You know those nights when you can’t sleep, so you get up but you know damn well, that being wide awake for a couple of hours before the tweety birds start up will not augur well for the day ahead?
If I am awake, I think there is an outside chance something useful will occur. I might write something unexpectedly inspired, read something moving or learn something new.
It was precisely one of those early mornings when I learned the ‘J’ stroke. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to some intimate personal therapy demonstrated on a dodgy pay-for site, but the movement you make with a canoe paddle so you can steer your vessel on a straight course from one side of it without having to paddle on alternate sides. Perhaps I didn’t put that very well but in essence, it kind of avoids having to zig-zag down the river in your canoe narrowly missing hitting the banks on either side.
This kind of “distance learning” is all out there on the internet. I wouldn’t recommend it for scuba diving or parachuting but there, in the comfort of my silent study, just before the dawn chorus began, I’d more or less mastered the J stroke and the inverted J.
Course, it all felt rather different dipping an actual paddle into the actually quite fast-flowing waters of the River Wye in Wales. What with thin air offering a lot less resistance than moving river water, I found the watery stuff required some effort but hey, this was my birthday treat. What’s a birthday treat without the risk of a thorough drenching, a pulled muscle and a handful of blisters? Comfortable, admittedly but lacking a certain je ne sais quoi? Exactement! Courage mon brave!
Anyway, it would be fine. I was accompanied by my eldest sprog. We’d been canoeing together before. He couldn’t remember it but I could. We’d spent a hot cloudless day gliding along the Dordogne beneath church-topped cliffs and between green meadows, weaving among the day trippers standing in the shallows or bathing where flat fingers of clean shingle stretched out into languid water. It was a thoroughly pleasant, easy journey with a child of 11 going on for 12 who could swim and who didn’t moan or complain but just quite enjoyed it too.
And last weekend, there we were again sharing a Canadian canoe, this time on the upper reaches of the Wye. It took some time to get going from Glasbury on Wye where the canoe guys went to great lengths to brief us about the route, how we must remember to turn the canoe over if we stopped at Hay or else they would collect it assuming it had been abandoned, and we must avoid fallen trees in the river, shingle banks, mud banks. We got briefed on the equipment, on paddling styles, on emergency procedure – if you fall into the river don’t forget to rescue the big blue toxic waste container (well that’s what it looked like. It was in fact a waterproof store for valuables). It all felt very thorough. I don’t remember any safety precautions in France. The guy just tapped his watch said something in sexy Sacha Distel English about five o’clock, we were handed paddles and, already seated in the canoe, we were launched unceremoniously down a steep bank into the river.
The whole canoeing thing when the kids were young veered violently between hilarious and fraught. We didn’t have much idea at all. The boys hired odd little “pedal” canoes on the River Lot which they thought were a blast and scooted around on the water surface like possessed whirlygig beetles. They thought of them as water-bourne bumper cars. DT man and I had separate kayaks but his had an inexplicable tendency to turn left. After paddling a dozen tight circles, the irritation began to show, which was the hilarious bit. Then there was another trip when we hired two Canadian canoes but DT man and his crew ( No2 son) had a big falling out resulting in sproglet getting out of canoe and stumping off in huff along the river bank in a completely unknown area of France. He was nine at the time. DT man had to give chase in the relatively difficult-to-control canoe made all the more tricky as Small Pain-in-Arse was making his escape in an up-streamly fashion.
The trip down the Wye was far more adult and organised. Elder son had done some serious canoeing/camping in the mosquito-infested wild lands of northern Sweden. He had scoffed at the idea of my learning to canoe from an obscure American website. I’d had Duelling Banjos running through my head the day before the expedition. On the day itself, I felt the paddle in my hands at the front of the canoe and I knew it was going to be Hawaii Five-O all the way.
I was confident in TJ’s abilities. After all, he had paddled his own canoe for weeks on end. Which was why I was a little surprised when we went backwards down the first teeny set of rapids. Not to worry. Backwards is better than sideways and I hadn’t actually had a go at the helm yet so any temptation to mock had to be strictly curtailed. We stopped at a conveniently calm little backwater – a classic ox-bow lake for any former geography bods – and swapped places so I could get a feel for the steering under the unhinged gaze of some Welsh sheep the size of Hereford cattle. A leg of lamb goes a long way in Wales. Having steered us into a rushy puddle six inches deep and then straight up out of the water on to a gravel bank – the second was deliberate, I assure you – I was ready for the rough and tumble of the river proper and even a few rapids.
It’s surprising how exciting it all seems, gliding along seemingly glassy water into a turbulent section where you’re not totally sure there isn’t a bloody great rock just beneath the surface which will neatly turn your craft right over. But the thing to do, having completely forgotten the entire briefing – “Did he say go left or right after the pretty cottage and the third island past the fallen tree?” – seemed to be to go for the faster flowing bit, paddle like hell and emit small “Woo” noises.
I have to mention here that the whole being on the river thing is like entering a parallel universe. Ok, so it takes you twelve minutes to drive in the car from Point A to Point B but on the river it’s ten miles and four hours or so of paddling. The river journey is by far the most preferable. It’s dreamy and beautiful, secreted away from roads and traffic – apart from the odd bridge with people standing looking down at you, with herons, ducks, swans and the odd salmon or trout making the briefest of appearances.
The river is nothing short of gorgeous, fascinating and windy with distant mountains including Hay Bluff rising above lush verdant banks. I know Himalayan Balsam is one of those nuisance alien invaders but the pink flowers are not unpleasant on the eye. Occasionally, a dog might appear trotting along the top of a grassy bank, but otherwise, all you see is nature and the houses of people wealthy enough to own property with drop-dead fab views of the river and all you hear is moo-ing and the woo-woo-woo calls of some over-excited faux Sioux Indians half a mile back. We encountered one other canoe and as we paddled gradually past them, we chatted easily about where we were from and discussed the best places to stop for lunch in Hay-on-Wye. We went to the Granary but the pastry of their steak and ale pie was all floppy-doppy. Microwaved. Ugh.
Back on the river again, TJ sat in the front and took pictures while I continued to J stroke steadily and got completely blase and over-confident. River speed varies and it’s wise to take account of that. So while crowing about neatly missing a whole bunch of fallen trees and vegetation on the right of the river, I unexpectedly found the thick vegetation of the opposite bank was looming swiftly dead ahead. We threw on the brakes but they were a little too late to avoid TJ having to flatten himself in the canoe to avoid getting throughly beaten about the head by overhanging branches.
The next challenge was choosing which way to go beneath the Whitney-on-Wye bridge. That bridge always looked precarious – as if it was knocked up in two days from spare planks of wood, old railway sleepers and string. It carries traffic and it’s an old toll bridge so I’m sure it’s perfectly maintained but it was probably more worrying passing beneath it than driving across it. I thought bits might fall off and knock us unconscious so we would only wake up at Monmouth. We cleared it without incident.
“The next bit is important,” announced TJ, holding laminated Plan of River.
“It says ‘Take care to pass the island on the left.’ That will set us up on course for the landing stage by the pub where we get out.”
“But I can see two islands.”
“That’s one island.”
“Looks like two to me.”
I do need new specs, admittedly.
“You mean the tumpy green island in the middle and a tumpy green island to…oh hang on, maybe that is land on the left?”
“Yes it’s land. Go left of the island.” repeated TJ firmly.
“But left is the narrowest channel. Why can’t we go right? There’s more room and it’s much calmer water.”
“We have to go down the rapids. GO LEFT.”
The last bit indicates that by now, his voice was a bit raised as by now we were moving pretty swiftly to that point of no return – I either had to commit to a course or we were going to crash into the island.
“Oh. All right then.”
A small expletive was uttered under my breath (TJ is disproportionately shocked by bad language from mater) as the rapids were pretty lively and by then, I didn’t really have much choice about the course we would take, other than to paddle like fury to keep away from pesky overhanging trees on the left.
When we’d cleared it, I looked back.
“Hmph. Look, the right hand side is lovely and calm. Reckon we could have come down there.”
“Reckon we could….if you really wanted to get out and carry the canoe.”
Quite frankly, I sometimes resent the common sense my kids display. It’s not cricket. But then, neither is cricket, these days, it seems.
There was no time for further debate as our destination pub was already in view and the river had both narrowed and speeded up again. The landing stage was a slab of wood and a couple of poles sticking up against a steep muddy bank.
Argh. I wondered briefly how I was going to tackle this but decided on same strategy as every obstacle – steer and paddle like hell. Overshooting was not an option.
Somehow we got close enough for TJ to grab a pole and tied up up. We managed to haul the canoe up the slimy vertical wooden steps and helped a couple of other people to do so with their canoe, then, as we waited for the transport, we were entertained watched other canoeing parties negotiating the island and then the landing.
Sitting with a glass of cider waiting for transport we couldn’t help noticing other people arriving having clearly taken an unscheduled dip in the Wye. Others just had saturated shoes and trousers.
I remarked to TJ how nice it was being Smugly Dry.
“Yes,” he said.
“Just as well we went left around the last island, really, isnt it?”