I am very glad I wasn’t born 20 years earlier.From a kayaking perspective anyway.
No decent sit-on-top kayaks and no decent dry suits twenty years ago. So winter paddling would be a struggle. When I bought my first OK Prowler ten years ago I did some biggish winter trips in my steamer wetsuit and ended up semi-hypothermic at the end. The advent of comfortable drysuits beneath which you can wear a nice thick onesy and be cosy and snug is a necessity to enjoyment and to encourage you to go back for more. You can be completely immune to whatever the elements can sling at you.
And from a wildlife perspective too. It wasn’t very many decades ago that two of the countries most impressive natural predators were having a tough time. Peregrine numbers nationally crashed to less than a hundred pairs (due to DDT) and otters all but disappeared . Due to poor river quality, pesticides and…would you believe?….otter hunting wasn’t banned until 1978.
Since my Scotland expedition I have developed a bit of a ‘thing’ about otters. Although the ‘thing’ was probably spawned during my first wild otter encounter in the Outer Hebrides in 1984.
So, living less than ten miles away from the literary home of one of the most famous of British otters, Tarka, I thought it would be a good winter challenge to venture out onto the river Torridge to try to see any of his descendants.
Incidentally, Tarka is probably upstaged by Gavin Maxwell’s otter in his book ‘Ring of Bright Water’. Funnily enough I camped directly outside his house on the beautiful Sandaig islands on the west coast of Scotland last summer, and ironically it was about the only day for a whole month I DIDN’T see any otters. Probably because there were hordes of Gavin Maxwell fans on a sort of pilgrimage. Otters don’t like disturbance.
Otters live in the wilds. If you see an otter you are in a wild place.OK occasionally nowadays they are seen in the middle of a town but generally they are in a jaw-droppingly fantastic location.
The next good thing is that you generally have to make a bit of an effort to see them and are forced to get out of your comfort zone. Like getting up appallingly early in the morning. Of the 60 or so otters I saw around the coast of Scotland last year, all but 2 or 3 were before 8 in the morning. The only time they seem to stay out later is if it is grey and dark and pouring with rain, when you would prefer to still be in bed even more.
Finally you have got to be dead quiet if you want to stand a good chance of an otter encounter. Total stealth the whole time. Kayaking of course is brilliant for this as you can progress in more or less total silence.
Only one big drawback with otter watching given the current global state of suspicion and wariness of anyone out of the ordinary. If you are spotted by some average passers-by while you are sitting in your kayak in the middle of a bush close to the bank of the River Torridge on a cold and windy day with passing snow flurries at the end of January just as it is getting dark holding a camera to your eye, they are going to start to wonder what the hell you are doing.Actually to be honest they would probably have thought this even before the current global state of heightened awareness to strange goings-on. It’s just got worse now.
And if you try to explain that you are watching a pair of otters which are fishing directly underneath the bridge upon which the observers are standing, but have to use hand signals to mimic the otters ears because you are too far away to be heard, and anyway don’t want to raise your voice because it would frighten the otters, you are rapidly heading towards serious trouble.
And if they give you the benefit of the doubt and look over the bridge into the water, but see nothing because they are looking over the WRONG SIDE of the bridge (like a couple of Bozos), you really have got a problem. As far as they are concerned nobody wired up correctly or without suspicious intent would be in such a location in such conditions, doing such a weird thing.Normal people mope around in doors fiddling with computers and watching Jeremy Kyle.
Time for me to move on..fast, when I saw them raising their phones to their ears. The otters slunk off into a riverside bush and barked a warning at me with their typical explosive snuffling sound as I paddled past.
My next encounter was a lot better because I had no interference from scrutinising conspiracy-theorists, and I spent a good ten minutes watching a family group of otters doing what they do without disturbance in the most dramatic ancient natural woodland of the Torridge river. Lots of squeaking ‘chip’ calls from a couple of youngsters to a parent as they worked their way along the river bank, fishing and then scampering up between the tree roots before returning to the water.
Otters can be very vocal. Several pairs (presumably adults) I have seen this winter have been making really quite loud whistling squeaks, and one which was munching through a fair-sized sea trout (or salmon) was making a barking squeal which carried for half a mile. Telling other family members to come and join in the feast, or other otters to clear off, I suppose.
One pair I watched in the extreme remoteness of Loch Maddy in North Uist during the summer made such a terrifyingly loud screech that my body lurched into panic mode. It was just so sudden and unexpected in such a silent and deserted place.
So, more otter encounters than I could ever have hoped for this winter. Only a single Mink hunting along the bank. they are a bit creepy because they look at you with beady little black eyes which are full of bad intent. And they don’t scamper off when you get close.Evil personified.
Apart from the otters on the rivers I have ventured out onto the variety of sheltered estuaries, creeks and rias that penetrate far inland around the south -west. As usual the open sea in winter is essentially no-go for kayaking. Too windy and even if it is still ,there is generally a thunderous swell.
The Taw estuary is open and exposed and really not that interesting scenically but is fantastic for wintering birds. Although not so good for wintering ducks and geese are the characters that sit on the shore with shotguns and blast them out of the sky. I am rather surprised that wildfowling is still legal.
The Tamar is very scenic, very twisting, and very sheltered. Especially the upper reaches.
Lots of history and National Trust-type places in the middle bit.
Always a flock of Avocets during the winter as you get towards the vast muddy expanses of the lower reaches.
And if you like a bit of naval hardware, Devonport dockyard does not disappoint. If you happen to be innocently paddling down the (very wide) river as the Flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Bulwark, is being guided out into Plymouth Sound by an escort of tugs, you can be expected to be advised to keep out of the way by at least three police launches. Perhaps the black balaclava I was wearing didn’t help.
And the good old Fowey river. Maybe the most beautiful of them all. A bit of action with all the china clay activity and the unfeasibly large ships which have somehow squeezed their way up the river round all the corners. Some rather nice shiny new ones as well.
This industry of the lower river contrasts very dramatically with the totally natural scene only a mile or two further upstream. Steep banks cloaked in natural deciduous woodland, with the side creek up to Lerryn maybe best of all. Home of kingfishers, egrets and echoing to the piping call of Greenshank. Even a pair of peregrines calling over the top of the wood. Wasn’t expecting to see a crocodile as I ventured right up the river on a high tide, however!
Very occasionally I feel that my legs need a bit of exercise to ensure that my skin tight jeans don’t resemble a pair of baggy pantaloons. So it’s on with the wetsuit and down to the sea for a bit of storm-wave chasing with brother and daughter. Whaahaay.