Words and photos: Dan Milner
From Issue #188
“It looks farther when looked at through sober eyes,” mutters Taj Hendry, more with surprise rather than alarm. Laid out before us on the gravel beach is a map showing the trail we’re going to ride. But it’s not the trail that has Hendry rubbing his beer-blurred eyes in a cold-light-of-day moment, but the realization that to reach the trail we’ve first got to paddle kayaks across nine miles of open water.
Sea kayaking on its own is no big deal. After all, people have paddled these sleek, efficient boats around Antarctica and across the Bering Strait. What will make it harder for us is the fact that, tied to the back of our kayaks, are inflatable rubber rafts onto which we’ve lashed our bikes. In one single moment of clarity—or madness, depending on how you look at it—our once-streamlined kayaks have become slow, lumbering tugboats. It’s like using Donald Campbell’s recordbreaking speedboat, Bluebird, to tow a barge.
But here we are, stashing bivi bags and overnight kits into the hatches of three sea kayaks and checking the knots that will stop our precious bikes from disappearing to the bottom of Scotland’s deepest loch, Loch Morar, located in Lochaber, Highland. Ahead of us sits a lot of hard work, a little pain, a few midge bites and one major mechanical.
But this beach is also the start of two nights and three days of unique adventure. With midge repellent applied, we push off, floating out onto crystal-clear waters and beginning to paddle toward a cluster of beautiful islands. Brightly coloured mail-order rafts reluctantly but obediently limp along behind like lazy, overweight pet Labradors.
Water and bikes are not logical bedfellows, so the idea to use kayaks to move between trails involved a little head-scratching when it was first mooted between Nick Bayliss, Royal Racing clothing’s designer, and myself. There are plenty of bridleways that run alongside rivers or lakes in the U.K. that could be accessed by boat, but how do you make this idea into a real adventure? “Use kayaks!” we reasoned, unsure then how we’d actually get our bikes onboard. With a little lateral thinking, we soon realized that using an inflatable boat as a bike trailer was key, giving the kind of stability to our cargo that would mean we arrived with our bikes at the other end.
And so a plan was hatched, and to give it a real wild and woolly feel, we plumbed Scotland’s west coast as the ideal location. Here, we’d get a real sense of untamed adventure, while Scotland’s liberal “right to roam” policy meant we’d unlikely cause a fuss camping out on the side of a loch (or lake, as it were).
That’s why we chose Loch Morar. With an established trail running route along its northern shore and a couple of lesser-ridden, more remote trails winding their way out from its eastern and southern shores, we had plenty of options. Throw in its location near a kayak rental base, cheap hostels and pre-adventure beer in the village of Mallaig and we had a plan.
All we had to do now was load up and paddle to the trailheads. Our idea raises an eyebrow from Mike at Sea Kayak Highlands when we turn up to get our boats. “It’s the wind that’ll cause you problems,” he says, trying not to look overly concerned. Mike’s Sea Kayak Company is used to showing people the stunningly beautiful west coast between Arisaig and the Isle of Skye. He leads kayakers out to local seal colonies and takes them dolphin spotting. He’s not used to people wanting his boats to tow dinghies laden with mountain bikes.
“When the wind blows in from the east, it funnels down the loch and you’ll not get anywhere towing a dinghy behind you,” he advises. I look at my two fellow adventurers. “We’ll have a bash,” I say, adding, “we’re all pretty accomplished paddlers.” With a window of only four days for our three-day adventure, we’re left hoping the wind stays calm, or perhaps, considering we’re in normally windy Scotland, that it is at least blowing on our backs.
Out on the loch, we settle into a steady pace. Long, mellow paddle strokes equate to spinning the cranks when you’re freewheeling: applying just enough pressure to add a little forward momentum without hurting. It’s May and we’re lucky: We begin our epic under clear skies and bathed in sunshine. Little do we know that our return paddle will be in lashing rain while battling a headwind.
Two hours later we go to shore for a brew up and to rest our shoulders. Kayaking is all upper-body workout, something we’ll feel later pumping our bikes along Loch Morar’s technical, rocky trail. It’s then that my two kayak-and-crank aficionados, Bayliss and Hendry, come clean on their previous kayaking experience. Between them they’ve accumulated approximately a weekend’s worth of paddling, and confess that much of it was spent swimming rather than staying upright.
Despite my own previous competition-level kayak experience, I’m anxious. I look out across miles of placid Scottish water and pray the weather stays with us. Even in May, the water in the loch is hand-numbingly cold, meaning that capsizing in open water would require a very quick rescue before hypothermia sets in. I advocate hugging the coastline, disguising my suggestion as increasing our chances of seeing otters. I have no idea if Loch Morar even has any otters.
It takes us five hours to reach our planned camp spot at Swordland. We pull kayaks and rafts up onto a rocky shore and set about with some much-needed beers. A large cake appears from Hendry’s boat with the announcement that it is his birthday, along with several bottles of ale and some decent dregs at the bottom of a bottle of whisky. Around a small fire lit to waylay the midges’ evil intents, we sit and chat and absorb our stunning surroundings as the sun makes its slow dip toward the horizon. We have the place to ourselves.
It’s fair to say that the trail we ride the next morning is as good as you’ll get anywhere in the world. It’s also fair to say, at the risk of piddling on our own adventure bonfire, that you don’t need a boat to reach it. Running the length of Loch Morar’s northwestern shore, you can ride it as an out-and-back from Morar village or grab the Knoydart ferry from Mallaig to Tarbet and ride back from there, via Swordland. But for our first kayakand- bike adventure it makes a good start point, and if the legendary Morag—Lock Morar’s own mythical monster—swallowed up our kayak’s we’d still be able to escape by bike back to civilization.
Bivvying is a simple existence, uncluttered and unfussy. It takes us little time to pack up camp and stash gear back into the boats after breakfast and get out on the trail. We ride over to Tarbet first, just to have a look at Loch Nevis—another pedal-and-paddle candidate we considered—before climbing back to Swordland and riding west.
The trail is a schizophrenic mix of flowy singletrack and tough, committing rock ledges that demand front-wheel precision. Get it wrong and it’s an early, if much needed, bath in the peaty loch far below. We climb high above it at times and descend to the edge at others, and then repeat the pattern all the way to its western shores and yesterday’s kayak launch beach. Here we sit and devour energy bars before turning around and riding back. By the time we reach camp we’ll have climbed 2,400 feet and descended the same. Alternating rock gardens and puddles of mossy mud keep us on our toes and short, sharp climbs punish our lungs.
It’s a perfect natural trail and we’re having a blast until a peaty bog takes its toll. Although looking shallow, this pungent beast turns out to be hub deep, and as Bayliss tries to clean it, he’s pitched over the bars. He escapes with no worse than mud-soaked gloves, but his carbon framed bike is history. Coming down on a rock, the right-side chainstay has been snapped cleanly in two. We’re about a mile from our kayaks and he’s forced to limp back gingerly. The broken bike might have scuppered our following day’s ride plan to hit a trail from Meoble heading south to, and along, Loch Beoraid, but it’s not dampened our sense of adventure.
Beneath the caress of a glorious late-afternoon sun, we load our bikes back onto our dinghies and lash them down tight. “How many knots are too many?” I wonder. We launch our flotilla and paddle across the loch as planned for our second night of beer- and bun-infused bivvying. It’s a one-mile paddle across the loch and I’m thankful the weather is still on our side. Our traverse takes us across the deepest part of the loch, with 1,000 feet of cold, dark water disappearing down beneath our boats’ hulls. It’s the perfect place for a Morag hideout and a risky spot if we suffered capsizing.
Our crossing is without issue, and as we reach the southern shore we are greeted by perhaps one of the most stunning bivvy spots you’ll ever find: a crinkled shore of tussock grass punctuated by pure white-sand beaches. Encouraged by the fuzzy embrace of ale, I take a post-ride bath in the loch before settling down around a campfire to eat a freeze-dried meal from a foil packet and watch the sun set to the west. Life is beautiful.
Tomorrow’s plans to ride have been scrapped thanks to the bike breakage, and even though we awake next morning to the sound of rain on our bivvy shelters, it’s still with reluctance that we have to move on. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, even in the rain. Just behind camp, a primordial forest of weather-twisted trees hugs the hillside, and across the open loch swirls of mist swallow up any sight of the trail we rode.
Dressed in GoreTex, we climb into our kayaks for one last push back toward home, a four hour paddle through driving wind and rain. My hands are wrinkled and numb, my ass soggy and rivulets of water are running down my face. My shoulders ache and at times the wind blows so strongly I’m brought to a standstill right in the middle of the loch.
For a moment I curse the inflated dinghy that’s acting as a sea anchor behind me, cursing the ridiculous effort I’m needing to cross this patch of water. Near the northern shore a motorboat skims past, effortlessly. And then I remember: If it weren’t for this damned dinghy behind me and its ingenious bike-carrying potential, our adventure wouldn’t be happening. I’d have not camped out with friends and shared a birthday so uniquely. I’d have not returned from a ride to paddle a kayak across a loch to a beautiful beach. And so I dig deep into my energy reserves and smile through my grimace, and ahead of me I think I can sense Hendry and Bayliss doing the same.
Five things to consider when kayaking with bikes
- Loading your bike on a dinghy is easy to do. Remove the wheels to keep it compact, lay the wheels on first and then tie on the frame. Make sure nothing sharp is rubbing the dinghy.
- Not all dinghies are made the same. We used an Intex Explorer Pro 200 dinghy (amazon.com, 30 euros) and a Sevylor Colorado Pro inflatable kayak (350 euros) to haul our gear, finding that although the Sevylor was heavier, its size could handle two bikes and its keel meant it was easier to tow.
- Waterproof everything! Even stashed in kayak hatches, things will get wet, so seal everything in dry bags, especially sleeping bags.
- Keep the dinghy as light as possible. Dinghies aren’t as streamlined as sea kayaks, so load the kayak, not the dinghy, for an easier paddle.
- Wind is your main enemy when kayaking, with or without a dinghy in tow. Plan your paddle, but consider alternative options/routes and bailouts if the wind is against you.
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Words and photos by Logan Watts
Originally featured in print in Dirt Rag Issue #181
“I’m about ready for that beer,” Dustin bellows as we plummet the last downhill of the day. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that statement echo down a ribbon of singletrack, I’d have a sizable collection worth every bit of four dollars, at least. “Me too,” I shout as I haggle with an awkward loaf of granite.
I had actually been pining for a proper brew for about six months or so. I was just completing a long bike-packing odyssey through Africa when the seed was planted for this trip. Needless to say, the post-ride selection of watery pilsners on the Dark Continent fell flat, sometimes literally.
It’s remarkable how a hankering lasted half of a year. But it wasn’t only hoppy beer that I craved. No matter where I am in the world, as soon as April rolls around my mind begins to wander through the rhododendron tunnels of Pisgah, North Carolina.
My muscles start to weaken at the thought of the unrelenting ascents and knuckle-bleaching descents that make up the epic trail network in the heart of the Appalachians. It’s kind of like I am being called back home.
The idea was to piece together a five-day bike-packing route that would traverse each of the four major trail networks in the area and enable us to sample some of the finest beer in the country. The principles were simple: It was required that we pack lightly so that we’d be nimble enough for the burliest downhills that the Blue Ridge has to offer; it was mandatory that we tackle a tough route that would kick the crap out of us; it was compulsory to treat yo’self in between; but most of all, we had to dig deep into the remoteness of the forest.
After dropping a car at the route’s end and driving a little more than an hour back to Old Fort, my clock reads 7 p.m. We intend to climb the Old Mitchell Toll Road, a rough and steep doubletrack also known as Hella Rocks. We’ll crest Heartbreak Ridge, camp, and follow the Pisgah enduro route tomorrow morning. Afterward, we’ll pause for a cold glass of Pisgah Pale Ale at the brewery.
A scant five minutes into the trip, plans derail. We choose to start at the Pisgah Brewery (with a cold glass of Pisgah Pale Ale, maybe three). Pedaling commences at dusk and it immediately starts spewing rain, a soaking rain; we ride up a hill and abruptly stop at the gate of Ridgecrest, a private community that owns the property at the base of the ridge.
“Well, unfortunately I can’t let you pass. We don’t allow cyclists through here after dark. It’s just a rule; I didn’t make it up,” kindly states the elderly gatehouse attendant who emerges from a dark doorway smelling of tobacco smoke. Who knew? We could bail, then try and sneak around through back roads and several dark dirt-road interchanges almost guaranteeing that we get lost.
Instead we rethink, adjust, and climb up the switchbacks of Kitsuma Peak. We can camp there for the night and descend Young’s Ridge, a classic screamer of a downhill, the next morning. As soon as camp is pitched, a dry front passes through and clears away any lingering sentiments of our botched plans.
The next morning, I wake to a muffled rumble from a nearby sleeping bag and a bluebird sky filtering through the canopy of trees, the latter being somewhat of a summer rarity in this deciduous rainforest. Autumn is knocking.
After brewing some stout black coffee and rolling up camp, Dustin proceeds to pull on his right glove and discovers a giant black millipede emerging from the dark recesses of the thumbhole. I scream like a grade-school cheerleader—referred creeps, I guess. You’d think I’d have a little more grit after camping in the African bush for six months. Then I recall waving my hands and running in circles as I was chased around the tent in Zimbabwe by a 5-inch camel spider.
“What time is it?” I ask. “I would say around 8:15,” Dustin responds. “OK, let’s get a move on.” I guess we haven’t fully unmoored from time and the daily grind.
Watery eyed and grinning, we shoot out the bottom of Young’s Ridge and begin the paved portion of our journey toward Asheville. There we are forced to choose amongst a dizzying array of 14 craft breweries. Our first stop is Wicked Weed Brewing, named after a quote from King Henry VIII referring to the pernicious hop plant. At barely more than a year in operation, they are already turning heads with their Funkatorium’s barrel-aged sours; their Serenity Wild Ale won gold this past year at the Great American Beer Festival. From there we pedal a few hundred yards, saddle up to the bar at the lauded Burial Beer Co., and sample the epic Wrecking Bar Black Saison.
A lot has changed up here in a year. Sierra Nevada opened a brewing facility and tasting room, New Belgium is well underway with building its East Coast facility, several new restaurants have taken root, magical breweries out the wazoo have set up shop…and it all seems to be flourishing. I ask Tim Gormley, Burial’s head mad scientist, if he thinks that there are too many breweries opening at once.
He lets us in on their little secret to success: “The craft-beer community here is kind of like a bunch of friends, people who help each other out; we are all working hard on our own passion [to create and share beer], but it’s kind of like a group effort to make Asheville a unique place to live. As tourism grows, every brewery seems to find its niche.”
The area mountain bike scene seems to share the same qualities. It’s like an ultra-happy summer camp where everyone is sharing ideas, team building, and pitching in for the greater good. Tim hands us a bomber of Cemetery Gates, a Belgian IPA born from Burial’s collaboration with Pisgah Brewing. Named after a song by the band Pantera, this complex concoction will be a perfect post-ride beer for whatever rock-strewn widow-maker trail we’ll inevitably be tackling.
Next stop, Bent Creek, Asheville’s most accessible singletrack, located about 10 miles from town. For most Ashevillians, it’s the good ole backyard place to ride above-average loops and downhills, but to us it’s the eastern gateway to the Pisgah Ranger District—the foyer of my home, so to speak.
As daylight fades, we continue our trek southwest, leaving a vapor trail of hops and any remaining stress particles we had harbored from our almost-forgotten workaday routines. That’s the thing about bike-packing: It feels like all strings are severed when you set off on a packed bike not knowing where you’ll sleep that night. Everything is stripped away except the pasty-white core of what you absolutely need in order to sleep, eat, and ride—the essentials of a long-term adventure, the kind that requires you to pedal for days in order to reach a place that will change your mindset.
My first “freakout” was a little more than a decade ago. I had a handsome job in marketing, I bought a house, and everything was swell. After 9/11, the recession sunk in and the world changed a bit. Life seemed shorter; maybe I simply got tired. I was living in a town I didn’t care for, and my dirtbag dreams had all but faded in the proverbial rearview mirror. So I quit my job, leased our house, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I took off on an extended trip through India, Thailand, and Tibet. The freedom to move, cultural immersion, and beautiful places made us swear that we wouldn’t get sucked back into the American Dream.
Then our wallets ran dry. I was quickly funneled back into the real world, eventually started my own company and commenced to work my ass off. Almost two years ago, despite having even more trappings to anchor us in place, we did it again. Handed over the keys to my small business, had a massive eBay selloff, stuffed a storage unit like a sardine can, and set off by bike. We cycled from Mexico to Panama. I was addicted to the freedom of traveling by bicycle.
A year later, we decided to bike-pack southern and eastern Africa via dirt roads and mountain passes. After each one of these trips, the pull only seems to get stronger. Each of these freakouts work like a magical reset button—a detachment from the grind. I’ve been home (my in-laws’ attached suite) for just a couple of months and the pressure of American life has already started to sink in again. Rental-property issues, finances, family matters, insurance, IRS, etc.
By mid-August I was ready for a mini-freakout. Dustin was ready to get away from it all too; he self-reports that a “mini midlife crisis” of his own was long overdue.
THE REAL PISGAH
After a beer-fueled sleep and breakfast of grainy bars that don’t quite curb the hangover, we gingerly attack a 1,200-foot climb to reach the crown jewel of Bent Creek, Greenslick. Formerly known as Mo’ Heinous, this 2-mile, ridiculously fast downhill is complete with big berms and plenty of rollers. We relax the wind-peeled grins from our faces at the bottom and start up Lower Sidehill. Another quad-wrenching climb puts us on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and after a couple miles of being sideswiped by Harleys in blind corners, the Trace Ridge trailhead appears. There we drop into a 4.5-mile rugged descent that wrangles us into the hearty embrace of the real Pisgah.
Just before I rode these trails for the first time, back in the late aughts, I stopped by The Hub, an aptly named bike shop (complete with taproom) that’s conveniently located at the junction where Highway 276 enters the forest. I sheepishly asked some folks at the service counter to recommend a good 10- or 15-mile loop, not having a clue what I was getting myself into.
The mechanic heaved a glance of concern at another employee, then they voiced in unison, “Have you ridden up here before?” “Er, no,” I replied, “but I’ve ridden in Bent Creek once.”
“Well, now you’re in the real Pisgah,” the wrench croaked. About an hour or so later I was wide-eyed and careening down the raw and technical rocky face of the Black Mountain Trail. I was hooked.
A lot has changed up here since then, and a lot more people have figured out the draw of these trails. Oskar Blues helped build the REEB Ranch; DuPont State Forest added a couple masterpiece trails; the bottom of the Black Mountain trail got overhauled. When I first heard that last bit of news, a wave of fear reverberated down my spine. These trails are raw and the Black Mountain Trail is my special place—the figurative kitchen of my home.
GAZING INTO NOTHING
We break our riverside camp the next morning at the bottom of Trace Ridge and catch the gravel fire service road up to the Laurel Mountain trailhead. The Laurel Mountain/Pilot Rock ride is one of my personal favorites—a gradual and technical climb followed by a heart-in-throat descent. About halfway up Laurel I hear a loud scraping sound and look over just in time to see a fairly large black bear shimmying down a massive poplar. He crashes to the forest floor and is out of sight before I can say, “Hey, bear.” The moment reminds me that Laurel is notably “out there.” For me, this trail is a long meditative traverse, kind of like a therapeutic massage via roots and rocks.
There are basically three types of trails in Pisgah: 1. ones that were originally created by the timber trade for rail-bound logging carts, back when the land was owned by Rockefeller himself. These are characteristically long, sweeping routes with moderate and fairly technical climbs; 2. trails that go straight up, then straight down. These are extremely rugged, raw, and full of drops, boulders, steps, and deep ravines where they have been weathered over time; and 3. endless rock gardens.
Pilot fits into the #3 description, a 1,600-foot drop over a 2-mile boulder field. The kind of ride that inspires high-fives and requires a shot of whiskey to calm the endorphins after you clear it. At the bottom of Pilot we decide to take the inner Pilot Cove loop and camp on a giant, exposed granite overlook about halfway through the route. It is an amazing place situated in the middle of a giant bowl of forest. We arrive late afternoon and are greeted by the shed skin and severed torso of a copperhead.
Dustin reassures me, “Don’t worry, I think copperheads eat millipedes.” Within minutes our asses are parked on the side of the mountain, our minds staring into nothing. It’s not often you can find a view where there are no signs of human impact—no cell tower, no ridge-perched million-dollar homes, no roads.
We wake the following morning and have a breakfast of sweet-and-sour pork, curry chicken, and rice that should be enough fuel to push us over Buckhorn Gap and then up the arduous hike-a-bike to the top of Black Mountain. A couple hours later we crest the overlook on Black Mountain and I am hungry. This is the spine. If the measure of a place’s wildness is based on how much it makes you forget the rest of the world, this ranks pretty high up there, especially for the Southeast.
The Black Mountain Trail is one of the most brutal that Pisgah has up its sleeve, especially the top section. They definitely didn’t redesign this part. There does seem to be a little more room on the sides of the washed-out trough that runs a significant percentage of the downhill. It had developed a sizable V-shaped ravine and had become difficult to ride after last year’s record rainfall. It turns out that some of the underbrush was cleared to allow riders to skirt the ravine, in turn promoting good erosion to help push dirt back into the gap—quality-over-quantity trail maintenance. The bottom part has definitely changed, and in my opinion it’s been reworked perfectly—new undulations, better-tracked berms, rollers, and a new bridge. We fly down the fast lower section and it seems as if it’s twice as long as it was in its previous life.
As we spill out into the parking lot, a fellow cyclist offers us ice-cold beers and asks about our trip. We pour the beers through grins, share some small talk, and wave goodbye. The local bike path leads us over to The Hub, where we pony up to the bar (their in-house “Pisgah Tavern”) overlooking the twirling Allen wrenches in the service area. We make a couple friends over a Wicked Weed Freak of Nature Double IPA and jump back on the bikes for a quick ride to Oskar Blues for one more round. After poking around their facility, dusk is settling in, so we head out to our final camp, the Bike Farm on the edge of DuPont State Forest.
We arrive at dark, pitch camp, and get some rest. The next morning, we’re greeted by the friendly proprietor, Cashion, and his blue-eyed dog, Mya Surlsmith. He tells us about the newly constructed Red Bull Dream Line on the property, the relationship with Oskar Blues, which helped make his dream a reality, and the future plans of this unique mountain bike base camp that beer helped build. Then Cashion bids us farewell and heads out to guide his Peruvian guests, who’ve also come to experience the raw trails and rugged wilderness of Pisgah.
We have one more ride. DuPont has a new loop called Hickory Mountain, and we’ll finish with the fast flowing blitz of a trail called Ridgeline. We leave the farm, pedal to the top, and pause before the tear-jerking descent. “I wish we had one more night to ride out to Squirrel Gap and soak in the forest,” I utter. Dustin replies, “No kidding…that’d be nice. I’m about ready for one more beer.”
Find the route here on Logan’s website, Bikepacking.com