Friday, 11 April 2014

Pennine Way 2012 part 2

Day 8 - Tan Hill inn to Middleton-in-Teesdale 18 miles

God's Bridge
Davinder and I set out after some breakfast, we had about 18 miles to cover and most of the day would be flat moor. Leaving the Tan Hill inn we could see the distant line of the A66, it was pretty much the only thing to see. Navigation was fairly tough and the going was horribly boggy. Eventually we followed Sleightholme Beck and the route was more obvious. I'd been looking forward to God's Bridge - a natural limestone bridge under which the Greta flows - and it was kinda cool, but the river had barely any water in it. Crossing the A66 it was back to moorland until we hit Balderdale, then Lunedale. We joked that all the dales looked the same, another dale, another reservoir, another sheep :-)  Finally we dropped into Teesdale and both of us were exhausted. Passing a farm on the last hill I had a Monty Python moment as a suicidal rabbit launched itself at me, it managed to avoid a collision at the last second just as I saw it bearing down on me. We struggled to find a good pub, had a few iffy pints and then went to the chippie for dinner.

Day 9 - Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton (Cumbria) 21 miles

High Force
We set out fairly early as we had a decent distance to cover, with some of the most photogenic parts of the Pennine Way to see. We were not even a mile into it, following the river Tees, when we caught up with Lee who'd arrived late the previous evening. Mel and Simon had apparently quit, going to Bowes and then home. The three of us enjoyed a nice, easy walk up the river in the sunshine, passing Low Force waterfall and then High Force. The river bent into a canyon and we stopped for lunch before pressing on to Cauldron Snout, a fall where the Cow Green reservoir poured into the canyon below. Just as the pathway crossed some rocks at riverside, the Heavens opened and rain made us rush to get our waterproofs on. We then had to negotiate the super slippery wet rocks.
The climb up the snout was steep and with our heavy rucsacs and the wet rocks it was a little dodgy. At the top we crossed the outflow from the reservoir and started climbing the gentle slope on the far side when the rain came belting down again, turning to hail as lightning flashed and thunder rolled overhead. Within about two minutes we were soaked through, my waterproof jacket stood up to the battering but the rain streamed down my shorts and legs, soaking my socks and flooding my boots. A brown river ran down the path.
The storm eased off quickly and as we resumed climbing the rain slowed and stopped, but we could hear thunder booming up the valley the rest of the afternoon. Climbing to the head of the valley we eventually came to High Cup Nick and enjoyed the views down the spectacular Gill. From there we dropped down to Dufton, passing a field full of black horses halfway up a mountain which had me doubting my own eyes :-)  Davinder had phoned ahead and booked us into a b&b which it turned out was about half a mile out of town, resulting in some scratching of heads trying to find the place and plenty of swearing. Eventually a phone call to the owner resulted in not only being picked up but also getting a lift back to town for dinner. There was only one place to eat - the pub - and as it was Dufton's annual beer festival we feared dinner would be the liquid variety. But we managed to get just about the best pie and chips ever, and after a few pints of Radical and some sample ales from the festival there was talk of spending an extra day in Dufton :-)

Day 10 - Dufton to Alston YHA (Cumbria) 20 miles

Approaching Cross Fell. No clouds...
Lee had bailed on the previous evening due to suffering from an upset stomach... both Davinder and I tried to convince him it was because of iodine treated river water he'd been drinking, but the last I saw of him he was washing down immodium with the same river water. We left him in Dufton and both set out for Alston on our own separate schedules - Davinder knew this was maybe the toughest stage and left at 6am to give himself plenty of time. It was almost 9.15am when I left Dufton as I'd had a good breakfast, a chat with the b&b owner, and stopped for a few pictures. I set off at a great pace, the stage started with by far the biggest climb on the whole Pennine Way, up to the Old Man on Knock Fell. I was soon sweating in the morning sun but by a couple of hours in I had climbed Knock Fell, and reached the weather station on Great Dun Fell. From there it was straight across Little Dun Fell and up again to Cross Fell which I could see - the clouds that were obscuring it when I left Dufton had cleared. As I climbed the visibility got steadily worse, and by the time I made the broad, flat summit I could hear thunder rolling around and misty cloud obscured everything. I began to appreciate packing a compass, but actually cairns marked the path and as I started to descend the visibility picked up. I picked my way down Cross Fell looking for the bothy "Greg's Hut" that was marked on my map. Ominous rumbling thunder and an odd sixth-sense dodgy feeling made me look over my shoulder, and I saw a mass of dark, thick cloud pursuing me down the hillside at a much faster pace than I was travelling. I picked up my pace, figuring a bothy would be a really good place to be when the cloud hit. The bothy came into sight and I realised I wouldn't make it, the still air was now cold and the oncoming storm was almost on me. I ran as fast as I could without breaking something, rucksack thudding into my back, and gained the front door of the bothy as hail started thumping into the ground. The next hour was spent eating my lunch in the entrance of the filthy bothy, watching the deluge and listening to the thunder right overhead. 

As the storm rolled away down the valley I left the bothy and had to hurdle suddenly swollen streams spilling across the path. The flanks of Cross Fell have been mined for fluorspar historically and the slopes are scattered with purple shards, which were glistening with fresh rain. The hike out down the valley was long and hard on my knees, by the time I made Garrigill I couldn't face the thought of the short flat walk up the river to the YHA at Alston. Every step became more and more laboured, until at last the pain forced me to stop for short rests every few hundred metres. A combination of pain killers and bribery got me through, I promised myself I would take a day off to let my knees recover. When the YHA finally came into view I felt like crying with relief. The whole Way seemed to have turned into a giant pub crawl so when Davinder suggested a loop of the three pubs in town that seemed sensible. 

Day 11 - Alston - rest day
Davinder and I spent the day doing anything that didn't involve walking. I'm pretty sure my knees were squeaking. Met up with a guy and his wife that had done the Pennine Way every single year for the last 10 years. They were extremely knowledgeable and suggested we should follow the line of the railway out of Alston instead of the regular Way, which was terribly boggy and not at all picturesque. The whole time we were talking I couldn't help wondering what kind of person does the same trip over and over again, year after year. Maybe for variety they dream of doing the route in reverse.

Day 12 - Alston to Once Brewed YHA (Northumberland) 23 miles

Hadrian's Wall
We walked out of Alston on the dismantled South Tyne Valley railway tracks that we'd been told about, both commenting on how awesome a little flat gravel was compared to boggy fields. We made excellent time to Lambly and then turned onto the boggy fields we'd been avoiding. All the recent rains had flooded the fields and Davinder and I tried our hardest to keep the watery mud out of our boots. It was much harder going but I was spurred on by the rest day, and also the thought of very soon getting to see Hadrian's Wall for the first time, something I'd been meaning to do my entire adult life.

At Greenhead we had some lunch in a nice tea shop, and Davinder surprised me by saying he was going to walk along the flat road behind Hadrian's Wall to the YHA at Once Brewed... missing the Roman Wall. He explained he was tired and he'd walked the seven miles of the Wall as a tourist previously. After lunch and feeling pretty strong, I took off up the trail to the Wall, passing Thirlwall Castle ruins. I spent a leisurely few hours wandering along the Wall, taking pictures, and talking to a couple of girls that were doing the Coast-to-Coast path along the entirety of Hadrian's Wall. The sun was dropping as I came down into Once Brewed, turning away from the Wall but knowing we'd be walking along it some more tomorrow. Sat amongst all the foreign tourists on bus tours with a few beers lined up at the YHA we felt like heroes. A day before I'd wanted to quit. Talk about highs and lows.

Day 13 - Once Brewed to Bellingham (Northumberland) 15 miles

Wark Forest
In the morning we headed back up to the Wall and walked along it to Sycamore Gap, made famous by the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood, among other things. I think it is probably the most photographed part of the Wall, maybe even of England :-)  After a few pictures we started to think about the path north of the Wall, and looked out from the heights of  the Whin Sill, the natural crag that the Wall is built on, over the mass of Wark Forest. I tried to imagine myself at the edge of an Empire, with the vast unknown ahead of us. 2000 years ago this must have been a pretty bleak and ominous posting for a Roman soldier.

We crossed the boggy fields glancing back towards the Wall often, and before long we entered Wark Forest on a logging road. It was starting to get pretty hot and before long we came across what I am pretty sure was an Adder (Britain's only poisonous snake) laying across the path, soaking up some warmth. Davinder almost stepped on it, and it bolted whilst I was desperately digging for my camera. The forest seemed to take forever to cross, but the logging roads that cut through it were definitely preferable to marshy, boggy fields. Or peat. Pretty soon I was starting to feel dry even though I was sipping my water frequently. Davinder's guide book had mentioned there was not much in the way of refreshments between the Wall and Bellingham, but that a rather eccentric lady set up a tea stall at her farm, and we planned to check that out for lunch. We dropped down steeply into a creek, climbed the other side and arrived at Horneystead Farmhouse. We knocked but there was no answer, so following signs we found some tea and various cakes and biscuits in the barn. There was a book to write in and an honesty box. The tea was very welcome, and made the hike into Bellingham a little easier. Davinder had booked into the bunkhouse there and welcomed me in to share his room, but a family with screaming kids were next door, so I headed over and stayed at the Cheviot Hotel. We enjoyed and few more beers and made the most of our last evening in "civilisation"... this would be the last chance to get cash etc before the end of the Way.

Day 14 - Bellingham to Byrness  (Northumberland) 15 miles

Trail marker
We'd discussed plans for the next couple of days in the pub and Davinder had left early to try to get a good start, even though it was only a 15 mile leg. He seemed to be really feeling it. Up the hill out of Bellingham I got completely lost off the Pennine Way crossing a farm, and tried to triangulate where I was from my guidebook and map. I eventually spotted where I should be, maybe half a mile away, I wasn't too far off course but I had used up a good hour going in circles to get there. Shortly after I caught up to Davinder, he'd waited for me for a while at the farm I passed, but probably didn't figure on me making such a late start. I like to let my breakfast settle ;-)

We crossed some high flooded moor and climbed Pedon Hill, spending the afternoon sinking in very, very waterlogged grassy fields. When the Way dropped into a nice, easy forest stroll with the Cheviots in the background, it definitely cheered us both up. Suddenly the only topic of conversation (as Davinder had already booked us accommodation) was how we were going to play the last stage. At 27 miles it would be a long day normally, but with literally nothing between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm in Scotland, without a tent it would be difficult to break overnight. Davinder had talked to the landlady and she was prepared to pick him up halfway and then drop him off next day, whereas I was planning to do the whole 27 miles in one go. 

Arriving at the Byrness Hotel we got tea and cakes, and watched the landlady's psychotic goose wander around the hotel, angrily tapping it's beak on the glass window next to me. Allegedly the goose was going to be Christmas dinner in a few months. I think he knew.

We got big old rooms with comfy beds and agreed that we'd give the last leg a try. 27 miles of peaks was making Davinder nervous and he decided he'd make a start at 5.30am.  

Day 15 - Byrness to Kirk Yetholm (Scottish Borders) 27 miles

The end!
We'd made arrangements to eat a little breakfast that the hotel owner had set out for us and take a pre packed lunch as we'd both be leaving before the owner got up in the morning. I ate speedily and made the earliest start of the whole walk, but I was still about two hours behind Davinder. A sharp climb right from the hotel started the day it was going to continue, and pretty soon I was sweaty and breathless, climbing away from the forested valley and into the Cheviot Hills. I felt pretty good and figured I would catch Davinder during the day, and we'd finish together. At the summit of the first peak, a broad flat expanse of waterlogged grass meant I was going to get wet, it was unavoidable. My almost new hiking boots had started to fray across the toes and the Gore-Tex had split, so my feet soaked almost immediately. 26 miles on soaking wet feet was going to be a challenge. 

Despite the setback and discomfort I made great time, charging along the route as it wandered through and occasionally over the Cheviot peaks, past some ancient Roman camps and more marshy ground. A series of ridgelines led to Windy Gyle which I had figured was the halfway mark for the day, and approaching  the long climb I realised the person I could see maybe a half mile ahead of me was Davinder. I picked up my pace and after an invigorating climb, reached the summit a couple of minutes after him. He was sat sheltered from the wind so I joined him and we ate some lunch. Windy Gyle was easily accessed from the road so there were a few day walkers on the summit with us. It felt busy. I felt pretty good that I'd made such great time to the Gyle and it seemed unthinkable that I would go on ahead and finish alone, so I mostly walked at Davinder's pace in the afternoon. I say mostly because we had very different ways of climbing, Davinder would ascend in very small increments, often stopping for longer than he was going! My preferred approach was a steady ascent, rhythmic breathing, and stop at the top. Finally at The Schil, a very steep hill well into the day, Davinder really struggled. It was hot, the sun was beating down and I climbed, found a comfy rocky outcropping at the top and sat taking pictures and eating a snack. After a while I started to get concerned and was about to head back when he came into view. He fretted that he was so slow and holding me up, but I told him I wasn't in any hurry. He'd already walked Offa's Dyke path so including the Pennine Way, he'd almost walked the length of England in a few weeks. I figured he had a right to be tired.

Coming down from The Schil in the heat I started to worry that the three litres of water I was carrying might not be enough for the day. This section of the Way was definitely the most remote, there really was nothing between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm. The Way split into a "high road" and "low road" before it began to drop into Kirk Yetholm, and Davinder wanted to take the lower route. I wasn't about to complain. Once out of the hills and onto the road it seemed a ridiculously long way into the village... I had been convinced we were done but the walking dragged on another mile or so. We'd keep expecting to see the end over the next rise, and the next, and so on. Finally we limped into Kirk Yetholm and saw our destination, The Border Hotel, official finish point of the Pennine Way. We walked into the bar and were rewarded with a completion certificate and a free half pint of beer! Leafing through the guest book of those that had completed the whole Way, I found Mark's comments from two days previous wishing me good luck. He'd obviously managed the whole thing with no rest days at all. Top man. No sign of Vanessa though so I guess she didn't finish. 

Food and beer were just what we needed, so we checked in at the hostel (a Scottish one!) before heading back to the pub. It was a little difficult to believe it was all over bar the drinking. Well, and the ride home.

Two buses were required to get to Berwick, and then a train to Edinburgh which Davinder and I wandered around, looking for somewhere to drink and relax rather than doing the tourist thing. I'd never been to Edinburgh... it struck me as a very grey place. We killed time until Davinder's train left, and as I stood on my own in the station it dawned on me that I didn't have my car, and I had, in fact, walked from the Midlands to Scotland.


Friday, 17 August 2012

Pennine Way 2012 part 1

Clearing some stuff out recently I came across a couple of old guidebooks - Pennine Way South and North - the entire route split down into sections. Oh yeah I thought, I was going to do that when I had time. After a short think over a cup of coffee at a friend's house one morning, I'd convinced myself to give it a go. I was in England, had nothing to do for several weeks, and the Olympics was about to start. Perfect timing for getting lost :-) So I booked a train ticket to the start at Edale and threw a few essentials together, buying a rucsac to hold my stuff. Arriving at Edale on Thursday 26th July, I gave myself two weeks to try to complete the trek. These are my notes.
Day 1 - Edale to Crowden YHA (Derbyshire) 16 miles

Me looking over Torside Reservoir
Left beautiful Edale at 8.30am thanks to a timely arrival at the visitor information centre the previous evening - three minutes to closing - so I could buy a map case whilst the nice lady kept looking at her watch. Waiting for the place to open at 9.30am would have made for a longer first day walking. Climbing out of the valley I almost immediately passed a father and son team on the same schedule as me... they'd allowed two weeks too. Their rucsacs were huge compared to mine and I started to fret I'd under planned as usual. Mick and his son Charlie seemed confident and I said I'd see them later in the day, or at Crowden. ALL walkers talk about the haul up Jacobs Ladder to Kinder Low, it is infamous, so I was surprised and happy when I'd summited Kinder Low by 9.30 and pressed on over the peaty plateau in the mist.

The Way follows the edge of the Kinder plateau and it was windy so the mist cleared and the sun came out. After passing over boggy moorland and crossing the A57 at Snake Pass, where sadly there were no more than one or two parked cars (no burger vans as I had been hoping). Passing a few people on day walks, I pushed on - the climb up Bleaklow complicated by winding up through peat groughs, criss crossing peaty red streams. The summit was more peat, very bleak and aptly named. Despite a lack of signs on the descent it was much easier to follow the path, which stuck with one large grough until it opened out to reveal Torside reservoir in the valley below. It was at this point I realised I'd been walking without a pause so I made myself sit and eat an energy bar in the sunshine, with the valley spread out before me. The only noise was the wind.

High on one side of the ever widening grough, I descended on tired jelly legs towards the reservoir, crossing the dam as Crowden was on the far shore. I finally got to the Youth Hostel just after 4pm and found it didn't open until 5, but twenty minutes or so later another walker called Mark showed up and we had a chat... he'd left Edale about an hour after me and was planning to do the whole Way in 14 days too. We both managed to get a dormitory to ourselves as the hostel was more or less empty, and when Mick and Charlie showed up we had dinner and a few beers together.

Day 2 - Crowden to Mankinholes YHA (W Yorkshire) 21 miles

Stoodley Pike, near Mankinholes
I had a descent sized breakfast - cereal, bacon, egg, sausage, beans and as much toast as I could fit down me, discussing plans with Mark and Mick. Mick had booked himself and Charlie into Mankinholes YHA but after struggling with 16 miles the first day he knew 21 was too much, so he very kindly passed the booking over to me. Mark had booked into the YHA too and I figured I would see him there. Mick thought they might make Standedge so I said my goodbyes and wished them well. Heading out of Crowden alone in my full wet weather gear, I started the long, arduous climb up the valley. The rain slackened and I removed my waterproof pants, glancing behind I couldn't see anyone down the valley and I wondered what had happened to Mark, he was still at the YHA when I left. Ahead, climbing hard I could see two rucsac laden figures. Gaining the top of the valley it started to rain quite heavily, and slogging across the peaty moor towards the summit of Black Hill was a miserable experience. Black Hill summit, again aptly named, was very dark and bleak. The weather cleared and as I dropped towards the A635 I could see "Snoopy's" snack van - referenced in my 20 year old guidebook - and started to think about doughnuts and coffee. I was also going to catch up to the two figures in front of me. I arrived at the van, and there was Mark! He had picked up a hot tip on a shortcut out of the hostel and shaved 20 minutes off the official route :-) He'd met Vanessa who was also at the hostel the previous night.

After a coffee (no doughnuts. Bah) the three of us set off through the moors and reservoirs. Lunch was at Standedge overlooking Mark's house in saddleworth. We were ridiculing Vanessa for her tiny 15 litre sack which contained among other things study books and shoe polish (!!) But she was an accomplished walker and planned to do all 260 miles in 10 days. Eventually the path became a broad hard track past reservoirs which was easy to follow but murder on my feet. Within sight of Stoodley Pike, a memorial to the end of the Napoleonic war, we turned down off the trail to Mankinholes at about 6.30pm...long day but not over for Vanessa. She decided to press on for a few more hours! We said our goodbyes and wished her luck, then Mark and I hit the pub and sank some Black Sheep ale which didn't quite alleviate the foot pain. Two blisters on my right foot and more worryingly, sharp pain in both knees. Hmmm.

Day 3 - Mankinholes to Cowling (N Yorkshire) 20 miles

Double arched bridge, Leeds/Liverpool canal
The day had promised to start nastily as we had to climb back up to the Pennine way from the YHA, but we'd done that in twenty minutes and were walking along a ridge line towards Stoodley Pike in the wind and rain. The monument itself was a massive stone affair with grafitti dating back more than a century, the elegant carving of Victorian vandals somehow more pleasant than the recent spray painted stuff. Pressing on the most unpleasant part of the trail came after we crossed the Rochdale canal and climbed a steep hill, slick wet flagstones making it hard going but the long wet grass and ferns soaked us just as effectively as if we'd gone swimming in the canal. My feet started to squelch and I realised water had soaked my socks and then flooded my boots.

We trudged into Colden in the rain and got a little lost looking for the path - bumping into another Wayfarer going the wrong way didn't help us - before Mark figured out where we were. There was a Farm shop so the three of us went and got sandwiches for later and as we'd not eaten breakfast, Mark and I had a distinctly lukewarm pie. We left the other chap, John, sipping tea and pressed on. The Way seemed to follow a pattern of ascending small hills and dropping into valleys for the rest of the afternoon, the wet weather eventually easing. When we eventually came in sight of Cowling it was deceptive as the path seemed to zigzag above the small town for miles before crossing some boggy fields and depositing us right by the b&b Mark was booked in. Happily they had a spare room and after taking care of my feet, which were white and puffy after the soaking they got, we had a huge Indian meal. The landlady at the b&b told us stories about a man that did the Way 13 times, and another guy that completed it then turned straight around and walked back all 260 miles. Nutter.

Day 4 - Cowling to Malham YHA (N Yorkshire) 16 miles

Malham, with Malham Cove behind
After hauling a 20 pound pack up hill and down dale 8 hours a day for several days, my knees were grateful for an easier day. It started with more ups and downs until we got to Thornton-in-Craven. Suddenly the Way began following the Leeds/Liverpool canal and it was picturesque, easy walking. We found a coffee shop next to a big Stables and ordered sandwiches, caramel shortbread and to my great and lasting delight a decent latte to go. At Gargrave we sat by the river Aire in the warm sun and ate our lunch, chatting about upcoming sections of the walk. From there the Pennine way followed the Aire all the way into Malham, passing livestock and fields full of buttercups (as well as the trademark fields full of mud). Malham cove looked daunting as it came into sight but as Mark pointed out, it was tomorrow's problem :-)

Malham YHA had a drying room but it failed to dry my boots out once again. The Gore-tex liner seems to keep them damp once they get wet. I did manage to use the washing facilities to clean my spare socks and shirt though. 73 miles in and feeling it.

Day 5 - Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale (Yorkshire Dales) 14 miles

Woke with stiff knees and unlike previous days the pain wouldn't shift... I took ibuprofen but immediately after we left the YHA we climbed Malham Cove and the sharp ascent gave my knees a battering. To make things worse we then went past Malham Tarn - the Canada Geese made me smile - and up over Fountains Fell. The ascent was OK but I could barely descend the far side at all... Mark was having to wait for me more and more often. As we dropped into the valley below and the looming mass of Pen-y-ghent, one of the bigger peaks on the whole walk, got closer I started to worry I wouldn't make Horton, let alone the end of the Way.

We cut around to the shoulder of Pen-y-ghent and then right before the main climb we had lunch on the upper slopes. I took more painkillers and then we went for it, gaining the summit in about 15 minutes of hard work. The last little scramble was rather fun, but then we had a three mile descent into Horton which again killed my knee.

We found Pen-y-ghent cafe and Tourist Info shut for the day but the Golden Lion had rooms - sadly without hot water and although the pub had wifi the staff didn't have any idea what the password was, It could only happen in the UK :-)

Day 6 - Horton to Hawes YHA (Yorkshire Dales) 14 miles

Hardraw Force
Mark and I had a final beer together the previous evening as he'd decided to do Horton to Keld - a total of 27 miles - the next day, starting out at 7am. I knew my knees would be a problem so decided to keep the day short and just walk to Hawes in Wensleydale. Mark was long gone by the time I left Horton. I stopped in the Pen-y-ghent cafe for a coffee and then hit the trail. It wasn't long before I overtook a chap called Davinder, who I noticed had been at the YHA in Malham and also the Golden Lion in Horton. We started walking together and chatting about our experiences to date. He kept apologising about his slow speed but actually we were making pretty good time.

We crossed Cam Fell and Dod Fell without issue and looking at the map I realised we'd be finished and in Hawes by mid afternoon. That seemed like a good thing as the weather appeared to be chasing us over the fells - we'd been lucky with the lack of rain for several days but it looked like it was about to really let fly. Coming down into the outlying farms and area around Hawes, Davinder got excited as for the first time on the Way he was going to be inside the time his guidebook quoted for a stage... that excitement turned to annoyance as it looked like we were going to get a soaking five minutes from shelter. We pretty much ran the last handful of yards off the official trail and into the White Hart Inn as the rain came down. From there we went to the Crown and after a few pints of Old Peculier on an empty stomach I wasn't in a good way :-)

After an expensive trip to the pharmacy - knee supports, foot cream and painkillers - we went to the outdoor shop and I bought walking poles and insoles for my boots. Then it was back to the Crown for an evening with Davinder and Lee, Mel and Simon who had been camping at Malham and Horton.

Day 7 - Hawes to Tan Hill inn (Yorkshire Dales) 17 miles

Tan Hill Inn, surrounding desolate moor not shown :-)
In guidebooks the next stage is Hawes to Keld but at 13 miles it seemed too short a day so I decided to get to the Tan Hill inn, 4 miles further on. Davinder had started out at 5.30am as he knew it was a long day with lots of climbing. About a mile out of Hawes I stopped off at the Green Dragon pub in Hardraw, as the pub owns the land around Hardraw Force, the highest waterfall in England. I took a few pictures of the fall and pressed on as it was getting on to mid morning and I had a long haul ahead of me. The day was all about Great Shunner Fell but the mountain was more about patience than anything else, ascending gently for five miles to a flattish summit. The descent brought me into Thwaite in time for a nice cream tea at Kearton's restaurant. I felt somewhat out of place sat there next to my rucsac surrounded by families eating their lunch, but it was a welcome break. A siren went through the village, and all heads turned to see what was going on. Apparently a police car is big news in Thwaite :-)

From Thwaite the Way rises over Kisdon Hill to Keld, the sun was out and the views were the best I'd enjoyed so far. Lots of people were out on day trips from Thwaite or Muker. Stopping at Kisdon Force I noticed the rain clouds coming down the valley so I passed Keld quickly and picked up the pace for the haul up to Tan Hill inn, Britain's highest pub, enjoying the cardio workout. I wandered into the bar at about 5.30pm and a family chuckled about how tired I looked. After a pint of Old Peculier Davinder came into the bar, he'd been there since mid afternoon. He was having fun talking to the landlady, who was a female Basil Fawlty, pretty much all she needed was the moustache. Having had a few beers I was in full on shout at the TV mode as the French team made their slalom canoe run in the Olympics, when it became apparent they wouldn't beat the British team I laughed 'go home Frenchies' - only to discover the barman was French. He took it in good spirit, although I spent the rest of the evening inspecting my beers for spit.

Part 2 in short order....


Thursday, 26 April 2012

As Mark Twain once said...

... the report of my death was an exaggeration. I am alive and well and just as lazy with blog updates as ever.

A big change in my circumstances at the end of last year saw me return to the UK for a couple of months and then, due to a total lack of paddling opportunities, I was back in Canada. Which is slightly ironic since there were also precious few places to paddle when it was minus 30 celcius and just leaving the house meant pushing aside a large snowdrift. Some huge road trips in crazy driving conditions followed, and New Year's Day saw my friends and I paddling on Butze tidal rapid, a wave formed in Fern Passage off the coast of BC. A combination of hangovers, dreadful planning and horizontal rain meant we didn't get much surfing in for the 1,600km round trip. It had all seemed like such a great idea in the pub two nights before.

Late January saw another attempt and although organised over beer again, this time we headed south to make the most of slightly warmer temperatures. We managed paddles on the Thompson and Chilliwack rivers, trudging through snow and braving the cold water, but all the rivers around Vancouver were too low so we ended up paddling around the sea wall in the harbour, throwing a few playboating moves to the amusement of the public. The drive back up north was long and the temperature dropping to minus 26c didn't help.

I love snowboarding, and feel privileged that I can get out and do that most weekends in the winter here. I finally bought myself a new board since the old one was vintage 1997! A few trips out to Smithers to hit the hill with my friend Ross meant I got to test the new board out, and had the added bonus that I could go to the Bulkley Valley canoe club pool sessions. Boarding and paddling in the same day! Happy days. Another winter distraction was getting out shooting with my friends Matt and Ian. We set up some targets and I even hit some of them, despite never having held a gun before. That was until they broke out the shotguns and clays, I think I got closer to hitting Ian's truck than any of the targets ;)

I jumped at another paddle opportunity down south. Tofino on Vancouver Island with Matt, who was just taking a surf board. I hooked up with Rebecca on the way and the two of us spent the week trying to keep up with Matt on his board. Surfing is tough, but waaaaaay easier in a playboat than trying to stand on a board! On our third day the wind was off the hook, every beach was taking a battering but we headed out to North Chestermans and tried to get out past the breakers. Matt gave in early and when Rebecca and I had enough we realised we'd been blown right down the beach. We then had to haul our kayaks up the windswept beach, resulting in a battering and fits of laughter at the futility of it. On the last day the waves were so big that on one occasion, I caught my bow whilst dropping in and my almost six foot long boat got tumbled end-over-end. It was a reminder of how powerful the ocean is compared to a river wave.

Rebecca had mentioned that she wanted to get out paddling again soon, so we organised to hit the Chilliwack river over Easter weekend. I was happy as the cold weather further north meant that all the rivers were still frozen and paddling season was a way off. On Good Friday we paddled the Chilliwack Canyon section, technically the hardest grade of river I've run to date, the level was very low which meant that the entire run was technical boulder gardens. The river wasn't pushy, but there were some substantial drops. We met up with some Vancouver paddlers and a couple of the guys really knew their stuff. Rebecca had a new boat on demo which was marginally bigger than mine, but we couldn't help noticing that everyone else had huge creek boats, and many paddlers had elbow pads and full face helmets. My little playboat raised a few eyebrows.

The run went well though, there was a lot of wood and in places logs were river wide, making things a little difficult, but we followed the experienced guys with no trouble. It took me a little while to relax, I felt like I was constantly turning the boat in and out of rocks. My super-aggressive paddling took it's toll on my arms and two hours was plenty! The following day we returned to paddle the same section and met a single paddler at the take out, so we invited him along. This turned out to be fortuitous since I was much more relaxed on the run and caught an edge above double-whammy, the biggest drop on the river, essentially a small double waterfall. I rolled up immediately above the drop, tried to eddy out and realised I wasn't going to make it, then turned the boat right on the fall and ran the correct line with no issues. I saw Rebecca come out of the eddy after me in case I needed help, but was so relieved that I landed it that it took me a good few seconds to realise she wasn't behind me at the bottom. Looking around I saw her hung up on a log jam at the base of the first fall. I won't post my immediate thought, but I paddled hard for the eddy at the bottom and grabbed my throwbag out of the boat. I then had to climb the bottom fall to get to a position where I could throw Rebecca a line. She'd managed to prop herself up on a rock with her paddle, but I wasn't sure how long she could last there. I called Josh (the other paddler) down to help, but all he could do was try to hold station between the two falls. I threw my rope and Rebecca let go with the paddle and went straight upside down. As she couldn't get the boat free of the tree, she swam and then Josh was able to tow her out ok.

It was a sobering experience and one that made me realise it is time to get a river rescue course sorted out. My awareness needs to improve and I could definitely use more practice with lines and rescue scenarios. Being totally mental (in a nice way), Rebecca was fine after her near death experience. In fact she was fretting only about the amount of scratching on the demo boat :) With all the wood and our debacle on Saturday, we elected to run from Slesse Creek to Tamahi rapid on the Easter Monday. That run was a much nicer level with some big rapids and fewer boulder gardens, it made for a lovely paddle down in the sunshine.

Since Easter the local rivers have started to open up, so finally I get to paddle my butt off :) Spring run off will soon be underway so hopefully more fun times ahead.


Saturday, 24 September 2011

Summer updates

... and just like that, the warm weather vanished.

The trees are turning here in BC, normally they'd be a lovely yellow against the blue sky but the blue has been in short supply this year. The ridiculous amount of rain has been great for paddling however. In August, rather than waiting for the UnLikely paddling festival that kinda wraps up the paddling season, my friends and I headed down to Likely in middle-of-nowheresville BC. The river levels were still fairly high so we were hoping for some full-on fun runs, and we weren't disappointed.
Likely is great because it is very close to two excellent river runs, with more a short trip away. It is also well known for having a first-rate playwave right in town. As a beginner I'd only ever run the Lower Caribou, which is a nice big class II-III trip and a real step up from anything local. This time I'd be running the harder Upper Quesnel, which is class III-IV. For both Matt (Bowron Lake trip Matt) and I we'd be going about halfway, to a take out called the Bullion Pit. The river to that point is graded III+, big water, by far the biggest thing either of us had run.

Saturday morning - just about - we made a late start on the Lower Caribou for the beginners in the group. During the course of the year I'd been getting my friend Jess out paddling on and off and her kayaking skills had really developed from just rolling in the pool, she'd been paddling more and more technical stuff locally and the Lower Caribou was a big leap up for her. There are a couple of big rapids and the main (class III) rapid still gives me a wake-up call when I see it. Despite the big water and wave trains she made it through the entire run without even flipping over. After a ride back into town and something to eat, the more experienced paddlers headed off down the Upper Quesnel.

The great thing about the Upper Q is that it starts in Likely - literally you put your kayak on the lake outside the pub and float down through the playwave into the river. The rapids then start small, splashy class II stuff, and build up gradually. The first class III rapid sets the pace and then you are into the White Kilometer, which is big wave trains and chaos for a whole Km. I'd never seen anything like it, and it took me a little while to realise I was enjoying myself :) Some of the waves were huge.

My friend Matt (we'll call him Tall Matt) was leading the trip and had told both Matt (Bowron Matt) and me to follow him as he picked a good line through the waves and rapids. About a third of the way through the White Kilometer I realised my eyes were totally glued to Tall Matt's back. I started trying to look around more, saw a mammoth hole about the size of a bus to my right and I was just thinking "stuff getting into that" when one of the really experienced guys backed into it and started playing. Hmm.

As the waves got more chaotic I glanced over at Bowron Matt and noticed he looked pretty white. I hoped I didn't look like that. We'd been told that the White Kilometer ended at Best Drop, and then we'd be in the Bullion Pit. Tall Matt is normally pretty good at calling out the lines but when we hit Best Drop he realised he hadn't said anything. He tried to shout back to start middle and break hard right, and then was gone in the tumult. Fortunately I was still following more or less paddle stroke for paddle stroke, and I saw he'd attempted to go on a narrow line between two huge holes. The next few seconds seemed to slow right down, even though I was working hard, but even with my short playboat I was able to break right fast enough to avoid a complete thrashing. I didn't quite avoid the right hand hole, the edge caught me and flipped me but I rolled up and was past the drop. Whew. Matt made it through too and as we pulled into an eddy above the Bullion Pit there was an awful lot of whooping and shouting. Ah, adrenaline.

We took out at the Bullion Pit and as I watched my friend Rebecca paddle away I wished I was going too. Next time. Saturday night involved sitting around a camp fire and getting slowly drunk.

Sunday dawned even better than the day before, glorious hot sun and clear blue skies. We did another Upper Quesnel run, played a bit on the put-in wave, and again I took out at the Bullion Pit. My occasional arm pain was in full swing so after that I opted to shuttle my friends on one more run, and eat ice cream.

As we drove home most of us agreed the weekend was the best of the year.

A few weeks later and we were back in Likely for UnLikely Fest 2011. Having made the four hour drive down on Friday evening, it was dark when we arrived and we all decided to pitch our tents at my friend's parents' place, about 3km out of Likely, further down the lake. I thought we were being anti-social since all the festival goers were in town, but actually it was genius since it was quiet and we could get some sleep. We got a fire going and had a few beers, but it was colder than August and most people drifted off to bed in short order.

Saturday again started with a Lower Caribou run, this time two people I'd been taking out on 'beginner nights' during the summer were paddling and I was fairly nervous... akin to taking your kids to school for the first time I suppose :) Both of them had been doing well and were confident, although Danielle had just recently lost her rolling ability. Despite that things went well down to the start of the bigger stuff, when Dani caught an edge and went over. I was close enough to rescue her with the bow of my kayak, and she flipped back up ok.

The first big drop, class II+, was where Dani took her first swim. She caught a big wave and flipped, and I didn't get there fast enough. Despite having never swum before she did a great job, and started kicking powerfully when I was towing her, which saved me paddling super-hard and was much appreciated. I must be getting old.

Matt was leading and warned everyone that there would likely be no rescues in the class III rapid. It was a narrow canyon with a huge wave, I told Dani to follow Alene through and as we entered the canyon she got offline a little. Alene stayed left and had a good line, Dani went too far right and plowed straight into the meat of it. I followed, paddling up the face of the wave, and saw her flip at the peak. I was almost there when she bailed out, and again I had to tow her into an eddy behind the rapid. Despite the two swims she was in high spirits which was great to see. Curtis, the other newer paddler, managed to roll up after flipping and avoid swimming. He was pumped and spent the entire afternoon smiling to himself.

After the obligatory group picture at the take out, it was back to Likely and then the main event, my first full run down the Upper Quesnel. The paddle down to the Bullion Pit was familiar, although the water level was slightly lower the White Kilometer was very entertaining. Approaching Best Drop we saw Danielle and Curtis on river right with a camera, and pretty much everyone except Matt went through upside down.

They watched us head down and suddenly I was in new territory, again following Matt closely and listening to his advice about the rapids. We headed into a swirly, boily pool called 'Darkside' which looked like nothing, but as I crossed it my stern got sucked under, the boat stood on it's tail and suddenly I was upside down without realising what happened. The rapids below that got progressively harder, essentially we were dropping from pool to pool. I'd heard the names dozens of times and now I was getting to experience them first hand. 'Pearly Gates' had been built up and I went through without even realising it was a big rapid. 'Deepthroat' was a river-wide big hole, following Matt we broke hard right and sailed around it nicely with not even a flip. I could see how you wouldn't want to run into the hole though!

We looked upstream and saw someone in the water, as he didn't have a boat we figured it was a big swim. It turned out to be my friend and hardcore creek boater Ian riverboarding. The nutbar had a pair of fins and a small foam board, and was floating the rapids! Below Deepthroat was the biggest feature of all, the last part of the Devil's Eyebrow rapids. Up to that point there was a line for everything, but the 'Notch' was basically a 20 foot wide constriction in the river and the way to run it was to cross your fingers and trust to luck.

I'd been so pumped by the run down to that point I'd got chatting to other guys and lost Matt, so I attempted to find my own way through the Notch. All I really remember about it was a massive volume of water pumping through the constriction, I tried to punch it but got thrown
around like a toy and flipped. I rolled up, back over, up again and over the offside, before finally rolling up and staying up. It was unbelievably boily. I'd been close to running out of breath and swimming, and as I paddled away whooping I saw my friend Duncan - also his first run - blow three rolls before finally surfacing. We eddied out downstream and after a lot of high fiving and some pictures we finished up at Quesnel Forks. The only time I can remember feeling that elated before was finishing the London Triathlon in front of thousands of roaring spectators.

I'm pretty sure I didn't shut up all afternoon, but later that night there was a great reggae band in the pub and I got so rip-roaringly drunk that I was actually dancing. In traditional wild-west frontier town style some lady was playing the spoons along with the band.

On Sunday morning it was difficult to motivate myself to do ANYTHING, let alone paddle, but after some pancakes in town and a coffee I felt like paddling was something I could consider again one day. Duncan roared off with some guys to paddle the Upper Cariboo, and left the rest of us wondering at his enthusiasm. Deanna, Curtis and I headed down to the playwave in town and spent a couple of hours surfing and generally trying to throw down. I finally managed to do some backsurfing and a few spins on the wave, which made my weekend. Dani had managed to get herself on a commercial raft trip down through the big Upper Quesnel rapids and so we were all grinning like idiots by the time we left for home.

UnLikely Fest normally marks the winding down of the season and the weather has certainly turned cold since then. The shorter days, grey skies and biting wind all speak of snow to come, and soon. The wet summer, however, has meant that autumn rain has brought the local playwaves back in during the last week. The season is not done yet :)

I'll be back in the UK for a while at the end of October. Not sure what I am doing over the winter or how that will affect the blog but I will try to post updates if anything interesting occurs!


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Bowron Lakes part 3

Matt near the spot we found the wrecked canoe

Matt had been up for a while when I finally rolled out of my sleeping bag. Several sleepless nights and a fair amount of paddling were starting to take their toll.

We ate a quick breakfast and broke camp in good time, and just after the party of four canoeists left, portaging their canoes and gear around The Chute and the rapids behind it, we pushed our boats out into the very last part of Isaac Lake and floated around the bend to line up and drop over the Chute. The previous evening we'd been scouting the rapid and noticed a tree blocking the immediate exit, if a boat ran the chute and just stayed in the current it would run right into the log jam. We formulated our own ideas for getting around it - Matt ran into the drop backwards and ferried across to river right, I ran the drop forwards, eddied out left, then ferried across the whole rapid. The Chute was a bit of a disappointment, levels were so high that most of the whitewater was washed out.

However the river got better. Just downstream was the section called the Roller Coaster and that rapid was in full swing, I'd not taken a 17ft boat through whitewater before but after about three seconds my concerns passed and I enjoyed it as much as I would have in a playboat. I turned to check on Matt and he was whooping as his boat splashed through the rapids, so I figured he was doing ok too :)

Moose calf swimming in Skoi Lake

The fun stuff was over very quickly and we had to take out to avoid the signposted waterfall. As we packed the boats onto their carts for the short portage the canoeists passed us hauling their boats. I was glad we paddled the short river section. Dragging our kayaks, we stopped to check out the 'waterfall' - the first section was a good class II-III rapid that I'd have loved to run in my playboat. Matt was looking a bit cheated, it was obvious he figured we could run it. We had a discussion about how they obviously had to stop boats going through there in case Johnny-first-time-canoeist capsized with no lifejacket on, but then just downstream I heard a thundering noise and we moved to the edge of the trail to check it out. There was a huge class V drop which at normal levels maybe one or two people I know could have run... at the current water level it would be suicide. We both looked at each other and I said 'that will be the waterfall then'.

The next part of the circuit was tedious, short river runs followed by short portages around difficult rapids. I was getting pretty good at packing my stuff into my carry-bag, putting my cart together, strapping the kayak on the cart and hauling, but my original fix for the lost wheel pin was totally inadequate on the rougher trails and the gaffer tape would scrape off. Matt fixed that by zip-tying my cart wheel on.

Before too long we'd done three portages and we were on McLeary Lake. As we started to paddle down the right side of the short lake, we could see another trapper cabin on the left shore. I said to Matt that would have been our stop the previous night if we'd been able to keep going... part of me thought it would not have been too much further, but then it is easy to think that way when you are dry, it isn't raining, and you haven't paddled all day. And as Matt pointed out, it may have been occupied last night.

One of the few cabins around the circuit

I found myself worrying that the portages had taken a couple of hours out of what we already knew would be a long paddling day, and I tried to force myself to stop thinking about the time and relax. That became easier as we left the lake behind and funneled into the Cariboo river. The weather started to improve and the clouds that had veiled the scenery parted to reveal the mountains. Matt kept asking me to take pictures, we were both loving the occasional sun and the view. Added to that it was very relaxing to just let the current take the boats, with the odd correcting stroke to avoid wood in the river. We agreed that this was the best part of the trip so far.

There were some stumps and other hazards in the river and it wasn't long before we came on a wrecked canoe. It wasn't - we were relieved to see - the party that we'd stayed with the night before. It looked relatively clean so it was hard to tell when it had happened, but it was very obviously abandoned. We shouted to ensure there was nobody nearby in need of assistance. The whole boat had buckled and cracked in the middle, evidently it had got sideways on a stump and the current had destroyed it.

The river widened and slowed slightly and eventually deposited us into Lanesi Lake. My shoulders and torso had appreciated the break and started to complain as soon as I began the long paddle up the lake. Lanesi was nowhere near the length of Isaac - maybe a third the size - but it was significant and I knew we had to cover the whole of it and a lot more in order to keep our trip to five days.

Pretty much out of nowhere a very strong headwind hit us and within minutes we were smashing through big waves. The wind was catching my inactive paddle blade as it came out of the water and blasting it backwards which was making it harder to paddle. I put my head down and paddled as hard as I could into the wind, occasionally having to track diagonally to keep toward the shore. When I did that, the waves would break across the boat and swamp my spraydeck, and had me paying close attention to keep upright. Up ahead I could see Matt, head down, powering on through so I just kept going too. After a few minutes I stopped fretting and started laughing at the ridiculous weather. I wondered briefly if I'd finally lost it, a few days kayaking in the wilderness and here I was laughing like a maniac in a 20 knot wind as the waves crashed over me. Maybe the next step would be running around naked covered in mud and talking to mushrooms.

We pulled into the lee of a headland and saw two canoes pulled ashore - sure enough it was the group of canoeists we'd left with that morning. Their canoes had started to take on water faster than they could bail it, so they'd been forced to stop. Matt checked our position on the map and we were both stunned to discover we'd covered almost a third of the lake. We braced ourselves and pulled around the headland but the weather had changed totally and the wind was non-existent. Paddling on we started enjoying the views as the clouds shifted and the mountains surrounded us once more. Hugging the right shore of the lake I listened to the eerie silence of the rainforest on the slopes of the mountains, broken by the occasional exotic-sounding bird call. I wondered what it would be like to be hiking through that, and I felt rather small and insignificant.

As we basked in the sun and put another third of the lake behind us, we could see another weather front ahead towards the end of the lake. We determined to try to paddle for the end before we got hit again... bizarrely we had a tail wind on the lake, but the clouds were moving toward us. Crazy mountain weather.

Another problem that started to become apparent was my lightweight packing. I'd packed five normal days' worth of food, not five days of paddling for 6 hours a day. Matt had extra and we had the jerky and granola that his wife had made us, but I was starting to find that I was hungry more or less constantly, and everything I ate was not enough. As the afternoon drew on I figured I'd have enough for breakfast, a handful of jerky and a Mars bar for lunch, and an energy bar for our planned last day. We really couldn't afford to hang about.

The storm hit us as we made our way towards the end of Lanesi Lake, thunder rolled overhead and we stayed tight in to the trees on the right shore. Every time we tried to round a headland we'd battle the wind, until right at the end of the lake we rounded a bend and the wind died. Soon it was overcast and a little rainy, but we could deal with that. We passed into Sandy Lake and paddled gently up the right shore. It was getting late, and Matt asked what I wanted to do. My body told me it wanted a very large burger, some beer and then a nice warm bath but since we were some miles from any of those, I figured we had to press on. We were both feeling pretty strong still so we agreed to keep paddling as late as we possibly could. Matt figured if we could get through Babcock and Skoi lakes, we'd get all the portaging finished and just have a relatively easy paddle the next day.

We started to pass campsites where sane people had decided to call it a day several hours ago and were sitting around chatting and eating. I'd been sitting in my boat for so long that most of my lower body was numb, but I didn't want to get out since I'd chill and all the water trapped in my drypants would slosh down my legs. As we got to Babcock lake though, we had no choice. Helpfully the rain returned as we took out to portage onto the lake. Slogging through the muddy trail I could feel water sloshing about so I took off my boots and held open my latex ankle seals. Water poured out and although I was chilled it felt much better without a pint of water in each leg. The rain stopped and we did too briefly to chat with some campers on the edge of Babcock Lake, but the mosquitoes were bad and I didn't want to stand around long, soaked as I was. We powered across the lake and the rain closed back in, but I wasn't really in the mood to look at the view so I just focussed on paddle stroke after paddle stroke. It was hard to keep my head up. Looking back I noticed the campers watching us go, I guess they thought we were nuts paddling into the sunset.

There was a really short portage at the end of Babcock, leading to Skoi Lake. As I got to the end of it, happily chatting to Matt now the rain had stopped, a big Moose stepped up right in front of me out of the lake. Matt said over my shoulder 'don't move'.

The Moose was evidently disgusted by the smell of unwashed paddler, since she jumped straight back into the lake and swam. I heard some distressed sounding grunting, and realised her calf was still in the lake too. I'd recovered from my surprise enough to grab my camera, and took a couple of pictures as they got out on the reedy far bank. We put in and had to paddle through some twisting reed beds to get out into the main lake, all the time keeping an eye out for grazing moose. As the small lake opened up the sun came out just as it was dropping behind the horizon, and the lake steamed in the pink sunset. A Loon sat in the middle of the lake giving it's weird-sounding call. Another moose watched us suspiciously from the far side of the lake and ran off as we paddled closer. I smiled to myself - if we'd stopped when we should have, five or so hours ago, we'd have seen none of this stuff.

We took out at the end of Skoi Lake and it only took a few minutes to haul our kayaks across the short portage. We were the only people at the campsite on the shore of Spectacle Lakes, so we decided to stop there for the night. My final dinner of two rehydrated chicken breasts, some cheesy mash potato and some green beans tasted like Heaven. I savoured each mouthful, eating by the light of my headlamp. We'd paddled for 11 hours more or less continuously, apart from the portages we'd only stopped very briefly for lunch. The last thing I remember as I lay in my sleeping bag was the haunting sound of the Loon on Skoi Lake, a few hundred metres behind us.

After breakfast the next morning we packed up and headed out fairly early. Just as we were leaving the people we'd talked to at Babcock Lake the night before turned up, obviously we were NOT early starters :) We paddled just in front of them for the whole of the Spectacle Lakes and it wasn't clear where Spectacle finished and Swan Lake started, but they were still with us as we passed reedy islands in Swan Lake, looking for Moose. There were none, so we pressed on. The canoeists pulled into a campsite for lunch whilst Matt and I pressed on and stopped at a site Matt had been to before on the Bowron River. I ate my last handful of jerky and made a smug comment about how my next meal was going to be a burger with all the trimmings. We were both looking forward to a big meal... I think the previous day had really taken it's toll on both of us.

We pressed on and wound through the reeds on the Bowron River - finally taking our first wrong turn of the trip - looking for Bowron Lake. I was really starting to get the hang of turning the long sea kayak so the twists and turns of the river were fun. The sun was out too. We started the long paddle up Bowron Lake and I was disappointed to see it was so... civilised looking. There were houses and cabins and for the first time in several days we heard engine noise as powered boats came down the lake. Bowron is a recreational lake and apart from the first kilometer or so there isn't much to see. Matt asked which shore I was planning to paddle and I told him the shortest route - straight up the middle! I aimed for the end of the lake and got on with paddling. Looking at my watch I figured we'd be done by 2.30pm. All that time looking forward to my Bowron adventure and here I was wondering what kind of time we'd get to Tim Hortons.

At the very end of the lake we took out, high-fived each other and then dragged our gear up the short hike to the car park. Matt brought the truck down and as we loaded up a park ranger asked for our names - they'd had an emergency VHF call from a party of two guys in the park. Apparently they'd been forced to pull ashore in the bad weather and they'd simply run out of food. The ranger had been hopeful we were the guys, and went back to figuring out a rescue. We mentioned the wrecked canoe we saw, but apparently that had been there since last year.

Driving back into the real world we decided to stop at Wells and eat. However after a very strange cafe kicked us out - they had customers but told us they couldn't serve us until 5pm - we went to a gas station to get coffee and as we opened the door the lady in the fully-stocked looking store told us they couldn't sell us anything except gas. Bemused, we decided to head for Quesnel and hope that Matt didn't fall asleep at the wheel. I looked at myself in the mirror - half closed eyes, red face and hair standing up like I'd had a bad fright. Matt looked little better. The people of Wells probably figured we were escaped from an asylum.

We ate a couple of burgers each in Quesnel, followed it with a bunch of doughnuts and finally arrived home in the early evening. For several days afterward all I could do was eat, sleep and scratch my mosquito bites.

Now the rain, pain and insects are a dim memory I'd be tempted to do it again sometime. In August or September. Preferably during a heatwave. But there are so many other places to explore here...

Hope you enjoyed the write-up.


Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Bowron Lakes part 2

I'd been willing myself to sleep for maybe half an hour or so in the half-light when the distinct sounds of something in the campsite snapped me wide awake. As I lay there I could hear something picking it's way around and I tried to slow my breathing as it seemed deafeningly loud in my ears. If it was a bear, the rational side of my brain tried to argue, it would be crashing around and making a racket, not sneaking. I was just starting to relax again when there was a big splash from the direction of the lake. I sat up in my sleeping bag, debating on whether I should open the tent door for a look, but as that involved moving and therefore making noise I laid back down and tried not to think about how much my tiny one-person tent resembled a nylon coffin.

Whatever it was obviously decided to take a cooling swim in the late evening, I lay awake most of the night but if it did return to the campsite I didn't hear it. Early in the morning it began to rain and the drumming on the tent must have eventually lulled me off to sleep for a couple of hours.

After breakfast, breaking camp and a discussion about the previous night's intruder we finally got onto Isaac Lake at around 11am, much much later than we had intended. We knew we were going to be paddling all day and we had been told that the wind was bad in the afternoon, but for some reason it just took ages to get going. As we set out the canoeists that we'd started with came into sight and shouted greetings. I had a few misgivings, based on the fact that they were planning to take seven days and we were planning on four, and here we all were at the top of Isaac Lake. We should have been long gone!

The rain made it difficult to motivate ourselves, and it was so much cooler that I ditched the t-shirt and shorts and paddled in my dry gear and thermals. We quickly left the canoeists behind. Isaac Lake made a ninety-degree turn to the south so we crossed it and effectively took the 'racing line' through the corner. It was initially a little daunting to be out in the middle of such a large lake, but by the time we made the second crossing I was fairly accustomed to it. Matt had mentioned that paddling down the middle of lakes is not great because you get no sense of momentum, it doesn't feel like you are making any headway. Added to that I found it was kind of dull as there really wasn`t much to see, so I concentrated on keeping my paddle blades square in the water, twisting to put the blade in at my toes and pulling it out at my hip. In this way the first part of Isaac Lake slid slowly by. We occasionally paused for snacks and drinks, Matt`s wife had made us some delicious granola bars which provided a much needed boost.

Late in the afternoon I started to realise I was really damp and cold, it came as a slight surprise since whilst we were moving I was generating enough warmth to be comfy. We came upon a guy fly fishing from a small headland and as we pulled alongside Matt had a chat with him. We`d arrived at one of the few log cabins that are dotted around the lakes, and there were four guys sheltering from the elements. They invited us in and as I stepped out of the boat I realised what sort of state I was in, my teeth simply wouldn`t stop chattering. Where I`d been sitting in a puddle on my seat all afternoon it had soaked through my drypants and was now pooled in the bottom of each leg, unable to get out past the latex seals. I hugged myself and tried to keep my teeth clenched as we walked up to the cabin. Walking in the door we were hit by a wall of warmth from the wood stove the guys had going. They made us hot tea whilst we stood right next to the stove and tried not to melt our drysuit seals.

There was a campsite outside the cabin, just across a bridge and gushing river and it turned out that the four guys had camped there last night waiting for the cabin to become free. I got the impression they weren`t planning on moving out any time soon. The fishing had been good and they`d caught a bunch of large trout which they were planning on eating. I was concerned that it was getting late and we were only halfway down Isaac Lake, with a whole pile of paddling to do in the cold and rain, and I really didn`t want to consider moving more than two metres from the wood stove. It would also be really nice if someone could see their way to stoking more wood in and making me another tea, thanks very much.

Matt had similar ideas - he'd not realised how cold he was until he tried to talk to the guys in the cabin and the words came out jumbled. After a discussion we decided to put our tents up outside, and leave our wet gear in the cabin to dry out. Since I only had one pair of thermals it seemed like an award-winning plan. Unfortunately the four guys were not the best campers in the world. There were fish bits strewn around the tent pad and in the river, and they`d cooked last night`s catch directly on the camp fire grill which when added to the food scraps left in it, now looked like the world`s best bear attractant. We put up a tarp for a kitchen area and small tarps over the tent pad, then put Matt`s tent up. As both tents were soaked from the previous night and Matt`s was a two person, we decided to share a tent in the hope our combined body heat would dry it out. Matt sponged the inside but it was still very damp. Added to that the crashing river, which ran either side of our tent pad, was on the rise with all the rain. Slowly but surely our kitchen area started to flood and a new streamlet ran through the campsite.

We tidied up the campsite and threw the fish guts out into the lake, but went to bed wondering if the bears, flooding, or hypothermia would get us first. The gushing water and constant rain kept me awake all night.

In the morning we had a wet breakfast but were much quicker to break camp and after having to bother the still-sleeping young guys in the cabin for our drygear we were out on the lake by 9.30am. It was raining on and off rather than constantly, and we made good headway as there was a slight tailwind down the lake. We were determined to make up for the previous short day.

After paddling for an hour or so we came across one of the larger group campsites and paddled up to say hi to the group that were breaking camp there. It was getting on towards 11am and they were showing no signs of hurrying to get on the water. It made me wonder if perhaps we weren't being a bit ambitious trying to get done in four days... a week would have allowed more cup of tea/feet up time. We chatted to members of the group for a short while until one of them pointed back up the lake to the large storm making it's way down the valley toward us. Suddenly the tailwind didn't seem like such a bonus, and we hastily said goodbye and paddled down the lake.

In the increasing wind I found that if I paddled fast enough I could catch the small waves that were passing us, and surf briefly. That passed the time until we grabbed a quick lunch in the boats, whilst the rain beat down around us. The lake seemed to be an endless series of headlands, we'd reach one and then aim for the next, and so on. Finally, after what felt like forever, the end of the lake came into view several kilometers away. The rain which had been picking up all afternoon turned into hail and the surface of the lake looked like a badly-artexed ceiling in all directions. Both Matt and I were pretty keen to finally get off Isaac Lake! At the very end the lake narrowed into "The Chute", a well-known rapid that led into Isaac River, and there was a group campsite with a wooden shelter right on the banks. Matt thought it would be a good idea to haul our wet selves and soaked gear in there and attempt to dry out, or at least wait out the worst of the rain.

As we arrived we saw that two groups of paddlers had beaten us to it, four people we'd met at the orientation on day one and inexplicably, the big group that we'd talked to that morning. Given that we'd only stopped for a few toilet breaks and snack breaks, I started to wonder if we were just slow paddlers! Matt mentioned that two people in a big canoe was probably more efficient than one person in a sea kayak, so I went with that ;)

It was only about 3pm so we figured we'd get dry and warmer and then make tracks for McCleary Lake. We got to the shelter, which was essentially a big wooden roof, open at the sides, with seats and tables. And most importantly, a wood stove. Some kind soul had even left dry wood. The canoeists had got a fire going and pretty soon our grand plan to push on started to fade along with our enthusiasm. We'd keep making target times - if it has stopped raining by 4.30, we'll go. Eventually at 5pm we made the decision to stay the night in the campsite, so we'd have dry clothes in the morning. In typical Canadian fashion the other people staying in the shelter were so friendly and were trying their hardest to get us to stay the night and party with them anyway.

As soon as we made the decision to stay, the rain slackened right off as if someone with a strange sense of humour had turned off a tap. A couple turned up in another canoe taking the number of people in the shelter to 21. They looked like drowned rats and didn't really have any appropriate rain gear. The girl especially looked very, very cold. We all shuffled around to make more room at the wood stove, and threw some more logs in.

By the time Matt and I put up the tarp and tent, the Sun had come out over the mountains across from us, and everyone rushed down to our tent pad to bask in the evening rays. Our site was right next to the lake, out of the trees and was in the full, lovely, warm sunlight for the short half hour or so before the Sun dipped behind the mountains. The change was incredible and people that had been huddled around a small stove all afternoon were now taking canoes out fishing, running the Chute, photographing the sunset, and generally behaving as if they'd never seen the big yellow ball in the sky before.

We were too tired to do much partying but judging by the noise some folks had a pretty late night :) As I tried to drift off I took stock of our situation. It was the end of day three and we'd only just reached the end of Isaac Lake, about the halfway point of the circuit. Finishing in four days was not feasible but if we pushed really hard tomorrow we should finish in five. As we'd both packed food and fuel for five days we SHOULD be in good shape. Provided, of course, we could cope with the weather.

Part 3 soon!


Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bowron Lakes part 1

The last few weeks had been mostly about park and play surfing on the local playwave until the level dropped recently, so it was quite a change to think about a long kayak tour. But Matt and I had been planning the trip for weeks, and I'd slowly been accumulating camp stuff and other items which I figured would make my life easier. A week before we were due to leave we had a meeting which I think was more designed to ensure that I wasn't just going to turn up with my kayak and a toothbrush, Matt went through his kayak camping checklist but unusually for me, I'd had my own checklist on the go for several weeks. I was, pretty much, as prepared as I'd ever been for anything.

We decided to head down to Bowron Lakes Provincial Park on Sunday evening and camp in the main campground, then head out on the lakes first thing Monday morning. Sunday night passed slowly and I don't think I slept, just lay in my sleeping bag listening to forest sounds and wondering what they could be. In particular there was a thumping noise that sounded like a single-cylinder bike being started, I assumed it was some inconsiderate camper starting a powerplant for their RV, but Matt mentioned it was some sort of Grouse trying to attract a mate. Evidently he was somewhat less than irresistible as the noise went on into the early hours.

Next morning we got up and packed up camp to head over for the mandatory Provincial Park orientation at 9am. Full of oatmeal and optimism, we sat and watched a DVD about how to avoid becoming bear food. Then the park ranger told us they'd had to encourage a mother Grizzly and cub out of the main campsite that morning. So the sounds I heard were not ALL Grouse.

All the other people starting their tours that day were in canoes, and had to have their gear weighed. Matt and I, in kayaks, were given our park passes and sent on our merry way.

The first part of the circuit is a huge portage - the longest on the whole tour - and for the first hour we grunted and sweated in the warm weather, hauling our kayaks on carts. I'd thrown almost all of my gear in a backpack and was dragging a light boat, Matt had gone the opposite way and was struggling just to move his heavy kayak. We started to take turns hauling his boat, and it wasn't long before we were both wondering just how far 2.4 kilometers really is. We were hot and tired, and hadn't dipped a paddle in the water yet. Added to that the warm day brought out mosquitoes by the million, and any body part that we'd missed with the bug dope was quickly turned into a pin cushion by the annoying insects.

When the first lake finally appeared, we found that we were the last to arrive. Everyone that we'd last seen weighing their gear was already there, despite us only seeing one other boat on the portage trail. Two people pushing one canoe was obviously much more efficient than a person pushing a kayak. This was a theme we were going to see more of during the week!

We were far more organised at the lake shore though. I had my kayak in the water in minutes, and even with all the gear he was packing Matt was not far behind. We put in and I tried to get a feel for moving the heavy boat around. A couple of cheesy snapshots and we were underway, leaving the canoeists behind. The first part of the lake was a grassy river delta, and we slowly wound out into Kibbee Lake. We were obviously on some sort of mission... although Kibbee is quite small we almost flew across it in twenty minutes. My kayak cart was strapped across the bow hatch and I kept hitting it with my paddle, about halfway across I noticed that I'd lost an axle pin. We'd done one of three planned portages for the day, and already we'd have to figure out how to attach my left cart wheel. Grr.

We stopped and ate a quick lunch on the far shore of Kibbee lake, and contemplated the next portage. I broke out the duck tape and my cart was not quite as good as new. The first canoeists turned up as we were leaving and the kids were all wondering whether to eat or portage first. Matt had less in his boat but the portage was harder, almost all uphill and the sun was out overhead making for hot work. We passed bear poop on the trail and I made sure to make plenty of noise, probably if we encountered a bear it would have a good laugh at us sweating and dragging our kayaks, but I didn't want to take the chance.

At the end of the portage, mosquito bitten and sick of walking, we put our boats out onto Indianpoint lake. It had a completely different character to Kibbee, and was much longer. We hugged the left shore and I noticed how quiet it was. The lake was particularly pretty, forested right to the shore and surrounded by mountains. Towards the end it narrowed right into another river delta and I realised we were paddling upstream. The sea kayaks made easy work of it though and we wound through into a small, shallow stretch of lake. At the end of it was a sign telling us where to portage. We were both pretty happy that we'd got to the third portage, once out of the way that would be our first day target completed.

We decided this time to haul our gear the 1.6km and then come back and get the kayaks. The mosquitoes were simply ridiculous, there were more than I had ever seen. We'd slapped bug repellant all over and the whole portage all I could feel was insects pinging off my arms and legs where they were trying to land. At the end of the portage the level of Isaac Lake was so high that all the ground was marshy and there was a lot of standing water. Hence the mosquitoes. We were planning to camp there originally but I told Matt we'd be better off a few hundred metres down the lake. We jumped in our kayaks and headed off, looking for a campsite.

Camping on the Bowron circuit is all in designated sites, to keep down erosion and other environmental concerns. The campsites are all numbered, and we stopped for the evening in #12. It was beautiful and we were able to watch the sun slowly sink behind the mountains. I had a look around and found a log and using Matt's axe I started chopping some wood for the fire. Matt made pizza for both of us and it went down well with the dried Lasagne dinner I had. We were both pretty pleased that we'd done almost a quarter of the circuit and three long portages. Tomorrow we'd have a paddling day and hopefully manage the whole length of Isaac Lake, some 30 kilometers. It was light so late and we sat around our fire watching the smoke cross the lake. Eventually we headed off to bed and I sat again listening to the utter quiet.

We were in the wilderness.

More to come!