A River Journey - The Wrong Way Up

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Every year I am grateful to get another year older, to celebrate more memories made and people met. Yet it always seems to catch me by surprise when another year has come around, after spending so long worrying about the last one getting closer. Time really does fly, but as I’ve always tried to do since my strokes, making the most of the here and now and living for every day has got to be the answer to a happy life, whatever age.

This birthday was no exception. I had plans of a road-trip north, but checking out the weather the night before, I decided to use my guilt-free me day in the sunniest place forecast. Right here on the Gloucestershire border.

I wanted to be outside for the whole day, to switch off from the world and keep it simple, clear my mind and follow my heart, back to basics, if only for one day. After an early breakfast and opening my birthday cards, I headed off in Ranulph, loaded with paddle board, drybag, sun cream, my stove, a mini baguette, bag of salad, and a cake (well it is my birthday). My plan was a mini paddle adventure, my river of choice, the River Wye.

I’d done some research the night before, studying my OS map for planning my trip getting to and once on the water. A big challenge for me is always access to the water, be that river, sea or lake. I’m not able to carry my board far on my crutches as it’s not the most compact piece of sports equipment so parking near to launch is vital. My first attempt at launch was going to be at Symonds Yat, I knew it fairly well so my best place to start.

The sun was already out and the launch car park was already in full swing when I arrived. Hire boats and group trips were heading out thick and fast, mostly via minibus to be dropped off upstream. I parked up and began the task of inflating my board.

Once ready and launch checked out, I made my way to the water, drybag stashed with all the important things, bug spray, sun cream, water, lunch, gopro and cake. Although it wasn’t far from the car and even better to be helped by a kind guy carrying my board, to get down to the water was probably the biggest challenge so far. It was very steep and very narrow steps, about 10 of them. Trying to get my equipment down and me on crutches without going head first was tricky for sure. Thankfully some kayakers took the board, while I just worried about myself. But like I always say, “There’s always a way”.

Safely down, I was on the river. Happy days. Bike / boat crutches packed up front with my drybag, I was away. The sun was already hot, it seemed a little crazy that I was out in Britain, paddling a river in my bikini & shorts, having my make sure I was fully covered in factor 30. Crazy maybe, but I liked it.

So clearly, the river flows one way. But for two reasons I made my choice not to go with the flow, but to actually paddle up stream. My reasons being, 1) I had to return to this point to my car so bar asking my friends to pick me up and drop me back here, this was my only option, and 2) I really like a challenge.

At its source, the Wye begins at the highest point in the Cambrian mountains, mid Wales. Much of it forms the border between England and Wales and the Wye valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), important for nature and conservation. The river Wye flows out to sea via the Severn Estuary. My plan was to paddle back up stream as far as I could and as far as the river would let me, I had no idea how this would go, but I was excited to see.

I love my board, and as it turned out so do lots of people. You see it’s a paddle board just like any other, except it’s not. It’s also a sit on top kayak, I suppose the transformer of paddle boards, and for me this is just perfect. I have a seat and back support I attach as I can’t stand up on my board, and my long single ended paddle can be transformed into a double kayak paddle, just like my awesome fold up bike/boat crutches. These get stored up front of the board, where a handy elasticated system holds any baggage I need to carry for my trips. It’s ideal! And it’s really given me another avenue of freedom where I am a paddler, just like everyone else. (Albeit going the wrong way). Lots of people asked about my board, one guy although calling it an ironing board, thought it was much cooler than his hire canoe which he and his friends kept falling out of. I didn’t fall off my board once, I did get in the river a few times, but this was purely by choice to cool off and have a swim.

Nearer the launch site, the river was fairly busy with canoes and people enjoying an hour or so out in the hire boats. It was so great to see everyone having fun outside away from phones and screens. Kids were jumping off rocks into the water below and dogs joined to paddle and fetch tennis balls.

As I made my way up river, the quietness grew. I knew I was getting closer to a launch area when I heard the pounding of oars against metal canoes as families tried their first attempt at paddling together. Siblings pushed each other in the water, dads towed the kids behind, and many a water fight ensued, usually with everyone ending up in the river. The quiet stretches though were my favourite. There was so much wildlife. Ducklings and signets slept on rocks mid river in shallower stretches while others swam with mum alongside. Birds dived down for fish, as the river teemed with life and health. I saw two buzzards circling overhead, riding the warm air and watching us down below. Even the cows were getting in the river, taking a much needed drink on a hot summer’s day.

Although I was paddling upstream, much to the confusion of many coming the other way, in fact I was the only one going this way, parts of the river were comparatively easy to paddle, so still and calm. I was certainly grateful for these parts after negotiating yet another mini rapids section, made so by the low rainfall and resulting low water level. I had thought the shallows would make things easier, but it was anything but. My first rapids discovery came quite early on. I had no idea how to attack it, or even if I should, but I was not about to turn around and go back so soon. A family had stopped with their kayak on a pebble bank at the side of this section so I paddled over to see if they had any tips. To me, this felt like a clip from the 1994 film, The River Wild starring Meryl Streep (that would be me) and Kevin Bacon, half of a criminal duo, trapped together on the white water. Thankfully there was no Kevin Bacon character in my scene, but working out how was the best way to try and get through this (small) rapids section the wrong way, was quiet the thriller. The couple I asked for advice were great, they had full confidence in me trying at least, especially the mum, she was brilliant. And as the four and their dog cheered me on, I went for it, smashing through the water, as hard as I could, powering my way. It was so tough! Any miss with the paddle was a big mistake with the water pushing me backwards so fast, this was one of the toughest gym sessions I’ve done. I was nearly through.. I thought. But at that point my board snagged on a rock below and not able to get any purchase on the water with my paddles, the current quickly span me around and promptly spat me back out the way I’d come. I tried again but only to be rejected a second time. This was frustrating, but I had to come up with a plan B to find my way further up stream. This was quickly becoming more of an adventure than I had expected.

The family on the bank were impressed at my efforts, applauding me for going straight through the middle, to be fair I don’t think there was any better path, but they too were not going to see me turn back, so between us, I unstrapped my crutches and got in the water as the couple, and the dog, carried my board around the rapids in the shallows, where I was able to hold it still just long enough to jump back on, stow my crutches and continue my paddle upstream. Of course I would have loved to have been able to paddle through this section, but for me, the whole thing about my adventuring is finding a way, finding my way, it might not be the way planned but there’s always a way!

It turned out there were a few more of these rapids sections, a couple I even managed to power through, at times I definitely had the fear as I was halfway through and the water was hitting me from every angle and I knew if I let up any effort for a second I was done, but wow it was tough going. Another section I just couldn’t find a way through as my paddle just kept hitting the rocks below, not letting me get any push. I found my way to negotiate this one was to get off the board, lie with my arm on it holding it straight and secure and pushing through the shallow waters with my good arm and using my foot as a hold on the rocks. It probably looked a little crazy and it was a very slow process, but it actually worked.

I was so grateful for the flat waters in between these and the fast moving currents that were quickly becoming my Saturday power workouts. But even in these I couldn’t rest for long, as rightly so, I was going up the river, while all the time it wanted to take me back down.

After two and a half hours of paddling, I pulled my board to the shore. The gravel shallows were easy for me to land on and pull myself and the board up onto for a bit of a rest and some lunch. Behind me rolled lush green meadows and on the other side of the river, thick woodland that rose into the blue sky. There were hundreds of tiny fish in the shallows, I even had one land on my leg out of the water! No wonder this is such an incredible haven for wildlife, the waters are rich with nutrition. I thankfully had my own, in the form of a baguette, some salad and a melted pack of cheese slices. I was covered in river water, a bit muddy from the bank and the mix of sun cream, river and sweat from my upstream workouts was attracting a fair amount of bugs, but grabbing a handful of salad leaves, ripping open the bread and stuffing it full with melted cheesy salady goodness never tasted so good. I was so hungry.

Energy levels restored and a bit of a rest had, I was out on my river journey once more. It was so hot and I was even filthier after sitting on the muddy shore, I decided I’d head in for a swim. I kept my board leash attached and rolled in off the side. It was amazing. The water was warm but cooling to my sun-kissed river dried skin, my sore hands and muscles felt relieved as I swam alongside my board in this summertime elixir. There was nowhere else in the world I’d had rather been than right there in that moment. Nature, the great outdoors has everything to offer, I respect it and do my best to protect and help nurture it, I worry about our environment’s future but will do everything I can to do my bit to preserve it, it’s my home.

My swim was just what I needed to power on through another few miles. I learnt quickly how slow river miles are, especially when going the wrong way, as mentioned by nearly everyone I passed. But that’s the joy of the river, it’s not about speed and the destination, as they say, it really is about the journey. I had to paddle hard in parts for sure to get through sections of fast flowing water, but when I could, I would relax into the sound of my paddle cutting through the water, almost hypnotic. When the river was my own, away from hire canoes, the sounds of the trees through the breeze swirled around me, and fish jumping with a splash as they landed back to safety. Water birds coming into land and the occasional duck coming alongside for a chat. I was getting quite tired by now and at every bridge or natural landmark, I’d tell myself “I’ll just go to the next one then turn around”, and then facing yet another section of fast water to negotiate, as though the river was testing my endurance, knowing I would not turn my back on a challenge.

At four and a half hours of paddling up stream, with just my brief lunch break ashore, I had made it to a pub stop on the right hand side bank. I was pretty exhausted and a little dehydrated, despite being surrounded by water. This was my sign to put down the anchor and take a break. I pulled myself into a rocky bay at the side and took a good drink. I had made it a good way upstream, despite a few added challenges I hadn’t foreseen. Not only was I pretty pleased with my river journey, I was having the best time. It was definitely the right moment to enjoy my birthday cake, sat on my board in the river. A pink iced bun as my prize for paddling the wrong way up a river to see if I could. That cake tasted amazing.

Heading back downstream was considerably easier but just as much fun in its own way, mainly for flying through the rapids sections, having smashed my way through them the wrong way, and on occasion been spat out backwards, I had no fear for them and revelled in thrill of sighting my route as boards and boats took a tumble ahead of me and to the side of me.

As the day was getting on now, my paddle had become a lot more sociable. Groups that had been dropped off further up river in the morning were now making their way back, these included three boats of pirates who didn’t hijack my boat or get me to walk the plank thankfully, but did offer me a mid-river swill of rum. I was even called a pirate myself buy a young child with his parents on the bank, I don’t know of it was the crutches on my board or my bronzed and crisp sea lover appearance that made him think so, I didn’t mind at all, though his mum felt she needed to tell him that not everyone on the river was a pirate. I’m going with the boy.

I finally saw land (my landing), 7 hours from when I began my river journey. A good 6 hours plus of solid paddling. I was glad to rest my arms, eat the remaining baguette and salad as I lay next to my car on the grass, I lit my stove for a well earnt cup of tea. I was exhausted, my hands red and sore and muscles tired, my skin felt crispy from the river water and although I was covered in high factor sun spray, being out on the water all day, I knew about it. I could have laid back and slept there and then. But it was the best kind of tiredness. I felt more at one with the river that ever, more at home and confident on the board, more capable of taking on whatever challenge lay ahead of me. I had had the best day, the river gave me way more than I’d hoped and planned and it gave me a new type of freedom I am so excited to explore some more.

As birthdays go, this journey was the gift that kept giving.

Starting Point grid reference SO 56107 1599