Finally, the latest lockdown had ended and I needed to sleep somewhere different. As usual my time was scarce, so I headed out on a Friday night to go to a nice spot I had been with the kids just a couple of weeks before, whilst keeping to the 5 mile limit from the Aberdeen City boundary. As I rolled west the skies looked gloomy and threatening, but I put my faith in the forecast that I might be able to dodge the rain on the way to my spot and possibly even see the sky in the morning!
I used the Deeside Way to get me to Drumoak and crossed the now pedestrian bridge and started climbing up to Durris. I’ve had a couple of bivvies round here in the past, but wanted to ride through the forest to reach the point where the Elsick Mounth route leaves the trees at the far side. I’d had a lovely picnic with the kids here and had been meaning to try it out for a good while.
I could have brought a bivy bag and slept on the grass outside the trees, but I’d gone for my hammock instead to keep me off the sodden ground, also opting to put the tarp up for once as rain was due overnight. I settled in with a cuppa and a cake before bed time, hoping to see some sort of sunrise in the morning.
With my winter bag and sleep mat in the hammock I was nice and cosy, bar the odd wrestling match to keep the mat in place, due to it being far too long to sit comfortably in the Exped hammock. I’m not sure if the rain ever showed up in earnest, but at least I had bothered to be prepared for it for once. When the sun started to rise, it was still a bit dull to be worth getting up for pictures, so it was a while before I ventured out of my bed for breakfast and packing up. Emerging from the trees for a proper look, I realised there had been a hard frost overnight, with the grass I would have bivvied on frozen solid. Feeling smug about my life choices, I packed up and took some pictures in the now beaming morning sun.
To get home, I just needed to drop down the Elsick Mounth towards Stonehaven before doubling back on the tarmac for a pleasantly quiet ride towards home over the Netherley Road. It was a short excursion, but much appreciated, as was second breakfast when I got in!
For December, I had been planning to get my BAM in at some point over the Christmas period when family were around to entertain the kids. Obviously that option was taken away and it looked like a stricter lockdown was coming, so I opted for an earlier date on the Solstice weekend. I’d also spotted an email from Restrap promoting a Solstice Century ride which involved doing 100 miles over the weekend to claim yourself a badge. Always a sucker for a badge, I decided to go for it. Originally planning to go out on the Saturday night, I delayed by a day as Yvonne was particularly knackered on Saturday and I didn’t want to leave her getting up early with the kids next day. So, prompt as ever I headed out about 10pm on Sunday night, wandering if this even counted for the Solstice Century.
Since I was going to be riding 100 miles, I had hastily plotted out a route that would gather me up some new VVE tiles. Due to the size of max square I have now, it takes nearly two hours to get to the edge and start adding new ones! My route was going to the north west corner of my square to tick off a bunch near Insch, heading towards Huntly. Despite the late hour, I stuck to my planned and complicated route, ticking off tiles with the odd out and back diversion or occasional offroad stretch. Despite being fine in Aberdeen, the temperatures were much colder than forecast and I began to hit patches where the entire road had frosted over, that I had to descend very gingerly to keep upright.
Finally I reached my planned turn off and climbed up into the forest at Gartly Moor. I’d done a quick Google Street View recce beforehand and had spotted a track going onto the forest that should suit my needs. I turned off into the layby and spotted a path heading off through the undergrowth, which I followed uphill for a short while before looking for likely hammock spots off to the side. It didn’t take too long and I got everything up and ready in no time. The tree cover meant that I couldn’t feel a breath of wind, despite it being quite strong on the way here. I took my chances with the forecast and left the tarp in my frame bag, so I could catch glimpses of the stars through the canopy above. I’d not bothered with a stove or flask in favour of carrying more water, so I drank the wee can of coke I’d picked up in the Co-Op and had a cranberry pork pie and some stollen from home before turning in.
The sheltered location did the trick – I could hear the wind raging through the trees nearby, but not a breath of it reached me, meaning a pleasant night’s kip. I had an alarm set for half seven, but snoozed for a wee bit to allow the light to build. The main reason for this was so I could switch my dynamo to charging the Garmin as soon as possible rather than powering the lights, as I had decided to try out a battery pack-free ride and had less than 20% on the Garmin after last night. When I eventually emerged from the trees, it was much lighter than I realised, so I immediately switched to the Sinewave Revolution that was stashed in the frame bag to ease my GPS battery woes.
As I emerged from the forest, it immediately became apparent that the frost had deepened overnight, with my first turn off looking particularly frosty. One of the hazards of always sticking to the backroads when possible, but I just took it easy and never left myself in a position where I’d have to brake or turn sharply on one of the white patches. Having the old Continental GP 4 Seasons was a help too as the softer rubber compound always seems to give that tiniest extra bit of traction, enabling to keep pedalling uphill on it as long as I didn’t push too hard.
My route back home was similar to the previous night, with lots of offshoots to pick off VVE tiles and the odd cheeky bit of offroad, despite the inappropriate tyres.
Eventually I looped back towards the opposite side of Insch from last night and turned on my Co-Op Spidey-sense to take a little diversion which swung me right past one. Don’t know how I do it, but it never fails if there’s one about! After a quick stock up and a nice chat with an old chap who was wondering where I’d been, I was ready to polish off the rest of this ride.
As I passed Keig, the stretches of ice finally eased up for good and I was able to get my head down and make a beeline for home, ensuring I kept the distance up over 100 miles by the time I reached home to complete my kind-of Solstice Century. More importantly, this got me to another complete year of BAM to make it 3 in a row. I was glad I hadn’t jacked it in during the pointless garden lockdown bivies in the spring, as I’d have missed out on the motivation to complete in the winter months, although these are often my favourite rides of the lot.
Will I carry it on? Probably – I don’t know when I’ll next be able to commit the time needed to do a big group start ride like the HT550 again, as family health is something I need to keep an eye on before knowing if its possible. Just because I am capable of it doesn’t mean I have to do it and BAM has been a good way of keeping a small sense of adventure and maintaining my sanity in the meantime!
I had big plans for October, since I was going to be in Nethy Bridge for the first week of the half term holiday as usual. This meant I had the northern Cairngorms as my playground if I could manage to sneak out one night of our stay. I had managed to stuff my bivy gear in as I packed the car with everything we needed, so I just needed to pick a decent night. The weather however, had other ideas and was particularly wet from the minute we arrived. Coupled to this I was feeling rough with a pounding headache, as was Yvonne, meaning I couldn’t abandon her even if I did feel up to it. We still managed to squeeze in plenty of fun with the kids and I even recced the track from Ryvoan back to the house with Kerr, riding back from a canoe day at Loch Morlich on a mostly dry afternoon. The track was an absolute state, thanks to the diggers that have used it to access the hills, though Kerr seemed happy enough getting covered head to toe in mud!
Late in the week, I finally felt up to a night out, setting out just after the kids’ bedtime. The forecast wasn’t great, but I was hoping to do something similar to last year’s October bivy on the Bynack More summit, but this time on Cairn Gorm itself. I headed straight up the road and into Abernethy Forest, making a beeline for the Forest Lodge track. I nearly had an off before I even left the tarmac, as I met some mountain bikers coming the other way, who collectively gave a cheery wave whilst pointing around 2 million lumens of lights and head torches in my face, causing me to lose the edge of the road and fall into the ditch there. This was quite a contrast, as I was currently only using the light off one of the kids bikes in an effort to save the Joystick until I needed it, thanks to them having taken it somewhere below 50% battery running around the cottage in the dark on previous nights! I still wasn’t feeling 100%, so I just trundled along uphill, only pausing for a snack at the edge of the forest before heading on to Ryvoan.
I reached An Lochan Uaine and stopped for a wee bit to think about my plans. I was feeling crappy and it was going to take me a good while to reach the top of Cairn Gorm. I had a faint hope there might be a cloud inversion so I actually saw something in the morning, but it was unlikely. As I pondered my options I noticed rain drops passing in front of my headlight, meaning it was only going to get more persistent and pervasive as I climbed. Finally I came to my senses – it was neither productive or responsible to carry on to the summit and try to bivy in my state and these conditions. Instead I rolled up to the fancy viewing platform and started to get my kit out, occasionally pausing as I had second thoughts, such is my stubborn nature.
I drank my tea and had a snack, sitting on the luxurious bench and not feeling particularly sorry for myself. I eventually got into bed well before midnight and arranged my kit so the rain wouldn’t find its way into my boots. One bonus of the level sleeping area was that my ultra slippy bivy bag didn’t go AWOL during the night – it was also its first test in some proper rain, though the surrounding trees helped too. After a cosy night’s low altitude sleep I woke in the grey drizzle and gradually worked up the energy to get myself up and going.
I could have packed up and gone back the way I came, but my lack of riding the night before and my severe case of antiloopophobia would have kicked in, so I made for Loch Morlich instead and straight onto the old logging way.
I turned off to the north at the end of the loch and started heading for An Slugan, which is a handy shortcut for getting back towards Abernethy offroad.
Once down the other side, I just needed to whip along the old declassified road past Tulloch Moor and I’d be just about home. First of all I had to stop and admire the boardwalk bypassing the puddle of doom which beat the semi-submerged pallets that were there on my last crossing.
After my North Shore excursion, I continued onto the roads near Loch Garten, hopping off into the Forest as soon as possible to enjoy some lovely forest riding on my way back to join in for breakfast with the kids. I’d done nothing like what I’d planned, but who’s keeping score anyway?
September had been a busy month keeping the kids entertained and I left it as late as always, heading out on a Tuesday night with a plan to be back for the school run. I couldn’t go too far without needing to get up stupidly early, so I aimed for Kirkhill Forest, keeping to a mix of my usual offroad tracks and trails on the Amazon. I’d brought a proper camera with me so I could get some decent night time shots for once in the mild evening air.
Despite being as late as ever, it was a pleasant night to be out and about and I was through Kirkhill and doing the last climb to the Tappie Tower before I knew it. The wind was blowing hard here, so I set about scouting for a couple of decent trees off the summit with a bit of shelter after a few more long exposures.
I found a decent spot off the north side of the hill and got the hammock strung up. It still had the midge net attached from August, but I flipped it underneath as no midges would be flying in these winds! I also left the tarp in the bag, trusting the forecast and having my usual snack and a brew before bedtime.
The spot proved ideal – I could hear the wind roaring all night, but barely felt it in my little copse. I had an early alarm set and took a stroll up to the top of the hill for some sunrise pictures before breakfast.
A quick snack and the rest of my tea and I got packed and decided to follow the track I was on down the flank of the hill. It was much more suited to a mountain bike, but I slipped and slid my way down to the forestry track, where I could get cracking on my way home.
The ride home took me round the edge of Kirkhill Forest and over the AWPR, before dropping to the delights of Dyce industrial estate and the airport. A quicker ride home completed a loop and got me there in time to to walk Kerr to school before starting yet another day of home working, for once charged up with a healthy dose of outdoor exercise.
Freedom, finally! After three months of garden bivies, the restrictions on wild camping were finally lifted on 15th of July, after a cruel 2 week wait when things like recreational travel had already been allowed. Also champing at the bit was Kerr, who had been desperate for another bikepacking trip with his dad. Luckily I also had the week booked off, so off we headed for Braemar on Thursday 16th, hoping to get our camp in before the hordes descended on the Cairngorms at the weekend.
We had bought all the food we needed in advance to avoid visiting local shops before they were ready for outsiders. Kerr was dead set on returning to our previous camping spot in Glen Quoich, despite me testing the waters on the way of maybe heading through Balmoral and camping near Gelder Shiel and Lochnagar, as this looked like it would dodge the inclement weather overnight. However, he was determined to bag the spot we had missed out on last time due to it being inhabited by wannabe bushcrafters who left behind the requisite fire ring the following day.
I was going for a different packing routine this time, ditching the trailer in favour of an Axiom Fatliner pannier rack I’d fitted to the Commando, plus my well-travelled Ortlieb front rollers. Kerr being a bit bigger means I don’t need to be quite as paranoid about the amount of gear I take and I managed to get it all in without too much drama, bar a bit of low speed wobble at the front end, which had the tent and some other bits attached to the bars.
We rolled along the very familiar track from the car park, reaching our camping spot above the upper Quoich foot bridge from our first ever trip very quickly. A lot had changed! The track that drops down to the bridge had been purposely pulled over with vegetation to make it narrower and the path skirting along the edge of the eroded river bank had been purposely bulldozed to make it impassable. Kerr was gutted, as he’d loved playing about on the river bank just along from there. Instead we were forced back up onto the newly created estate track, that took you away from the river. This looked steep from the turn off and got progressively more ridiculous. I’d attached the TowWhee to give Kerr some help, but as we got to the first bend higher up, it immediately became obvious I’d struggle to do this unloaded! We stopped and hopped off the bikes, but left the tow rope attached as it was too steep and loose for Kerr to get enough traction to even push his bike up. Obviously the rain also decided this would be a good point to arrive in a misty drenching manner – at least it kept us cool! Finally the summit was reached and we apprehensively approached the descent after being told by some walkers it was worse on this side. They weren’t far wrong and Kerr, ever the sensible one, elected to walk down one section before remounting and quite skilfully negotiating the remainder of the descent making full use of those big grippy tyres!
We continued up the glen, Kerr ranting about how rubbish the new track was in comparison to the old, whilst the rain abated, having had its fun with us at an inopportune moment.
As we reached the ford through the Quoich, I switched him over to his Crocs, knowing his affinity for being submerged in water. No such luxury for me, though the clearance on the Commando in 29+ mode normally keeps my feet dry.
Crossing dispatched, we didn’t have far to our spot and I had my fingers crossed that we would have it to ourselves, thanks to it being a Thursday night, which was exactly how it worked out.
As soon as the bikes were parked and he’d had a chat with our tree’s carpet moth, he was straight down to the dry riverbed below our campsite to paly. After a long few months of being trapped locally, he’d immediately gone back to his happy go lucky self now he was away from civilisation and it was wonderful to see the fog of lockdown lift from his demeanour. I left him contentedly building a rock causeway whilst I got on with putting up the tent and unpacking.
Mercifully, there was a fresh wind blowing down the glen, just as on previous visits, so we weren’t treated to a midge feeding frenzy as the evening progressed. This left us free to play by the river then get dinner cooked on my trusty Solo stove, Kerr alternating between his bridge building and keeping me supplied with twigs.
After dinner, we did a bit of scouting further up the glen for future spots and made note of a lovely sheltered spot under a big tree, similar to the one we had used a couple of years back. Next time here might be with his little sister too! Kerr was still wanting to wander around once darkness fell, so we went wildlife spotting in the dark.
Finally he was persuaded to head to bed – no need for stories tonight, just a bit of chat and out for the count for the both of us.
We woke to the sound of rain on the tent, which I’d heard several times during the night as I regularly woke. This was supposed to dissipate, so we lay there snoozing and chatting until it eased off a bit and Kerr needed a pee.
He was straight back to the river whilst I got a brew on and prepared our continental breakfast. I went down to the river bed to bring him back to eat when I saw something hovering around his head. It was at this point that I realised the wind had suddenly dropped to nothing, which meant the invasion was about to commence! We trotted over to the tent to keep the midges off our scent and ate our pastries on the move or standing near the smoke from the stove. The sun was making brief appearances, which actually helped a bit, as well as drying the tent further, so before long we were packing up our kit and getting ready to head back.
Neither of us relished the thought of going back over that new path again, so I decided to take the less used high track on the eastern side of the glen. I’d not taken Kerr over this before to avoid the extra climbing, but it seemed like much of a muchness now and at least it would be new to him. It also had the added bonus of a deeper ford right next to our campsite, which Kerr enjoyed watching me wince across barefoot whilst he took the most circuitous route possible.
After the crossing it’s a steady climb up the flank of the hill, with ever-improving views back down towards Beinn a Bhuird.
It was a pleasant ride back, with no need to hurry and all distractions entertained. As we reached the end of the glen, I diverted us back to the foot bridge near the punch bowl. This led to a sideways topple in some thick mud just before the cottage with slight histrionics about a muddy shoe, which were not entertained in the slightest by me, by now immune to lockdown tantrums after a looong 4 months of home schooling and working. The rock slabs below the bridge looked inviting in the sun, so we hopped down and lay there eating lunch in the now lovely weather.
Well fed and solar recharged, we resumed our ride down a wee bit of singletrack to re-join the estate track that took us over the pristine new bridge and back to the car park. Hopefully this won’t become a rare occurrence in future if we can keep on top of things, as this type of exposure to the outdoors makes a massive difference to a child’s mental wellbeing and I don’t want to be denying this to the kids any more than I have to.