Bikerafting Scotland’s Great Wilderness
Naomi Freireich and Cat Sutherland set off on an ambitious first bikerafting trip, a three-day adventure into Scotland’s Great Wilderness. Read on for a tale of pedaling along remote trails, paddling across choppy lochs, encountering strange creatures, and refusing to quit…
We’d been out there paddling for hours. I was all too aware that my hands were covered in blisters, but denial seemed like the best way to keep on pushing forwards. As the wind suddenly picked up, it was clear that making any forward progress was going to be nearly impossible, as if the conditions weren’t challenging enough already. I accepted that getting blown backwards was the only likely outcome and turned to Cat to suggest that we pull in for a bit. She was nowhere to be seen. Scanning around the vast loch, the only thing that caught my eye was a harras of white horses near the shore.
The old adage says that “life begins outside your comfort zone,” and if that’s the case I’d certainly been doing some extreme living that weekend. Egged on by an equally enthusiastic mate, the idea to paddle the length of a six-mile loch with no escape routes on either side for our first packrafting trip might have been slightly ambitious, bordering on insane. But what do you really learn from something you can do comfortably? “In at the deep end” seems to have become my motto!
Laden with kit for a three-day adventure in an area of Scotland’s far north known as the Great Wilderness – and during the only wet window of what had been a scorching May – Cat and I set out along a rocky access path to Scoraig, a community living entirely off-grid. The path was a challenging blend of exposure and old-rock bridleway, slippery when wet and treacherous; an awkward bounce with a heavy bike could send you plummeting into the sea. Our trepidation, though, was for our first packrafting section ahead, during which we’d cross the opening to Little Loch Broom, a sea loch, and Scoraig’s only boat access route.
We’d done some planning, of course. Hitting the sea loch at low tide meant we wouldn’t be battling against the flow out to sea. A small change in our plans to paddle that evening instead of bivvying there and sailing at the next low tide in the morning meant that the morning’s offshore wind was exchanged for a gentle crosswind. All of these tiny details are vital considerations when you’re paddling a craft with the manoeuvrability of a bumper car and a maximum speed of around six miles an hour.
With the locals on standby – binoculars at the ready and reassurances that rescue was close at hand – we embarked on our maiden voyage. Sticking close together, we left our inhibitions on the shore and were soon whooping our way across the sea, incredulous, once we were in the throes of what turned out to be a significantly less traumatic paddle than what we’d allowed our imaginations to conjure up. Even the rain finally abated, and our successful crossing was heralded in by the sun and the promise of a beautiful bivvy.
We headed round the coast to Gruinard Bay, one of Scotland’s beautiful white beaches, overlooking Gruinard “Anthrax” Island. If views were rewards, we’d definitely earned this one. As we tucked into dinner and a warming cuppa, with the crossing we’d been fearing now behind us, our concerns about the dangers of packrafting dissolved and we allowed ourselves to relax. We headed to sleep, excited for the following day’s paddle as hardened experts.
The wind woke me in the night, the tarpaulin that was covering me blowing loose and the cold slowly numbing my toes. I tightened the guy-ropes and pulled my sleeping bag closer, thinking of nothing but returning to my slumber. It’s no secret that wind makes me irrationally angry, especially when I’m cycling into it. All that seemingly wasted effort, pedalling twice as hard and going half as far is enough to tip me from pacifist into full-blown madwoman. But we were out there to have fun, right? So, as we set off into the wind after breakfast, I reminded myself to ease out of my default race mode. I garnered all the adventuring attitude I could muster and we pedaled on. Slowly.
Arriving at the loch, there was an unspoken realisation between us that we’d perhaps been somewhat remiss in thinking the hardest paddle was behind us. After all, if the wind speeds got much over 10 mph, we’d almost definitely be going backwards in the packrafts, and the gusts were beginning to stop us in our tracks. The simple act of inflating the rafts was magnified in complexity by the jarring wind. The rafts, the bellows, the paddles, they all needed to be weighed down or otherwise chased after. Anticipating a lengthy paddle, we filled our pockets with chewy sweets before setting off, though we overestimated our ability to reach our pockets once in the rafts. Heads down, we pushed off from the pebbly beach, our destination at the end of Loch na Sealga not even in sight.
The water was choppy and it took a healthy mix of previous kayaking experience and bravado to navigate the waves, trying not to let them crash into us side on. Thankfully, we had both. The swell grew as we made our way further into the loch, and after a good hour of paddling we pulled to the side and ducked behind a rock on the shoreline to shelter from the wind. We munched on the sweets that were waiting in our pockets from the start, tantalising us with their proximity, yet out of reach because pausing to eat would surely mean drifting back the way we’d come. The going was tough, but paddling still seemed like a better option than the mammoth hike-a-bike we’d have otherwise. We soldiered on.
The wind was picking up again. The white horses alongside the shore, once cantering, were now galloping past. I had buried myself in the paddling, eyes down and focused on nothing but getting to the end. I tried to mentally check off every passing feature and then challenged myself to pull ahead to the next. After another two hours, my hands and shoulders were screaming for a break. I cursed into the wind. If cycling into a headwind makes me unreasonably angry, then beware anyone who dares cross my path while I’m paddling into one.
There I was, three hours and three quarters of the way into a six-mile paddle that would have been finished two hours ago in more favorable conditions. With delirium setting in, I looked to the shore and saw what looked like a creature moving. It had long hair like a sheep, was tall like a deer, and had antlers like the devil. Was I dreaming? I did a double take. Not one, two. Definitely. Perhaps Cat knows what they are, I thought. In dire need of a break from the wind, I turned to see if she wanted to pull over. Nothing. I’d been so preoccupied with my quest against the elements that I’d pushed on round a small headland. Surely she was back there? I manoeuvred myself over to the rocky shoreline once more and gripped on to stop myself from blowing backwards again. I paused and waited. No one.
Cat is an experienced adventure racer. She’s tough, so I didn’t panic. I grappled with the rock I was clinging to and managed to extricate myself from the raft, carefully dragging it up onto the rocks to safety. I decided to clamber round the shoreline to see what had happened, suspecting that she’d also thrown in the towel and pulled into shore. Sure enough, about a quarter of a mile back over the rough, nearly impassable shoreline, there she was. Her raft was already deflated and packed, and she was pushing/dragging her bike through the boulders and heather. It took a herculean effort from us both to get back around to where my boat was, pack it up, and cart our laden steeds towards the end of the loch. True to Murphy’s Law, the wind dropped completely as we neared the end of our struggle on foot. This coincided with our discovery of a cliff face that stood between us and the beach we’re destined for, with no way round but to precariously climb down or to inflate the rafts and paddle again.
By that point, we were both visibly near defeat. The climb over the cliff would be too difficult with the weight of our bikes and rafts, and the paddle around, however short, was painful to even contemplate with our blistered hands. We slumped to the sand and reached for our food, desperate for a pick-me-up. We were incredibly close to our beds for the night in Shenavall Bothy, a mere half mile from the end of the loch, yet right then it seemed impossibly far away.
We ate in silence, ruminating. My mind moved ahead to the end of the journey. We sat there feeling like we’d failed in our endeavour, and failure hits me hard when I know there’s even a slim chance I could have continued. But, what if we were to get back in and paddle? Forget the blisters, the unpacking and repacking, our aching shoulders, and the exhaustion. What if we got back in and paddled that short distance to the end? We’d have faced the challenge square on and damn well kicked its butt. We both knew it was the only option.
Gingerly, and wearing bike gloves to provide at least the illusion of blisterless paws, we prepared to navigate the water once more. The sandy start was a welcome change from the pebbles and rocks we’d dealt with before, and the sun was peeking out through the clouds, willing us ahead and warming our wind-beaten faces. Without the headwind, we were reminded once more of just how much fun paddling our rafts could be. Nimble and virtually uncapsizable, I found myself taking a circuitous route, paddling for fun, and procrastinating the inevitable end of our time in the rafts. But end it did, we were already planning our next packrafting trip as we packed up on the beach, having completely forgotten about the misery we’d just endured.
Shenavall Bothy is popular for walkers heading up An Teallach, one of Scotland’s 280-odd Munros, or out into the wilds of Fisherfield, so we weren’t surprised that there were already four others cosied up when we arrived. In fact, they had a fire roaring and were full of entertaining conversations about their own adventures. Plus, they were fresh ears for our tales of hardship and perseverance! Before long, though, sleep hit us like a sledgehammer.
The ride out to the start of the route where we’d left our van was relatively short at only seven miles, but it passed over a 500-metre hollow, so we knew we had a slog ahead of us. Revitalised by a long sleep and a good breakfast, we set off in the already-baking sun, passing walkers heading off for a day of climbing. I’d like to say that it was uneventful, but sadly my bike let out a loud crack within 100 metres of the bothy and my cranks completely lost traction.
My freehub was totally shot. It wasn’t something that I could fix with the tools I had along, and it certainly wasn’t repairable with gorilla tape and cable ties. And so I made the long slog on foot, appreciating the views and freewheeling my bike wherever possible. It could have been the final blow to our adventure, but what goes up must come down, and shortly after what seemed like the longest push of my life (over two hours, according to my watch), we were back at the van, celebrating with hugs, smiles, and plans for cake.
Sitting at the other side of this adventure, it’s easy to look back and laugh at the challenges we faced. There’s no doubt that I was pushed well beyond comfort on a number of occasions, and I’m certain Cat would say the same. In truth, the best stories are made from adversity, from those moments when things don’t go to plan. Sure, had it all gone like clockwork, I can guarantee we’d still have had an incredible time. But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? Maybe the saying should really be, “experience begins outside your comfort zone.” Living is easy, but getting out there and truly experiencing it takes knowing those limits. And pushing them.
Want to learn more about combining pedaling and paddling? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Bikerafting.
About Naomi Freireich
Naomi Freireich is the current UK and European 24-hour Mountain Bike Champion and a GORE Wear athlete. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her husband, two children and two step children, where she works as an IT Project manager. In her spare time, Naomi loves to take off and explore the wilds by bike. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @frikfrak74.
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