The Total Tamar

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Cormorant drying out

From Gunnislake weir it’s a twenty mile paddle down the entire length of the tidal reaches of the River Tamar. If you finish at Devil’s Point where it opens out into Plymouth Sound it’s more like nineteen but you really have to take a slingshot around Drake’s island to provide a satisfactory turning point for the trip.

It was such a nice sunny end-of-March day that I set out to paddle the whole length and back again, but because of the tide times I would have to start at Calstock and go downstream first and finish with the section upstream afterwards. The very high Spring tides would be a big help and power me along, especially in the middle section. Even so, a BIG day out and a good way to get fit for the Summer. Or collapse.

Definitely a job for my long and sleek Cobra Expedition SOT kayak.

I slipped beneath the never-ceases-to-amaze-me Calstock viaduct through the early morning mist before sunrise. Chilly enough to make me thankful I had remembered to bring gloves. Singing Blackbirds and Chiffchaffs injected a Spring boost into my cold musculature.IMG_0143

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Early morning Calstock

The water was absolutely glassy as I cruised along absolutely silently past sleeping Cotehele Quay.

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Cotehele Quay

The river then widens significantly for the long straight past Halton Quay prior to the huge loop starting at Pentillie and finishing at Weir quay.IMG_0159

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Pentillie

Incidentally, there are good slipways to put in at Calstock and Cotehele although these are very muddy and tricky at low tide, and an excellent all-stage-of-the-tide gravel slipway at Weir Quay.

The next four miles to the Tamar Bridge is a bit uninteresting and potentially unpleasant if the wind is blowing. After Cargreen on the Cornwall side the River Tavy joins from the left and the branch line train clatters over the metal bridge at its neck.

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Tamar Bridge

I was very pleased that as I approached the vast Tamar Bridge the wind was still non existent, and the outgoing tide whipped me along.

The moderate easterly wind which had so far lain dormant inland started to make itself felt as Devonport dockyard came into view. I always feel a bit small and vulnerable here as there is a lot of boat activity with navy boats shuttling about all over the place, and the Marine Police always watching, and no doubt wondering what on earth I am doing out in the middle of the wide river, all by myself, battling through the chop.

Four submarines and a couple of frigates on the left, a supply ship on the right, and then you have to time your passage correctly to dodge between the three Torpoint chain ferries. Not quite as straighhtforward as it seems as their movements seem a bit random, although I’m sure they aren’t.

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Torpoint Ferry

Round the corner towards Devil’s point I hugged the Devon shore and although kept out of the wind found myself paddling against a stiff eddy current flowing upstream. I diverted into Mayflower marina for a breather and a cup of coffee. A seal popped up beside me and as I fumbled for my camera it disappeared and was gone.

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King Billy (overlooking Devil’s Point)

As I emerged into Plymouth sound the wind really started to bite, but I was determined to get to Drake’s island as it provides such a good target and also the carrot of a sandy beach to stretch the legs. Although I’m pretty sure you are not allowed to land on Drake’s island I think there is some rule to say it’s OK if you are below the high water mark. This might be a load of tosh but I don’t want to find out because I am going to stop there anyway.

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Lunch Break Drake’s Island

As I hauled up on the beach and levered myself out of the seat , a pair of Sandwich terns floated past with their grating call….Spring is here.

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Sandwich Tern

I loafed about for the best part of an hour waiting for the tide to turn, very conscious of the marine police control tower half a mile away in Plymouth, watching me like the eye of Sauron in the Dark Tower.

As usual I set off too early and spent the next hour paddling against the last gasp of the ebbing tide, which as usual didn’t turn till way after it was supposed to. I think it is down to inertia; even though the tide is rising it takes a while to reverse the current in a large body of moving water.

I successfully dodged two of the Torpoint ferries but fell foul of the police boats when I ventured too close to the submarines. The officers were very polite and I diverted a bit further out.

The huge lake upstream of the bridge was a bit of a haul with wave chop coming over the deck but at least the tide was kicking in. I was surprised to see five Shoveler ducks flying over.

As the twists and turns of the river arrived the wind eased off. I was thrilled to see a pair of Barnacle Geese swimming beside the mud of the Devon bank at Halton Quay. ┬áIf this was a single bird it would probably have been an ‘escape’, but the fact that it was a pair makes wild birds seem more likely. If so, the first I have seen since I saw skeins migrating in across the Outer Hebrides (being harried by Golden Eagles!) decades ago.

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Barnacle Geese (and Shelduck)

Only other birds of interest were five Common Sandpipers and a single Green Sandpiper on the corner just below Calstock.

Arriving back at Calstock with thirty-one miles under my belt, it was a bit of a struggle to set off for another five miles upstream. But the sun was out and pleasantly warm, and the water smooth.

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Morwellham

Half a pizza at Morwellham Quay fuelled me for the final push to Gunnislake weir. The riverside tree that I had noticed had been gnawed by a Beaver last time I was here had fallen down. No other signs of any chewed trees, but I’m sure it was a beaver as you can see the teeth marks quite clearly.IMG_0279

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Tree chewed by Beaver
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Gunnislake Weir

I didn’t hang around at the weir as I was just about spent, and cruised back to Calstock on completely smooth water and a current that was just starting to ebb.

Three Kingfishers in the upper section.

Forty-one miles paddled. Total trip time twelve hours.IMG_0282

Biggest milage yet.

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Tamar Treats

p1060167I don’t paddle the ‘middle’ section of the River Tamar Estuary very often. It’s further for me to drive and doesn’t offer much more than the the upper bit between Calstock and Gunnislake, which is exceptional.

It’s also a bit less scenic than the upper bit, more exposed to the wind with its wider valley, and quite a lot more mud exposed as the tide drops. Mudflats aren’t everyone’s idea of a beautiful paddle.

However it was time for a change of scenery so we set off to do this stretch again, starting at the superb ‘all stage of the tide’ slipway at Weir Quay and paddling six miles upstream to Calstock, with careful tidal planning hopefully working in our favour. The tide really zips past at Weir Quay and I was relieved to see it heading in the right direction to give us a bit of a kick start.

My paddling companion Paul was trying out his recently purchased Prowler 13, I was in my super comfortable Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, and vulnerable to guffaws from any other person afloat who thinks inflatables are not serious watercraft. I was pretty certain we were not going to meet any other paddlers, being January 7th and not a very pleasant day ,so I was probably safe.

The wide muddy shores made fertile by the billions of leaves and other organic matter that come down with the river are a waterfowl heaven. We were only just getting absorbed into the surroundings , being serenaded by piping Redshank and bubbling Curlew, when we put up a flight of Wigeon from the shore. As they circled back round over our heads a Peregrine knifed across the sky and attacked the little group. It was unsuccessful so then pursued an individual bird as it twisted and turned virtually down to water level, but departed empty-handed (-footed) and cruised back to an exposed bough of a tree high above the wide sweeping bend of the river.

Pity, I havn’t seen a successful Peregrine kill for many years.Plenty of near misses though.

That was our first treat of the day.

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Cotehele Quay

We had the tidal flow in our favour for the whole six miles to Calstock although it did seem to stop every so often, well before the tide was full. Cotehele Quay draws the eye as it is set in a very scenic bit of valley and seems to be beautifully well-preserved and groomed by the National Trust. Just round the corner is the familiar, but always astonishing (as it is so high), Calstock viaduct. We stopped for lunch on the slipway and had a chat with the Muscovy ducks.

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Calstock Viaduct

The tide turned and assisted our progress back down. Treat number two came in the elegant form of ten or so Avocets that were doing what they do on the mud on the Devon side of the river. I well remember the excitement of seeing my first Avocet at Arne in Dorset nearly half a century ago (!).

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Tamar Avocets

‘Peregrine’ corner was completely sheltered from the wind so we just drifted along with the current supping a cup of tea(me)/coffee(Paul). We watched a couple of Cormorants fishing the smooth water. Remarkably, both surfaced with flatfish in their beaks within a minute of each other. And both fish looked too big to swallow. The first was reluctantly ditched by its captor, the second looked as if it was going to be swallowed no matter what. The equivalent of a human downing a laptop whole. I think I got a bit too close in my efforts to take ‘that’ photo…the Cormorant dropped the fish and cleared off.p1060217

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Gulping Cormorant

Treat number two and-a-half, not quite qualifying for a whole.

A head just popping above the surface a hundred yards away lured us over to investigate…..although I thought it was a seal it just could have been an otter.

Just when I was beginning to think whatever-it-was was not going to surface, a seal appeared directly behind Paul’s kayak and then started to rub its nose, quite vigorously, on the plastic. We were both gob-smacked by its sudden appearance and apparent lack of bashfulness and watched as it swam about close to our kayaks before submerging and disappearing. Treat number three.

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Fearless Seal

The hugely hugely entertaining trip was soured somewhat when Paul discovered the hull of his e-bay purchased Prowler was sloshing with water. Lucky we hadn’t gone off to the Eddystone. It would have sunk.

The source of the leak was a worn through skid-plate from being dragged around too much by its previous owner.. This is a common problem with Prowlers as their hull tapers to quite a narrow point at the back of the boat, but easy to prevent if you don’t drag it around too much. Use a kayak trolley.

Yet another top trip.