I’ve no doubt there are campers out there who’ve spent many more nights in a Tentipi than us. Straight away I can think of a lady who enjoyed a whole winter pitched close to Ullswater in the English Lake District. She may still be there. But I do wonder whether many have pitched and struck one so often.
After camping in our Safir in twelve countries, with whole summers spent away, yet rarely spending more than a single night in one place, we have put our tipi up and taken it down quite a few times. Those campsites, nearly all of them wild, have been pretty varied too. From the Mediterranean coast to 70° North in Arctic Norway, from Spain to Croatia and from Finland to Wales, we’ve knocked pegs into soft dry sand, semi-bog, snow, permafrost tundra and glacial gravels. Just occasionally we’ve even encountered soft turf. We’ve lived in our Tentipi in the still of a prolonged 30°C heatwave, in deep frost, and in winds nudging storm force 11. I think we have its measure.
So when asked recently what I would do if our Safir were lost, my answer was immediate – save up and buy another. It’s as simple as that. While I might love our Terra Nova Quasar for those high altitude campsites reached on foot, and a tarp will do at lower levels, especially in good weather, if I was going to put anything other than our current Tentipi into our canoe, it would be an identical tent. Even down to the size.
When Susannah and I first contemplated a Tentipi, we looked initially at one of the 5s. There are only two of us after all. But if you’re going to reap the full benefit of a canoe’s inherent tent lugging ability, why not aim for as much shelter space a possible.
So what about a 9? Well all I can say is had we envisaged camping predominantly on formal sites, with plenty of room guaranteed, then the 9 would have been great. As it is, I can think of repeated occasions, faced with trees, scrub, tumbled riverbanks and sloping lake shores, where it would have been impossible to pitch anything larger than our 7. It really has turned out to be the ideal size for us.
Admittedly, the cost of purchasing a replacement would be rather alarming, and I’m very glad I bought ours while I had a well-paid job, but then, as with so many things, it’s all relative. I can say without hesitation that the conditions faced by our tent would have destroyed anything much cheaper long ago. And while I can think of a handful manufacturers whose tents would certainly have stayed the pace, these wouldn’t have been much cheaper anyway, and probably less than a third the size.
Chances are, they would have been trickier to use too. Tentipi claim you can pitch one of their expedition tents in three minutes. My verdict is that this is absolutely true… on perfect ground, and with everything laid out ready to go. Yet even on a shingle bank, in a stiff breeze, with a drop close on one side falling steep to a busy river, I can still pitch ours in less than five, on my own. Try doing that with almost any other shelter, let alone one of this scale.
Some will find the separate groundsheet rather odd, but then I grew up with arrangements like this. And I like them too. With all that room, it’s good, especially in bad weather to have an area under cover where you can wander in with wet and muddy boots on. Firewood can be stored on bare ground too. In fact, all sorts of wet, dirty, spiky things you wouldn’t want on your groundsheet can still be stored inside, simply by folding an edge back.
One of those things is a stove. Many tents can take a wood-burner of course, but few with the ease of a Tentipi. Being designed from the start for just this eventuality certainly helps, not least the ability to ventilate the shelter properly while in use. In many ways, Susannah and I enjoy the dryness offered by a stove as much as the heat. The ability to escape the damp, and remove moisture from rain-drenched clothing, is invaluable in an area of the world as soggy as north-west Europe. But then that warmth can be pretty important too, especially when temperatures really drop. We’ve not yet used ours way up north in winter, but Scotland is often pretty chilly, and we’ve greeted four New Years under Tentipi canvas up there. Camped once in snow, and finding I had thermometer stored in a bag, I was surprised to discover it was minus 16°C outside, and a toasty 25°C within our stove-enhanced temporary home.
But back to that campsite, where I was asked that question about potential replacements. It was a Tentipi Camp, the third run by Lesley and Pete Carol of ProAdventure in Llangollen. Other than the odd show we attend, where I give talks or offer outdoor tuition, this is the only time our tipi has seen a formal campsite. It did look grand though, surrounded by unaccustomed neighbours. There must have been thirty or more Tentipis scattered along the banks of the Welsh Dee, from the Olivin 2 to lofty Safir 15s. It was here I realised how pale our tipi had become, bleached by Scottish drizzle and Swedish 24 hour summer sun. Not that I could spot any other sign of its rather eventful life.
Tradition hovers close around the graceful curves of a canoe, nestling amongst those defiantly popular canvas bags, or adding lustre to a cherry-wood paddle. But as the kite shot rippling into the air, and the old prospector swung hard to port before surging forward, spray lifting high at the bow, tradition ducked, and then ran for cover.
Steve and I had first considered harnessing the impressive pulling potential of his stunt kite a couple of summers ago. Although neither of us has tried a purpose-built sail, we’ve both played with the usual groundsheet or jacket models. We even have a game (read hard-fought competition) in the family in which we paddle to a distant beach, heading deliberately into the wind, before racing back, but using only beach-combed materials for mast and rigging. The kite struck us as a worthwhile experiment.
Our first attempt proved encouraging, a touch alarming, and very amusing. With a good strong breeze squeezed between the wondrous mountain flanks of Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland, we tried first, with impressive failure, to launch the stunt kite from a small rocky island. It has to be admitted the sides were a bit cliff-like. How Steve managed to land in the canoe as he arrived backwards, at speed, across the stupidly steep weed covered rocks I don’t know. Flat on his back behind the bow seat, feet and arms in the air, I struggled as much to control my laughter as I did to balance and steer the canoe. It was probably fortunate, with Steve still unable to get off his back and control the bucking kite at the same time, that it dived fast for the third or fourth time and hit the water. We’d moved about twenty metres.
Launching from a nearby, and flat, beach a quarter of an hour later was a much better plan, especially as Hayley, long-suffering daughter (and Steve’s partner) was now able to hold the fabric end of the setup until lift-off. We were away, and travelling far faster than I’d considered likely with a kite of this size. A healthy wave surged at the bow, and each fresh gust lifted Steve from his seat. I had my work cut out just keeping the canoe straight and level.
Perhaps half a mile down the loch, and aware that the more kite fun we had the longer the paddle all the way back against the wind to mission control, we were saved any decision when the kite took an even wilder dive than the last couple and hit the water.
At about the same time we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on the success of our inaugural flight, things changed quite quickly, and not really for the better. It was at this moment we discovered that as effectively as a kite can catch the wind and climb, it could also catch the water (the canoe was being pushed fast downwind) and dive! The next few moments were a little too interesting for comfort, with Steve fighting taught nylon lines, and me struggling to bring the bow up into the wind, my eyes caught by the broad wave bubbling close to the edge of the tilting gunwale. If my face looked as concerned as Steve’s, and I’m sure it did, we would have made amusing viewing for the those of a more sadistic turn of mind.
Flight number three was much more successful, helped no doubt by a diminishing breeze. The trick, as the kite ditched again, was to paddle hard in its direction, the bow/kiteman winding in line frantically. Even with these tactics, the end of each run was by far the least pleasant part of the whole experience. On the whole, a large stunt kite hitting the water in a stiff breeze can be likened to something else hitting the fan.
But we already had a cunning plan to counteract this problem – a floating kite, designed for use in kite-surfing.
Good news – the kite wouldn’t sink. Bad news (possibly) – the kite was huge. If Steve’s stunt version, with an area of about 2m², could pull as along at somewhere between 5 and 10 knots (very hard to tell) what could a 10 m² kite manage? Our next flight was going to be fun, and quick.
Or would have been, if the wind hadn’t dropped the next day, and then returned to blast down the loch at about gale force 7 the next, and the next.
So to Devon.
There was a less than kind story doing the rounds in the 1920s about J-class yachts – those vast and extremely beautiful rich man’s racing toys. It was said that the skipper would place a lit candle on the boom in the evening. If it was still burning in the morning the air was too still to sail, if out it was too windy to race. Well, it felt a bit like that trying to find suitable weather that corresponded with the infrequent days when all team members were free to hit water (perhaps not the best phrase).
And then that day came – a surprisingly sunny Sunday in late November – with a strong northerly wind predicted to ease.
We’d decided that northerly was good. If we picked our usual spot on the Taw-Torridge estuary, this would push us upstream, away from the foaming surf lunacy of Bideford Bar at the river mouth. This sand dune flanked expanse of water would also give us a fair bit of space. We felt that space would be a good thing. We were right.
Grey Sand Hill at the northern end of Northam Burrows, with its expanse of undulating dunes has a slightly lunar feel. It’s also quite a long way from the car park to the water’s edge. We decided we needed a command module. NASA probably spent millions on any one of theirs. Our wheel-barrow was a bit cheaper, but possibly just as useful as Steve and I carried the canoe and Susannah set off with a teetering load of camera bags, tripod, lunch, paddles and pfds. The barrow even held a set of spare clothes… for Steve. I’d left mine behind. A search of the van produced a day-glo vest. Perhaps best not to fall in then.
Not prepared to be outdone, Steve had forgotten his climbing harness. Undaunted by this slight setback we stepped seamlessly into boy-scout mode, and soon had a new one knocked up from a climbing quick-draw and bit of old rope plucked from the beach.
It was just after putting the final touches to this masterpiece of kite-canoeing kit (enquiries from manufacturers welcome) that we noticed it was still quite windy. OK, it was still very windy, with a stiff breeze strong enough to lift the sand off the beach to flow in beautiful sinuous streams that whipped away across the yellow surface.
Thankfully, one of the neat design features of kite-surfing kites is their ability to catch very little wind when held directly overhead. Without this vital characteristic, a launch would probably have been impossible. Mind you, these kites catch the wind pretty well at all points between lift-off and sitting calmly directly overhead, and Steve seemed to cover about 10 yards (they’re like age shrivelled metres) in one hop as the kite first took flight. The estuary suddenly looked a little grey, cold and uninviting. I pondered again on that bundle of spare clothing sat on the floordrobe at home.
No time for chilly contemplation though. The kite was up. Susannah waited, camera ready on the steep sand beach. I was poised at the waters edge, with one foot over the side to hold position, as Steve was edging carefully over the stones at the bottom of the sandbank. His eyes were fixed on the acres of red and white rip-stop nylon pulsating gently about three miles overhead.
With a paddle braced ready to steer, and a final sweeping glance to ensure that the estuary really was still empty, I watched Steve’s arrival with mixed feelings. Eyes still skyward, Steve, felt for the gunwale with his left leg, steadied himself, and lifted it carefully up and in. Then, with impressive poise, he stepped aboard gently, kneeling behind the bow seat. Very neat, if not very funny.
We started to creep forward. Hey, this was pretty calm.
Like a fool I suggested this to Steve.
‘I’ll catch some wind.’ called Steve over his shoulder, easing back slightly with his left hand.
Having owned a couple of fairly quick motorbikes over the years I like to think I’m used to acceleration. You expect it with two-wheeled Italian road sculptures of course. You expect it in sleek wafer-thin racing dinghies. You don’t tend to expect it in a canoe.
Steve obviously wasn’t ready for sudden increase in velocity either, and has two slightly raw knees and a pair of bruised thighs to show for it. Shooting forward, his legs jammed, quite usefully as it turned out, under the seat.
In truth our first flight was exhilarating, but short, the kite collapsing in front of us after only about 200 very swiftly covered yards/metres (see, a little closer to modernity).
Our second flight was much longer, and even faster. We soon realised that a rapidly accelerating canoe, with little friction to slow it up, can catch up with the kite pretty easily. As soon as this happens the tension in the tether and control cords disappears, the wind falls out of the kite, and it drops in sad folds onto the water. The answer was either to keep the kite off to one side, or, if the breeze is directly astern, to keep it swinging from one side to the other. This results in blistering bursts of acceleration, accompanied by a cloud-seeking bow that lifts and pulls towards the kite amidst some impressive banks of spray. Hmm…this works.
We ran fast along the estuary edge, hoping that Susannah could keep track with the cameras, and heading, perhaps appropriately, towards the moored orange bulk of Appledore’s lifeboat. Our run ended near the southern edge of Skern Bay. It has to be admitted that we were quite pleased with the experiment. With what must have been a fairly rich blood/adrenalin ratio we didn’t even notice the long pull back into the wind for the next go.
Steve pulled out the stops on this one. Is there Guinness world canoe speed record? On landing at the end of this one I found my right arm soaked to the shoulder from the bow wave spray!
So there we have it – our experiment to date.
It needs to be stressed at this point that this isn’t intended as a how-to piece, not least because we don’t really know what we’re up to ourselves yet. But considering how much fun we’ve had so far, we didn’t feel that it was fair to keep the experiences to ourselves.
And we can offer a few suggestions to anyone considering giving it a go, not least the obvious fact that you’ll need plenty of space.
At this point I’d like to apologise to the angler whose line we encountered (wiped out) at the end of our last run.
We had seen him, stood at the northern point of the bay, and guessed correctly that he had a line in the water. We even managed to drop the kite at what we thought was a sensible distance before reaching him. But this is where I can pass on perhaps the most useful lesson learnt so far, first encountered with the stunt kite up in Scotland. The run doesn’t end when the kite touches down, or at least not if it comes down on the water. A floating kite may float, but it does…, well, float, which means that it retains all the ability to catches wind on the water that it did in the air. We were on the poor chap’s brightly coloured monofilament before he’d even started to reel in. We were almost on the navigation buoy in the middle of the estuary before we ‘d broken free, pulled the kite alongside the canoe, deflated it and pulled it aboard. An interesting few moments that had me be thinking quite a lot about spare clothing again. Kite flight space is good. Landing space can be just as useful.
So there we have it.
Is all this new? No, I’m aware that plenty of paddlers have given a kite a go, although usually with kayaks it seems. As early as the 1930s, in his book ‘The Canoe Boys’, author Alastair Dunnet described the experiments made in the Firth of Forth by someone called John Marshall, who was tying a box kit to the bow of his Kayak. Is it worthwhile? Well it’s certainly fun. I’ll leave you to decide.
Will kite-canoeing take over from my paddling? Not a chance. My love of travelling very slowly in a canoe is too strong. And remember that tradition bit I mentioned at the beginning. I don’t want to frighten it off. It’s all just too pleasant, reassuring and dependable. I’m certainly not giving up on that.
So, will we be trying it again? Definitely. Another little piece of icing on the canoeing cake I think, and two good things make for double the fun in my book.
Our current aspiration… a controlled kite up landing. After that, making a decent turn at the end of a reach. Perhaps tacking into the wind might be possible
Well we don’t expect the International Olympic Committee to adopt our new sport immediately. Their resistance to change is recognised, and I can imagine things might be a bit tight for this summer. But 2016? We’re not settling for less than gold!
(This article, or something pretty close to it, was first published in the May 2012 issue of the much missed Canoe and Kayak UK. As you may have noticed, Steve and I failed to represent GB in Rio. But there’s still 2020! Perhaps we ought to start training.)
Using the internet in search of something or other, I came across the reminiscences of an elderly chap in Australia. With his parents, he’d long ago emigrated to that land of warmth and sun, leaving behind a small coastal town on the slightly less clement north-east coast of England.
Amongst his recollections this first generation Aussie remembered the top end of the sweeping sandy bay in his former home town, inhabited by a collection of families who spoke what he described as a rough, almost Scandinavian dialect that few in the area found easy to understand. Not that this mattered much he said. The village children were told to avoid these fringe inhabitants, and that close-knit community seemed to want little to do with their neighbours, other than to sell them fish at least. I rather enjoyed this account. That collection of fishing families, the Dawsons, Robinsons, Storeys, and Armstrongs, most immediately the Armstrongs, are my family.
This tale from the other side of the globe didn’t surprise me much either. My Grandfather always claimed his own father knew the Danes and Norwegians who shared the North Sea much better than the ‘town’ and ‘mine-end’ inhabitants of Newbiggin-by-the-sea. Despite his gregarious and caring nature, I suspect he quite enjoyed this reputation as misfits.
I have to admit I’m more than a little proud of these self-sufficient ancestors too. Who wouldn’t be impressed by men who took open boats out into the North Sea to make a living. Or the women who, summer and winter, would wade into the surf twice a day to haul those boats out and then haul them in again, heading home once done to hang their wool skirts over the fire to dry. The press were once quite impressed too. A 1941 issue of Illustrated magazine carried a patriotic and rousing cover showing these wives, mothers and daughters (with varying numbers of greats, my grandmothers, aunts and cousins) at work on the beach, suggesting these were the toughest women in Britain.
I have to admit, once the faces are lost, I’ve never really been much for family history. Go back a few generations, and the lack of detail to go with those bare names can be quite frustrating. But I have followed the Armstrongs back.
For a number of reasons this isn’t actually that easy. For a start, as I’ve mentioned, these fishing families living at the north end of the bay really did keep to themselves. With only half a dozen surnames to work with, things can soon become quite tangled. And these fisherfolk weren’t noted for their exuberance and inventiveness in forenames either. If William or Sarah did for one generation, it would do for the next too.
I think I’ve managed to wend my way back reasonably successfully though, at least as far as the late 1600s. There you find Ralph Armstrong (yes, Ralph), born: Newbiggin. Occupation: Fisherman.
So when I push a canoe into the sea, to set out in search of a cod or bass dinner, I’m very aware that in my own small and inconsequential way I’m continuing this tradition. It also might help to explain why, once I’m anywhere near water with a boat, particularly when I have some task to fulfil, I enjoy the whole experience so very much.
It was all down to autocorrect. While letting family know we were heading for the coast with our canoe, Susannah’s phone managed to turn the word Cornwall into ordeal. Pausing for a moment to consider it was not only Easter holiday week, but the sun was out, we took this uncanny digital portent, packed a couple of large rucksacks, and headed up onto the moor.
After sharing the path for a while with a Ten Tors team setting out, fully laden, for an overnight training session, we were soon on our own, the sky a pale Swedish flag blue over the appropriate yellow of great swathes of dead winter grass.
Black-a-tor Copse is one of three high altitude oak woodlands on the moor, the best known probably being Wistman’s Wood near the top of the West Dart valley. I can’t help thinking of Lord of the Rings, whenever we wend our way between the contorted trunks, wobbling from boulder to boulder, the entire tree and granite scene smothered in luxuriant green lichen and moss. Twenty different bird species have been recorded nesting in this wood, including ring ouzels and redstart, so we stuck close to the low edge of the West Okement River as we passed.
It was never our intention to walk far before pitching camp – we’d started out late in the day, and our packs contained quite a bit of photographic kit. So when the shoulder and waist straps started to dig in, we dropped them by the side of a busy feeder stream and considered our options. We could stay where we were, head on for Fur Tor deep in the moor, or take an intermediate option and saunter up onto nearby Lints Tor. The middle way it was.
Seen from the southern end of the High Willhays ridge, Lints Tor always manages to look like a Norman castle to me, a modest tower sat on its motte below, guarding the valley route into the central moor. It doesn’t look much less artificial up close, although only that small metamorphic keep still stands, most of the curtain walls having tumbled long before William and his land-hungry mercenaries turned up on our shores. We placed our little tipi on a patch of level grass amongst the resultant granite clitter, and soon had a kettle on the boil nearby.
It’s a curious tor. At 496m it actually sits quite high by Dartmoor standards, a fair way above the more famous Hay Tor to the south for example. But with Fordsland Ledge, Dinger Tor, Great Kneeset and Kitty Tor, lifting yet higher on all sides, Lints Tor is a little like Haystacks in the Lake District, a great place to view the bigger beasts lounging nearby.
One of our aims, and a main reason for choosing this elevated spot over a valley campsite, was to photograph the sun rising beyond our tent next morning. Thick cloud and mist put paid to any of those plans, but didn’t interfere with an equally spectacular moonrise. As the heat of this fine April day vanished, to be replaced by a surprisingly chill northerly breeze, this satellite, almost full, soared into the air over the tor to join Mercury, Mars and an impressively bright Jupiter.
Spending a few days one spring at the mouth of the River Ebro in Spain, I struggled slightly with this unfamiliar coastal setting. The thing is, nothing changed.
At the end of a fishing trip I’d leap from our Prospector to wade ashore through the warm foamy fringe of some gentle surf before hauling the canoe well clear of any advancing tide, and then there’d be no advance. There’d be no retreat either. Of course the up front bit of my brain knew all this. The Mediterranean doesn’t really have a tide it said. Yet as far the backroom section was concerned, we were at the sea edge. The taste of the spray told it that each time a wave smacked against the side of the canoe.
So stopping for lunch on a sand bar exposed mid current in the sun, and despite the fact that each glance told me nothing had altered, my eyes would still continue to lift every few minutes to scan the water’s edge. Tide-related precaution has evidently become pretty ingrained. Considering our usual coastal paddling spot this should be no great surprise. It really is quite different at home on the north coast of Devon.
Not only does the Taw-Torridge estuary possess a tide, it really is quite an impressive one, with a range of nearly 8m at its spring maximum. A sandy ridge here can stand proud of the water one moment, and disappear completely only five or ten minutes later. It’s little wonder I couldn’t keep from scanning those stationary Catalan waves.
Most will be familiar with the lift and fall of the tide, but it may come as a surprise, to discover just how much that seawater can move around. The rise of a tide isn’t called a flow for nothing. Out in open water, away from land, the effect of the moon and the sun often does little more than pull the sea up and down. As soon as that movement takes place close to land however, over shallower ground, and all that water has to go somewhere, pushing and shoving between islands, cascading over submerged rock shelves, or, in the case of estuaries, rushing backwards and forwards to fill and empty that river mouth. This can be eventful at almost any estuary. An eight-metre tidal range can push eventful towards something rather more adrenalin inducing.
It’s estimated that roughly 53 million cubic metres of water moves in and out of the Taw-Torridge estuary mouth during any one tide. No wonder then that just off Appledore, the fishing village near the mouth, these regular shifts of water can run at speeds of more than 5 knots (that’s getting on for 6mph).
There’s nothing unusual for a canoeist in that sort of current of course. Anywhere with a hefty drop of snow each year will experience far more dramatic flows each thaw. Some rivers are just plain steep, providing a swift stream on almost any day of the year, but not in two directions, across a body of water up to 500m wide. It certainly keeps you on your toes. Mind you, all this cyclical water movement has some distinct benefits too.
If you know which way the tide is moving, and there are tables and charts that tell you just that, even quite sizable distances can be covered with little if any effort. You just need to know when to drop your canoe into the stream. And those tables are impressive, providing absolute predictability. I need only flick open a booklet, or more often these days the correct website, and I can see exactly what’s going on. With its downloaded apps, even my phone will tell me.
Of course you do then need to know your body of water. And while compared to the local fishermen here, or the numerous pilot gig crews that launch regularly out at the mouth of these two rivers, my knowledge might still be a little basic, it’s good enough. I’ve been out on that water for long enough to know its ins and outs. You just need to pick your moment.
And on a recent Saturday morning, with various factors falling neatly into place, we did just that. First off, the weather forecast predicted sun. Far from essential I admit, but it does make a difference. Of greater importance was the projected wind speed for the day. Not exactly a lull, but not the canoe grabbing blast we experience so often on the north coast of Devon either. And then there was that tide, which my laptop (and the tidal clock on my bookshelf) told me would occur at just after ten that morning.
We strapped the canoe to the roof of the van and set off.
It shouldn’t take much to spot that the Taw-Torridge estuary serves the seabound end of two rivers. The names are said to derive from the Saxon words for smooth and rough. Our home river is the allegedly rugged Torridge, and although the tide can be felt over 11km from the sea, and I’ve almost stepped on flounder while fishing over 3km beyond that, it isn’t particularly easy to launch this far inland. We make do with a spot just in sight of the rather impressive medieval bridge at Bideford. As soon as we were on the water, our aim would be to drop down to the shared river mouth, enjoy lunch on the beach, and then let the flowing (rising) tide waft us back.
On many rivers this sort of trip can be as simple as dropping down with the ebb, before returning cheerily on the flow. But the energy of our local tidal streams require a little more thought. At some spots out there, it isn’t always unalloyed fun when everything really picks up speed. You can of course time your arrival at either end of the journey to coincide with that heady moment of stillness at slack high water, but you need the full length of a summer day to do this properly. Using less time, our favourite approach is to launch a little before low water, arriving at the seaward end of our journey just as the tide is turning. By the time we wish to set off back, the levels will be rising, but crucially, the period of very fast flow has passed, and we can be shoved back reasonably calmly.
But first the mud.
Almost anyone who paddles regularly around an estuary knows about this stuff. While the spot where a river finally bursts out to sea can often be wonderfully sandy, and that goes for our estuary, that’s rarely the case for the upper reaches. Move inland a little and you have soft gooey slime, and if you have a river that drops by quite a few metres… well, you can probably imagine.
Our usual launching spot has concretes stops, more than two dozen of them. You’d think that might be enough, but at Torridge low water, this still leaves an impressive sludgy gap between the last treader and that water. If you should ever decide to give us a hand covering this stretch, our enthusiasm for wellies should begin to make a lot of sense.
Once afloat, the next matter to consider is water levels. The bottom end of the Torridge might be anywhere between four and eight metres deep at high water, but not now. How about twenty to thirty centimetres, and that’s the navigable channel? Little wonder we’re often the only vessel on this sometimes busy stretch of water as we make our way downstream.
You’ve got to stick to that channel too, which can also be easier said than done. The gap between the riverbanks might measure anything up to half a kilometre or more, but much of this is expanse is exposed riverbed, the remains of the stream left meandering and braided amidst the sand. Even where everything joins up to produce a proper body of water, a usable route, even for a vessel with as little draught as a canoe, might be only a few metres wide.
Then there’s the speed of that flow, which even at these heights, isn’t as forgiving as you might imagine. The sea may have retreated, but there’s plenty salt water left across this stretch, and the river is still running too. The wide sections, stretched between the sandbanks, may be pretty calm, but where they grow constrained, everything can start to move pretty swiftly. Much of the journey is a carefully judged compromise, finding enough depth along the inner side of a bend, while avoiding the current whisking brown with suspended sand around the buoys strung out along that outer edge. I don’t want to overplay this though. In the end, it’s all a lot of fun.
So first under the multi-arched bridge, Long Bridge, crossing the Torridge at Bideford, the oldest bits dating back to the 1300s. Then past the coasters and old tugs sat in the mud along the surprisingly high quay before gazing up at the modern version, a thin ribbon of concrete, carrying cars high above, constructed in 1987.
Although the estuary is fairly intensively used, with towns and villages along most of the two sides, there is a section below the new bridge where it all grows pleasingly wild. Fields, hills and coppices line the bank to the right, while low wooded cliffs are all that’s visible on the other side. Mouldering skeletal hulks of English oak lie beneath these cliffs, long dead ships semi-submerged beneath the mud.
Then the vast grey metal bulk of Babcock’s covered shipyard appears around the bend, the last large-scale shipbuilding venture on the river. Both Bideford, and Appledore downstream ahead, were once noted for this work. Normally, I might not be too keen to see something like this alongside my river journey, but it seems fitting here at the edge of a town that only really exists because of this ancient, and now fragile industry.
As the light changes, reflected bright off the open sea ahead, we arrive at Appledore and Instow, facing each other across the low water ridges and bars just before the Taw joins our river. These old settlements still manage to look much as they did decades, even centuries ago, two modest collections of low white building overlooking the yellow sand. We have to concentrate here though, for the bed of the river must tip down towards its imminent union with its sister river, and the flow picks up quite a bit as it nips past.
Then it’s around Skern Point, a surprisingly stiff breeze suddenly at our stern, to sweep past the RNLI lifeboat, and ride the mounting waves as they join us for the dash across the bay to our landing point at the south-east tip of Grey Sand Hill. We’ll stop here, tucked into a silty corner, safe from being swept by wind and current on towards the surf breaking with the sound of distant thunder over Bideford Bar.
Hauling our canoe over the round blue-grey beach pebbles, then up onto the dunes, we tip her over at the top edge of a sand scar. Sheltering below, away from the wind, we brew tea and eat our lunch while watching the curlew and oystercatchers hard at work with their own meal out on the shrinking mud of Skern Bay.
A few hours in the sun and then that predictable and reliable tide can shove us back, first into to that breeze and some steep and impressive waves thrown up as a result, then back alongside Appledore quay as the colourful gigs are carried down the slipway. In no time at all, after choosing which medieval arch to shoot through, we’re back at those steps, this time with few to climb to reload our waiting van.
Turn your back for a moment and the months rush by. Even knowing this, it’s still quite a surprise to find that Canoe Camping was published two years ago this week. Here I am at the end of 2014, taking my first look at the results.
Since then quite a few of you have also ventured behind the Swedish sunset and read my book, so in part this a short anniversary blog, but in the main it’s a big thank you to everyone who has bought it.
With a natural lean towards simplicity, I’ve always admired the lack of variety displayed in early outdoor kit, or at least the appearance of it anyway.
Back then, whether it was winter in Scotland, summer on Exmoor, or any time of year in the Alps, the pre-war outdoor type owned a pair of boots – one pair. There seemed little distinction between the footwear deployed by the walker or climber either. Thick leather on top, thicker leather below, with nails, in a personal pattern, hammered in to provide grip. No need to worry about whether the intended route might best suit approach shoes, B2 boots or even sports sandals. Pull on those boots, lace them up, set off.
Fishing seems particularly badly hit by variety these days. Fly-fisherman alone seem to be expected to possess half dozen or more rods. This clutch might include a bantamweight wand for small rivers, a slightly longer version for larger flows, with perhaps a further three or four to cater for lakes, nymphing, sea-trout, saltwater or light salmon use. At the other end of the extreme, the angler of the 20s or 30s seemed to manage with just one. Rose-tinted spectacles? Well I’m not so sure. We still have my grandfather’s rods, all two of them.
And while today we might match each of those rods with its own dedicated reel, in that less extravagant past they seemed to manage perfectly happily with just one, of a mediumish sort of size. Should they want their silk line to float, they greased it. When circumstances dictated that it was best to have it sinking ,that grease was wiped off.
I try to follow this Spartan example. Sometimes I almost succeed. Having set off before for northern Scandinavia, the van groaning under the weight of a rod for spinning, another for salmon, an old fibreglass thing for the sea, and yet one more for trout, grayling and char, it represented something of a release when I eventually decided to take just one, a nine-foot, medium line-weight trout rod. Did I miss the others? No, not at all. At least not often anyway. It has to be admitted though, that I never could quite reach those salmon showing way out on the far side of the Laisalven.
I try to restrict myself when it comes to footwear too, aiming to take just two pairs when we head north. In the event, I usually fail again, rarely taking less than four.
I’m pretty good with sleeping bags mind you. I have just two – a summer bag and a winter one. If the mercury really plummets I sleep inside both.
When it comes to hats I keep thinking I’ve managed to find just a single version that covers (literally) every requirement. That is until the next time I set off, and find myself placing something completely different up top. At the last count, and not including motorbike or chainsaw helmets, I think I found nine. Ah well.
There is though one little kit subset where I have pretty much achieved my simplicity goal, and quite a while ago at that. It’s even quite an important one.
My first rucksack was made of canvas (which won’t come as much of a surprise to those who have read my stuff before). Built in the 50s, and ‘enhanced’, in biro, at school with a short section of Beatle’s lyrics, it’s now long gone. A fair few have followed, to be abandoned along the way for various reasons. And then, about ten years ago I bought a Crux AK47.
Considering the intended function of this rucksack, the first thing I should make clear, is that I’m very far from a true mountaineer. Yes, Susannah and I may have made our way to the top of quite a few peaks, some of them reasonably high (at least by European standards), but they have all been very simple ascents. We both like to climb high… but on as easy a route as we can find. ‘Mountain light’ might be a suitable description.
So although my Crux was designed for the gnarliest and steepest of climbs, that’s not why I chose it. Well not quite anyway. It has to be admitted though, that the qualities most sought after in a good climbing rucksack – lightness, simplicity, perfect function and reliability, all conjured up in a single bombproof package, was just what I was after.
I admit I might have been slightly alarmed at the time by the cost, but like many genuinely well-made and legitimately costly items, that rucksack has since proved to be well worth the expense.
It might not have seen quite the abuse that some of its relatives. It’s never been hauled up the Drus, or scrunched daily up tight gabbro chimneys, but it has still seen plenty of use. Apart from the most very light fluffiness of the blue haul strap at the back, I can find almost no sign of use at all.
You can sometimes spot the slight look of surprise as I head off for a walk of just a few hours on Dartmoor. I was once asked by a fellow walker why I was taking such a large rucksack. When I pointed out that my 47-litre sack probably weighed less than their seemingly small day-pack, the look of disbelief was clear. I once had to resort to the internet to prove it.
And it’s so comfortable. Rucksack makers often claim that you’ll hardly know its there. It’s rarely a claim that bears up to a field test. I really do forget the Crux is there though, even with quite a load.
And while speaking of loads I will admit to owning a very large Osprey backpacking rucksack. Bought to carry kit on a week long tramp over and away from the Pyrenees it seemed a good idea. It was. There’s no doubt the Osprey did a wonderful job. It is extremely well designed and built. But if I was to walk that route again, I’d probably ditch a few of the things I only carried because of the additional space, and take the Crux. That’s not because the Opsrey is lacking, far from it, it’s just that the Crux is brilliant.
And I never have to stand at the door, a walk before me, trying to decide which pack to take. Well almost never.
Here I will admit that I’m fortunate to own a couple of lovely canvas daypacks. As I’ve admitted, I find canvas hard to avoid. So on the rare occasion I head for town, on strolls by the river, or whenever the canoe takes the strain, I’m more than happy to take my Heistercamp or Brady Pennine. But if any real walking is involved, from 5 miles to 50, whatever the terrain I don’t even need to think. The Crux provides a permanent home to my waterproofs, along with gauntlet gloves, a thick Buff, two compasses, a whistle and my Terra Nova bothy bag. All I need do is pick it up.
It might not be made of leather and cotton duck, and I may only manage it in this one small area, but at least with my rucksack I come close to that early outdoor kit simplicity.
While our Stewart River Pal has appeared in quite a few magazine articles, and already features in its own blog, it’s not the only canoe we own. In fact, although this little cedar and canvas beauty might be something of a favourite, it’s not even the canoe we use most. So to address this imbalance, and to give our hardest working and most well-travelled canoe its moment, here is a blog about our Prospector.
Which leaves me with some dodging to do.
Because while I might have started my Pal blog with a historical introduction, running through the development of this versatile craft, and the temptation, perhaps even the expectation, is to do the same again, it’s not required here. The last thing anyone with an interest in canoes needs is yet another potted biography of this ubiquitous model. Anything I’d write would be mere repetition, a familiar and unnecessary chronicle of well-known origins and illustrious association. I’ll make do then by stating the obvious, and pointing out that our Prospector isn’t a Chestnut original. It’s not even built of wood.
Which is just grand. Because while I might harbour a bit of a thing for wooden canoes, and probably spend rather too much time each day thinking about cedar ribs and curved ash gunwales , I don’t want to use one all the time.
Now this might seem a rather odd confession, and no doubt if I lived in Canada or Minnesota, in the 1950s or early 60s, I wouldn’t go near such strange and deviant thoughts. But while you could pick up something respectable for next to nothing back then, and over there, before setting out with cheerful abandon down the nearest rapid, it’s certainly not the case now. Besides, there wasn’t really the choice then anyway, it was wood, perhaps aluminium, or nothing. Things are very different today.
And then there is salt.
Which might seem an odd substance to raise as a reason to avoid using a wooden canoe, but concerns about sodium chloride are very relevant where we live. For while there is a lot of fresh water to canoe on in many parts of the world, that isn’t the case here in England. Sure we have plenty of rivers and lakes. We’re just not allowed to use most of them.
Now while this strikes me as grossly unfair, almost certainly contrary to the law, and a situation that needs to change fast, this isn’t the place to go into all this. Suffice it to say that Susannah and I often end up canoeing on the sea instead.
This is just fine by me. I love paddling on the briny stuff, at least in sheltered spots, but I don’t think all that corrosive stuff is particularly good for a cedar and canvas canoe, at least not the fittings of our Pal, many of which have a small but significant iron content. But it’s not a problem for something built from Royalex.
In fact very little is much of a problem for Royalex. Shallow stony streams are fine, as are rocky foreshores, shingle beaches, steel pontoons, and a life that includes rather too much time sat on the roof of a van. In brief, a Royalex Prospector like ours is tough as nails. It needs to be.
Like most canoes sharing this venerable name our Propsector can carry ridiculously large loads, and does regularly, from South-west England to Norway, Spain to Finland. Cargoes have included numerous piles of part-sawn firewood, fencing posts, foraged shellfish, discarded rubbish, heaps of archaeological excavation tools (with barrows perched precariously on top), and the inevitable camping gear collection. For a bit of fun, it once carried eleven children and two adults, leaving about two inches of freeboard (don’t worry, the stream was about six foot wide and fourteen inches deep). A tide-stranded family and their worried spaniel was a slightly more serious human load.
To date, our Prospector has taken to the water in eleven countries, floating from below sea level in northern Holland to over 1,700m in the French Pyrenees. At sea level she’s worked her way along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the North, Baltic and Bothnian Seas, the Mediterranean and the English Channel, providing a fine fishing platform from the Ebro Delta in Spain to the mouth of the Norwegian Alta. She was even once mistaken for a stranded whale.
And if our green Roylaex canoe shines when carrying a load, she’s great fun to paddle empty too. There’s just a lovely amount of rocker.
Which leads to my first reference to the people that built our Prospector – Wenonah. Now without mentioning any other names, there are a lot of companies out there offering a canoe for sale with Prospector written somewhere near one end. The thing is, not that many of them look much like a Prospector, at least not to me.
In a way, this isn’t too much of a surprise. The Chestnut original may have had it’s many fans,one in particular, and the deep cargo hauling capacity of this model did a brilliant job if you wanted to work it hard in moving water. It still does a brilliant job. The thing is, not too many people today want that quality. Yes there are plenty who do still need a heavy load hauler for wilder rivers, but not nearly as many as think they do, that believe they want a Prospector. My guess then is, that while many astute canoe manufacturers recognise the popularity of something carrying this fabled name, they have also spotted the fact that few actually want a canoe with nearly three inches of rocker at each end. I do though, and fortunately, perhaps surprisingly, Wenonah do as well.
It’s quite ironic really. While Wenonah have made their name, and a well-deserved one, on the basis of fast, slim, tight tracking canoes, often with little or no rocker, and boat shaped ends, they still offer a deep fat model with a recurved bow and stern and oodles of space below them. What’s more, at least in my opinion, the Wenonah Prospector must be one of the closest canoes to the Chestnut original to be offered in a modern man-made material. Other manufacturers come close, but not many have kept the faith. Not many continue to offer something that looks faintly banana like in profile.
So there you have it, a bit of an anachronism, and certainly a canoe that stands out like something of an elk amongst thoroughbred horses in the Wenonah stable, but an elk with a surprise. It was Alex Comb, the master craftsman who built our Pal, that pointed out the similarities between an elk, or as he put it of course, a moose, and a Prospector. What an apt analogy. As Alex went on to explain, both can often look so heavy, solid and fixed in the water, and yet will then surprise with the agility and speed with which all that bulk can suddenly shift and set off. That generous supply of rocker turns something of a John Deere of a canoe into a prancing stag. I love it.
Particularly on the salty sea, where that hull profile, all curved, uplifted, and unhindered, allows our Prospector to almost shimmy across, even against, the wave trends and shifting currents. Paddle almost any other canoe type along the edge of the Severn estuary or Irish Sea and you are likely to find yourself involved in something of a minor but constant battle, as deep fin-like ends catch the flow. Our Wenonah’s raised ends allow us to alter direction, or often much more importantly, not alter direction, with a mere dip of a sturdy paddle. Our Prospector has seen a lot of different sections of coast, a lot of surf. Asked to do things most canoes are never called upon to try, it’s tipped in a fair bit of it too. This isn’t a canoe that leads a cossetted life.
At the other extreme, what could be more fun, in the still of an autumn day, the leaves golden and red overhead, than to slide that hard-used Prospector into a quiet lake, and turn that elk into a canoe ballerina. Tough, versatile and surprisingly graceful.
Ironically, one drawback of fishing in a northern Norwegian fjord is the number of fish. Having driven a couple of thousand miles to reach this stunning stretch of coast before carrying the canoe down a steep granite slope to the sheltered cove, it would have been good to find a moment to take in the scenery. But after pushing a bare few yards from the shingle beach, Susannah had only just dropped the lure over the side before the first fish struck.
During our initial five minutes on the water, in which we never put out anything like a normal working length of line, we landed and released four – three coalfish and a cod.
In the end, the only way to reach deep water was to pull in our braided line and stop fishing. Even after gaining a little distance from the tree-fringed shore, it was only after about the tenth small finny job was returned to the crystal clear water that I realised that amidst all the piscatorial action I hadn’t actually had a chance to appreciate where we were.
And it was worth appreciating – our unruffled fjord set beneath an array of typically Norwegian pointy peaks, the sea’s surface broken by nothing more than the odd fishing boat, the swirl of a mackerel shoal and a pod of attentive dolphins. It was a very fine place to pitch a tent and settle in.
Out on the water, and after another few cod had paid their brief visit to our canoe, we landed a sole mackerel. I don’t recall ever catching just one before. We must have clipped the edge of a shoal.
Next morning, I decided to join the fun, and while Susannah continued with our handline (and an unlikely looking leaded ‘thing’ my grandfather produced in his garage some time around 1980), I pulled out an old boat reel. Of about the same late 70s or early 80s vintage as the lure, this was attached (rather precariously) to the bottom half of an even older fibreglass carp rod.
Choosing a smallish lead weight, and the largest stainless-steel hook I could find in my canvas bag, I wove this barbed grappling iron through the back third of the mackerel, tail included. Tipped over the side and dropped to the bottom, which turned out to be quite a long way down, my hope was that only a pretty big fish could manage wolf this lot down. After Susannah caught and returned another dozen or so infant cod using Granddad’s state of the art lure, I was proved right… rather to my surprise.
Apparently, there are 176 tripoints in the world. We didn’t know that when we set out. A couple of others did spring to mind, but the whole idea of a point where three countries meet still seemed pretty special. Worth a visit.
In fact, we didn’t even know it was called a tripoint at the time, although we had already discovered this particular border marker has a number of names of its own. The Norwegians call it Treriksrøysa, or ‘three countries cairn’ (I think), the Finns Kolmen valtakunnan rajapyykki, and in the Northern Sami language it’s known as Golmma riikka urna. The Swedes name for the marker is Treriksröset, and having found a photo of the big yellow frustrum lump of concrete, we immediately relabelled it. For the rest of the trip out, our destination was known as the Treriksricotta.
The usual route to the giant ricotta, taken by quite a few visitors to the Finnish village of Kilpisjarvi, is to trek out along the 12km footpath through the Mallan National Park. The alternative is to catch a boat that crosses the impressively large lake to the south, walking the remaining 3km through the stunted birch woodland that marks the edge of the Scandinavian tree line. One look at a map (in the Mallan car park), identified a cluster of small lakes, strung along some form of river or stream (there was a thin blue line at least) lying between the big lake and a smaller one known as Goldajärvi (at least by some locals) with the big cheese set near the southern edge. A visit by canoe looked possible.
Not knowing what the going would be like, but suspecting the worst, we decided to travel light (in truth, not our usual canoe camping style). On meeting the narrow, fast and rock strewn stream as it burst out at the end of our initial lake crossing, we were quite thankful for that decision. We might have had only 3km to go (at least as the hooded crow flies), but the route, or lack of it, was refreshingly untouched.
In the end, there were some lovely slow (but very short) stream sections and a collection of some of the prettiest little lakes we’d seen, nestled mirror smooth between the Finnish shore to the right and Sweden opposite. The right bank, being in the National Park, was out of bounds, so we made our way through the stunning woodland of Sverige. All forms of portage were tried, or all that we could recall or devise. The discovery of a semi-cleared winter skidoo route between two lakes was particularly welcome.
After a false journey’s end, provided by a yellow mini-cairn outlier, set at the far end of the penultimate lake, we carried kit and canoe through cloudberry-speckled bog, over rocks and along a rutted quad bike track to a launch close to the shared custard lump.
It was pretty impressive, and not just because it was late in the day and we had the whole place to ourselves.
Once we had our fill of circular walks through three countries, we paddled on to camp on the edge of Goldajärvi – just the two of us, our somewhat rarely used Terra Nova tent, a few reindeer and a stunning view down the lake to the sort of mountain profile only Norway seems able to provide. We think we joined this Norwegian fjell (Paras) at home, but then we might have pitched camp just the other side of the national divide, as far north in Sweden as you possibly can. Does it matter though. Let’s just call this stunning landscape Sápmi, and thank it for a wonderful night.