2 September 2019
Last summer Commando and a group of friends tried kayaking for the first time. They had a whale of a time and all agreed they should make kayaking trips a regular thing. Various pieces of equipment were purchased, including a wetsuit. There was even some talk about buying a kayak. Somehow though, getting everyone together at the same time when the weather and the tides were right proved impossible. Today Commando decided to grasp the last gasp of this summer and go alone.
Not wanting to miss out on the fun, CJ and I went along to spectate. The last kayaking adventure had been upriver from Woodmill because the tide was low. Commando really wanted to experience the river below the mill so he’d studied the tide times and picked what he hoped would be the perfect time. Luckily, his calculations were spot on and, in no time at all, he’d paid his money, watched the obligatory safety video and was walking down the slipway to the water.
He got into the kayak without incident. Moments later he was paddling off into the distance. CJ and I stood for a while watching him slowly disappear. Now we would have our work cut out if we wanted to follow him on his journey down river.
Last time we’d simply been able to walk alongside the kayakers at a relatively slow pace all the way to the White Swan. This downriver trip was a little different. The river and the path through the park don’t take quite the same route until you get past the reedbeds and most of the time the water is hidden by the trees. Commando already had a head start so we dashed out of the mill and walked as fast as we could, hoping we’d be able to catch him.
As we rushed through the park towards the reedbeds we caught a glimpse of him between the branches but lost him again almost at once. We left the path and walked across the grass behind the reeds, hoping we’d get to the little mud slipway before he did.
We got to the water’s edge just as he appeared around the bend. He saw us and called out but he was too far away for any real conversation. We stood and watched as he paddled towards the next bend and then made a dash back to the path.
It was a rush, but we made it to the little bench just as he reappeared. A crowd of gulls scattered as he paddled through them. With one eye on the path, the other watching his progress we followed him.
As we approached the oak tree on the corner we saw a group of swans. Commando seemed to be eyeing them warily and keeping his distance. I can’t say I blame him. They’re big birds and he was in their territory. Even on dry land, when they’re at a disadvantage, it isn’t wise to cross them.
The swans watched him slightly suspiciously but let him pass. Flanked by the gulls he’d disturbed earlier, he paddled past the waterworks and we strolled alongside. Now the path followed the riverbank we no longer had to rush.
Soon he’d be passing the jetty. I shouted out a warning about more swans ahead but I couldn’t tell if he’d heard me. The wind was blowing. It carried his reply away. Unusually, there was no one on the jetty feeding the birds so CJ and I went on ahead and walked down the sloping walkway, thinking we might be able to talk to Commando better down on his level.
We were immediately surrounded by swans who all thought we had food for them. Commando daren’t get close so talking was out of the question. He paddled in a wide circle, keeping as much distance as possible between his kayak and the hungry swans. By the time we climbed back onto the path he was well on the way to Cobden Bridge.
Back at Woodmill I’d joked about him paddling out to sea and ending up on the Isle of Wight. The kayaks from Woodmill Activity Centre are only allowed as far upriver as the White Swan and downriver as far as Cobden Bridge but Commando didn’t look like he wanted to stop. “Remember, no further than the bridge,” I shouted, but he either didn’t hear me or didn’t care.
As we hurried towards the bridge, having lost ground getting on and off the jetty, he got closer and closer to the it. It looked very much as if he was deciding which arch to go through rather than how to turn around. As he disappeared under the second arch from the bank I had visions of late night Coast Guard rescues with Commando shivering and wrapped in a foil blanket.
He was just playing with me though. Once he’d gone under the bridge he circled round and came back through the first arch. Now he was close enough to us for shouted conversation.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen the underside of that bridge,” he shouted. “There’s graffiti under there! How on earth did they manage that? The water’s nowhere near as deep as you’d think either.”
“It’s going to be harder paddling back to the mill,” I yelled back. “You’ll be against the tide now. We’ll go back to the jetty and see you there.”
So, while Commando battled with the tide, we marched back towards the jetty. A couple of men were circling round in a tiny RIB. It looked far easier with an engine but I hoped it wouldn’t give Commando any ideas. There really is no room in our garden to store kayaks, never mind RIB’s and engines. CJ was worried Commando would get caught up in the wake of the little boat. It was certainly stirring up the water and the gulls.
We got down onto the jetty while Commando was still getting past the RIB. The tide was obviously going out as the slope was much steeper than it had been earlier. As before, the swans immediately surrounded us. This time the cygnets were with them. I really wished I’d thought to bring some food.
CJ and I got so caught up taking photographs of cygnets we almost forgot about Commando. He came past, still keeping his distance and somehow made it into a few of our swan photos, more by chance than anything.
Back on dry land, we caught up with him again just above the jetty. He’d come closer to the bank now the swan danger was past and we even managed to exchange a few shouts about the clarity of the water and the difficulty of paddling against the tide.
We left him again by the reedbeds and dashed around to the grass behind them to see if we could catch him again. There was a man with a large dog off the lead on the muddy slipway. The dog kept dashing in and out of the water and I was afraid he was going to try to swim out to the kayak. The man kept calling him away but he wasn’t a very obedient dog. Commando kept away from the bank and was soon out of sight behind the reeds.
We saw him again briefly, through the trees but we knew he couldn’t see us. Rushing now, we headed back to Woodmill, expecting to see him already there. On the last kayak trip getting out of the water had been so hilarious I didn’t want to miss it. When we got to the mill though, there was no sign of him. We stood for a while, waiting for him to appear, but he didn’t.
After a bit I wondered if he might have already got back to the mill while we were walking behind the trees. There was no sign of him when we got back to the slipway though. For some time we stood anxiously looking at the river. By the time he rounded the bend a couple of swans had gathered around the jetty. I wondered how Commando was going to get past them.
Luckily, the swans didn’t much like the look of the kayak and swam away as Commando approached. Now CJ and I waited expectantly for the fun of watching him attempt to get out of the kayak. This time though he managed it with a degree of smug elegance. When I mentioned this he told me he’d been watching lots of videos about getting out of kayaks. It spoiled our fun a little but it was good to have him safe on dry land again.