Stealing Adventures from my Back Yard

Since moving to Strathspey from Wester Ross I have taken many overnight bike trips to the glens, rivers, moors and hills.  Sometimes solo, often with a companion or with a group.  Mostly these bikepacking mini-adventures have not been too remote, demanding, or complex – but simply a way to slow down and connect with the landscape, the weather and people.  Often the most troublesome part of the whole trip is to identify a time where folk are all free!  In general the excellent climate here and lack of midges makes short notice the best strategy.  Here in Grantown on Spey there is an incredible diversity of forest, moorland and river which gives the chance to experience something new on almost every trip.  This piece isn’t about me or bikepacking – it is about how even the briefest of visits to this wonderful environment can nourish the mind and soul.I hope these three short pieces inspire some of you to steal some mid-week adventures of your own, on foot, by bike or canoe.

Late winter and it’s my first solo overnight trip after School.  Daylight is still not that plentiful in the first week of March so I did not hang about on the Speyside Way to Nethybridge, up Dell Road and into Abernethy Forest.  With each mile I can feel the week’s challenge and routine empty from me to be replaced with calmness and balance amongst the swaying Scots Pines.  I am heading for the Eag Mhor, one of my favourite places at the meeting place of the forest, moor and hills.  From Forest Lodge there are two routes: singletrack climb deep in the trees or a wider forestry track which climbs steadily with wonderful glimpses of the river, Rynettin and the Gorms. Tonight I chose the forestry route because I enjoy looking for possible ways down to the river for future trips.  Tonight I wanted to give myself plenty of time to set up my new tent, have dinner and enjoy my surroundings.  This meant that potential sites had to be looked for, checked out and then decided upon efficiently, sometimes without getting off the bike!

I had already dismissed a couple of spots as being too exposed to the strengthening Westerly as I neared the steep notch of the Eag Mhor.  Just at that point I looked up to see a wee group of trees on a flat spot on my right.  I had a strong feeling that this was going to be the one with space for my tent, my bike as well as a beautiful carpet of pine needles to make my home for the night.  I committed to a short and steep push of my loaded bike up through the heather to reach my spot.  When I got there I was not disappointed and there were even wee banks of snow above it for me to use to prepare my dinner and breakfast.  My lasting memory of this outing was looking up into the swaying trees above my tent, in the morning safe in the knowledge that I’d have the wind at my back all the way home.  Provided I got across the Dorback…

LIttle did I know that the pandemic and its effects would mean that it was nearly six months until my next trip.  Four of us had agreed on a route north, out of Grantown on Spey through a lesser travelled part of Dava to a campsite by a loch near Berryburn Wind Farm.  We all agreed that our jobs, local community and responsibility as educators meant that we had to set a good example by waiting until restrictions were lifted on overnight trips to the moors and hills.  So the trip was planned, refined and checked until the Green Light in August.  This long wait made the ride through Dava Moor, the camp, the laughs, the food, the malt, the persistent wind at night and the variety of terrain all the more sweet to taste. 

The route showed us abandoned farms as well as working ones and the ‘newer’ ones with great, big, spinning blades!  Throughout the first day we rode our bikes under that fantastic space that the Dava Moor gives with views north to the farming communities we’d pass through as well as glimpses to the Moray Firth.  After a long climb up through the wind farm it was time to head to the loch where we hoped to camp.  Between the four of us we have camped in some pretty wild and remote places but the ground beside the loch has to be some of the roughest I have ever slept on.  The whole area had been devastated by some hill fires a couple of years ago and this was one of the locations my wife had worked on with colleagues from the local Fire Crew. 

The wind did not stop all night and when it did it was time to get up and pack up in the gentle drizzle.  We traversed through a short section of woodland then blasted down some very straight access tracks into the more gentle rolling farmland that Moray is famous for.  I think we each had our own favourite experiences but one that surprised us all was watching a large herd of Red Deer careering at full pelt across the cleared forest.  The magnificent viaduct on the Dava Way provided the perfect spot for our second breakfast before taking that arrow-straight route south back home to Grantown on Spey.

Back there we were treated to freshly baked scones and tea.  One common thought about this trip was the incredible variety of scenery, terrain, land use and weather that can be experienced by bike right from our backyard.

Autumn is a stunner here in the Cairngorm National Park.  For weeks we are treated to the slow turning of the trees in time with the lowering in temperature as summer finally slips away.  There is a spot just above the treeline not that far from home where the splendour of the autumn colours can be seen for miles and miles down the Strath.  A few spins of the wheel with little or no pedalling then takes you to a beautiful campsite among half a dozen or so pine trees with a cracking view east to the Cromdales.  Perfect for a midweek adventure with a downhill ride back to the village before work in the morning. 

I’ve spent a cold winter’s night up here before to get some long exposure shots of the night sky and sunrise so I was curious to see how it might look during a summer equinox.  Two of my friend’s agreed to head out, after dinner on a Thursday night in September.  This kept things simple and in order with our loved ones at home too.  The plan was to bring our cameras, some supper and breakfast.  The ride out to the hill was less than 2 miles from home and in no time at all we were pointing, gasping and laughing as the sunset views over the Strath just got better and better. 

Before it got completely dark we all freewheeled down the track and into the pines to set up our tents and in one brave soul’s case tarp!  Now things got even more geeky with tripods, monopods and long exposure apps all being used to capture this magical scene.  The crack around the tents was mellow with talk turning to meditation, sleep and why we need time like this…  I didn’t close the door to my wee tent as I wanted to take in every sound, sight and smell of the woods until dawn.  By 6:00 am the glen was filled with a gently rising mist whilst at the same time above it the sun’s rays hit the trees.  Everywhere we looked was bathed in a beautiful light which I don’t think I will ever forget.

All the while I knew that the best was still to come…  a swooping, sweeping, fun-filled, gravity-fueled descent from our campsite all the way down to the ‘Mad Mile’.  This infamous 1.5km section of A95 was too much for me at 7:45am so I suggested a slightly longer approach via a farm track and the river path.  Once again we were back in the mist which just added to the variety of this early morning descent, not spoiling it.  Near the Fire Station I passed one of my son’s bike coaches out for a ride of her own.  She gave me a smile and a look that said ‘Where have you just come from?’  This summed up my philosophy of the mid-week adventure of ‘Stealing an adventure from my backyard’.

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