Well, what can I say, we tried but failed to get the hammocks out and play in the woods last weekend. So, to salvage the weekend passes so graciously granted by our better halves, an impromptue paddle on the canal was arranged.
With Joel and I being the boat owners and Rich hovering on the edge of boat ownership, we met at the usual spot at Melbourne. The arm of the canal had a reasonable covering of ice, but the main canal was clear. So we started on a clear bright windless day with a little ice breaking before we set off towards the river.
I'd suggested we try to get a little further than we'd done in the past, several times now we'd had a gentle paddle down to Gardham Lock and brewed up and eaten there. I wanted to go down further as it has been ages since I'd gone beyond this lock. With Joel and Rich in agreement, a comfy pace was set and Gardham was soon reached. Under normal water levels, the pound beyond the lock is much lower than the one we'd entered on. This trip though, with the river still in flood in places, this second pound was only a little lower than the first and made it easy to re-launch the canoes.
Once back on the water, we were in uncharted territory for my fellow paddlers and the flood waters covering the Ings made it like paddling on a lake with the only tufts of reeds, grasses and the odd bit of fencing to show the route of the canal. We passed Hagg Bridge and were once again out into a large body of water. In a tree, normally on the canal bank, Rich spotted a Kingfisher, sadly it was off before he could get the DSLR from the dry bag. We watched it's low flight over the water and delighted in the flashes of electric blue it gave off as it flew into the distance. We saw it several times more, but never as close again.
We'd all brought small stoves with us to make our picnic lunches, but after my trip with Joel and Chris, where Chris started cooking bannock over I fire while I'd simply tucked into some sarnes and a flask,I felt I had to make more effort this time, to which end I'd brought my little firebowl to enable me to cook over a fire. I suggested we stop to gather some fuel for this as we could see plenty of driftwood on the bank resting in a tide mark left as the flood waters receded. On landing, and I guess we shouldn't have been surprised, we discovered this wood far too wet to be of use, but going further up the bank to a line of hedges we gathered plenty of dry fuel for our needs, in and under the hedge.
During our attempts to gather fuel along the tide mark you couldn't help noticing numerous shells of Swan Mussels and other freshwater snails. Rich picked up a Ramshorn type snail shell that must have been nearly two inches across and I found a shell that looked like a winkle but which again was about the two inch tall mark. We discussed the merits of these shell fish as potential food, under certain circumstances you understand, but having seen a piece on Ray Mears British Wildlife series, and his explanation of the great age and the fact that the mussels are filter feeders, eating the many years worth of heavy metals from industrial and agricultural run-off might not be a good thing.
Back in the boats and onwards once more, we quickly came across an obsticle, a swing bridge that the floodwaters prevented us from passing underneath and without a key to open the bridge meant we had to portage round it. Unfortunately, space to do this was limited, and while Joel went first with little difficulty, when Rich and I lifted my boat over the track, my feet slipped in the tractor ruts and I ended up flat on my back in the mud! Now, my companions did express concern over my well-being but I'd hoped, at least for a score of five or more for my attempted backwards somersalt! They didn't even offer me a point, there's no pleasing some eh!
A little further on, a second swing bridge came into view. This time though we were able to avoid the portage nonsense as the floodwaters had made the swingbridge into a little island of its own and we simply paddled round it. On we paddled, enjoying very much the bright sunshine and lack of wind. Large groups of swans and geese shared the water with us, plus numerous other birds that could be seen further off over the flooded fields. I'm sorry to say that while I can name some birds, I'm by no means an ornithologist and so can't share the names of the species which we joined on the water that day.
A pressing matter now presented itself, our empty stomachs and finding a suitable spot to stop and feed ourselves. The trouble being, the closer we got to the river, the more flooded the land became. We were contemplating the bank of a ditch which follows the coarse of the canal and stood two or three feet out of the water, when I spotted a thin post sticking out of the water in Joel's path. I called a warning to him and as he replied to say 'thanks he'd seen it' he ran onto a similar post just underwater and stuck wobbling for a few moments before sliding gracefully off to one side of the post. A heart racing moments for Joel for certain, while Rich and I were both pleased he'd remained dry, as neither of us had cameras ready to capture that 'You've been framed' moment anyway. :)
We were coming to another area with a few houses about and didn't want to be lighting a fire within shouting distance, but just then we noticed the lock at Cottingwith ahead. This was completely surrounded by floodwater and offered us a place to picnic without being pestered.
Onto dryish land by the lock, we collected together the things needed to cook and picnic. We'd arranged beforehand for Rich to bring his flint and steel kit for me to try with the amadou I'd made, but as it happened, Joel beat him to it and I used Joel's kit for my first attempt. So, with my amadou placed on top of the flint, a few strikes hand a small glowing spot in the amadou, success! In fact, I felt it was much easier than using my ferro rod, certainly much more satisfying. With the glowing amadou placed in the already prepared tinder bundle, a little coaxing and I had flame. Into the firepit and feed the flames with kindling and my little cooking fire was under way. Joel fired up his cat litter fueled woodgas stove and Rich opted for gas this time. As part of my attempt to be less rambler stylee picnicer, I had a couple of sausages on sticks and tried my smallish griddle to cook some bannock style bread and a burger. General yarning ensued while food was cooked and consumed and very pleasant it all was too!
As pleasant as it all was, packing away had to be done, and other than quite a lot of footprints, we left nothing behind as we once more followed the 'leave no trace' practice. Back in the boats and Joel came with me to allow Rich a chance to paddle his Apache. As a first timer Rich did very well, while he adopted the 'Roving Dog' paddling style, he had plenty of space in which to rove about in. He managed a passable J-stroke too, though he did fall back on the Gryff Rhys-Jones technique after a while, but who can blame him. The J-stroke does feel very uncomfortable until the wrists become accustombed to it.
Not long after negotiating the portage around the swing bridge for the second time, we spotted a barn owl in a tree to our right. As we closed on it, it flew off, but stayed fairly close to us working the dry areas around us for small creatures. While it was now late afternoon it was still bright and sunny and seemed at odds with the idea of owls being nighttime birds. Shortly after this a large flock of Lapwings were seen, I can't remember the last time I've seen them in such numbers, another pleasant thing to see.
Rich paddled Joel's Apache all the way to Gardham Lock where we changed back again. As always, the return journey seemed to be over much quicker than the outward leg and it seemed like no time at all before we turned back into the Melbourne Arm and made our way back through the ice to the get-out and the cars.
With boats strapped to roof bars we said our goodbyes. This trip clearly made a big impression on Rich as I had a text from him a few days later saying how he was trying to work out how he was going to tell his wife that he'd placed an order for an Apache! I believe the negotiations went well and don't involve Rich sleeping in the shed! Nice one Rich!