|On our way|
For a 75 mile paddle you may think some planning would be in order, but 24 hours before we set sail, the kayak was still hanging from the garage roof, dusty and silent, the tent still rolled tightly, secure from the mice in its plastic storage box. Life's been busy, and whilst the trip has been somewhere in my mind for about 2 years, time just hasn't been there to use on going through kit lists, checking for tent pegs or charging batteries. Packing water was an after thought as I went through the door, grabbing for bottles and the first aid kit.
On top of this, I seriously doubted my ability to compete this trip, I'd been off the sugar for lent, but that was the only healthy thing I'd done for months. Frantically, about a week ago, I'd done 20 press ups to see if the body was still working, but rather unsurprisingly, it hurt, and not just the muscles, but there was a stiffness to it all that I suspect getting older brings. I'd hoped that a couple of runs would get me loose and ready, but I hadn't been able or willing, and now it was too late.
Early on a Friday morning I'd struggled from my bed and without the time to warm up to the day I'd lifted Wimbal onto the roof of the car, managing to twist my left wrist in the process. I was totally convinced this would end my chances right there. But once you're started, the river takes you, and I figured at least I can sit there, not paddling and do a happy 3 knots while my wrist recovered.
I met Rob, my graying paddle partner at the river side, he, like me wasn't in tip top shape and we both groaned like old men, taking our time to pack the kayaks in fear of damaging further our ageing bodies. Our wives waited patiently in the cold as we jammed our last minute water and energy bars into the rapidly decreasing hatch space. This is where planning is valuable, but we both had enough experience to know how much stuff we can get into our hatches. After about a half hour, everything was safely stowed, all be it bulging and pushing on the rubber deck seal, but it was holding and the food would be slowly eaten to provide more room for the remaining kit. It was time to way anchor and push off, through the geese and swans and face a challenge that we had failed a few years earlier.
I started slow, purposefully drawing the paddle through the mill pond river, cautious not to over exert too early and to allow me time to wake up and stretch the required muscles. I've paddled this section of river a lot, so like most places that are familiar to us, they pass by quickly. This was no different. Both drop off cars had passed us by on the river road with waving hands pushed through windows and it wasn't long before the river left the road and the only people we could see were the early morning walkers swinging mini black bags of dog waste. Surprised in most cases to see two bright kayaks gliding through the river, leaving nothing but a wake, like the first footsteps in a morning snow.
A few years back I'd completed my VHF course and since then found no real occasion to use it. The odd radio check and weather broadcast. So nerves were running high as we approached the first lock. It's possible to hail the lock keeper and request a lift downstream, but we'd heard tell that kayak passage is frowned upon. We both knew from experience that hauling two 80KG kayaks up the ladders of a lock wall is the fasted route to failure. It's just too hard when you're tired. So it is important to sweet talk the lock keeper into opening the gates. This isn't easily done on a radio as protocol must be followed and it was for this reason that I chose once again to call through on the mobile. It worked, two minutes later we were sitting comfortably in the lock, secure in its reassuring grip, slowly lowering us to the river below. You can't really hear things in the deep pit of a lock. It's smooth walls create a distracting echo, so I think we succeeded in asking the lock keeper to radio ahead to the next lock to warn the keeper there of our approach. With this kind of support and the push of a light breeze, we should make Newark for lunch.
|Newark Weir and lunch|
25 miles per day was the goal and to achieve this we'd have to paddle a steady 4 miles every hour for just over six hours. Add in lunch and some awkward moments with the dry pants and we easily added 2 hours to the paddling day. It's a long time to be moving your arms, and in the past at the end of a day like this I could relax in a warm bath and eat protein till I was sick, but on expedition, the second day is slightly harder and the third even harder. Your body figures out what's happening and starts to adapt. It realises that the sprained wrist can't hold you back, and so it fixes it. The stiff shoulder somehow loosen and the creaking back becomes flexible. It doesn't take long. Possibly 2 days and I would be in full flow, able to paddle from dawn till dusk will little discomfort.
We had hardly left the lock when the VHF crackled with the voice of the lock keeper. True to his word, he was informing Hazelford that we where en route, but had no idea how long it took a couple of middle aged men to paddle the 5 miles and so was unable to provide an ETA. It was good enough for me, and an invite to test my virgin radio.
Miles later we approached the lock at Hazelford, the island here I've nicknamed rabbit island on account of there being no predators and the result being there are hundreds if not thousands of rabbits. I pushed the talk button on the VHF and muddled my way through my first transmission, regardless of what I said, the lights turned green and the towering lock doors started to creak open, and once again, we were gently lowered past the death grip of the weir and into safety. The slow and deep meandering of the Trent through the valley just after rabbit island is so far my favorite part of the river. It was the inspiration to get back into paddling in my mid life and today, with still water and glowing sun reminded me this is why I love paddling.
There are 5 locks between Gunthorpe and the sea, but because of a branch to the Trent around Newark, we would only have to paddle three of them. We'd completed two and only one remained. It was a good distance away and just before the first camp, so for now I had relaxed and could enjoy the journey. From Hazelford to Newark is a pleasant paddle, day boaters and tourists had joined us on the river and waved as we passed by. Other kayak parties were interested in our exploits and offered advice about where to stop and camp, but we had our plan and needed to stick to it.
The loop around Newark is in high water a paddlers paradise. Outside of fishing season the river is yours, no cruisers can be found here. It's the natural course of the river, with weirs to paddle, gravel banks you can't quite see and gentle rapids to tackle. It keeps to awake and provides variety on what is otherwise a trip of endurance. Today the water wasn't high or low, somewhere in between, so the flow was steady and the gravel banks hidden below a tell tale ripple. Easy to paddle and it moved us around Newark silently. Before long we had rejoined the navigation and paddled to make Cromwell before the lock keeper went home for the night. A long portage was not be welcome after so much paddling.
A lock keepers duties involve more that button pushing and chatting on the radio, there are logs to keep, grass to cut and reports to be made and on the whole, the lock keeps are trained volunteers. That is except for the tidal locks, these men (and they are mostly men) are professional and are paid for their efforts and as such they are more vigilant. On arriving at Cromwell we could hear the hum of a mower and correctly assumed that the keeper was mowing his grass. It would take a few minutes to get his attention from our low vantage point. We did however manage to wave our paddles and he drove the small tractor to the lock edge. It had been a long day and a challenging character would not be welcome, and indeed it wasn't. You can see it in people's eyes from the get go and it's important to know when to be humble, this was one such occasion and with a little coercion he too agreed to help us on our way.
|Night one camp - just enough room|
It was cold when we woke. Ice had formed on the tents and kayaks, and warm inside my sleeping bag, it took some will power to pack up and go. The mist was hanging over the water and was pushed aside when an early cruiser chugged into view, a good morning wave and he was gone, invisible behind the veil of fog that awaited us. We too were on the water early, and with stiff bodies from the 25 miles the previous day we ploughed through the cold, frost bitten hands clinging to every stroke. The sun broke at about 730 when we had been on the water for a half hour, and it's soothing rays warmed my hands enough to ease the pain. It was forecast to be 18 degrees today and I had caught the sun across my face the day before, so as soon as I had chance, I covered the exposed parts in factor 30.
To stay on schedule, we would have to complete another 25 miles today and would be camping just outside Gainsborough. But we arrived early, 2:30 in the afternoon and the tide was due to turn. I learned years ago that it is really not worth the effort paddling against a 4 knot tide, you make little if any progress and burn all of your energy whilst standing still, so we chose to take an early stop about 4 or so miles short of our planned camp. The area looked remote enough and their was once again enough flat land for two tents. Pushing on at this stage would mean at least another 8 mile paddle to clear Gainsborough and there was no guarantee of a camp spot down stream.
|Cold Morning awaits us|
|Night 2 camping just short of Gainsborough|
The next morning I awoke to find that half of my drinking water was sloshing around as a muddy mess at the bottom of my kayak. The seal had perished and it had leaked out. I only had 2 liters remaining, not enough for a man sat in a chair for a day let alone one paddling for what was now 30 miles. But what choice did I have? None, there would be no riverside shops and if there had been, the banks were far too steep to get to them, so I'd have to ration it and see how that went. On top of that the tide was out - WHAT.
|My frozen kayak|
There was after breaks, only one more hour of outgoing tide, and it was slowing. We had a free ride for 6 to 8 miles before the tide was against us again. That left at the worst a further 7 miles to go. Our morning progress had proved we could only manage a speed over ground of 1 MPH against the flow, so that meant a 7 hour battle against the tide. Now the tide changes direction every 6 hours or so, so a good 6 hours of hard paddling and and maybe 15 minutes to take us at speed to the exit point. This wasn't sensible. The sensible thing would be to sit at the side for the incoming tide and jump back in when it turned, but we hadn't got the time for this. It was Sunday and work was in the morning. We looked for an exit and found one which required rope work to hoist the kayaks up a good 20ft of muddy wall, it was the only port in a storm, so we took it.
|The Exit Point|