The River Crossing

I had travelled up to St Andrews to present to the St Andrews University Adventure Group. It was an excellent evening, with a group of young people who are all interested in adventure, many of whom had stories of their own to tell. After the talk, I got on my bike, with a plan to cycle to some mountains. I’m not sure if you can call that a plan, but that was as far as it had been developed. I thought I might head over to the Trossachs, north of Glasgow, to explore an area that I hadn’t seen before.

Friday night’s cycling took me along a bumpy track, to a small country lane. It was dark, but quiet and the lack of light pollution meant that the night’s sky was noticeably more impressive than what I am used to further south. A couple of hours or so after leaving St Andrews, I came across a perfect wild campsite; a wooded river bank, hidden from the road by a hedge. As it was a perfectly clear night, I decided to risk a night under the stars, so didn’t pitch my tent. Orion was visible through the canopy of trees as I lay on my carry mat and ate the ginger cake I had bought at Tesco in St Andrews.

Saturday morning passed quickly, along quite country lanes and bridleway. The highlight was passing through the thick woods, northwest of Auchtermuchty, which were full of mountain bike trails. One descent had banked corners and jumps, which were tricky to ride on my heavily loaded touring bike, but good fun. At lunch I ate at a pretty pub in the village of Dunning, before heading off towards the mountains, where the adventure really started.

A light headwind made my progress difficult as I climbed the pretty narrow road along the Water of Ruchill; a fast-flowing river that darted down the tight valley. The road climbed on the left side of the valley, becoming slightly less road-like with every metre that passed. At the end of the tarmac, the road was muddy, with grass growing in the centre. The farmhouse that the road led to was beautifully situated, surrounded by mountains with nothing man-made (other than the road) in sight. Smoke curled out of the chimney, into the cold winter air. My route lay ahead, into the Trossachs and the snow, which I could see on the mountain tops ahead.

The track climbed and climbed, becoming more and more remote, until the gradient eased and I was released into a vast bowl. It was a good quality hard-packed track, which skirted a pine forest, and crossed a bleak moor, just below the snowline that lay above me on the peaks that surrounded the bowl. I had cycled from a well-developed area into a complete wilderness in an afternoon, this is what makes Scotland so wonderful. As beautiful as the English countryside is, it is hard to find the expanses of space that Scotland is blessed with.

I followed the track across the bowl, it was clearly used fairly regularly by a four wheel drive vehicle of some sort, and I speculated that it was probably for grouse hunting. As I reached the top of an incline, I saw that the track came to an end in the bog ahead, but that on the other side of the river, it was good again. There was also a stone building in the distance, which looked well maintained; a bothy? I certainly hoped so.

I descended through the bog, to the river, following a track of sorts. At the river I realised that I had a problem. There was clearly a bridge that spanned the flow of water at some point in the not-too-distant-past but it had been washed away in some recent storm. The river did look crossable, but only just…

I looked at my map and found, as I had expected, that this was the only way across the river. I spent about half an hour in the fading light of the evening looking for the best place to cross. About 300 metres upstream, the river split into two tributaries, which were smaller. They were still fast flowing and quite deep, but were definitely a better option than the main river. I weighed up the possibilities in my head:

1. Turn back and cycle forty miles in the wrong direction – not really the ideal solution as this was only a 2 day trip and I wanted to make the most of it.

2. Cross the river at dusk and try to sleep in the stone house on the other side

3. Camp and cross the river in the morning

I chose option two. There was no point in hanging around or of thinking what might happen if I slipped as I was pushing my bike through the water. It was cold and a mistake could be serious, I was on my own and there was no phone signal. I had to be careful.

I took my shoes and socks off and hung them around my neck before wheeling my bike into what looked like the shallowest part of the river. It was deeper than I thought, up to my thighs, but the current wasn’t strong enough to push me over and I could lean on my bike for support. My Ortlieb panniers were part-submerged, but they are waterproof and I hoped that they would keep my sleeping bag dry. I reached a rock in the middle of the flow and saw that the current became stronger and the water deeper around it. I managed to drag myself and my bike onto the rock then jump with the bike onto the river bank. I was halfway there…

The next river proved easier. I wheel the bike through the water, into the middle of the river. I started to panic as I could feel the water pushing me and the bike downstream, but got my balance back before wading waist deep through the water. Before I knew it, I was across. I put dry trousers and my socks and shoes back on feeling exhilarated to have made it across. I had lost my rear light in the flow of water, but otherwise, everything was well. The “bothy” wasn’t a bothy. It was locked, which was very disappointing as it had started to rain. I cycled downhill on the track until it joined a road. I camped in the woods above the town of Callander, scoffing peanut butter sandwiches, chicken and ginger cake before falling asleep.

The next day was a pleasant road ride to Stirling. I reflected on my adventure, thinking how easy it is to escape from the worries of everyday life when you have a bike. I passed a herd of red sheep, arrived at Stirling via the ancient castle, took the train to Edinburgh, cycled around and over Arthur’s Seat (for old time’s sake) and got the train back home.

A fantastic weekend adventure, but I had learned that river crossings are dangerous and also that they look easier than they actually are. It's very difficult to judge how deep a river is and how powerful the current is flowing until you are in the water. I will think very carefully about crossing such a river if I find myself in this situation again.