Sunday, 1 April 2012

Fidra Overnight bikepack / packraft trip

Well, the clocks have changed, and it is about time to dust off the camping kit and get out there! The weather has been very warm here for this time of year, feels like summer. Inspired by this, I decided to do a trip I had fancied doing for a while, This involves cycling from Edinburgh to Yellowcraigs beach near Dirlton, then paddling across to Fidra Island, spending the night there, then going home. I figured this is a good test to see where I am at regarding a reasonably long cycle with kit (35k each way) and a sea crossing on the boat.

I set off at 4pm. I had done the coast road to Aberlady already, so knew most of the way. I'd be sticking to cycle tracks and road, with a preference for road due to being more efficient, especially with 15 kilos of kit onboard!

Cycle path in Edinburgh

The cycle out there was quite easy, I had the wind behind me, and fresh legs. The weather was amazing.

Woodland path near Aberlady

I arrived at the beach about 6pm. I could see the island was covered in seagulls - this was expected, but it is still something that strikes you when planning to sleep in such a place! I went down to the shore line, next to a couple of beached inflatable kayaks. Their owner came across, and we had a craic about the sea conditions. It was reasonably windy (about 12mph), and although the incoming swell was zero, the wind was blowing right down the Forth and out to see, and picking up some chop in doing do. He had said it was quite rough, but looked calmer now. The island isn't far off the shore (about 600m depending on tide) so I decided to go have a look in any case. I unpacked and inflated the boat.

On Yellowcraigs beach, looking over to Fidra

As is usual, the sea got rougher once I got out to the exposed stretch. It was still quite choppy, with about a 1 foot swell. Together with the wind, this means I was fighting for my course, as stopping paddling would have seen me get pushed out to sea fairly quickly. I went for the windward west side of the island, wanting to give myself the safety net of the length of the island in case I ended up getting pushed downwind. This was the first time I had taken the good mountain bike out in a choppy sea, and I have to say the thought of all that seawater on my bike was not plesant, nor watching an XTR derailleur hanging over the bow of the boat, bobbing about inches above the brine. In any case, I kept going and landed at the soonest opportunity, the waves pushing me onto the rocky shore.

Landing on Fidra

Fidra is an RSPB reserve. Like all the island in the Forth, it is home to a lot of birds. At this time of year, the main resident is the gull. Later on, puffins nest here, which is one reason I wanted to get onto the island at this time of year. We are lucky in Scotland to have very open access / camping laws, but it is beholden to us to use the rights in a responsible way. There have been declining numbers of puffin on these islands recently, and a concerted effort by a lot of volunteers to clear the islands of an invasive plant, the tree mallow. This large plant prevents the puffins nesting there. It would be entirely selfish to camp here when the puffins were in residence.

Anyway, the gulls gave me a noisy welcome!

Gulls on Fidra

I unpacked the boat, and made my way toward the center of the island, bit by bit. I assembled the bike, as it is easier to carry that way, and shifted all my kit across in two lots. I got to the isthmus that divides the island in two at high tide, and went back for my boat. The gulls had registered their objection by shitting on my boat. Thanks! Anyway, it could be worse, and I carried on moving across the island.

On the main section of the island, there is a lighthouse, with an old narrow guage railway leading down the hill to a small jetty. Near the railway, there is a wall that is the remains of an old chapel, or lazaretto for the sick, which was dedicated in 1165 to St. Nicholas. That is old! It is a shame all that remains is the wall, but is surely better than nothing. I rested the boat and bike there, and wandered up to the lighthouse.

The Chapel, looking over to Fidra 'castle' (the rocky stack), with North Berwick Law in the distance

My camera ran out of batteries just at the top of the hill, so no lighthouse photo! Anyway, you know what one looks like. Light was fading, and I wanted to make camp, so I went back down the hill again.

Looking West up the Forth from the lighthouse

Just outside the chapel wall, there was a flat, dry, soft bit of land that was not covered in bird shit. It seemed somewhat sheltered from the wind, so I decided to camp there.

I threw the tent up. I was planning on doing reviews of my kit, but I lost enthusiasm for that. Let me just say I am constantly surprised at how easy and quickly my Tarptent Scarp 1 goes up, and so far I have got no complaints at all about this great bit of kit.

Tent up, and night falling, I settled in, got out of my cycling clothes, and put the food on. At this point, I started to feel a bit 'jangly'. The combination of physical exertion, excitement, but also worry and loneliness made me feel not altogether settled. The wind had picked up, and I started to worry about the trip back to shore. Well anyway, my fresh pasta had cooked, and I munched away on it, not really feeling that hungry. I knew this feeling from before, it seems to happen when I set up camp and then go straight into cooking, or maybe it is just first day camp nerves? Eating is more functional rather than enjoyable.

My meal out the way, I zipped up in the tent, legs in my sleeping quilt. 9pm. The gulls were calling away, but had settled, knowing I was there, they kept their distance. Their noise didn't bother me, the sound of them is evocative of the seaside, a sound most of us know since we are wee.

I broke out the brandy. I have a preference to this rather than whisky these days, the fruity taste being a bit more civilized than whiskies smokey, peaty bite, a bit more palatable and less medicinal. When I got back, a friend suggested that in fact the right tipple would have been rum. This has been noted, and if I do this again, I will give it a shot!

The wind had picked up more, bending the end of the tent toward my face. Sitting here in the dark night, I felt I had really committed myself by sleeping on the island. What if it is really windy tomorrow? I couldn't shake the gnawing worry of having to take my boat out on rough, open water. I know it was going to be windy, but perhaps hadn't quite appreciated the reality!

I took out my radio (in fact, a wideband scanner) and flicked through the channels. Nothing on the marine channels. I have the buzzer as a preset, and that was loud and clear. Bzzzzzz. Bzzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Well, it's fun for 30 seconds anyway! Over to Radio 4 for a while, the comforting chatter somewhat soothing my anxiety of the following days windy float. Something about making sand dunes more mobile again, somewhat interesting. That finished, and they got onto some boring financial blather. I flicked over to find something else, and settled on Voice Of America, African edition. Strains of African pop music faded in and out, I wished I had a longer antenna so I could hear it better.

Chapel and tent in the night

10.30. 11. Ok I need to try to sleep. I turned off the radio and light. The wind buffeted the tent. My mind cranked over, anticipating getting off the island. I was comfortable, but not restful. The night passed this way, the wind dies down, but the constant call of the gulls reminded me where I was.

2.30. Maybe I drifted off, I don't know. I started thinking about when I should leave, and decided the sooner the better, if I was the get away before the wind picked up.

5am. The wind was back, but more gentle. First light was at 6.10, sunrise at 6.40. I decided to go as soon as I could see. 5.30 came, and I started to pack up.

First light, with tent, packraft, and bike

I decided to 'do' breakfast back on the mainland, so it didn't take long to get the kit together, and take it down to the jetty. Shoes and socks off, I packed the boat whilst it was in the water, sitting on the jetty steps. It is easier to do it like this, as dragging the boat into the water packed full of kit is not easy, and you get an idea of the balance of the load when it is floating.

First light on the chapel, with seagulls hanging in the wind

I launch. I am on the opposite, sheltered side of the island from where I landed. Everything feels fine, but I know that as soon as I get into the crossing, I will be more exposed. I round the headland and enter the chop. It isn't too bad, but still not easy. I have to paddle constantly, head up to check my position relative to land. After ten or so minutes, I get to the more sheltered water again, and head toward the beach. I can relax now!

I drive the boat onto the sand, and jump out. It feels great to have my feet on sand! I drag the boat out and drink in the sense of relief and happiness to be back! I look up, and am greeted by the rising sun. Suddenly, it is all worthwhile.

Sunrise from Yellowcraigs beach, with the islands of Lamb, Craigleith, and Bass Rock

I carry everything up into the dunes, the songbirds making the mainland sound like I had landed in paradise. I pack the bike, and eat some chocolate for breakfast, to fuel me for the 35k ride home. The wind didn't let up, I had a constant 14mph headwind all the way back. It was slightly harder work than on the way out, but I had known I was to have this on the homeward journey, and stuck it out. I arrived home not feeling too bad.

I am glad I did the trip, it was an itch I had to scratch! However, camping on Fidra is not really something to be done for enjoyment. Camping at Yellowcraigs beach would have been a more pleasant experience, but I felt I had learned some things about wind, islands, and committing oneself to a situation. I also think I need to do more sea paddling to get used to that again, perhaps this was not the ideal introduction to packrafting this year. But all in all, a successful overnighter.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

I managed to put together a video of my Highland summer trip, check it out:

You can see the past blogs with story and photos at the following links: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Coming next, some reflections on the trip, my kit list, and a map...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting - Part 3

Day 3

I slept well, with no dead-of-night encounters with deer, or any other animal for that matter, and woke to a warm and bright tent. I turned on my phone to check the time... 6.30am. Oh well, time to get moving.

I poked my head outside. Lovely, it looked like it was going to be a cracking day.

Sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'

I got the porridge on and sat in the entrance of my tent. The other campers were fast asleep, all was still. Today was probably going to be a shorter day, and quite different from the last two. I had most of the route mapped out on the main road, although I had a farm track detour from Arisaig for a few miles, and the last 3k by sea. I also had the possibility of going out into the Ardnish peninsula to a bothy at Peanmeanach, but this wasn't a certainty.

Porridge finished, I washed up and broke camp. I still find myself surprised at how quickly everything packs away, and how small it is! It's 7am now, the bike is packed, and I'm ready to head off into the morning sunshine. A sense of freedom washed over me as I peddled out of the campsite, leaving the happy campers dozing in their tents and caravans. I felt fast and light, and able to go where I wanted, when I wanted. This is the solo travelers advantage - your time is your own, no one else to hold up or wait for.

Out onto the road now, and up the hill before taking a right to Arisaig, which was looking bonny in the morning sunshine, birds tweeting. Going round the main road through the village, I looked out for the turn off to my 'shortcut' I had planned. I had wanted to stay of the main Fort William - Malaig road as much as possible, and had seen this track on the O/S map. It looked like I could cut out at least 3k of road, and what is the point of having a mountain bike if you don't ride it on the dirt at every opportunity?

The road took me round the bay, and I stopped to snap a photo looking over the boats to the steep cliffs and flat top of Eigg to the left, and the Cuillins of Skye towering in the distance.

Looking over the bay at Arisaig

 On I went. It's funny how much dragging a bike over almost impassible terrain makes you appreciate roads. I don't have a road bike, and generally am not a big fan of being on a bike on the road, due to large metal boxes blasting past constantly, inches from the end of the handlebars. But these are small roads in the West coast of Scotland, not busy routes near cities. I had seen 2 cars on the road so far. In fact, I enjoyed the road so much, I missed my turning off onto the planned track, and had to do a u-turn and back track about a kilometer. Oh well, I could think of worse times (and places) to get lost.

I found my turning. The landrover track seemed ideal for my bike - these are the kind of tracks that have 'no unauthorised vehicles' signs at the start of them, the kind you would never drive down, but being on a bike, and given the access laws in Scotland, they are fair game. The track passed some cottages, then into woodland. The warm day made the air thick, the smell of the plants and trees and earth mixing with the occasional insect. Proper 'summertime in the highlands' air.

Arisaig landrover track

The track ended soon enough, with a locked gate, meaning I had to lift the packed bike over a wall to get onto the road. Now there was no choice, the sides of Glen Beasdale forcing the main road and the railway line to snake over each other, close to the shore - no room to pick and choose a route here.

The road was much less busy than I was expecting it to be. Most of the time, there was no traffic on the road apart from myself. What a relief! I have to say, on a day like today, I can totally see the attraction of road touring in the North of Scotland.

View from the A 830 at Cuildarrach

Up ahead, I had a decision to make. Was I going to go off road to Peanmeanach? This was an optional excursion that would cut out about 9k of road cycling, replacing that with 4.5k of unknown, possibly not very cyclable path, and then a 1k sea loch crossing. I was being indecisive about this, which meant I wasn't that keen on doing it. I had had my fill of rough walking tracks, and the smooth and empty road was luring me onward. I decided that I'd look for the turn off to the track, and check it out at least. However, despite being on a main road, and checking my O/S map several times, which had the path clearly marked, I managed to completely miss it. Well that was that, decision made - Peanmeanach would have to wait till another time.

By now, I had had enough time to get a feel for what road cycling meant on a mountain bike. It is obviously not the right tool for the job, but still works ok. However, I started to feel cramped by the wide handlebars and short stem, the upright position that is so natural off the road feeling clumsy when faced with miles of smooth road. This, together with the warm weather and the fact that I had not had a proper wash in three days, were conspiring to make me feel less comfortable than I would have liked. Not terrible, but just not totally settled either. Added into this mix, I had to admit I was starting to feel somewhat lonely. Maybe it was just the expectation of seeing everyone again and telling them of my trip, maybe it was the thought of soaking in a hot bath. In any case, I now had a goal - I wanted to catch everyone in the cottage at Dorlin where they met for an extended lunch every day. It seemed doable, so I hunched down as much as I could on the bike, and kept going on the empty main road.

On the Fort William to Mallaig road, looking onto the Ardnish peninsula

Reaching Lochailort, I turned right onto the Glenuig road, and soon passed a group of four cyclists going the other way, all waves and hellos. The camaraderie gave me a lift, it was great to be out here doing it, and seeing fellow travelers reinforced how lucky I was. Up ahead a bit, there were a few motorbikes stopped in the side of the road, more people, on different machines, but still enjoying the best of Scotland.

A few more miles and I was in Glenuig. I knew there is somewhat of a climb out of Glenuig on this road, and one that I had never cycled up. I psyched myself up. By this point, I was tired, I had done a lot in the last two days, and it was possible to really feel the weight of what I was carrying. Going uphill, it feels like something is trying to drag you back down again, which is, in fact, the exact physics of the situation. I manage to get some of the way up it, but the road steepens and I give in.

Walking ain't too bad (as long as no one sees you!).

Jumping on the bike again, I crest the hill and enjoy a freewheel down the other side. Payback. I was now looking onto Loch Moidart, and heading straight for a jetty that I planned to inflate the boat at and take the 3k sea float shortcut, rather than a 12k cycle. I found it, a nice ramshackle old pile of rocks. I wonder if anyone has done a book on jetties, pontoons, and piers of Scotland - would be a good read I reckon.

Jetty on Loch Moidart, bike ready to transform to boat!

Boat inflated for the last time, but in sea water for the only time on this trip.

The packraft in calm and clear sea

Out into Loch Moidart, it feels good to be in the packraft again. I still haven't lost the sense of vulnerability that comes with floating solo in a wee inflatable boat. I still find myself making a beeline for the nearest shore, happy when I am closer to dry land.

This time, I have a companion with me, although an unwelcome and unhelpful one. A cleg (horse-fly) has latched onto me. Not fancying to be bitten, I keep paddling, hoping it will give up. No such luck. I give it the full beans, paddling as fast as I can, but it is still buzzing round me. This is a sticky insect for sure. I stop and swing the paddle in a futile gesture to shoo it off. Finally it lands on the side tube of the boat. I slap it hard and it falls dead into the water. Well, it got fair warning.

I pass the islands on Loch Moidart. Although there is little wind, and the tide is going out, the small ripple coming into the loch from the sea is making progress a bit slower than I would have otherwise expected. I really want to catch everyone, and the idea of some bread, beer, and a bath are driving me on. I keep on up the loch, admiring a lovely white yacht that I am heading toward.

Near the end of the trip - Loch Moidart

I see there are three people on it, lounging about. Looks like bliss. I get closer, and one of them waves over at me. I wave back "Hi there!", not sure if an 'ahoy there' would have been more appropriate. He calls back "Are you Nik?". Surprised, I acknowledge I am he. "Your dad told us about you, didn't think anyone else would be paddling this way with their bike on a wee inflatable boat" he shouts, adding "You are off your head!". I laugh, pleased that tales of my trip have preceded me. He invites me onboard for a beer, but I politely decline, as I am not convinced that boarding would be straightforward, and reckon that getting back into my boat after a beer or two would be somewhat less easier still.

I rounded the corner now, past Castle Tioram, and toward the beach where the cottage is. I stop a bit away from the sandy shore, and shout "Hello!", my call echoing round the steep cliff behind the house. No reply, I guess everyone is chatting noisily. I shout again, at the top of my voice. This time someone comes to the front of the house. I wave, and they go to fetch the rest. Soon, family and friends are on the beach, snapping photos and firing questions, familiar faces with smiles and witty comments. Dogs barking, and strangers wondering just what the heck is going on.

The end of the journey

I climb out the boat. This feels like a proper end to the trip.

"Can someone fetch me a beer please..?"

(next installment - some reflections on the trip, my kit list, a map, and maybe a video...)