Thursday, July 26, 2018

Return to White Water

Many years back I used to paddle regularly at Canolfan Tryweryn which is the white water canoeing and rafting centre near Bala in North Wales.

Its a great way to keep cool and escape the heat and glare of the summer sun because the fast flowing waters of the riverare mostly shaded by trees.

I had not paddled here for over 4 years and some of the rapids are quite challenging at Grade 3 and 4. I was nervous to begin with but I soon got into the swing of things and began to remember how to read the flow.

I managed the to paddle the whole day without capsizing and came away with a renewed confidence in my white water paddling abilities :) I will be back soon!

Many thanks to Joe Parkin for his company on the water and to George Reekie for the excellent photos.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bardsey Midsummer

The island of Bardsey lies off the end of the Lleyn Peninsula of North Wales. From the mainland, Bardsey looks like a mountainous, craggy and forbidding place. However, the southern, seaward side has gently sloping pastures, a few houses and even a little woodland.

The slopes of this island are steeped in history. In the days of Celtic saints and three travels, three pilgrimages to Bardsey held the same merit as one to Rome! The ruins of the abbey date from the 12 Century and King Arthur is rumoured to have perished here.

I can never resist a trip to Bardsey. The crossing by kayak is always a challenge. This time of year I'm drawn by the call of the Manx shearwater. These fascinating pelagic creatures migrate here from the south Atlantic. They only land to nest. A single egg is laid in a burrow on steep ground. When the chick emerges the parents will only return to feed it in the burrow during the hours of darkness. This avoids predators such as gulls and peregrine.

Their ghostly, croaky, crowing is said to have frighened ship-wrecked sailors back into the sea. These were days when superstition superseded science. After all, they are just sea birds; not the grip reaper!

It was a pleasure to spend the darkest part of the night on the summit of Bardsey marvelling at the sound of thousands of shearwaters calling, landing and squabbling. Then... in a moment when first light broke over the Lleyn, the shearwaters hushed as the herring gulls awoke.

Late in the morning, normal daytime business resumed making the magic and mystery of the night time seem like a half-forgotten dream.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Road Trip to Scotland

With Easter fast approaching, it was time to make a plan. It had been a while since I had visited the west highlands of Scotland so I joined some folk from Liverpool Canoe Club on their Easter break based in Kinlochleven.

Photo: Dawn Brankley
Once over the border it was time to stock up on supplies... it is always better to buy local produce where possible. By the time we reached the bunkhouse it was nearly midnight but there was still time for a bite to eat for supper and couple of beers.

Kinlochleven is a small village about 7 miles from Glencoe. It is conveniently located close to excellent walking, river kayaking, skiing and sea kayaking.

Photo: Kathy Morton
Our first day was a sea kayaking trip from Arisaig to Mallaig. This is a stunning stretch of rocky coast with skerries and a few sandy beaches. The view out to the west is a perfect backdrop made up or the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the islands or Eigg and Rum. We took our time exploring along the way until we reached Mallaig harbour where we took shelter in the Fishermans Mission. The coffee and cake made for excellent refreshment before heading back to Arisiaig in near-perfect conditions.

The following day was due to be a little more breezy so we chose to have a shorter day in and around Port Appin. It was windier that we expected and bitterly cold. Our windy paddle came to an early end rounded off nicely with a few drinks in the Pier House.


Having had two tiring days on the water, it was time to venture out on foot. The original plan was to explore the upper reaches of Glen Coe but we were enticed by some white water kayaking action on the river Etive. There were a couple of groups paddling a series of steep drops and waterfalls. The best fun was the final drop called 'Right-angle Falls'. Many of the paddlers clambered back up the rocks for a repeat run. Some even took the 4 metre plunge without their boat.

Photo: Dawn Brankley
The sunshine and settled weather had been kind but the forecast for the coming days was for strong winds, sleet and snow. The decision to head back south wasn't taken lightly but it was the best thing to do. As ever with my trips to Scotland, I'm always left wanting to go back for more.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Frozen Storm Gathering

The 9th UK Storm Gathering was held in North Pembrokeshire on the weekend of March 16-18th near to St Davids. The idea of Storm Gathering is to bring together like-minded paddlers wanting to develop their skills and to network with others seeking to improve their sea kayaking.

I arrived late on the Friday evening through sleet and snow showers just as the first day was drawing to a close. It was bitterly cold! The next morning I settled in with a group of paddlers who were wanting to improve their rescue skills. With low temperatures and wind from the East, we decided to focus the workshop on towing skills and staying dry! Other groups went in search of more challenging waters and to the edge of their comfort zones.

Photo: Tavi Murray
We found a suitably sheltered stretch of coast at Pwllgwaelod and along the western side of Dinas Head. During the morning session we explored the different methods of contact towing. In shelter at first, then later in more challenging conditions. At Lunchtime we were lucky enough to be warmed by a rare spell of sunshine whilst preparing ourselves for an afternoon of rope work and towlines.

We experimented with towing in confined spaces, rough water, in twos and threes and then more until the whole group was 'husky towing' two fortunate slackers back to Pwllgwaelod beach.

As we landed the wind chill bit hard. It had been 7 Celsius when we launched. It was 4 degrees when we landed and once again it had begun to snow.

Photo: James Pigdon
After the evening meal I began to prepare for the evening's entertainment. It was to be a quiz based on expedition kayaking. Just before kick off I ventured outside for a breath of fresh air. I found myself in a winter wonderland. Snow drifts had begun to form around the buildings and along the lanes. The quiz led to an entertaining evening of long drinks and tall stories that went on late into the night. 

There was little appetite for paddling in the morning with sub-zero temperatures and strong winds. One group went out. Others opted for indoor based expedition planning and navigation workshops. My challenge was to get home through rural mid-wales whilst trying to avoid snow drifts and road closures.

This was by far the coldest Storm Gathering I have ever attended. Mother nature always provides special challenges at these extraordinary events.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

In the Autumn you'll need a Jersey!

Earlier in the year I met Kevin and Nicky Mansell from Jersey Canoe Club. Whilst we were washing patatas bravas down with San Miguel after hot day of sea kayaking on the Costa Brava. They invited me and a few friends to paddle with them around their back waters.

We assembled a team of nine paddlers from Manchester Canoe Club and flew out to the Channel Islands on a Thursday in Mid-September. Kevin and Nicky met us at the airport and showed us to a pleasant campsite close to the Jersey Canoe Club Base on the East side of the Island.

We were greeted by the the worst weather imaginable for setting up camp. Persistent rain made the ground unpleasantly squidgy for putting up our tents. Later in the afternoon, as the weather began to clear we headed for St Brelade's Bay where Kevin had arranged a short trip with sit-on-top kayaks. As we made our way beneath the southern cliffs and through the pink granite rock-gardens, we stopped every now and then for some sport! Kevin would clamber up onto one of the more prominent rocks... and jump into the deep water below, and eventually re-surface. Some of us brave fools followed his lead. As the sun sank low in the sky beyond Corbiere Lighthouse, we headed back to St Brelade's for beer and banter.

Friday morning was our first day in sea kayaks. Jersey Canoe Club have a generous stack of Tiderace Vortex kayaks so there were enough to go around. We headed out of St Catherine's Bay, past the breakwater and along the north coast. The strong tidal stream whisked up past deep bays, promontories and tall cliffs until this impressive coastline led us into Bon Nuit Bay. We stopped for lunch in the sunshine before beginning our return journey. The highlights of the return journey was playing in the tide race at L'Etacquerel and meeting a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins near to Rozel.

We were fortunate enough to have timed our visit to Jersey Canoe Club with their annual barbecue. The festivities began soon after we landed with cold beers, greasy burgers and seared chicken wings.

It would be difficult to do better on Saturday. However, this time we headed south from St Catherine's aiming for the Gorey Castle. The trip was (yet again) jaw-dropping. The castle commands a high position on the top of a huge cliff that overlooks the harbour. We stopped for lunch admiring the paragliders before setting off back to St Catherine's for a well-earned rest.

Our final paddling day was on the north-east corner of Jersey. We joined the Jersey Canoe Club for their Sunday paddle. On this occasion it was from Greve de Lecq to Sorel Point and back. There was plenty of swell creating some challenging dumping surf on the beach. The reward for survivors was to witness the powerful three metre swell breaking explosively on the reefs and cliffs of Jersey's north-east corner.

Before catching the evening flight home on Monday evening we spend some time sightseeing in St Helier. Thanks to Kevin and Nicky Mansell and the rest of the lovely folk from Jersey Canoe Club. Their hospitality was tremendous. We will be back!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Midsummer in Iceland

I love the time of midsummer. The dark blue colour of the northern late evening sky is so captivating. I have noticed that I tend to head north during the summer for cooler climes rather than the hotter shores of the Mediteranean. As I write this, the UK is only just being released from a major heatwave. I'm glad to have escaped that.

I met Magnus at the offices of Arctic Adventures to get an idea of what I had let myself in for. Arctic Adventures is a huge company that offers a range of adventurous activities in Iceland including sea kayaking. The first task would be to guide 12 teenagers from the USA on a two day sea kayaking trip with a night of camping on a wild and remote island near to the fishing village of Stykkisholmur. At times it was like herding cats but actually they were a great bunch and Iceland's cold, drizzly weather was like water off an eider duck's back to them.

Over the following few days we ran a couple shorter trips in a huge fjord called Hvalfjordur (Whale Fjord) and another 2 day trip from Stykkisholmur with guests from Germany, Italy, Switzerland and China. The variety in the weather was stunning. Apart from plenty of soggy grey weather we got sunny weather that made it uncomfortably warm to wear a drysuit and a screaming gale through which we needed to tow 2 novice paddlers.

On my days off I took the time to stroll around the parks, coastline and city streets of Reykjavik. It is a delightful city. There are very few tall buildings giving Reykjavik an open and airy feel with big skies. The parks are well-kept and well used. Wildlife is everywhere. Lupins were introduced in the 1940s to improve the thin, gritty Arctic soils but have now gone a bit out of control.

One of my favourite birds here is the redwing; a winter visitor to the UK but breeding here in Iceland. They dart between digging for worms in the grass to foraging for grubs and berries in the bushes and undergrowth.

In just a few days now I will be heading back home to 'old blighty'. In the meantime, I have another day trip in Reykjavik and one more overnighter from Stykkisholmur to keep me busy.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A tale of two rivers

There are always so many things to do so I'm glad I could make the Conwy Ascent Race this year. It's the only sea kayak race I'll be able to manage this time round. Its always so pleasing to meet the regular sea kayak race goers.


The turnout was a little less than in past years, which may have been due to the forecast of thunderstorms. The prospect of lightning and all those carbon paddles is daunting. The race was slow-going and choppy in places with a difficult southerly headwind. A couple of K2 crews succumbed to the briny in Conwy Harbour just as the Pirate Day celebrations unleashed a resounding volley from town's defensive cannons!

After the finish in Dolgarrog, I joined a few other competitors for a paddle back down to Conwy. With the ebbing tide and the wind at our backs, it was an easy, mellow an fitting end to the day.

Afterwards I headed over to Shrewsbury to meet up with my friend Amy who showed me around town by means of the River Severn and a Canoe.

We packed up more than enough kit for our overnight camp but that's what you do, when you have a canoe!

It seemed to take forever to escape the meanders that have protected Shrewsbury from invaders (like me) throughout the ages. Eventually we found ourselves in the lush green countryside of Shropshire. Suburban gardens, wooded banks and farmland led us to Atcham and the Mytton and Mermaid Hotel. As this was a warm sunny day, we decided make the most of this opportunity to re-hydrate.

Back on the river, later in the afternoon we discovered some sandstone caves in amongst woodland. We stopped to explore for a while, made a cup of tea, explored some more, then decided that this was the perfect place to camp for the night.

The overnight rain gave way to a chilly drizzly breeze. Such a stark contrast to the sunny weather the day before. The sight of the chimneys and cooling towers at Ironbridge was a comfort because they looked so close. However, the meandering river kept repeatedly taking us away from the town before bringing us tantalizingly closer with each looping bend.

Eventually we made it to Dale End Park where we hurried indoors to the cafe for a well-earned cup of tea and a below average, inappropriately greasy pasty.