This February I found out that one of my craziest dreams was about to become reality. I had been selected as one of three lucky winners of the 2022/2023 Adventure Queens Grant.
Supported by a community of amazing adventure women, this autumn I will be bikepacking solo for more than 600 km across the Arctic Circle and painting the wild beauty of the Arctic as I go.
This adventure is about getting wild. It’s about giant forests and tiny log cabins. It’s about reindeer, brown bears, and chasing the northern lights. It’s about endless mountain passes and fiery autumn leaves. It’s about coffee shops run out of back kitchens and village life at the edge of the earth.
Starting in Rovaniemi, perched right on Finland’s Arctic Circle (and better known as the home of Santa Claus), I will follow a network of gravel roads north until I hit the Arctic Ocean in Alta, Norway.
Why the Arctic?
This trip is the perfect balance of crazy, remote, and wild, but also straightforward enough that I think I might actually be able to do this.
I wanted to go somewhere so wild that ten-year old me would never have dreamed it would be possible. Somewhere truly off-grid.
At the same time, I am an incredibly cautious and safety-conscious (read: anxious) person. I like having a plan (and a backup plan, and a backup plan for the backup plan).
When I found the Arctic by Cycle trail network, I knew it would be perfect. The trails are well mapped and there are lots of options for food, water, and shelter.
The route that I’ve chosen is mostly gravel and not too hilly. I’ve not quite hit the stage of my cycling career where I’m chasing the biggest hill climbs or throwing myself down epic downhill MTB trails, so this route seemed like a nice compromise between adventurous and achievable.
Why an Autumn Adventure?
I’m planning to hit the trails in early September, in the sweet spot just after the Räkkä (the Arctic’s annual takeover by biting insects) and before the trails are closed for reindeer herding as winter creeps in.
A big motivator for this trip also came from the chance to chase the autumn colours. The initial idea for my Arctic trip actually came from another big bikepacking dream of mine – to chase the autumn down the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. However, this trail is thousands of miles long and will inevitably demand many months and a huge increase in fitness and skills. So, I went looking for something more manageable, closer to home.
After scouring bikepacking websites from virtually every corner of Europe, I stumbled upon photos of Finland’s Arctic trails, bursting with autumn colours. These colours are so special that they have even earned their own word in Finnish – ‘Ruska’, which refers to the explosion of golden and red leaves in the forests of Lapland.
Throw in some purple sunsets, icy blue streams, and green hints of the Northern lights, and I can’t think time or place better suited to a solo adventure with a bike, a sketchpad, and some paints.
What’s all this about non-pedalling activities?
I believe that one of the biggest barriers to women’s participation in adventure sports is the idea that an adventure is not worth doing unless it’s pushing the limits of what you are physically capable of. For me, adventures are not about proving that I’m stronger or more skilled than anyone else. They are about having fun.
This ride isn’t about getting anywhere particularly fast. I’m planning to average about 60 km a day, meaning that less than half of my day should be taken up pedalling. This leaves lots of time for stopping for coffee in villages, mini hikes, and dipping my toes in icy lakes.
I’m also super excited to be bringing a little set of paints and a sketchbook along for the ride.
If left to my own devices, I will easily spend every minute I’m not on my bike stressing about what could go wrong next time I hop back into the saddle. In an attempt to counter this, I’m going to spend some of my non-pedalling time turning all of the beautiful nature surrounding me into illustrations: whether that be towering black trees, dancing night skies, or skittish reindeer. So much of why I chose this adventure was because of the wild and colourful beauty of the Arctic in Autumn and I want make sure it doesn’t pass me by while I’m busy stressing.
The Adventure Queens Grant
While I’m lucky enough to have been on bikes since I was a little kid, until about a year ago this never involved more than a few miles around the park or a commute through the city. When I discovered bikepacking last summer, I was instantly sold. A multi-day adventure in the wild combined with the fun of bouncing along rough trails and big speedy descents? Just like trekking, but ramped up three notches – I knew this was my kind of adventure.
Suddenly I was spending my coffee breaks googling bikepacking trails from every corner of the globe. I had lots of crazy dreams but no idea how I was going to get the skills, kit, and courage to turn these dreams into reality.
At some point during my googling frenzy, I came across the Adventure Queens website. The Adventure Queens are a group of women who celebrate and champion women’s adventures in the outdoors, no matter how big or small. Every year they offer a grant to help women take on their first human-powered, boundary-pushing, life-changing adventure. Intrigued, I kept reading: ‘…looking for an Adventure Queen teetering right on the edge of terrified’ – I had to apply!
Winning the grant means that one of my crazy adventure plans is finally going to become reality. Armed with a mentor, some snazzy new kit, a travel fund, and a community of amazing and very helpful adventure women, I’m going to the Arctic!
Aren’t you terrified?
Here are my top 3 fears:
- Getting cold: It is the Arctic after all! While I have dreams of being tucked up cosy in my sleeping bag, basking in the glow of a little campfire and spying the northern lights, I also have nightmares of all my kit getting wet and spending my nights shivering half-awake in a sopping tent.
- Getting lost: This part of the world is so sparsely populated that there are genuinely more reindeer than people. I can absolutely see myself confusedly cycling around in circles for hours or happily pedalling off into the wilderness and far, far away from my next supermarket stop.
- Mechanicals: My current bike mechanic abilities just about extend to dealing with a flat tire. Somehow, I’m going to have to go from zero to bike mechanic in the next six months.
I could easily expand this top-three list to a top-ten or top-twenty. Every day a new worry pops into my head: What should I do if I meet a bear? Will I have to run away from creepy strangers in the wilderness huts? Will I be too sweaty and mucky to be welcomed into cafes?
While these fears do sometimes keep me up at night, I am also incredibly lucky to be surrounded by a community of amazing adventure women who are willing to share their experience and top tips. With the support of the Adventure Queens and 6 months to plan and train, I’m 98% confident that I can give this crazy adventure a go!
So, what happens now?
Lots and lots of training and planning! I’m lucky enough to live in one of the world’s best bikepacking training grounds and preparing for this trip is now my number one excuse to get out exploring Scotland’s trails.
You can follow my journey over the coming months on Instagram @vicky_explores and here on this blog, where I’ll be sharing my adventures, training journey, and experiences of navigating gender barriers, mental health and embracing life in the great outdoors.
- This trip wouldn’t be happening without the support of the amazing sponsors of the Adventure Queens Grant. Big shout out to Eddie Bauer for providing cosy outdoor kit, Komoot for helping me to avoid getting lost, Osprey for a snazzy new backpack, and Adventurous Ink Club for endless outdoor inspiration.
- Bikeland.fi is an amazing bikepacking website, detailing thousands of miles of trails in Finland. My route is inspired by their Arctic by Cycle network.
- The Adventure Queens are a community of women working to smash gender barriers to the great outdoors. Find out about how to get involved on their website or instagram.
This blog post by Vicky Moynihan has been reposted from her personal blog.