white Atlantic coast sands and views to Guinard Island, or ‘Anthrax Island’ as it is also known; an island left contaminated for years by biological weapons testing during the Second World War.
We’d take in a paddle along the length of Loch na Sealga, past the foot of An Teallach, bypass Shenevall bothy, skirt waterfalls and along some of Scotland’s rugged singletrail to Lochivraon bothy, a private estate bothy where we spent the night before biking back to where we began. An 85 kms trek, all self-supported, in homage to the self-sufficiency of the residents of Scoraig.
In March we all met up again to learn the packrafting ropes. With rafts strapped to the front of our bikes and rucksacks filled with buoyancy aids, paddles, and supplies for the day, we were soon on our way along snow-covered trails towards a quiet lochan, calm and still, about a 30 minute ride away. I could tell we were both instantly aware of just how differently the bikes handled when laden with our gear, and this was on the smooth, loamy singletrail. When we got out into the rocky footpaths of the Great Wilderness, we were definitely going to need every ounce of biking finesse we possessed.
The lochan was frozen. Not sure what else we expected given the recent cold weather, which had left most public transport at a standstill across the UK and I’d barely ventured beyond my turbo for weeks. Plan B required: it would need to be the river.
I could write an entire blog on inflating these rafts alone, but to summarise, you attach this fabric bag, fill it by scooping air into it and then force that air into the raft, then repeat until inflated. Sounds easy? Well, it isn’t. Once we’d just about mastered the technique (there was a lot of laughing) and strapped the bikes to the front, we got into the water for a test paddle. Cat and I headed off up the river, against the flow and into a headwind. We each took a few minutes to get to grips with the raft’s desire to deviate from a straight line given half a chance. But once we’d got it, we were paddling away, chatting about the trip, where we’d go and when, what we’d need, and what we wanted to get out of it. 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 don’t think so.
And so, training complete and route planned, all that remains is kit. For the kit nerds out there (and I count myself as one) here’s a list of everything I’ll be taking:
Watch this space for an update on the trip next week!