Introducing the Caribou

When Annie and me met Sarah and Thor Tingey at the UK packraft roundup at Inshriach last June, water levels were on the bony side of optimal, but we went for a ride through the dusty pinewoods anyway, and took boats so that we could float down the Spey back to base. It turned out it was the first time that Sarah and Thor had been bikerafting, and they loved it! Thor also mentioned that Alpacka had a new raft in development that would be designed to take a bike in its stride, so fast forward a few months to February, and a small box all the way from Colorado arrived for us…

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Obviously, the first thing to do was to get some maps out, pack some instant mash and get those boats on the water. Easier said than done in Scotland in winter, where the cold, the wet and most of all the wind had other things in mind. Still, no such thing as bad weather, etc., and the more you look the more intriguing, semi-aquatic lines there are hiding away on the west coast. Loch Morar has been on the list of places to explore for a long time, and on a rainy Saturday in February that’s exactly where we found ourselves.

 

The route we had in mind was a lovely land-and-water-based loop, making use of the old postal road that once linked communities along the north side of Morar, which at nearly 300m is the UK’s deepest freshwater loch. After following a winding tarmac rollercoaster to the last farm, it becomes a classic section of chunky Highlands rock-fest, climbing away from the water and then taking you right back down again – for a traversing lochside trail it’s got a lot of climbing! The sun came out just in time for Annie to get a puncture, but the snow-capped backdrop of the Glenfinnan munros in the late-winter sun were adequate compensation, and while we faffed I revised my opinion on whether or not the postman had a good deal back then. I’ll be back to ride this trail again as soon possible.

We rounded a corner to pass through a narrow cleft in the hills that separate freshwater Morar from the sea at Loch Nevis, and dropped down to the small settlement at Tarbet. ‘Tarbet’, or alternatively ‘Tarbert’ comes from a Norse word sifnifying a spot where longships could be dragged between two stretches of water, and when you look closely you see that they crop up all over the west coast, giving a clue to their strategic importance a thousand years ago.

A couple of locals looked on as we inflated the boats and put on the cold, but flat-calm, water. Right away we found that the boat stays in good trim with the weight of the paddler and the bike – the bulbous nose provides a huge amount of inflation and a nice stable platform, and the extra length keeps paddles and handlebars from picking fights with each other.

We paddled round a couple of headlands to a spot which showed only a couple of roofless structures on the map but which is in reality home to a whole outdoor centre and a ship shaped like a whale. I had to look a few times to check what I was seeing, but it was definitely a whale-ship! Subsequent googling and asking around has taught me that it has a name – Moby – and belongs to Tom McLean, an ex-SAS soldier who has previously set records for solo rowing and yachting crossings of the Atlantic. Moby was meant to be sailed to New York, but the journey never started, and now he sits gathering seaweed and slowly disintegrating on Loch Nevis.

 

We camped on a headland nearby, and enjoyed the brief flash of sunset on the mountains of Knoydart across the loch. The weather was changeable, and we could see heavy, wintry showers still rolling through Mallaig to the west, but thankfully it stayed mostly dry overnight. I sometimes feel that a nice night spent out in a tent during the shoulder season is even nicer than in summer, as they’re rarer and remind you that fun doesn’t need a specific season.

We woke in the morning to a chilly, grey but – importantly – fairly windless loch. Back on the water with the bright red Caribous, and we continued paddling round to Stoul, where the map showed a trail that went perpendicular to the contours leading up and over the hill back to Bracorina and the road. The map was pretty accurate, but the climb went quickly enough from the derelict croft at Stoul, complete with a rusty tractor made sometime in the last century in Coventry.

 

The low weight of the Caribous hadn’t been apparent at first glance, because they don’t roll up that much smaller than Annie’s Llama. They only weigh around 2 kilos though, which is a lot less than the deck-equipped, heavier duty boats that we paddled round the Hebrides last summer, and as we repacked the bikes for the push up the old, steep ‘trail’, the advantage of such a simple, light boat became a lot clearer.

From the top, the trail was actually pretty decent – that wonderful, squelchy, ‘not firm but a lot firmer than everything else’ type of long-forgotten trail that crops up all over the place in these parts if you’re willing to go and have a look. Once upon a time it would have been the inhabitants of Stoul’s route to Church and would have been a good trail. That was a long time ago, and though the bog was doing a good job of reclaiming it, it’s still hanging on there for the time being, so it’s kind of a limited time offer.

 

Just a quick trip then, but then sometimes the best ones are. It certainly showed us that the Caribou is going to make bikerafting adventures lighter and easier, which given that we confirmed a bikerafting trip to Greenland earlier this week, is good news indeed…

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