Winter

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.

Otter Heaven
Otter Heaven

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.

Torrington otter pair
Torrington otter pair

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.P1060964

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.

Otter with large fishy meal
Otter with large fishy meal

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.

Swimming  Mink
Swimming Mink

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.

Taw Dawn
Taw Dawn
Ducks at Dawn on Taw
Ducks at Dawn on Taw
Spoonbills on the Taw
Spoonbills on the Taw
River Taw executioner
River Taw executioner

The Tamar is very scenic,  very twisting, and very sheltered. Especially the upper reaches.

The Upper Tidal Tamar
The Upper Tidal Tamar

Lots of history and National Trust-type places in the middle bit.

Calstock Viaduct
Calstock Viaduct
Cotehele Quay
Cotehele Quay

Always a flock of Avocets during the winter as you get towards the vast muddy expanses of the lower reaches.

Avocets on the Tamar
Avocets on the Tamar

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.

HMS Bulwark
HMS Bulwark

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.

Gleaming china clay ship at Fowey
Gleaming china clay ship at Fowey

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!

..er...I hope that's made of plastic
..er…I hope that’s made of plastic

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.P1010079_01

WINTER WANDERINGS

TEETH CHATTERING UP THE TAW,TORRIDGE AND TAMAR ESTUARIES.(and one or two other places)

The last three months have been exceptionally cold and really not conducive to sea kayaking. DEFINITELY not conducive to fishing from a kayak so if you are a diehard fisherman look away now.

And it’s even worse if you are an early bird and like to be on the water before dawn. Sometimes way before dawn, as I had to do recently when I launched in Barnstaple and followed the big spring tide up the river Taw to the tidal limit three miles upstream. Only a full moon to guide me and a large flock of swans to provide a ghostly terror moment. I still managed to get the timing wrong and paddled the last mile flat out into a 3mph current, passing icebergs of frozen froth.

The front of the kayak was fairly caked in ice when I got back to Barnstaple……..

Icy,but nicy,Barnstaple dawn

The day I chose to paddle the Taw estuary down to the sea wasn’t much warmer and a low mist made it feel even more cheerless. Yo’ve really got to be pretty loopy to go paddling in such a bleak place on such a bleak day.There’s really no scenery…..Yelland oil terminal is a highlight….and great sandbanks at low tide add to the sense of isolation/desolation.

Low tide Taw sandbank

But don’t get too depressed and gloomy just yet. The variety of winter wildfowl and wading birds is quite fantastic. Oh…well….OK ….be depressed and gloomy  then, because I realise the fraternity who get excited about this kind of stuff is fast shrinking. Well, I am still hardcore and was thrilled to pass a dozen different species of wader including the sand loving Bar-tailed godwits with their idiotically long beaks, and a confiding little troop of sanderling.

And even better a female peregrine carved over my head at unfeasible speed and lashed into a flock of flying Teal. It turned so sharply I thought the G-forces would snap both its wings off, but it emerged unscathed, but  also unsuccessful.

I don’t care how much of a nature heathen you are. If witnessing an attack by the most exciting , and fastest, bird in the world doesn’t get your pulse racing then there’s no hope for you and you might as well not bother doing anything, ever.

Lapwing

I followed the outgoing tide from Barnstaple to Appledore and then returned as it came in. Despite having made the same bungle on numerous occasions I forgot that the tide often doesn’t actually get to the head of an estuary till an hour or so before high water, so I once again had to paddle like fury up the river to get back.

Oh yeah-forgot about the New Taw bridge which is probably more scenic than Yelland power station:

New (ish) bridge over Taw at Barnstaple

For a jaunt up the Torridge from Bideford I did actually manage to negotiate a sunny day with no wind so it didn’t  feel too cold. The town was looking at its best in the morning sun-it’s all a bit more scenic than Barnstaple as it nestles in more of a valley.

Bideford

And as you head upstream it is more typical of a Devon estuary with big swathes of broadleaved woodland on the sweeping bends….very easy on the eye. Always a lot of Shelduck up here and a few pairs nest- they are striking black-and-white ducks but make a rather simpering whistle rather than a quack.

Shelduck escaping fast

Back at Bideford I had a rare encounter with other river users…Bideford rowing club. It’s about the only large area of sheltered water with decent access for miles and miles. Needless to say no other kayakers…can’t remember the last time I saw one.

The new Torridge bridge is virtually the same as the one over the Taw but it was looking quite impressive against the unusually blue winter sky:

Torridge bridge (complete with number 92 bus)

My only jaunt to the excellent river Tamar this winter was for one specific purpose…..to photograph Avocets.Many wading birds, I’ll confess, are non-descript and mud-coloured. Sensible because they have less chance of being spotted by a peregrine. Avocets however are not your typical English looking bird and do not spend time cringing in the corner of a culvert.

They are quite stunning and their legs are impossibly spindly and beak far too fine to be sweeping about in the mud in danger of clanging into a stone and snapping the end off.

I was lucky to catch them in the evening sun to give their posteriors a pinkish glow.

Avocets on the Tamar

I was using my son’s non-waterproof camera which survived this trip but succumbed to the brine shortly afterwards. Cameras and kayaking really don’t mix well so I’ll stick to my waterproof and bomb proof one from now on.

Calstock viaduct is always a gob-smacker:

OK….confesion time. I did venture out into the open ocean in early new year  and it was nearly a serious mistake. My enthusiasm control centre completely swamped out all my other departments such as common sense and caution and don’t be such a bl—y idiot.

I paddled out from the sheltered Gannel estuary in Newquay and rounded several exposed headlands in some very bouncy conditions of short chop waves, bounce back from the vertical cliff and a bit of tide race thrown in.

Newquay bay itself was much more cosy.

Leg stretch at Beacon cove, Mawgan Porth

I didn’t fancy the return paddle round Towan head again so landed in Newquay harbour and walked back the mile to the car through the crowded streets,slapping along in my dry suit and clipping a few New Year bargain hunters with the end of my paddle (especially those ones who sniggered at me).

Back in the car all I had to do was to drive back to the harbour and load up. Simple……

But no way….is anything simple nowadays? For example, even filling up my car with diesel at the local garage in Holsworthy is fraught with complication, because  if another driver arrives and uses the same pump as you the motor inside gets overloaded and starts to make a grinding sound and the flow of diesel starts to fizzle out with the result that you eventually get to the checkout BEHIND the idiot who wants to buy two lottery tickets and a scratch-and-sniff card and has left his wallet behind in his stupid little Nissan Whatever, when if the garage owner had bothered to invest in decent pumps that could handle delivery of two lots of fuel at the same time in the first place, I would have got in BEFORE Mr. Irritating and all would be well.

Anyway, no way could I find my way back to the harbour because of some half-witted one-way system and I was beginning to boil in my drysuit.So the only option was to park up (not far from the original location), walk back to the harbour and load my kayak onto its wheels and trolley it back through the High Street and its idiotic contraflow system.

Phew…hang on…I need a breather….let’s take a picture break (nothing to do with Newquay):

once a trainspotter,always a trainspotter

I had left my paddle in the car but if anyone sneered at me as I jostled for position on the crowded pavement (and there were a lot more than my prevous passage with paddle only) I made a fair effort of catching their shins with the end of my kayak.

I forgot to mention that although this was early January there were several small groups of Kittiwakes dipping down to the surface in Newquay bay….undoubtedly onto sandeels….which undoubtedly would have had a few bass lurking around…..but I had no rod. Too blooming cold and impossible to fiddle about with little hooks wearing great thick gloves.

Spring is just around the bend.