Sunday 5 January 2020

Scotland by bike and kayak 2017

*This is one of many trips that didn't get posted when I all but abandoned this blog back in 2015. It's now 2020 and I'm adding in that missing content in a more photo-based blog post, this trip was from 2017*

Back in 2015 I cycled around Scotland and Northern England but also took a packraft. While I enjoyed that trip I didn't use the packraft nearly as much as I thought I would. The reason for that, quite honestly, is that packrafts are not enjoyable, or comfortable, to paddle long distances on still-waters. On top of that, at best, you can paddle a packraft at walking pace but as soon as there's any headwind then forget it! If you're still going forward then it's a bonus in those conditions! Don't get me wrong, packrafts are fantastic in many ways and are ideal for short still-water crossings, moving rivers and rapids, hiking and so on but would I want to do a 30km Loch paddle loaded with my bike and gear? No way!

The Plan

Many years ago I read this blog about a couple who cycled around Scotland, on a folding tandem bike, towing a trailer with an Ally folding canoe. They cycled Loch to Loch and when they got to water they packed everything in the canoe and paddled to the other side before then getting back on the bike. I loved the idea so much I bought an Ally canoe myself. That canoe is fantastic but with its sheer slab sides and rocker shaped hull, it's too much of a handful for 1 person on a windy Loch. It's also very bulky when packed and slow to assemble. However, once assembled its a brilliant canoe and one day I will use it more. 

My plan for this trip was to do something similar to what Tilly and Martin had done in 2008. I would tour around Scotland, cycling from Loch to Loch, and where possible paddle the length of the Loch and continuing cycling from the far end.

So that's what I did and it worked really well. I loved the variety you got on a trip like this, somedays you paddled, somedays you cycled, somedays you did both. I enjoyed it so much I have more plans for similar trips in the future, including another further north in Scotland.

The route
The boat

With the Ally out I looked at the idea of an inflatable kayak. These would be lighter than the Ally, have a smaller pack size, and should be quick to assemble. Inflatable kayaks have a terrible reputation in the UK but actually, there are some really, really, good ones out there now. The good ones aren't cheap and they're certainly not pool toys. Most of the kayaks I looked at were of traditional design and would be no good for carrying a bike, trailer and all the rest of my gear. They were 'kayak shaped' and would have been very unstable with such a heavy load up high on the deck, even if there was room. I looked deeper and came across an American manufacturer that made the Sea Eagle range of kayaks, even better they have a UK distributor. Looking at their range I could see some models that had features ideal for my trip. I was particularly interested in the Sea Eagle 385 Fast Track. The Fast Track is one of their more performance orientated kayaks but still had the features I needed -

  • Open deck for easy loading and storage of gear.
  • Flat bottom hull for stability with heavy loads (even when heavily loaded I think it's nearly impossible to capsize this boat!).
  • Shaped, and tapered, bow for good progress through big waves and strong winds. 
  • Multiple air-filled tubes should it spring a leak. 
  • Big enough for 2 people on day trips, or at a squeeze 2 people and camping gear, it's certainly big enough for carrying 1 tall lanky person (me!) + folding bike + trailer + all the camping gear in comfort.
  • Comfortable seats (I get a sore back in a packraft very quickly but I never did in these seats).
  • Footrest option (really important when paddling hard).
  • Plenty of attachment points for gear and a sail.

The bike

The bike was easy as I already had the Airnimal Joey. Folding bikes are always a compromise between packed size, weight and riding performance. For folders packed size and weight are normally the priority and it shows... Simply, most folders ride like pigs! No way would I have wanted to do this trip with something like a Brompton. Actually, I think it would be dangerous to attempt this on a bike like that. The trailer, fully loaded, was around 30kg and when descending steep and long hills that weight is pushing on the rear of the bike and you can really feel it. You need excellent and reliable brakes and bikes with 16" wheels, and rim brakes, would soon overheat. My biggest concern with this rig was losing control of the rear wheel on steep descents when braking hard. With 30kg+ pushing from the rear, on a lightly loaded rear wheel, under heavy braking I thought it quite possible to jackknife resulting in a very nasty crash. Because of that I loaded as much weight as possible on the rear rack to keep that tyre firmly on the ground. It worked and no matter how hard I braked the rear wheel never showed any signs of breaking away. The 16" wheels on most folders would also have been limiting offroad. I didn't do much single track with this rig but a lot of rough tracks.

If I could have bought any bike, at any price, I would still pick the Airnimal Joey because it's a folding bike that feels very close to that of a full-sized bike and is absolutely perfect for trips like this.

Airnimal Joey features

  • 24" wheels are close to the standard 26" fitted on (older) mountain bikes.
  • Good range of tyres suitable for on and off-road.
  • Mechanical disk brakes front and rear work well in all conditions.
  • Lots of gears (essential), some folders have less than 6 gears and with this rig you need LOADS! Joeys have normal gearing, or even a Rohloff.
  • Rides beautifully on and off-road and is very comfortable to ride for long periods. 
  • The fold isn't the quickest, or smallest, but that didn't matter here.
  • Uses standard off the shelf components available anywhere.

The trailer

I used the Burley Flatbed Cargo trailer because I already had it and it was the perfect size for the packed Sea Eagle kayak. In many ways, it's a great trailer. It's light, packs completely flat and you hardly know it's there when peddling (except on hills then you really feel that 30kg behind you!). My only issue with it was the towing arm would jam in the frame and couldn't be released without brut force. It wasn't like that when new and it appears the rubber bushes have expanded over time.

Fully loaded
Route Stats

You can download my route here

Route Length 1333km
Ascent 11302m
Cycling/paddling Days 44


Getting all this gear to the start wasn't going to be easy and I soon ruled out public transport, it's just all too heavy and bulky. I ended up getting a oneway car hire to Inverness, dropped my gear off first at a campsite in Beauly, took the car back to Inverness then returned to Beauly on the bus.

Glen Strathfarrar 12-14 Aug

Starting in Beauly I took backroads to Struy before heading up Glen Strathfarrar to Loch Monar, it's a private road up there and cars can only get through, with permission, and at set times. Those on foot and bikes can use it anytime. I intended to paddle around Loch Monar but when I arrived there the water level was so low, and the Loch so uninviting, I immediately turned around and headed back to Loch a' Mhuillidh.  This is a much smaller Loch but, on this day, much prettier. There I had a very gentle paddle and practised changing from biking to paddling modes before finding a camping spot above its shores. In the morning I paddled right around the Loch before packing up camp and cycling to a campsite at Cannich. The weather was terrible so I ended up staying an extra night on the campsite.

Heading to Loch Monar up Glen Stratharrar
1st Camp by Loch a' Mhuillidh
Glen Affric 15-16 Aug

From Cannich I headed up Glen Affric, first on sealed roads and then on tracks, to the far end of Loch Affric. It was hard work cycling such a heavy rig up those rough tracks! There I made camp and explored the Loch by water for the rest of the day. The midges there are the worst I've ever experienced!

End of Loch Affric (Loch behind the camera)
Loch Affric
River Affric
The next day everything was loaded onto the kayak then paddled down Loch Affric and Loch Beinn a' Mheadoin before packing everything back on the bike and heading back to Cannich campsite. I was finding going from bike to boat mode, or back, would take up to 1hr.

Loch Affric

Glen Garry 17-24 Aug

It was a tough ride down the Great Glen Way, parallel to Loch Ness, on one of the few sections that had proper single track riding. Then it was an easy cycle path and into Glen Garry where I had access to some big Lochs, all of which I paddled. Those Lochs were Loch Garry (paddled twice to miss the busy A87 Skye road), Loch Quoich and Loch Beag (sea loch). On the way back I took a detour up the old Skye road to Glen Loyne which has the dammed Loch Loyne. Loch Loyne is interesting because the old Skye road now disappears into the depths of Loch, pops up briefly on an island (which I camped on), before disappearing again before finally emerging on the far bank. This used to be the main road to Skye but was lost when the dam was built and the waters raised. 

Great Glen Way

Loch Garry
Loch Beag
Loch Beag
Loch Beag
Glen Garry nr Loch Quoich
Glen Garry nr Loch Quoich
Loch Loyne and the old Skye road
The other end of the old Skye road with the island I camped on in the background (spot my tent?)
Loch Loyne
Loch Arkaig 25-26 Aug

After leaving Glen Garry it was onto Fort William to resupply but I took in Loch Arkaig on the way. There's a small sealed road on the north side of the Loch which I cycled up before paddling back. I camped by the Loch that night. While not many photos from that loch made this blog post Loch Arkaig was actually one of my favourites.

Loch Arkaig

Fort Willaim 27-31 Aug

I really needed to change the brake pads on the bike so took a day off in Fort William to give the bike some TLC. All that weight and steep hills really took it out on the brakes. The following day I took a short ferry trip over to Camusnagaul. I could have paddled across but this is a busy waterway and the sea was rough. I only cycled a few miles that day as the rain was torrential and I was soon soaked to the skin. Sometimes it's better to right off days like that! The following day it was onto Loch Teacuis via Loch Arienas. The original plan was to paddle around the coast from Loch Teacuis into Loch Sunart but it was way too windy and rough for that. Instead, I headed back to Loch Arienas where it was more sheltered and made camp before going out for a paddle.

Wreck at Corran
Loch Linnhe (didn't paddle here, too windy)
Loch Teacuis
Loch Arienas
Loch Arienas

Loch Sunart 31 Aug

From Loch Arienas I took the road to Strontian and stayed in the campsite. I'd timed it about right for the tides so went out for a paddle. Loch Sunart is famous for its Otters and I really wanted to see one but unfortunately, I didn't. Maybe next time!

Road to Loch Sunart
Loch Sunnart
Loch Moidart 1-2 Sept

At last, the winds had eased and the sun came out. Tomorrow I wanted to get out and do a bit of sea paddling so cycled to Loch Moidart, made camp, then padded for a bit. It was a great day but the tides were all wrong to get out into the sea proper but I hoped the tides and weather would be fine tomorrow, and it was! That day I was able to paddle the classic loop around Eilean Shona and it was a highlight of the trip. This type of boat isn't really a sea kayak so it's only possible in good conditions but it was fine then. That night I camped near the castle at Moidart

Loch Sunart from the road to Moidart


Loch Moidart north channel
Looking over to Eigg from the sea paddle

Loch Shiel 2-3 Sept

Loch Shiel is a 30km paddle and the longest I'd done so far. It's on Lochs like this that you really appreciate bringing an inflatable kayak over a packraft. Luckily the wind was in my favour and in the afternoon I was even able to get the sail up. One of the highlights was the ruined church on Eilean Fhianain.

Loch Shiel

St Finan's Chapel, Eilean Fhianain

St Finan's Chapel, Eilean Fhianain

St Finan's Chapel, Eilean Fhianain

St Finan's Chapel, Eilean Fhianain

Sailing down Loch Shiel

Glenfinnan from Loch Shiel
Aviemore and Rannoch 7-22 Sept

Timings for this trip revolved around the Grand Finale which was to be a crossing of the Great Glen Canoe Trail with my friend Clover. Both of us had wanted to do this trail for years. She had set dates so I had to manage my time to fit in with her. I had plenty of spare time so headed over to Aviemore to met up with some old friends for a few days before heading down to, and paddling, Loch Rannoch, Loch Laidon and finally Loch Ericht. Then it was back to Inverness where I would meet up with Clover.

Packhorse Bridge 1717 at Carr-Bridge
Paddle with my old friend Phil Turner
The Sea Eagle next to a large-sized packraft
Ruthven Barracks at Kingussie
Cafe at Rannoch train station
Loch Laidon
Loch Laidon
Allt Lochain Ghainemhaich
Loch Ericht

Great Glen Canoe Trail 24-28 Sept

This is the national trail of UK canoe routes, think of the West Highland Way but on water. Starting on the West Coast, at Fort William, you head right across the country to Inverness, on the East Coast, using a mixture of Lochs and canals. The canals were built to get military ships from one side of the country to the other, quickly, without having to sail all the way around the northern tip of Scotland. Nowadays it's used mainly by tourist boats, a few fishing boats and kayakers. It's a superb paddle for those of limited experience and I thoroughly recommend it. My only word of caution is while it's mostly easy going you do paddle some very big Lochs, including Loch Ness, and they can easily generate huge sea like waves when windy. Check the weather, pick a sheltered bank to hug and be prepared to stop and sit out the weather if necessary. I did read that inflatable kayaks are not recommended for this trip which of course is a bit of a generalisation and going back to the old days of inflatables only being pool toys. A good inflatable is of course perfectly fine and I paddled in far worse conditions than this on some of the other Lochs. Just be sensible with your choice of craft and know its limitations. 

Actually, this was the first time I'd used the Sea Eagle 385 Fast Track with 2 people and we found it only just big enough with camping gear. I certainly had no room for the bike and trailer and had to leave that with friends. There is a larger version of the Fast Track which might be better for 2 people + gear. Also, having the extra weight of 2 people did change its performance a little and I found it took on water easier in rough conditions as it now pushed through the bigger waves rather than rode over them. It wasn't a big issue but it was a wetter experience for sure. 

Clover and a fully loaded boat
The train made famous by Harry Potter
The canals are easy paddling, Moy
Perfect conditions, Gairlochy
nr Laggon Lochs
Loch Oich
Loch Ness with the sail up
Loch Ness
East Coast at Inverness