I could think of 500 reasons not to go on this adventure.
What if my chain breaks twenty miles from the nearest town?
What if I meet a bear?
What if the cold keeps me awake at night?
What if my bike gets crushed on the plane?
What if I get lonely?
What if I fail?
When I learned that my plan to bikepack 600km across the arctic had bagged me one of three 2022/23 Adventure Queen grants, the first thing that came out of my mouth was most definitely a swear word.
This crazy adventure, dreamed up on early morning commutes and coffee breaks, was suddenly was very real and very scary. I was about to spend two weeks alone on my bike in the Arctic, chasing autumn north along dirt roads from the heart of Finnish Lapland to the icy seas of Northern Norway.
I felt hideously underprepared. I could barely change a flat tire, I couldn’t read a map or use a compass, and my bike rides were topping out at about 25 km on a good day. Cue a summer of frantic training, late night YouTube crash courses in bike mechanics, and weekend bike trips to every corner of Scotland.
I’ll tell you straight away. I did not make it to my finish line.
But first, let me tell you about two of my favourite days on the trail:
Friday. Kolari, Finland
86 km north of the Arctic Circle.
Today started with the scariest experience of trip. One thing that was not on my list of pre-trip worries was being mistaken for a reindeer and being shot at. But maybe it should have been. My morning involved navigating a gravel road lined with dozens of reindeer herders, men in orange jackets perched atop wooden posts and pointing rifles down on to the trail. Thankfully, my bright red drybags acted nicely as a big ‘don’t shoot me’’ sign, and they let me through with just a few disgruntled nods.
At lunch, I was joined on the side of the road by another solo rider, also on his first trip. In Lapland, you can easily pedal for thirty miles without seeing any trace of human life, so it’s an exciting moment when you meet another cyclist on the trail. We chatted about our first big adventures and he told me about the elusive Finnish delicacy of cloudberries, sharing tales of people who crawled miles with a broken leg before calling for help, desperate to keep their cloudberry patch a secret.
I met some more riders that night in the hostel: a London-based trio of middle-aged men, full of chaos and stories of misadventure. We chatted for hours about all the cool bikepacking women that came before me, shared snacks, and laughed off their very misguided attempts to convince me to enter the transcontinental race across Europe next year.
Today gave me a little taste of the bikepacking community. That connection of finding other humans crazy enough to take on this same ridiculous adventure. A solo adventure doesn’t mean being lonely. Today, I learned that it doesn’t even have to mean being alone.
Sunday. Akaslompolo, Finland
200 km north of the Arctic Circle
I left town early. I had a 3pm date with some icy lake water and a blistering smokey sauna. I was headed to Arctic Sauna World, 50 km down the trail and on the edge of Pallas-Yllastunturi national park. I’m a tentative cold-water swimmer at best, but that sweltering sauna heat makes you do some wild things. Things like jumping into breathtakingly cold water in your bikini, in the rain and paddling out towards distant forest horizons.
After the sauna, I tackled a monster climb into the park (admittedly, mostly by pushing my bike). I collapsed at the top, done for the day. Blue hills rolled on for miles, interspersed with shimmering lakes, dark woods and golden autumn hues. An elderly Finnish couple passed by, out for a day hike and a campfire stop, and I chatted for a while to the woman. I told her all about my adventure and she shared with me the best local spots to camp and the best times to spot the northern lights. Before leaving, she turned to her husband for help with an English word to describe me and my trip. They went back and forth in Finnish and eventually settled on ‘courage’.
This moment reminded me why I was here. Across generations, language barriers and cultures, my presence here in the wild, visibly alone and unafraid, was showing the world in some small way that we women belong and can thrive in the wild.
That night I did see the northern lights. First in small green patches, then as milky spotlights shooting up into the sky. I sat wrapped in layers of thermals and fleeces, bundled up in my sleeping bag with my head poking out the tent door. It was nothing short of magic.
The next day, the knee pain kicked in. An old injury resurfaced, coming back with a vengeance. I pedaled on for a day or two, taking a final rest day in Hetta, Finland. I cuddled some husky puppies and decided it was time to pack it in. I crossed the Norwegian border a day earlier than planned and arrived in my final destination, Alta, by bus.
Quitting was the hardest thing I did on this trip. I wondered if I had failed. I had always imagined that somehow, despite everything, I’d make it across that finish line. My life had revolved around preparing for this journey for the past six months. For a few days I toyed on the edge of a minor identity crisis.
I buried myself in bikepacking blogs, this time looking for stories of failed adventures and early departures from the trail. These stories were not hard to find. I read about cyclists who set their sleeping mats on fire, expired visas, parasite infections, and multi-month trips that ended in A&E within two days. It seemed that everyone who has ever embarked on a bikepacking adventure has a story of chaos to tell.
Eventually, I came across these words from Scottish adventure cyclist Lee Craigie:
“I’m continually setting ambitious targets and, inevitably, failing to get there. But squashing the dream and curtailing the spirit of the challenge seems like such a shame…
Turns out, failing is the best bit if you frame it right.”
In her words, I saw myself. Without my wild and maybe overambitious plans, I never would have embarked on this adventure in the first place. I’ve experienced some spectacular moments. I rode solo for over 400 km through the wilds of Lapland, every single mile of it above the Arctic circle. I camped alone under the northern lights. I swam in icy arctic lakes and met fantastic people from all across Europe. I spent my last few days gently hiking across the tundra, spotting eagles and reindeer and chasing sunsets. At night I curled up in my camping cabin, lost deep in bikepacking blogs and already plotting my next adventure.
In ‘failing’, I discovered my own resilience. One of my biggest fears came true: I found myself alone in the arctic tundra and unable to power myself to my flight home. I had to squash down my social anxiety, fight my intense fear of asking for favours, and search around a town of full strangers for a lift to the Norwegian border. To me, this felt scarier than meeting a bear.
My advice to anyone dreaming up an adventure and sitting on that plan too scared to act? Don’t be afraid to fail. Do your research and have an emergency exit plan. But don’t sit at home on the sofa wondering about the ‘what if’s’. Failing is half the fun.
For more information on bikepacking in Europe’s Arctic regions, including the route maps used on this adventure, check out Artic by Cycle. #
This post was written by Guest Blogger and 2022/2023 Adventure Queens Grant winner Vicky Moynihan.
The 2023/2024 Adventure Queens Grant is open for applications until end of November 2023. For more information and to apply check out the Adventure Queens Grant page.