“Don’t drown. Because it will really ruin the party this afternoon.”
This comes from my mother as I pick up my whitewater helmet and scurry out the front door.
My destination: Hurley Weir. A mecca for whitewater kayakers and a former haunt of mine which I used to frequent in my younger days when I was a ‘pro’ kayaker. The last 5 months I’ve been lost in work and worry. I thought I’d find myself again somewhere on the river. So I head out with my kayak to start the search.
Today I have struck lucky. There are only another two paddlers out. The wave is powerful, retentive and very, very fast. The sun projects the curve of a rainbow on the crest of the wave. Cormorants flap overhead. I spin, surf, spin, surf, cartwheeling in my kayak until the water pushes me under. I roll up and paddle up the eddy grinning.
The next day I am back in my kayak. This time I am at the top of the Thames with my tiny kayak is loaded with an unimaginable load. I have stuffed in my tent, sleeping bag, therma rest and ‘some’ clothes. I should point out I paddle a playboat designed for mucking around on waves. So this is like bike touring on a BMX.
I paddle 9 miles past patterns of raindrops, reeds and shifting grey clouds. The river is silent except for the drizzle, the sound of my paddle stroke, and the tune of reed warblers (or are they sedge warblers?) I pull up at the lock and pitch my tent. Then it’s off to the pub to meet my friend for chips, steak and beer. I walk home in the drizzle. The sun is a fiery, fuzzy orange chopped out a Turner painting. Four curlew fly home with bubbling cries. I sleep soundly. For 11 hours.
The next morning I load up the kayak with my meagre possessions. The sky threatens rain. 18 miles of paddling lie ahead of me. Playing on the weir has taken its toll on me: my torso is a knot of muscle and ache. Holding your body erect is not supposed to be an effort like this. I paddle in solitude for several hours. The first boat I see calls out “you’re the first person we’ve seen in a day and half!” We are less than 20 miles from central Oxford. I paddle on, sharing the silent river with only the constant drizzle, the uncomfortable cold, and the tune of reed warblers (or are they sedge warblers)?
I am beginning to fantasize about blankets and hot chocolate. Are my teeth chattering? Was that a shiver? At each lock portage my legs have stiffened with cold and the leap in and out the kayak becomes more like stirring ice. The quiet is disturbed by a lone cuckoo: the first I have heard for two years. The rain persists. I paddle the final mile back to Oxford. Then home. I sleep. For 11 hours.
The next day I am back at the weir. The cormorants are back and now joined by a grey wagtail that bounces on the railing like a ping pong ball meeting the ground. The grin on my face widens as I curve down the wave and the back of my boat spirals against the rushing flow. Whatever I’d lost I’d just found again.