Can You Canoe?


A couple of years ago I bought a canoe in a fit of wilderness fever.

You know; as you walk around ‘cost co’ and there they are, hanging like giant toys from the rafters of the shop, being looked at by all the other blokes who you can tell wouldn’t have the animal instinct to ride the rapids past the admiring glances of salmon munching grizzlies. But I did , and I just happened to have a pocket burning with some cash which was really mine to spend, not part of the day to day boring cash of household expenses and boiler repairs, but mine all mine, and I decided that yes, my family would get the full advantage of my adventurous spirit and no, I would no longer dampen my burning need to travel forth…etc etc…

A year later the canoe hung  forlornly in the garage, it had been on a few lonely trips onto flat water, lakes and lochs, boating areas for old folk and children, and I felt the guilt every time I glanced up at it covered in dust, a beast, a wild animal, tethered like the tatty tiger that once paced the bars of Edinburgh zoo making a giant feast for hungry Scottish midges.

So I hatched a plan. I would travel a route so foolhardy and dangerous Sir Ranulph Fiennes himself would chortle at its audacity! From the depths of uncharted countryside I would travel to the edge of the mapped wilderness….I would ride my trusty canoe from Felton to Amble, and all in a day! Now you have to understand that for a trip of this magnitude I would need a guide, a fearless and strong chap, quiet but ultimately reliable in the face of danger. I of course chose Alex, my 14yr old son.

The big day approached and the preparations were complete, eight sandwiches in clingfilm,a bottle of pop from the garage, and a map (in case of confusing tributaries). My lovely wife dropped us off at the wild and lonely spot that was to be our last glimpse of civilisation for a whole day; the car park next to the Northumberland Arms , Felton. A clamber down to the river Coquet through nettles and discarded fishing lines and we were off, shakily drifting with the current toward the ancient bridge that arches over trout filled pools.  It couldn’t have gotten any more tempting than this as anyone would have scoured to some baitcasting reel reviews.

Now I might not have thought the starting point out that well, being that myself and guide hadn’t been in the canoe for a good few months, and it always takes time to get used to the ‘balance’ aspect of the whole carry on. So it was a bit of a shock to find that as we passed under the second , concrete monstrosity bridge, the water got a bit wavy and well…rapid like! This was a bit much for us beginners and instead of calmly striking out with paddles we both let out wails of panic as the canoe headed ,very quickly, toward an overhanging bush and promptly disappeared under it, knocking both of us onto our backsides in the bottom of the canoe, then slowly, very slowly, tipped us over! I grabbed out to save the thing dearest to me and luckily the sandwiches didn’t get too wet,  Alex on the other hand , got a proper soaking.

Ten minutes later we were back in the canoe, and we spotted the second paddle waiting for us amongst some weeds in the shallows. We paddled hard and soon warmed through, drying out quickly in the sunshine that popped out now and again from behind the clouds. The river Coquet widens out after Felton and varies between deep pools and gravely shallows, hardly ever enough to stop you , with only the occasional paddle in the river, dragging the boat across these natural dams.

It had been nearly a year since the September floods that devastated the Northumbrian towns locally, and the narrower parts of the river had trees festooned 20ft up with flood debris, bits of greenhouses, child’s garden toys, bin bags galore, all showing where the river level had roared past on that occasion. The banks showed bad erosion , many feet of sand removed and deposited elsewhere, and the school geography book diagrams of horseshoe lakes were graphically illustrated in real life formations.

A few miles out of Felton ,we hit wide flat water leading to Guyzance and a series of old mills. The largest weir, the first to be crossed , meant a climb up stone steps and drag a few yards to relaunch. On the way we discovered a memorial to soldiers drowned at the spot during WW2, a sad piece of history unknown to me till that moment, and tucked away in a lovely spot. We were joined by another guide for the next couple of miles, a large heron flew in short hops ahead of us, trying to shake us off until it got sick and headed over fields leaving us to enjoy what seemed to be total seclusion down the river, the high wooded banks hiding the surrounding countryside for much of the time, then allowing glimpses through to farms and homes. A crash in the bushes alongside us as we neared the railway viaduct carrying the mainline to Scotland, and a full grown deer literally fell into the river next to us. It must have been startled by our silent approach, and it proceeded to swim frantically up the river alongside the canoe for 100 yards, till it touched bottom and managed to scramble up the opposite bank and away. My guide was suitably impressed, although I tried to make out it was a regular occurrence on such trips out, I don’t think he believed me. This was followed by sightings of stoat and fox, an unidentified type of large bird of prey, and leaping fish.

The downhill nature of the trip didn’t seem to be assisting my arms much at this point (around 8 mile) and Amble seemed a long way off (probably another 4mile!) when we rounded the bend at Warren Mill I was very pleased to see my wife and daughter waiting at the ford, having anticipated my total failure in the adventure stakes!

We had been on the river about 4hrs, eaten our damp sandwiches and took an unexpected dip but we both felt like true adventurers…bring on the next challenge and move over Ranulph!

By Tony on December 3, 2009

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