It seemed a long time since Mothers’ Day but the offer of a day out canoeing didn’t come with a time limit, so I waited until August.
A couple of years ago I enjoyed an idyllic day out with the eldest son on the River Wye, so I didn’t want to get back on the river in any old weather. I wanted it to be sunny delicious.
There were three of us, the boy, his girl Q and me. I thought we’d just share a Canadian canoe. It only meant hiring one craft and we could really give it some welly with three of us paddling.
The boy wasn’t having any of it. It wasn’t a competition, apparently. It wasn’t Us versus The Others on the river. So we were getting two Canadians and no, he didn’t fancy a kayak. We’d swap and change between two big canoes.
Sure, I’d been in a Canadian canoe several times but, um, not in one on my own. Oh well, it would be a test of my J stroke.
The J stroke is that thing you do to keep the canoe going straight when you’re sitting at the back, sternly controlling your course. If you didn’t do a J stroke to balance all the port-side paddling, you’d be into your starboard bank before you knew it.
I learned the J stroke some years back at about 3am when I was reading stuff on the internet because I couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d pretty much cracked it in my study, between the filing cabinet and the desk. The reality of water complicates things no end, but at least I had some kind of idea.
Turned out I was actually quite rusty but after about ten minutes, the stroke was resembling a J with a bit of S and Y thrown in. It wasn’t classically correct, but it was doing the job.
The Wye curves interestingly, flowing over gravel banks, little rushy bits and rocks just below the surface. The scenery includes lots of fields, bushes, a ruined castle, overhanging trees and occasionally a whole tree in the river.
I was just whingeing about the whole tree in the river and rhetorically asking why no-one had got it out because it was a terrible hazard to river traffic ie us. I should just explain that even in this blissful idyll of sun, cloud, burbling river and excellent company, I could still find time to channel my suppressed Eeyore. It’s called multi-tasking. So I was complaining hard about the tree when I was silenced mid-grumble by a flash of turquoise.
“Look! There’s a kingfisher sitting on a branch of that tree!”
Voice of Q from the stern: “The tree that shouldn’t be in the water, Jan?”
“Yes, that one…the wonderful wildlife habitat.”
Just as we’d both got a fix on the kingfisher, it moved to the branch of another bush overhanging the river. As I watched, it dived into the river like a dart and emerged with a silver fish about six inches long in its beak.
It didn’t hang around to let us watch it having dinner but flew fast and straight as an arrow down river until it disappeared out of sight.
That was just one example amongst the panoply of wildlife which kept us entertained – little egrets, snowy white against the green, herons, a young heron not quite in adult plumage having fishing lessons, ducks, goosanders, mute swans. There was also an unexpected show from someone doing twirly-whirly “Look mum, I’m going to crash…. Oh, no I’m not” death dive stunts in a bi-plane. You might think that doesn’t count as wildlife but if you were a passenger, I suspect it would feel pretty damn wild.
The nice thing about having two Canadian canoes is that if someone female who isn’t me gets stuck in her canoe on a shallow gravel bank and looks helpless, the other canoeist can go paddling to the rescue and give them a push off. Q even had the benefit a relaxing tow at one point. She needed a break, poor thing. She thought she had a blister coming.
The swapping between canoes mid-river was interesting. It’s all about your centre of gravity apparently. Crouching like a pensioner who’s had their Zimmer untimely ripped from their grasp and plonking a shaky foot over into the other canoe isn’t enough. You’ve got to shift your centre of gravity pretty sharpish before there’s an awkward canoe divergence with all its soggy disadvantages.
I had flashbacks to the boating lake at Evesham when I was about 9. I was struck by precarious indecision while stepping out of my paddle boat on to dry land and at that moment, my 4-year-old brother decided to push the boat out.
I was hauled from the filthy water, dripping and vengefully indignant. I travelled home wrapped in coats, shivering in the back seat of the family Riley. My brother was sensibly given the protection of the front seat. “He didn’t mean it” they said but I had seen the glee on his face.
Fortunately, my brother wasn’t with us on the Wye so the canoe transfers were performed successfully, if somewhat gingerly.
We paddled into the shallows just past the bridge at Hay-on-Wye and managed to get out of the canoes without wet feet. There’s something special about hauling your canoe on to the bank of a new territory then going off to hunt for food.
Even though you’re heading to the Granary for some steak and ale pie, you still feel a teensy-weensy bit Indiana Jones. I was wearing a hat, which helps. You want to tell people “Actually, we paddled here…” but no bugger ever asks how you got to Hay. It’s almost as though they’re not interested.
Afterwards, back on the riverbank by the canoes, the reality of the next stretch of river loomed large. I wasn’t totally looking forward to it. I’d tried not to think about it, quite successfully, but now I was fighting off qualms. They were qualms about whether I’d be able to land us at the Boat Inn near Whitney-on-Wye where the Wye Valley Canoes guys collect you and drive you back to HQ at Glasbury.
Last time, paddling at the front with the boy in control at the back, it was a pretty hairy landing. Quite hit or miss. Fortunately we hit, but we might easily have missed. There had been a lot of adrenaline.
After passing under Whitney bridge we had to pass various islands in the fast channel to the right of the river, then paddle like hell to go left and close enough to the landing stage. I had to stretch out and grab the scaffold pole while son jammed his paddle into the river to perform an emergency stop. The river was lively that day and we managed it, but I remember being very glad son #1 was in charge.
So you can see why, this time, steering at the back of the boat with Q at the front, I had a few qualms. Obviously I didn’t mention them. I’m British for goodnessake. One just doesn’t talk about qualms. Companions might find them uncomfortable and start fretting.
“We’re passing those islands to the right – then we’ll be going left to the landing stage, so look out for something to hang on to.” I warned Q.
We passed the islands, I steered left… up ahead there was the pub… with a fancy flight of new-ish steps down to the much bigger landing stage at the river’s edge.
Another group were just getting out of a Canadian canoe occupying the entire landing area. O. M. G. They forgot to tell us how to throw a canoe into reverse and wait for a parking space!
Fortunately the river current was a purring pussycat compared to the tigerish surgings of last time.
We stilled the paddles, somehow managed to pause… then drifted gently into position at the landing stage.
It was super-smooth and relaxed – so much so that we looked for all the world as though we knew what we were doing!
The relief was palpable; so palpable that it was calling insistently for half a pint of Stowfords. Sorted. Indiana Jones would have approved.