A Q&A with Scottish Adventurers Annie Lloyd-Evans and Huw Oliver About Their Bikerafting Adventures
“For reasons that will be obvious to anyone that has tried it, the sheer, adventurous joy of riding to the trail’s end, inflating a boat and then continuing on a different journey made the experience resonate with me, and since then I’ve learned how to choose my routes and kit a little more carefully! Packrafting involves working with rather than against a landscape, so I think the feeling that hooked me on that first bikerafting trip was one of journeying in rather than through, which I hadn’t quite felt before.” ~ Huw Oliver, Alpacka Raft Ambassador
Annie Lloyd-Evans: After university, like many folk I found out that my degree was a pretty good waste of time, so I turned to the outdoors instead. Finding myself living and training as an instructor in a tiny outdoor centre in the Cairngorms national park, I was lucky enough to meet a man called Andy Toop. Although he has been extremely bad for my bank balance, he has introduced me to ways of adventuring I might not have come across otherwise: he had just become the UK dealer for Alpacka Raft and was excited to share the packraft love. The photos from what looked like a truly awful trip he did with a bike and a packraft through Knoydart inspired something inside me. I decided I wanted to do trips like that, paddling hard to reach water to push my bike in inaccessible places. Scotland was starting to feel like small, where I had been everywhere and ridden or hike-a-biked every trail, but with the addition of a packraft, the map opened up and I still feel the excitement of linking up the old boat-accessed drove roads that no one travels anymore, grown over with moss and reeds, slowly being reclaimed to the bog; mine to discover with a boat to access them.
Huw Oliver: I was introduced to both bikepacking and packrafting at roughly the same time in 2013, after Annie had moved to the outdoor sports hub of Aviemore in the Central Highlands. One of her colleagues at work, Andy Toop, had just set up shop an become the UK importer of both Alpacka Raft and Alaskan bike-bag manufacturer Revelate Designs, and soon Annie was telling me stories all about these awesome new ways to get to nice places. I fell in love instantly with the idea of lightweight bike travel, but packrafts took a little longer. I’m not a waterbaby by nature, but when Andy told me about these boats that could both carry and be carried by your bike, I knew that I was interested! I was still learning my way around the various mountain areas of Scotland at the time, so I really appreciated the way in which packrafts can transform the blue patches from obstacles into highways, and I’ve even made boat journeys with (gasp) no bike involved!
ALE: My first bikerafting trip was a pretty special one: a stunning place, beautiful weather and some awesome riding on new trails, only reachable with a paddle. Strapping the bike onto the boat was a nerve-racking task, although I know Alpackas are way tougher than they initially appear. Every sharp cable tie edge, and what to do with the pedals!? After carefully checking for the hundredth time we put on and paddled off. The packrafts deal incredibly well with such a big load, although the new Caribou is again that bit better. Unusually, the wind was with us on both days and we were able to get sails up and crack on with ease, covering long distances on big lochs. We had a calm night’s bivvy, which is rare, tucked into the hillside with small lochains and craggy outcrops. Things did get a bit spicy toward the end of the second day, when we had waves breaking over the rafts, and I started feeling a bit vulnerable in the middle of one of Scotland’s largest freshwater lochs. But the Lama I was using powered onward and kept me safe from the peaty water. I remember sailing past a confused looking couple in sea kayaks, feeling very smug as they battled the wind.
HO: My first experience of bikerafting was actually a solo one, in the Rough Bounds of Knoydart on Scotland’s west coast. It’s one of the most rugged areas of the country, with no roads, a lot of steep passes and deep fjords that cut inland– you could argue that it isn’t the best place to combine bikes and boats for a newbie… Still, we learn by doing, and all that! I loaned a boat from Andy, which came with some sage advice about keeping myself safe on the water, and spent four days heaving, pedalling, floating and fishing my way around a route that just about broke me, but which wouldn’t have been possible at all without the raft. I loved it! It was a good example of learning by jumping in at the deep end: my bike was too heavily loaded, I was slow and inefficient at transitioning between modes of travel, and each day I only covered a tiny distance. The boat was smaller, and much heavier, than the Caribou I’ve been paddling recently, so it’s funny to look back even a couple of years and appreciate how much easier the equipment is making things. I’ve said many a silent prayer to the folks that suffered through the early stages of packrafting.
AR: Why inspires you about combining these activities?
I love the combination of using two methods of travel: the bike that allows speed and technical challenges. Then reaching a shore line, and instead of having to double back, being able to inflate a boat and carry onwards, this time slower, taking time to peer deep into the water for crabs and mermaids. I love the change of motion, the vulnerability that comes with being on the water and the added judgement skills of reading the weather and the squalls as they race over the water. They are both such different ways to travel: the bike often restricted by the trail and my skill, the boat open freedom where I have to remember not to stray too far from the shoreline. I love that the journey doesn’t end with the trail, but that it continues on, almost unlimited. The ability to reach places with a bike that no one else can, to ride trails no one else does, trips that would otherwise not be possible.
HO: As I became more interested in using packrafts on bike journeys, I ended up devouring Roman Dial’s book, “Packrafting!” one evening, and then a few times more over the following days. Coming from such a small country, the massive landscapes of Alsaska and Canada got right under my skin, and I saw the boats as a creative tool just as much as a technical one to be mastered. There seems to be an attitude of ‘suck it up and get it done’ that pervades early packrafting exploits that gives me a lot of motivation to stop making excuses and toughen up! Eric Parsons’ and Dylan Kentch’s ‘suffer-biking’ traverse of Alaska’s Lost Coast showed me the idea that long journeys can be made without relying on pre-existing trails, and I love the way that Bjorn Olson’s journeys celebrate the almost mythical qualities of northern landscapes – he has a way of telling the story of a place in word and image that has made me want to see them for myself. For me, at least, the idea of packrafting is tied up with the idea of finding that farthest flung spot on the map, the place that curiosity draws you to, and setting out to embrace whatever happens next.
ALE: I feel that bikerafting opens up a whole new window to the world. There are so many amazing things that can be done using the combination. I think it will grow with both people looking for mighty, hard expeditions such as those in Alaska, but also with folk looking to escape the ordinary and find a new way to explore their landscape and have good adventures. The introduction of the Caribou is going to make a slightly awkward pursuit into something that little bit more comfortable and entice new people to think of bikerafting and give it a try. I’m not sure it will ever become super popular, but I hope it will foster a great community of inspirational people sharing ideas and advice in a similar way to bikepacking.
HO: While packrafting seems to be growing and growing in popularity, even here in Europe, I don’t think really think of bikerafting as a sport in its own right – and I like it that way. If the Caribou is a specific ‘bikerafting boat’, then it also shows the inherent adaptability of packrafts by not being specific at all – it’s a lightweight, blank slate on which to carry whichever large load you might have, be it a bike or a deer.
Bikerafting is more like a particular, slightly skewed way of looking at a landscape and interacting with it. It is defined by and entirely reliant on the terrain in which we choose to travel, and there are so many ways and reasons for which to go about it that I wonder if it will ever become a distinct ‘sport’. Are you planning an expedition through trackless but perhaps rideable terrain; or are you looking for a fresh way to experience that familiar piece of territory closer to home? Whatever, it’s all good stuff. One of my favourite bikerafting routes is near to Andy’s shop in Aviemore, and involves a morning of riding through sweet-smelling, resinous Scots pine forest on sinuous riverside singletrack, followed by hopping on the River Spey and floating home to the pub and beers. Not remote, not gnarly by any means, but absolutely perfect nonetheless.
I suppose that what I’m saying is… bikes and packrafts are like peanut butter and jam: both very different, both damned delicious in their own right, but even better when you mix them! If pushed to guess, I would predict, and I suppose hope, that bikes and rafts will continue to diversify, pushing boundaries in disparate directions to celebrate inspiring places. We might have put men into space, robots in our vacuum cleaners and even invented the pre-mixed jar of peanut butter and jam (sacrilege!), but there are surely some futuristic journeys out there just waiting for someone bold enough to come along with a packraft. Look at Luc Mehl’s big traverses and then tell me that there is no more exploring to be done. Here in Scotland, I’m excited to look at lighter, faster journeys made in a good style to link up aesthetic lines across country that we currently think of as already having ‘been done’…