By Hire a Canoe, Nov 14 2019 04:13PM
DOUBLE BAGGING IT
At this time of year millennials are updating their facebook pages with photos of their explorations, climbing up and stripping off on sacred mountains, deep sea diving in exotic waters, attending yoga retreats in far flung Tibetan regions. Even families are now boasting of Indian adventures, trekking in Peru, cycling in China. It is all about self-discovery, bagging it before you are 11 ¾, 30 things you must do before you are 30, 50 before 50, slowing life down, holding onto your teenagers, a bucket list of experiences, a search for new-perspectives or, for the more cynical, bettering your neighbour at the office water cooler or on the school run.
We were all set for adventure. The planning had taken months - preparing for a Shackleton style voyage. The maps were pasted on the walls around our kitchen, food supplies were measured out, repairs were made to our vessel, extra bedding hauled down from the loft for our canvas bell tent . We loaded up the ancient Ford estate with large red Canadian canoe on the roof rack, tent, sleeping bags, airbeds, axe, water boxes, gas stove, pots, pans, washing up kit, saw, towels, life jackets, feather pillows, air beds, cans of beans, wet weather kit, sun hats and bandanas, mosquito nets, sunscreen, a hefty first aid kit and a large garden spade. Between the kit, we squeezed our protesting 14, 12 and 8 year old children, complaining bitterly that they couldn’t move, it was “so embarrassing” and then occasionally chuckling at the madness of it all.
We left at the crack of dawn. Neighbours in our highly respectable suburb of South London had watched with a mixture of admiration and horror as, the day before, we had loaded our trusty yet rusty retro vehicle. We were bringing down the standards in our street but when we disclosed the location of our “Family Adventure into the Wilds” we were met with looks of disbelief.
“..off to the West Midlands to canoe the wild River Severn” we boasted. “Why not the Zambezi river?” they asked. “Too crowded” we told our children-“rather over -rated”..instead we were going to explore hitherto unchartered (and much cheaper) waters. We took on the motorway first, our car overladen and overhung by an immense Canadian canoe, its body driving dangerously close to the road. Other families safely cocooned in gently purring, spacious sports utility vehicles, craned their necks to stare.
Three hours later and out of London, we arrived at the Welsh border. We unloaded and picked up another Canadian canoe for our 6 day trip, filling up with water and picked up a bar b que to perch perilously atop our belongings. Each kit bag had to be double bagged in case-heaven forbid, we capsized.
Double bagging is an art form in itself and the equivalent of an all body work out in a city gym. The drill is as follows: 1) load the first lighter lining bag with all of your possessions 2) push out all of the air, using your knees and all of the force of your upper body 2) roll up the top, 3) seal it up and then 4) stuff it into a more substantial heavy waterproof bag, 5) repeat the process 2-4 at that tougher level and then 6) fling over one shoulder like a sailor to walk down to the vessel. Each night the operation had to be reversed with pushings and pullings, pantings and in some case swearings to extrapolate the inner lining from the heavy outer bag and break the airlock. The air release would come with a big sigh and the inner bag would finally pop out onto the muddy field. The tent was raised, the wood gathered. Clothes were pegged on the line to dry in the trees. The fire blazed, the water boiled and bedding mats were unfurled ,sighing as they inflated. The tasks were endless and monotonous yet everyone knew the drill. No one was bored. Tonight this field was ours alone-it was
A full day’s family paddling on the river is complimented brilliantly by any type of hot food around an open fire on an isolated camp site at dusk. Our favourite wild camp site was a vast field frequented only by sheep and horses and owned by Lord [ X ]. The site boasted “no facilities” and only those who knew about the secret sign on the banks of the river were able to stay. There was a closeness each evening when we finally stopped paddling, a feeling that against all odds our small, well-kitted team had overcome the elements and pulled through. Our arms were aching and our skin tingled from an entire day in the elements. The singed marshmallows rescued from the fire, sent out tiny sparks into the night and the sheep munched quietly beside us. We cast aside the dirty dishes, spat toothpaste into the field and rolled into our sleeping bags at the end of each surprisingly long day.
Clearing the site the next day was less enticing. The fire was often a pathetic plume of smoke over which we tried to cook porridge. After breakfast there was the hard graft of striking a heavy canvas tent, double bagging, forcing air out of protesting bedding, washing up in cold water, turfing the fire.. all necessary before we fell exhausted into our overloaded canoes, to float and paddle downstream once again.
The industrial wastelands I had been expecting of the Midlands, were a rarity. We travelled through surprisingly rural surrounds, spotting kingfishers, water cranes and the occasional leaping salmon. Fishermen lined the banks. We floated through Shrewsbury, paddled under picturesque Ironbridge, slid past silently staring deer in the woods surrounding the Telford cooling towers. The evening light and reflections whilst on the water were astonishing. After a particularly long and arduous day of paddling and longing to see our site, my 14 year old whispered, “we could be anywhere- we could be in South Africa?” I mentally exchanged the swans for crocodiles and nodded in agreement.
With each day we had a new destination and purpose but time started to slow down. As a family of course we squabbled, grew tired, objected to the hard work but we also spent hours in silence moving slowly down the river together, looking for bridges to chart our progress, spotting wildlife. My 8 year old read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to us as she lazed in the middle of the canoe atop a bundle of bags and we trailed hands and feet in cooling waters. We grew used to the pointings, from the banks of the river, of other families.
Disasters – yes we had a few. My eldest son and I capsized taking a bend to avoid the shallows at too great an angle. The boat filled quickly and we fell into some muddy cold waters . Gasping with shock we watched our kit (luckily all double bagged) float slowly down stream to be picked up by my husband and the other children with the aid of their paddles. The force of the river was unexpected as our legs were drawn under the capsized canoe. Following instructions from my eldest who, rather surprisingly, took command, we moved the canoe from across the stream into the side and then rolled it back over our heads. We were muddy and wet but sobered by the experience and it has given us a story to tell. I managed to keep my straw hat on throughout the entire catastrophe so no total imersion but all the same rather a surprise. Our bedding and cooking equipment all remained dry and all that we lost was our pride. I have a lasting memory of watching the cold box (the only item which was not double bagged) floating upright, but at a precarious angle, downstream carrying our eggs, milk and bacon until it was rescued a few hundred metres later with hysterical giggles by our second canoe paddlers.
The same son caught a fish –by mistake and against the rules which were emblazoned on signs nailed
to trees at the water’s edge. Fishing without a permit or from a boat resulted in huge fines and my son feared potential life imprisonment or at least the wrath of surrounding fishermen. He found a 3 foot length of fishing line caught in a tree with a lure and hook attached and trailed it behind the boat with one leg over the side for additional bait- in Huckleberry Finn style. He was horrified to catch a sizeable fish which we shot with a phone and then released it before imminent fines were imposed or imprisonment by the environment agency or even worse caught by nearby fishermen heavily armed with thousands of pounds worth of fishing kit.
At the end of six days of travel we were exhausted, our clothes were dirty, damp and smelly. Wild camping is one thing if you are a lean, lithe and tanned teen or twenty something from a Timotei advert but a low maintenance almost 50 year old feels differently. It felt unjust that after 6 days of worthy outward bound pursuits ones face and body should not reflect the natural beauty of the surrounds. Sadly this is not the case –the reality is more the look of “dragged through hedge backwards- six nights in six fields with little sleep.”
We reloaded our trusty stead and returned to our suburban London existence, spreading out camping kit all over the house and garden to air. The canoe resides at the side of our terraced red brick house now, in hibernation for the winter months and I wonder whether we shall have another travel adventure next year.
A fat glossy magazine landed on the door mat shortly after our return. The alluring pictures promised family happiness in the form of soothing, grey interiors, spatial, calming, glass extensions and exotic luxurious family holidays in the Maldives or ski-ing in the Alps (all-inclusive with kids club and spa facilities -of course). Buying family happiness seems strange but our voyage in the West Midlands reminded us that you can stumble upon family together ness in challenging and unusual circumstances. Working together, like any sporting team, can bring a common sense of achievement in the smallest and simplest of adventures and sharing time, travelling together might just be the most valuable family asset of all.