Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Gravel bike packing Loch Shiel and Ardgour.

I haven't managed to get away for an adventure with my friend Chris for ages. Day to day distractions such as work and family have meant that it just hasn't been practical recently so when he mentioned that he hoped to have a time slot available which corresponded with me being free as well we jumped at the chance to plan something. Initial thoughts centred on a train supported mountain bike trip that I've been meaning to do for ages but weather concerns (the route has a lot of stream crossings which can be impassable in heavy rain) and bike related mechanical issues meant a change of plan. Fortunately I had a Plan B ready to go so last week we loaded up our bikes on the car and headed for the Corran ferry. The forecast wasn't good at all with the Met Office predicting a greater than 95% chance of rain for most of day one and part of day two, the saving grace was that there was supposed to be a weather window overnight which would at least mean a dryish camp. We arrived at the ferry and amazingly it was still dry so we loaded up our bikes with luggage and hopped on the first ferry we could catch. The ferry is currently free for pedestrians and cyclists however the installation of ticket machines (which were still wrapped in black bin bags) on the slipway at each side suggests that this is about to change. Almost as soon as we boarded the ferry it started to rain so we headed into the shelter of the pedestrian cabin for the short crossing.
Spirits were high as we disembarked at Ardgour despite the fact that the rain was getting steadily heavier.

 We put on our waterproofs in anticipation of the deluge to come and set off along the A861 towards Strontian. We were battered by strong winds as well on the first section alongside Loch Linnhe but hoped that the wind would be behind us once we turned westwards to climb through Glen Tarbert. Further stops were made initially to make adjustments to clothing, bikes and luggage.
The climb through Glen Tarbert wasn't too hard and the wind did give us a bit of a push  at times as we'd hoped but the rain continued to get heavier and by the time we rolled into Strontian we were more than ready for a late lunch in the haven of the local cafe.
The food was better than expected but all too soon it was time to venture back out into the rain and commence the climb up to the bealach on the minor road from Strontian to Polloch. This was the first time I've ever felt the need to cycle with the hood on my waterproof jacket over the top of my helmet in an attempt to keep the rain at bay! The gradient wasn't too severe at first but as we cleared the tree line we could see the road ahead disappearing into the clouds. The climb saved it's steepest slopes for the very top section when we were already tired but although it was hard work we eventually made our way triumphantly to the top.
We paused very briefly at the summit but the weather wasn't conducive to hanging around admiring the views (which were mostly concealed by the cloud anyway) so we plummeted down the other side towards Polloch. I was at some advantage on the descent due to my bike having disc brakes which were far more effective than the rim brakes on Chris's bike. I ended up a fair way ahead by the time we reached Loch Doilet near the bottom and when I stopped at the side of the road to regroup I began to be a little concerned as there was no sign of Chris. He eventually caught up and revealed that he'd sensibly decided to take it steady due to his bike's lack of stopping power on such a long steep descent in the wet. We continued along to Polloch where we left the tarmac and joined a forest road that would lead us towards Loch Shiel. We caught fleeting glimpses of the loch but it was largely concealed by the forest that we were riding through. Although we weren't yet halfway round our loop we began to look for potential spots to spend the night, we passed a few likely places but pushed on hoping to find something a bit further on. It was quite difficult to gauge our progress due to the lack of open views but crossing the Allt Scamodale river (which was spectacularly in spate with all the rain) gave us a reference point.

We pushed on again constantly searching for that perfect camp spot that seldom exists and sooner than expected reached the end of the forested section of the lochside. As we were both planning to hammock camp we decided we'd have to backtrack and search harder for a place to stop. In the event it didn't take long (once we'd lowered our expectations a little) and we found a decent spot right on the edge of the loch. We soon had a nice shelter set up with our tarps joined together and both of our hammocks strung underneath to allow for a sociable evening. Chris then played his trump card and unpacked a few cans of beer from one of his panniers! Sitting comfortably on our hammocks enjoying a beer was a great conclusion to a day during which the weather had proved challenging to say the least and we couldn't help feeling a little smug that we'd dealt with the conditions with no real problems.

Although there were some heavy showers overnight it was dry when we woke up and started our morning routine. After eating some breakfast and packing up we loaded up the bikes ready for another day's ride.
The first mile or so was very familiar as this was the third time we'd ridden it but once we emerged from the forestry we were finally treated to some fantastic views (made all the better by some patches of blue sky).

We were passed by a few logging trucks thundering along the track and a Post Office van presumably on it's way to deliver mail to the house at Scamodale! Further north there was a semi industrial fish farm development at Guesachan but the view of the islands at the north end of  Loch Shiel with the Glenfinnan monument and viaduct in the background made up for it.
We continued on round the corner and joined the busy A830 road for a few kilometres before branching right onto the quieter A861 singletrack road which follows the southern shore of Loch Eil and the western shore of Loch Linnhe. 
We stopped briefly for lunch at the side of the road before pushing on. Ironically shortly after stopping we passed several places with picnic benches which would have been perfect for our lunch break. As forecast it began to rain again as we approached the junction of Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe and as we turned southwest we faced a strong headwind as well. Needless to say the hoods were back up over the top of our helmets again and the only respite was provided by the line of trees which separated the road from the loch in some places. It was a case of just getting our heads down and getting on with it as we battled steadily back towards Ardgour and the ferry (which we caught tantalising glimpses of in the distance). All of a sudden it was all over and we were back at our starting point and all that remained was to wait for the next ferry back to the car. I think we were both surprised how enjoyable the trip had been despite some testing weather conditions and hopefully we won't have to wait too long until we can get back out again for our next adventure. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Winter bikepacking in Dumfries.

Back in February my friend Ian got in touch to see whether I'd fancy joining him for a bikepacking trip in the Galloway Forest Park. We made plans based on a GPX file that Ian had got from another cyclist and as the time neared the forecast looked okay as well.
I met Ian in the small village of Mossdale on the western side of Loch Ken just after lunchtime and we loaded up our bikes ready for two nights out.

The first section of our route took us along an old disused railway line which was relatively flat and well surfaced allowing us to make decent progress towards Creetown.
Unfortunately our progress came to an abrupt halt just before we reached Loch Skerrow as a bridge had collapsed leaving a dodgy river crossing as the only option for further progress on our intended route. Although the crossing wasn't very wide the water was deep and fast flowing and after a brief recce and discussion we decided that our only safe option was to backtrack and detour round the obstacle. 

The detour involved a significant backtrack and reroute around the northern side of Stroan Loch and would add a fair bit of extra time to our ride and leave us potentially short of daylight. The positive was that the scenery was great. 

We pushed on as quickly as we could, keenly aware of the fading winter light. Eventually after an incredibly wet section riding in flooded vehicle tracks we rejoined our original route at the far side of the downed bridge. After another stint on the disused railway we turned off at Cullendoch and joined a forest road heading north towards Loch Grannoch Lodge where we intended spending the night. A final brutally steep climb led us to a high point where we could see Loch Grannoch ahead, relieved that we'd reach our destination with a little daylight left we rolled down the hill to the old Lodge. 
We quickly pitched our tents next to the derelict buildings of Loch Grannoch Lodge and were able to take shelter inside the building to cook our dinner. Although this gave us shelter from any rain showers it was very cold so after eating we both retired to our respective tents and the warm sanctuary of our sleeping bags for the night. 
The next morning the weather was pretty good (although it had rained during the night) so we packed up and ate breakfast while I tried to dry my sleeping bag which had got damp from condensation in the tent overnight. 

Soon we set off again, initially retracing our route from the previous night before turning north along the ridge above Loch Grannoch. 

The forest road led us eventually towards the dam at the end of Clatteringshaws Loch where after a short hop on the main road we turned off to follow the minor road which runs along the edge of the loch.
We followed the road until it ended and then took to forest roads once more as we wound our way up towards Loch Dee. 
Sooner than expected Loch Dee came into sight, at this point we knew we were close to the bothy that was to provide our accommodation for the second night so we lingered and enjoyed the views and the welcome early afternoon sunshine. 

We followed the forest road a little further until the bothy came into view then turned off onto the boggy track that led up the final climb. 
The bothy is White Laggan and inside it was in great condition and even had a fire still burning in the wood burning stove to make us feel extra welcome!

I hung my still damp sleeping bag over the drying rail to air properly and we ate a late lunch before heading out to collect as much wood as we could to burn during the evening ahead. We also pitched our tents in the hope that they'd dry out a bit from the night before however this proved to be a vain hope as it absolutely poured with rain during the late afternoon and early evening. We passed a pleasant evening in front of the fire before heading for our sleeping bags before it got too late. 
The next morning dawned cold, clear and frosty and our tents were covered in ice from being soaked prior to the temperature dropping overnight. 

We ate breakfast, packed up and tidied the bothy before setting off down the boggy access track to retrace the first part of our route from the day before. Loch Dee was looking even more beautiful in the morning sunshine. 

Once we reached Clatteringshaws Loch we followed the Southern Upland Way around the northern shore as an alternative to staying on the road.
This eventually brought us out near the dam that we'd passed the day before where we turned onto the Raider's Road forest drive which we would follow back towards our starting point.
I imagine that during the summer this would be quite busy with cars but as it was winter (and the forest drive was closed) we had it to ourselves. The track roughly followed the Blackwater of Dee river and was very pretty. We decided to stop for an early lunch at the "Otter Pools" picnic area as it was so idyllic. 

Once we hit the trail again it wasn't far back to Stroan Loch (where we'd detoured on day one). It was looking beautiful in the late morning sunshine. 

It was a short ride back from Stroan Loch to Mossdale (where we'd left our cars) including a fun singletrack section into the village.
Thanks to Ian for putting the plan for the trip together and Jeff Price (https://fat-bike.com/author/summittoppler/)for providing us with his GPX file as inspiration.