Three Days on the Thames

IMG_9332I’m not sure why I like the Thames so much, when my favourite sort of paddling is the open sea. It’s probably because I spent quite a lot of time messing about on the river at Sonning in craft ranging from canvas canoes to tippy marathon racers, in days when I had hair and used to go trainspotting.

Paddling the Thames is about as relaxed as you are going to get in a kayak. The water is flat and the flow is barely perceptible.The only slightly turbulent water is when you are sitting in the locks. Everyone is very friendly because life on the water is a great leveller. And there’s loads of Kingfishers.

IMG_9497
Typical Thames

I was dropped off at Donnington Bridge in Oxford and had soon inflated Puffing Pig II, my Gumotex Seawave kayak, which was to be my transport for the sixty-five miles down to Cookham. The Seawave is a pretty large craft but I wanted to take all my provisions with me as I have found before that there are not as many convenience shops along the river as you might think. This is actually seems to be true for most of the places I go kayaking.

So I was laden with food, and although I love camping I’m not that hard-core so take along a good thick self-inflating mattress, which also takes up a lot of space. Plus a load of spare clothes in case of disaster. And a fat book….Lord of the Rings (again) in fact, so you can see why I needed a big boat.

IMG_9288
Thames River Cruiser

Up until Iffley Lock the river was chaos with a rowing race, but below the lock it was pretty much deserted. Just a handful of hire boats (with everyone on board, without exception, clutching a bottle), and a few big River Cruisers which announced their approach with the thump of a bassline from an eighties disco classic long before they came into view. Party goers lurched about on their deck (also clutching bottles). They were pretty pleased when I twirled my paddled in time with ‘Tragedy’ but I nearly dislocated my wrist when the blade snagged the water. Fortunately it happened at exactly at the same moment as Barry Gibb was doing his warbly bit when the whole song grinds to a halt before before the final triumphant (tragic) chorus, and I just about managed to make it look like it was all part of the routine.

Mid September is about as late as I enjoy wild camping in the UK as it is starting to get cold and it is pretty dark by seven. It is also frequently wet and my first day was no exception. I found a decent place to camp before Culham cut but as I was setting up my tent, while simultaneously trying to shoo away a herd of Aberdeen Angus bullocks which were slavering over my bag of pegs, the heavens opened. I dived into the tent and was pretty soon in my sleeping bag as there was really nothing else to do. Except have supper. I unwrapped my  (limited edition) Ginsters Beef and Tribute Ale pasty but was horrified to find it was still frozen even though I had taken it out of the freezer at home twelve hours previously.

Was I going to extract myself from my cosy bag and venture out across the stair-rod rain to get a packet of biscuits instead? No way. So I ate the frozen pasty. I just imagined I was eating some type of novelty pastry and meat ice cream and sort of enjoyed it. Actually I didn’t, it was disgusting. Luckily I found a Double Decker tucked away in my lifejacket to have for afters.

I had the Jetboil on for a cup of tea the next morning at the first whiff of light at six, and was on the water long before anyone else, having to operate the first couple of locks myself before the lockkeepers came on duty. The rest of Day 2 was uneventful and very pleasant and peaceful, if a bit cool and cloudy. I had a good view of a Muntjac deer which was grazing beneath the bushes close to the bank. Nice to see because we don’t get them as far down as West Devon.

IMG_9311
Muntjac Deer

I camped at my ‘favourite’ spot beside a little sandy beach just beyond Goring lock. At midnight I was awoken by a lot of splashing and chattering noises with quite a few high pitched squeaks. Otters! I shone my pathetic torch out across the river but the snivelling beam never illuminated them, although the noises continued for an hour. I think there were at least two cubs because the squeaks came from two places fifty yards apart. A perfect location for otters with several islands covered in a tangle of bushes and trees. In the morning I found ottery footprints on the beach yards from my tent. Although it was a pity I didn’t see them it is absolutely excellent to know otters are thriving on the Thames.

On Day 3 I paddled through Reading and through a familiar Sonning, although everything looked a lot smaller than when I was ten. I took a prolonged diversion off the main river down the St Patrick’s Stream, which bypasses Shiplake lock, and then the Hennerton Backwater.

IMG_9487
Henley

Henley was fairly busy with rowing sculls as usual, and drunken fools in zigzagging hire boats, but my attention was suddenly captured by a tussle between a Great-crested Grebe and a whopping fish. The fish was so large that initially it wasn’t entirely clear who was trying to eat who.

The drama which then unfolded over the next ten minutes is  the sort of extraordinary wildlife encounter that makes me pick up my paddle time and time (and time and time) again. It was absolutely gripping stuff, and all the more remarkable that it was played out within a stone’s throw from Henley bridge, with nobody else in any of the boats or the buzzing Angel’s Arms having the vaguest notion of what was going on. They were far too busy looking at screens and discussing Bake Off.

The Grebe held a twelve inch Pike in its beak. I would have thought it would have been a bit risky to mess with a Pike half that size, but to tangle with a top predator of that proportion is surely asking for trouble.

The bird kept changing its grasp on the fish and then tried to line it up to get the pike’s head in its mouth. This was initially unsuccessful and I assumed there was no way that the fish would fit down that neck. Wrong. Many minutes later all that was sticking out of the grebe’s beak was the tip of a tail fin, and soon that too disappeared. Absolutely amazing.IMG_9399

IMG_9364IMG_9434IMG_9435.JPGIMG_9459IMG_9469

Even the local Cormorants were impressed.

IMG_9553
Impressed Cormorant

I camped at the end of the regatta course and didn’t put up my tent till it started to get dark to avoid detection. Alas, as I was in my sleeping bag, reading about Bilbo’s eleventy- first birthday party, an official-looking launch pulled up and told me I couldn’t camp there. When I groaned in dismay he conceded to let me camp but pay the £10 mooring fee. I’m not sure that this was a good deal but it would have been a drag to move.

Next morning was stunning. No wind and a mist hanging over the water. The rowers were out early and I was scorned by a sculler in a GB team t-shirt who muttered that I was paddling on the wrong side of the river. As I switched sides I was nearly bisected by a coxless four who suddenly appeared out of the mist.

IMG_9489
Misty Henley

IMG_9516IMG_9521I had a relaxed run through Marlow and was approaching my destination at Cookham when I saw a small lithe black beast scampering along a pontoon.  A mink, in the middle of Bourne End! It had a fish in its mouth and scurried into a bush. I stopped and waited and it soon reappeared and stared me out, with those beady black eyes. I have been scrutinised by quite a few mink before and they have such evil intent that it makes you feel a bit uneasy and want to cover up your jugulars.

IMG_9590
Mink

In wildlife terms they are public enemy number one and it is mink that have exterminated the endearing little Water Vole that used to be so common along the Thames when I was growing up. The characteristic ‘plop’ of a vole jumping into the water was a familiar sound. On this trip I didn’t see a single vole.

I watched the mink for fifteen minutes as it scurried about, eventually emerging out of the bushes with the tattered fish in its mouth. I got the impression it (the Mink) was a youngster as it acted in a sort of teenagery manner.

IMG_9637
Mink with Lunch

I hadn’t been expecting that much wildlife action in the tail end of the year, so the grebe and the Mink were an unexpected surprise.

After four days on the water, the sight of a Red Kite floaing over the river hardly made me look up. There were absolutely loads of them and the rather weedy mewing call from this years offspring could be heard more or less continuously during my trip down the river.. I still can’t believe they can all find enough to eat. A major success story as a few decades ago there were none in this area.

IMG_9531
Red Kite

Thames trip over.

IMG_9558
Marlow

p.s.   A couple of my Grebe-eating-the-pike pics were printed in The Sunday People newspaper, with a suitably over-the-top headline:

IMG_9723
Grebe pic in The Sunday People

 

 

Advertisements

Otters

p1040591
Otter at Applecross, Scotland

Otters really ‘do it’ for me. Watching an otter is always an absolute thrill, as they are unbelievably difficult to see and are nearly always in an extreme wilderness environment. And kayaking along long stretches of coast or riverbank in complete silence has got to be the best way to see them.

They are largely nocturnal and so the best time to see them is very early in the morning when some are still larking about after a late night out. This suits me just fine as I really like the early mornings.

It is only in the remotest and least disturbed places that otters can be encountered throughout the day. I would estimate that 90% of all the otters I have seen from my kayak have been before 9am. I get the impression that dull damp days encourage them to get out a bit more, and I have rarely seen them in sunshine.

Dogs are otter’s number one enemy, and it is amazing that otter-hunting was only banned in the UK in 1979, although ironically it was the otter-hunters who noticed the catastrophic crash in numbers, due to pesticides, during that era.

Since then the population appears to have recovered, allowing otter watchers like me to have a pretty decent chance of an encounter.

I have been very fortunate to have seen may dozens of otters in the sea off the west coast of Scotland and a handful in the Scottish rivers.

My one kayak trip to the Norfolk Broads proved successful with a decent encounter in Barton Broad.

And down here in Devon and Cornwall the otter population is very healthy. Appropriately the Torridge, made famous by Henry Williamson’s Tarka, seems to have the greatest numbers. It is just perfect for them, with clean water away from any significant town to clutter it up or pollute it , and fifty plus miles of wooded bank and very little access to the public, and their dogs.

p1060401
Perfect otter habitat on River Torridge

Torrington is about the only town and that seems to be nice and clean. I have seen an otter quite happily fishing  just below the outflow from its sewage works.In fact the bridges over the Torridge at Torrington and their brickwork and large blocks beside the river seem to attract otters and maybe provide homes for them.

The weirs on the lower Torridge are a magnet for otters and I have seen them eating eels which I suppose are concentrated around the obstacles, as are other migratory fish such as salmon. Beam weir beneath the Tarka trail cycle path is reckoned to be one of the best locations in the country to observe otters.

p1060418
Weir on Torridge…..otter heaven

I have also encountered otters fishing in the upper tidal reaches of the Torridge when I have paddled up with the tide from Bideford. Never further than a mile or so downstream of the absolute tidal limit, and never yet in the muddy estuarine area.

The same applies to the river Tamar where I have regularly seen otters, always early in the morning, in the upper tidal section of the river below Gunnislake weir. I have only once seen a dog otter below Morwellham quay a couple of miles downstream of Gunnislake weir (the tidal limit).

p1110102
Fat Tamar Otter

I have watched a pair of otters on the river Taw and come across a single dog otter on the River Tone east of Taunton.This was particularly memorable because I silently drifted into a bush beside the bank as soon as I saw it, and then discovered that the otter had done exactly the same thing and was snorting warning calls from the depths of the bush only a few feet away from me.

Only twice have I seen an otter in a proper estuary around the southwest. Recently on the Camel half way between Wadebridge and Padstow, and several years ago near the china clay terminal at Fowey (as usual at dawn).

camel-otter-1
Otter on Camel estuary

I have yet to see one in the open sea in Devon and Cornwall but it does occasionally happen and I have seen otter tracks on open exposed beached near Boscastle.

Although guilty of trying to get too close for that classic photograph in the past, my number one aim when I see an otter now is to try to watch it without causing any disturbance to it, and to ‘get past’ without it knowing I was there. Not easy on a narrow river. If an otter detects your presence it will disappear immediately and you will not see it again, apart from the occasional one in Scotland that comes up underneath the seaweed, thinking it is invisible.

p1050341
Otter attempting concealment (unsuccessfully)

Otters have an excellent sense of smell and hearing but poor eyesight. Or maybe their eyesight is good but they are not too worried about what they see until their smell or hearing send out alarm bells.

I watched one munching its way through a salmon on the bank of the Torridge as I was sitting in my kayak tucked in on the opposite bank, twenty yards away. The otter was quite happy until I reviewed the photos I had so far taken, and the very faint ‘peep’ the camera made as i scrolled through the images caused it to look up and stare hard at me,  even above the roar of the rapids. Fortunately I was downwind, otherwise it could have had a REALLY nasty shock.

p1060729
Torridge otter with salmon

Amazingly, and possibly irritatingly, my best and most clear otter photograph wasn’t taken by me at all.

Mid December 2009, and I was sprinting along the canal in Bude in my racing sea kayak. It was just getting light. I thought I was going at quite an impressive lick so was a bit surprised to be overtaken by a string of bubbles at the surface. An otter popped up in front of me and swam to the lock gates to munch a fish it had just caught.

On the spur of the moment I turned my kayak around and sprinted back to my car, left the kayak on the bank, drove 10 miles back to my house Holsworthy, and dashed indoors to wake up my son, Henry, to tell him to come and see the otter and maybe get a photo. Not easy, but he was bundled into the car and we drove back to Bude. I dropped him at the far end of the canal and told him to walk along the towpath to meet me paddling towards him from the other end, so if the otter was still in the canal we would pincer it somewhere between us.

I then drove back to my kayak and paddled off towards Henry, this time definitely going at Olympic speed because I was so excited. After 2 miles flat out, and 2 portages, I found Henry standing on the towpath a few yards from where I had dropped him off. Exasperated that he hadn’t walked along to meet me, he explained that the otter was just where I had dropped him off, and he showed me the photographs. Stunning. Clear and perfect.

otter
Henry’s otter on Bude Canal

He then wanted me to take him home. All I had to do was paddle 2 miles back to pick up the car…..

I havn’t really got a better photo in the rivers of SW England since. Otters tend to be seen in conditions of poor light and under dark riverbanks, so it’s always a struggle with aperture, shutterspeed and sharpness of image. It’s a bit easier in the open air of the Scottish coast (but not much).

p1040261
Dog Otter on Mull

For me seeing an otter from my kayak is just about as exciting as seeing a dolphin way offshore in the summer.

Even catching a glimpse of one is a huge challenge, and for every decent view I have had, I have had many more of a tail disappearing below the surface…and no more.

p1060960_01
Typical view of vanishing otter

However if you are lucky you can see one diving and fishing in the open river a long way ahead, and they are so active that they cause a fair amount of disturbance at the surface, which can be seen from afar. They literally slither through the water and can move amazingly fast. My most recent encounter on the River Torridge involved three otters that were porpoising along in mid river. As they headed off downstream it was all I could do to keep up with them, paddling flat out a couple of hundred yards behind them so I wasn’t detected. I eventually overtook them as they took time out in a riverside bush. they didn’t notice me. Excellent.

p1060927_01
Trio of porpoising otters on River Torridge

When groups are involved, especially families with cubs, my attention has sometimes been drawn to otters by explosive high-pitched squeaks which I think are calls from the adults, and quieter squeaks from the cubs. In Scotland I have heard otters bark a sort of snuffling call when they are uncomfortable about you being there.

p1040241
Otter cub

I am never quite so excited to see Mink, although they are significantly rarer than otters. I would guess I see one Mink to every ten otters. Hopefully they will all be trapped and soon be gone as they eat anything that moves, and have single-handedly caused the near extinction of the likeable little Water Vole.

Since escaping, or being released, from fur farms Mink have spread the entire length of the country. I saw a couple in the most remote part of Western Scotland, fishing in the sea (the Mink, not me). When disturbed they have the gall to actually swim towards you to get a better look at who or what is interfering with their routine, staring you out with beady little black eyes.

p1030151
Silver Mink
p1070075
Brown Mink

So otters very definitely get the thumbs up from me. Mink don’t.

p1040932
Close encounter, Kylesku Scotland

p1040933