Archive for the 'Canoe' Category

Ram’s Island with video

Me and Simy were there recently. Here’s a little vid

yet another coney island blog…

Having been almost a year since I’d camped in Coney it was time for a trip back. This time, instead of the stag party I had my lovely wife in tow.

She still had to paddle her own way their mind you, this is no punting on the Cam you know…

The weather was spiffing shall we say

Being early in the season the flies were somewhat of a problem, perhaps more to one of us than the other

We didn’t quite have the island to ourselves, as there were a few boats of merry-makers tied up at the pier. The merry-making was fine, the pumping tunes from Cool FM were less in keeping with the context. They left eventually

We made camp a bit further inland amongst the bluebells.

I must confess, it wasn’t my best BBQ, we spent more time trying to keep the damn thing alight.

Good to be back camping. Here’s to a few more

Ram’s Island

Yeah I know you’re all bored sick of Coney island.

Well we found a new one. By found I don’t mean we actually found it. It’s been there for a while now, and we’ll not be first to claim discovery or anything…

Sorry if the screen grab is a bit small. But you can see that Ram’s is a fair bit bigger and further out than Coney is.

My only knowledge of it growing up was that it was full of rats and no one went near it.

Apparently the environment folk had someone working all over the lough for 18 months solid solely to rid the islands of rats. Quite the job really.

The birds are flourishing there now, a sure sign that there are no rats left.

We started out at Gawley’s gate, which seemed to be a pub with a jetty and launching point out the back of it. It’s covered in cloud on the google map so I didn’t mark it

The best bits of these trips are the trees. Something like what Ireland might have looked like, an awful long time ago. There’s not many places like that left so it’s nice to see them.

It was a good 15 minute walk from where we landed to the “populated” end of the island

This jetty isn’t in regular use…

The whole walk was covered like this. the indents you can see are our footprints. Very cool.

Every now and again you find old remnants of previous structures. The website has some interesting stuff on the history. One of the most interesting bits is that the lake used to be 6 acres up till recently when the lough was controlled and lowered and it’s now 40 acres

The bit Simon’s standing on would have previously been the shore and the rocks were piled up to stop erosion.

It had at one point been a landscaped garden as the daffodils here give tell to. The flowers are missing because there’s a current population of rabbits there that have a liking for them. They’re trying to work out how to control the rabbit population without causing some other ecological niche to go out of kilter.

the round tower is apparently fairly old. As they tend to be. It’s been patched up here and there.

The story goes that the Americans put the hole in it while using it as target practice in WW II when they were based on the shore about half a mile away. So much for cultural heritage…

The joys of canoeing on fresh water is that you don’t have to worry about your canoe washing away on the tide

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The main jetty is to the right

The whole place is largely volunteer maintained. There’s a guy who stays there in a moored old barge every weekend with his family and does a lot of work at the place.

Hopefully we’ll camp there at some point, but you have to wait till after June and the birds have finished their laying and all that.

The Beastie Boys

The idea of having a “stag do” was just an excuse. I’ve wanted to get a bunch of folk on coney island for an overnighter for a while. This just seemed like a good opportunity.

Regular readers will realise that I have a little bit of a thing about Coney Island and it seems to be my ambition to get everyone I know out there at some point.

I managed to beg/borrow/steal a total of 7 canoes for the trip. Which is not bad going for an extensive budget of nothing. Canoe people (people who canoe…) seem to be fairly generous folk. I made lots of phone calls looking for canoes and trailers and folk bent over backwards to try and track stuff down for me.

Occasionally that involved me moving the canoes in a less than ideal manner.But with Zoomtard‘s help and a little bit of refinement we managed to get 5 canoes on one car.

So 14 of us made it for the evening and only 4 of them were yellow bellied, scaredy cats, reluctant to paddle and went over in the motor boat with the warden of the island.

The rest of us with our fairly widely ranging levels of experience made it under our own power. Even if some of our senses of direction weren’t quite so wonderful.

There had been a recent hatch of flies from the lough which provided a rather dramatic cloud of “smoke” over the island. They’re the type of flies that can’t bite you, but they’re still blood annoying when they fl;y up your nose. The good thing is that come evening they go up high into the trees and instead make an almighty buzzing noise while you chat.

One tented village later (I assumed dictatorial role and shouted at everybody like a school teacher) we were ready for the BBQ and the banter.

We were joined at a bout 10pm by a group of 50 or so drunken young farmers from Portglenone who had come down on a “booze cruise” on the Maid of Antrim for a trip. They were charmingly pissed and entertaining apart from the one idiot who thought it would be funny to break one of our tents and throw a few sleeping bags in the hedge. Shame we didn’t find that out till after they’d left otherwise we could have thrown him in the lough.

One bottle of Woodford Reserve later it was 4am and starting to rain and time for bed. Good times.

Sleep was more of a formality than an enjoyable experience. So it goes.

Next day was damp and getting damper but we got our tour round the island from Peter and all home safely.

Much appreciated to everyone involved, especially to those who helped with the shifting of the canoes.

Frozen Lake

I find myself in that slightly awkward but always pleasant bit between Christmas and New Year. In this odd society that puts these major holidays together and where no real work happens in between.

Christmas was good, cracker food and some interesting gifts, of which my (second) favourite was this.

There were also the obligatory and most practical and appreciated socks and deoderant. Well appreciated by some people anyhow.

Much more excitingly on boxing day we managed to get wee Liz out in the canoe and make an attempt on Coney island.

We were thwarted by ice. Yes ice, a big dirty great sheet of it that seemed to run all the way out to Coney Island.

The good ship Pudge is not designed as ice breaker, though we tried all the same. In the end we gave up when the crunching noises became all a bit disconcerting.

Instead we paddled up the Blackwater instead fearing dive bombings by swans. We were fine.

I must say I did like the ice for dragging the canoe back to the car.

[Note my new hat, another cracking pressie]

Canal song – Part 3

We ended up in an Italian restaurant last night. It’s weird how many small Irish villages have really cracker restaurants sometimes. Well fed and waiting impatiently for 10 pm when we felt it would be respectable to go to bed.

Slept till 9am.

Apparently it was breezy overnight. One of the metal gates on the back of the pub had blown off. Or rather the wall had blown off and taken the gate with it.

We had to endure another gruelling carry of the loaded Kayaks down to the river. couldn’t be more than 100 yards but was pulling the arms out of us by the end of it. We are such light weights.

Back in the water for 10.30 am and on our way. The rain joined us. Most upsetting.

By Lunch (which was a cup of coffee on one of the IWAI marinas) the sun came out and made it a very pleasant afternoon.

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While it’s wonderful having the facilities in place, it is a bit of a spoiler on the view to have all the marker posts throughout the waterways just to stop some idiot piling a cruiser into a sand bar.

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It was here that the going got a bit tougher. Up until this point we had been blessed by having the wind mainly behind us and whatever flow was in the canal was in out favour. At the point we turned into the river Erne and had to go both against the flow and against the wind. Not nearly so pleasant.

We did find this very pleasant old cottage facing onto the river.

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Finished in Belturbet about 3.30 pm. Tired and a bit hungry. Good trip.

Canal song – Part 2

Sleeping in tents is something that seemed like a good idea at the time you thought of it. But in general by the time you get round to it you wish you were in your own bed.

Sleeping in a tent on a small uninhabited island in the middle of a Cavan lake seemed like a great idea till it started raining quite so heavily.

Against my usual better judgement (and the 6 quid per mb charge) I used the phone to check the weather. It gave vague promises of a bright spell from 9-10am and then rain till some time in early November. I waited till one of us could wait no longer to get up and pee (it was Phil) then crawled from my sleeping bag to greet the dampness.

Saving grace is the fact that we only planned to spend one night camping. As a general rule only ever spend one night camping. Unless the weather is guaranteed. And in Ireland it’s never guaranteed.

I had such great plans for a lovely cooked breakfast that came to a squelching halt with the rain. The only aim was to get packed up and in the canoes as quick as possible.

Unfortunately with the rain the wind had picked up significantly so our first paddle of the day was a slightly breezy run across the main channel of the lake to get to a bit of shelter on the otherwise.

We did get lost.  Or should I just say that I got us lost.  All these lakes look the same to me really. How should I know. It was only briefly lost. And pleasantly so.

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Once you’re in the kayak with the spray deck on and the kag and a hat you’re pretty cosy. Rain becomes something of an irrelevance.

The wind however is a different story. Trying to cross a lake with the wind even a few degrees off your direction leads to a constant battle to keep the canoe going in a straight line.  Couple that with the waves cast up by the wind and it actually becomes really quite hard work.

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It never really brightened up all day but I must say it was almost nicer because of it. All my memories of Fermanagh have grey skies in them and it seems only fitting that Cavan should be the same.

A grand total of 3 and a half hours after starting out we arrived at Ballyconnell, (hardly very long paddling is it? I realise that, if you wanted a blog on endurance kayaking then you came to the wrong place) promptly missed the best stopping point and had to struggle back upstream against the wind to make it to the marina.
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So two men walk into a bar in ballyconnell dressed in shorts, sandals and life jackets and ask for a room for two. No wonder we got funny looks.

We also had to carry two canoes down the main street (it’s not very main) to get them to the pub we’re staying in. Pretty sure that’s not something that happens every day.

The shower you have after a couple of days living in your own filth is always the best one. The shoulders are begonnign to feel the strain now a bit. Most pleasant surprise is that a pint of guiness here is only 3.20 euro. Pleasantly surprised compared to the 4.50 euro in Dublin. Maybe I should move here.

Canal song – Part 1

[Before I even start, my dearly beloved Canon IXUS died, the lens won’t come out. 5 years isn’t bad for all the water, sand and dirt it had thrown at it. So all the pictures are from the iPhone and of dubious quality]

So it begins again. Off on another trip. Off on another paddle in the Ireland rarely seen. Kind of like lesser spotted ulster except without Joe Mahon.

This trip started as me and wee Phil wondering what to do with a week’s holiday at then end of September with him just back from 2 months saving lives (and maybe even the world) in Africa.

The original plan was to canoe from Lough Erne in Fermanagh all the way to Limerick. This was perhaps slightly ambitious.

It then became a 5 or 6 day trip to Athlone and then 4 days to Carrick on Shannon and now it’s 3 days from Ballinamore to Belturbet. Good call I say.

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Took us about two hours from portadown to find Ballinamore. Down roads I’ve never driven before. Always a good experience.

Just as we’d organised supplies and got a bite of lunch the rain came on. Typical.

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Though the silly misly type of Irish rain that makes you nervous that it might start pissing down any minute.

The shannon-erne waterway has a remarkable history. Originally planned to revolutionise industrial transport in the 19th century. In it’s 10 operating years it carried 8 barges. Not exactl profitable for having dug a 60km canal though the west of Ireland.

It’s introduction came just as the railways exploded onto to the scene. Hardly a fair fight. It took us just over 30 minutes to drive from the beginning to the end of our route that we planned 3 days for.

It got reopened for the tourists – mainly Germans (it seems) in rented cruisers in 1994 and seems to be popular enough to still be running.
The locks are automatic controlled by little pass cards and control panels. All very exciting. But we realised after the first one that it’s probably easier just to carry the canoes round them.
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I thought I’d go gentle on phil to start with and we only had 6 mile or so for the first day, especially as we only started at 3 pm.

Tonight we’re camping on church island. A tiny place a few hundred yards across in the middle of Lough Garadice (never entirely clear if the Lough is meant to come before or after it’s name). There’s an old (proper old) broken down church and that’s it.
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Lit the BBQ, drank some coffee and set the camp. Wonderful really. Just needs to be a bit wamer and it’s perfect. There’s a marina a few hundred yards across the lough and earlier a band was playing 80s rock classics at a quite phenomenal volume. The wind carried it well.

Read a good third of Gilead in one night by the light of the gas lantern and pondered how different a life we lead compared to a hundrd or so years ago. And indeed how different a life we lead compared to the majority of the planet.

22.45: Curled up in the sleeping bags hoping sleep comes easy and the zombies don’t rise from the graves of the abandoned church and gouge out our eyes while we sleeep. Not sure that’s gonna help me sleep thinking like that.

Incidentally – finally got the new David bazan album. About flipping time.

Saturday morning (who’s gonna play with me?)

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It’s been a while since we’ve attempted the Upper Bann. There was the incident. It kind of put us off.

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But our canoe evangelism has paid off and we’ve managed to get Leggy and Dave round to buying their own canoes.

So at 8.30 on a misty september morning we’re sitting in Leggys’s house watching him take the wrapping off his paddle. I love amateurs.

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Leggy has the enviable pleasure of having a house that backs onto the river. I get very jealous.

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Had the best of times paddling through the mist. Felt like somewhere nice and foreign. I.E. not Portadown.

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There were no major incidents. Apart from the odd part being too shallow. Which is a bit embarrassing if you’re into canoeing – that your major trauma involved being in a river so shallow you could walk across it.

Made it to Portadown just as the sun was breaking through the mist.

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August and everything after

So as summer comes to an end with a cold, damp, miserable thump (what a surprise) it’s time to review some of what i’ve been up to over august.

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I was at a wedding in a castle in Edinburgh (though not edinburgh castle) where they had the most wonderful humanist wedding ceremony. (I think we need more humanist wedding ceremonies, but that’s another blog.)

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There was great food, good wine and even some dancing – of which i did not partake i must confess. Even the Bon Jovi.

I picked up the guitar and grew some balls and played my songs in a wee cafe in Portadown. And after the first 4 songs i even started enjoying it.

And in a fit of musical enthusiasm I picked up the old electric again and played with the old band in church. Lamenting my dying guitar amp and how rusty I’ve got at playing the electric guitar.

I await my new valves in earnest in the hope i can resurrect the Hot Rod deluxe to do another 10 years of loyal service.

On a more positive not the new Pod X3 rocks. While a little on the complicated side to set up and run it does sound pretty sweet. These are the days i wish i hadn’t sold my strat to Woodsy.

In between I have actually enjoyed my work. Which is kind of new for me. I have found myself too often pisssed off and frustrated in work so it’s nice to have a wee bit more enthusiasm and positivity about the whole thing. being there less helps. Which i know sounds weird – “I love my job as long as I’m not there…” – but when I do less hours I sleep better and am more sane than usual. This has got to be a good thing.

I look forward to dropping a day a week in the middle of september and going back to cutting up dead bodies with the students.

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And then most recently was Jonny and Lynne’s wedding. Dear Jonny, whom I’ve known since I was 6 when he arrived in P2 and stole my lego. Not that I’m bitter. Dear Jonny, who I shard houses with and tears and joy with and made 9 platiunum selling albums with in the Turf Brothers. Good times.

Great wedding, though running around doing musical stuff all day. Including the first ever live turf brother’s performance.

And it was mighty craic playing in Nice Guy Eddie again (my old wedding band) and even nicer to move from dance floor to band and back to dance floor again getting to play just the songs that i remembered.

There was dancing. There was me dancing. There was me enjoying dancing.  But i blame Transfarmer for that. I blame her for everything really.

But above all else what made the wedding was the fact that we didn’t have to drive the 1 1/2 hours back from the Killyhevlin at midnight. Instead we sat about the hotel till 0130 and then dandered back to our little chalets at the riverside for a cup of tea and a nice kip.

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And so began our little two day holiday in damp fermanagh. Like the donegal trip simply transplanted to a pre-fab chalet on the bank of the river.

I took the good ship pudge out on my own for the first time but was slightly annoyed that the brisk wind meant that i couldn’t get the thing turned and embarassingly had to reverse the canoe to shore just to turn it.

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Everyone else seemed to enjoy their trip too. No one got wet anyhow.

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We visited an ice-cream shop, just for the adventure of getting lost in the Fermanagh countryside. Sat-Nav is great and all that but only if you tell it to go to the right place.

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Extended weekends rock. And it’s still only sunday morning.

How to dissappear completely – part 4

Slept very, very well.

Massive fry up for breakfast which seemed like a good idea at the time until bacon’s revenge caught up with me and you’re downing water within 5 minutes of starting.

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Passed through two lock gates and some pretty annoyed salmon fishermen – apparently they paid 150 quid to fish on the river and now on one of the best days fishing days of the year their day is being cut short because they’ve opened the flood gates at Toome and the river level is rising too high for fly fishing.

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Good example of all the competing interests on the river. There’s a big drive for tourism but the need for the lock gates and the weirs leads to big safety issues. One time a boat lost power and drifted against the flood gates at the cutts and Coleraine and the people had to scramble onto the gates before the boat was pulled under. So the lock keeper guy told us.

There’s a big demand from the fishermen, who at least pay large sums on money to use the river, and naturally they get a bit miffed at all us boaters and paddlers coming down and disturbing the water. In fact Griff Rys Jones is in the Times yesterday arguing just this point from the canoeists point of view. Instead of a right to roam it’s a right to float.

And then there’s the farmers who must get annoyed when the level of the river pops up and down like a yo-yo depending on what someone somewhere wants the level of the lough to be. The lough trumps all it seems. And I think that law was originally made in the interest of the farmers.

Everyone wants a bit of nature, a bit of the countryside to go play in. It’s hardly wilderness with so many people fighting over it. It’s the big thing that you just can’t get in Ireland – the whole place is too packed with people and too easy to access.

The longest you could get lost in the mournes for is just over a day.

Back to the trip.

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Gorgeous paddling up around Loughan and coming into Coleraine. Trees on both sides and the kingfishers everywhere. With the sun shining through the trees you could be anywhere in the world.

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Just as last time the flood gates were open at the cutts in Coleraine, creating too much of a draw to safely approach the canal round them. So we stopped just before at Castleroe forest and phoned the ‘support team’ – or wee liz and morsies. We said we’d get them t-shirts with ‘crew’ written on them for next year.

Good trip, good times. Pulled out the old hip flask and poured into the river a libation for the gods and one for ron and thanks for a trip well done. Not the same trip. Not the same life. But good bits remain none the less.

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How to dissappear completely – part 3

I take it all back. Tents are great places to sleep.

Lights out at 2230 last night and after a few pages of Winston I was out like the light. Woken only by a car alarm going off at 0130. Simy looked up briefly and mumbled a confused “but I don’t have a car” and rolled off to sleep again.

Morning refused to bring with it the long promised rain but did bring a brisk easterly wind and a dank grey morning.

After a quick brekkie and clear up we paddled out of the harbour at the marina. After some water over the deck and a shift of 100 yds towards shore wisdom got the better of valour and i made the gentle suggestion to simon that maybe we don’t do this at all. This was followed by a hasty “I concur” and we headed back to the harbour with our paddles between our legs. (now that would have been most impressive…)

A full 10 mins canoeing we got in. All just to go 3.5 miles across the top of the Lough and we couldn’t manage it.

We could have done it. say if I was carrying vital plans to destroy the death star or there was a man with a pointy stick chasing me then no worries, I’m your man in a canoe.

But since “the incident” we’ve both grown rather cautious. Too scared of the newspaper headline – “idiot brothers die in stupid frigging canoe accident leaving behind distraught family members and pretty but entirely unaffected black Labrador”. I can see them already.

Seeing as the Neill family is already down to 3/4 strength (well maybe 4/5 if we count morsies, or maybe it should be 5/6 if we count the dog, maybe I’m just confusing things…) I would feel mighty silly if we lowered the ratio any further.

I have, over some 28 years, become really quite attached to the older brother and would be really quite upset to lose him at this juncture.

So with all that going through our heads I think we made the right call.

That left us in Ballyronan with no transport and having to wait 3 hours for Simon’s most wonderful of wives to come pick us up and drop us in the river at Portglenone so we could continue the trip.

It’s not that Ballyronan doesn’t have it’s charms (the mace, three pubs, the arch that was put up special for the twelfth, the LOL, the filling station) it’s just not really a place to spend a wet and windy Saturday morning.

Now normally I’d be as happy as a pig in it’s own excrement to sit in a pub and read the paper but at 1030 in the morning even the punters in Ballyronan haven’t the stomach for a pint and watching the horse racing on the telly.

I walked round it twice. Bought the paper. Went down to the marina and tried to read a broadsheet in the wind with predictable results. Made some coffee. Tried to find somewhere out of the wind. Simon kept trying to entice dogs over so they might play with him, like he was the dog whisperer. Listened to some radio 4. Went to the mace again to buy ham and bread and lo and behold morsies has arrived. Wa hey.

Not wanting to give up on the day entirely we went back on the river at Portglenone where the wind couldn’t get at us. It still gave us half a days canoeing in one of the prettiest bits of the whole river.

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Just before our last stop we came to Portna locks. One of five lock canal and lock gate systems on the lower bann. Put in the fifties to allow boats to get up and down the bann avoiding the positively lethal flood gates and weirs that were put in to control the level of lough neagh.

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Even the sight of the lough gates makes me think horrible thoughts about getting sucked under them and pinned against a tree or something. We asked the guy at the lock had that ever happened and he said no but every now and again you get the odd cow pulled in.

The whole system seems a bit lethal if you ask me.

No doubt some mentalist kayaker has ran them before. I must check YouTube.

But anyhow. Now in the Portneal lodge in Kilrea. Some kind of odd travel lodge type place that happens to have a jetty at it so we can just stop and lift out the canoes and book in.

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We stayed here two years ago when it was pissing down and we were looking for somewhere to camp and then out of the storm this place appeared like in a vision.

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It’s pissing down again here so I’ve maybe not got pleasant things to say about Kilrea.

We dandered into town to find some where to get some food and found two chinese take aways and a chippy and a variety of pubs. The whole place was a bit empty

There was a police land rover sitting in the square and seemed to be overlooking a group of about 15 men putting up a few union jacks around the war memorial. I’m pretty sure you don’t normally need 15 men and a police land rover to put up a few union jacks but when there’s a sinn féin and SDLP office staring at those flags then maybe you do.

Back in the travel lodge we are still the only people staying here. As we were two years ago. I have no idea how this place stays in business. As the rain lashes the window I am terribly glad it does.

Spent the evening watching T in the park on tv (I know, crazy isn’t it) and I now feel culturally relevant as I could pick katy perry out of a line up and I know who Calvin Harris is. I could still punch lady gaga in the face mind you.

2158. Both boys tucked up in bed. Rock on.

How to dissappear completely – part 2

I sleep fitfully in tents. Time passes. I’m not sure I really sleep. Otherwise it’s a wonderful experience.

Didn’t get up till after 9 and fought the chickens off to get at the food to make the breakfast. By time we had the bacon and eggs and potato bread down us and camp cleared away it was after 11.

Thankfully the wind had died a bit and we made it across the open bay of the Lough on calm water with nothing but the flies for company.

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The silence is overpowering. You have most of Northern Ireland all round you (we never decided if it was 4 or 5 counties) and you’re here in this tiny wee boat in the middle of it all. Good times.

Lunch was at Ardboe below an old ruined church. Pot noodles aren’t as good as I remember them.

In the afternoon the wind picked up and thankfully more in our backs. Unfortunately this drew up a bit of a swell which kept trying to send us more west than north west.

The waves have a tendency to catch your tail end and spin you whichever way they want you. It is possible to surf them but it takes a lot of effort to keep yourself in the right direction.

In the end it was quite hard work but we made pretty impressive speed across the lough with only eel boats and sand dredgers for company.

Ended up on Ballyronan marina at 5 pm and got a 99 from the bored teenager at the ice cream stall.

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I’d tried to book a space in the camp-site about 5 days ago but was told that it was fully booked.

When we arrived there were 2 caravans on the site with at least 10 empty bays. Maybe people had cancelled. We chanced our arm with the lady in the office and gave her our sob story about canoeing for 10 days solid and how we had to eat the ships dog and she felt sorry for us and let us squeeze on the site.

We were ever so grateful.

It’s now 10 pm and there are now 3 caravans and 9 empty bays. Now either people here turn up really late to their caravan site or someone is telling little fibs.

But oh the joys of a shower. Only two days without washing and it was still so good to stand under the shower and feel it burn on the sun burn on your face. A shower is one of life’s great pleasures. So’s a ‘shar’ – which is the same thing but with a northern Irish accent.

For some reason the shower curtain was covered in images of little yellow ducks with the slogan ‘bobbing along’. Seemed a tad out of place in a council public toilet.

The main reason we choose Ballyronan marina is that it has a great Chinese restaurant. Every marina should have one.

We asked for a table for tea near a plug socket so we could charge the phones. Just like Ray Mears does.

Starters and main course and some Tsing Tao later we’re having a wee dander round the marina wondering what the earliest acceptable time to go to bed is.

About now I reckon.

How to dissappear completely – part 1

So

Two years ago we did this trip. Canoe from Portadown to Coleraine. 4 days on the river and the Lough. Outdoors, doing manly things.

Two years ago I’d just arrived back from my little escapist adventure to NZ. Two years ago I looked at my life and kept repeating to myself that I was the luckiest man alive. That no one alive had the opportunities and options and experiences that I had. All of which undeserved.

Two years ago we did this trip with Da and he’s declined to make the repeat trip with us. Some lame excuse about being dead and all that.

Two years ago and now everything is changed. So it goes.

Nice start eh? It gets better honest.

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Spent all day yesterday packing and repacking trying to think of all the things we might need, trying to see if everything we need might fit into the two canoes. Being hopeful that simon’s somewhat damaged canoe might be up for the job.

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Credit to Liz for our new addition of braces – old man braces from Matalan – that keep the spray decks high enough to stop the water leaking in.

My spraydeck is made by perception – a respectable name in canoe circles. According to the lapel the model is ‘gaybo’ which is I suppose not so respectable in many circles. Mine is ‘gaybo’. Simy’s isn’t. Read into that what you will.

The other useful addition is 3G (or more likely GPRS) and facebook which enables me to post lovely photos while the rest of you are skiving in work on facebook or reading blogs.

Hence why I’m lying in the tent at 2345 writing this while the waves lap at the shore of the island.

Anyhow. By the time we’d eaten the requisite poached egg and bacon and remembered the stuff that Simon had forgotten we were on the water shortly after lunch.

There’s nothing that exciting on the upper Bann between Portadown and Lough Neagh. It’s nice from Banbridge to Portadown as previously noted. And it’s lovely on the lower Bann. But this bit is mainly flood plains and cows staring at you. Simy loves cows. I don’t.

It was windy. Wind is hardly the canoeist’s friend. It just means you have to paddle twice as hard for less progress. It was a northerly wind. Kind of unfortunate seeing as we were paddling basically due north. Apart from the brief bit when due to the nature of meanders we were paddling south at one point.

The tough bit was getting out to Coney. There was a fair ould swell on the Lough with the wind casting up waves the full length of Lough Neagh. We were stuck paddling across them and it left us feeling more than a little nervous and twitchy if we were truthfully honest.

We’re into this canoeing for the scenery not the adrenaline. Waves aren’t really our thing.

But we made it. A tad damp from the splash but we made it.

Set up camp and sat round a picnic table while Peter (the warden who lives on the island and a bit of an all round legend) greeted us with beer and good conversation. The man has such good stories I could listen to him all day.

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BBQ and some time at the camp fire and look at the time it’s dark and we’re shattered and it’s off to bed for the Neill boys.

I haven’t even had a second to read more Churchill or try and sew my sandals back together.

Unless the lough rises 4 feet by morning or we’re killed by swine flu then we’ll still be here and I can tackle those really pressing issues then.

Coney Island

Last of my wee fun trips for my week off. I must say i think i’ve done well.

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Have been going on about Coney Island to Gilly that he’s finally agreed to come for a trip. Him and wee Phil.

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And such a cracker day we got.

Along with all the wonderful foodie goodies for a cracking BBQ. All except the charcoal of course. Not exactly covering myself in glory there. Some kind folks who were leaving as we arrived let us use the remains of their portable BBQ and in the end we were just fine.

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Long evening spent chatting over the rather deafening roar of the most recent hatch of lough neagh flies making sweet love overhead. Has to be heard to be believed i suppose.

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Spent a largely sleepless night listening to the herons. Who are in fact a well known nesting bird on the island and not an uber cool indie band as you might suspect.

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Good times.

Nice places to bring the dog if she didn’t keep trying to climb out of the canoe

The last time we went canoeing it didn’t turn out well. Simy’s canoe is still lying slightly crooked and bent in his garage, along with out self-confidence and desire to canoe over weirs.

But on what appeared to be the nicest day of the year so far we couldn’t really resist.

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The lime green wonder fibreglass wonderboat, that goes by the name of of pudge was back on the high seas. Or at least the river Blackwater.

Young Sparky, we put in the fancy plastic canoe, given his distaste for squatting in the open canoe. Some people it seems were not provided with knees suitable for water sports.

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Simy on the other hand appears to be the next step in evolutionary process towards man kind becoming one with the canoe. He is an anterior talo-fibular ligament injury waiting to happen. Don’t try this at home.

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On arrival at the Lough we were greeted by a vicious north easterly wind that would have been great for windsurfing but kind of made it impossible to get out to Coney island no matter what we tried.

We abandoned the idea for lying on the pier at Maghery and wondering at how somewhere so nice could be made such a horrible place by so few hoods.

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Graffiti of the day was simply the word “tits”painted on a boarded up toilet block. There wasn’t even an accompanying badly drawn pair of boobies.The whole place is like one big walking, talking under aged drinking ASBO.

We once phoned the council about camping at the camp-site at Maghery and were advised against it by the very people who run the camp-site. Apparently there had been a few “incidents” with the locals, and no one had used it since.

Despite all this it has a lot of potential for water sports and the great outdoors, all it needs is a forest park, some nice walks by the Lough shore and it could  be one of the nicest places to go in the country.

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Last two pictures illustrates the dangers available to an Irishman on a sunny day.

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Seemed like a good idea at the time

Let’s begin with this. Just to set the context. I like Simy’s comment best…

I was looking forward to this all week. Actually wanting it to rain heavier just so the river would be higher. This is somewhat perverse (and unnecessary in norn iron…) i know.

And come Saturday the river was indeed high. Even the man from the council was down at Shillingtons putting his little red and white warning tape in front of the jetty so that no one might walk on it. Which would have been impressive in itself seeing as the jetty was a few feet under water.

Not that that would stop naive amateurs such as ourselves.

We started as all athletes do with eggs and bacon at Liz’s – with her usual admonition that we would wear life jackets – which seemed a little unnecessary as we’ve now taken to wearing helmets.

We did stop to briefly consider was this a good idea as evidenced by the video above. But perhaps we didn’t quite consider enough.

Within seconds of starting we realised that this was going to be a more interesting paddle than usual. Speed if nothing else was a bit of a factor. The first weir we hit was gone. The water level was so high that the 4 foot weir that was little more than a bump in the river.

Then we hit a few rapids. This will sound odd to people who’ve seen the Bann at Banbridge with not too much water in it. It’s more of a stream. We got water over our heads in the first rapids. Not quite what we were expecting anyhow. Still it was fun all the same.

The real problem came at the next weir which was substantial enough to form a stopper. I’d seen these in videos but never actually been in one. This wasn’t a good one to try your first on.

I went over the weir and promptly stopped dead. Neither forward nor backward. Gravity pulling me into the stopper, the water pushing me back up the weir. This is not the most tenuous position to find yourself in. I remember it was awful noisy.

Simy came over the weir right behind me and went straight over and bucked out of the canoe. I followed shortly after. Now Simy has been in the water before but this was my first occasion. My first thought was “I’m glad we wore the wetsuits…” I also found I’d managed to retain both my paddle and my canoe in my hands.

I remember shouting repeatedly at Simy to keep his feet up (people die when their ankle catches in tree and the force of the water pulls them under), that and thinking that we were moving along awful fast.

We floated past someone’s house with a woman sitting on her patio. She helpfully asked me was i OK, to which I murmured an “err… yeah”. Simy tells me she said to him that she was going to get something to help but didn’t have time. Ah the general public, man’s last great hope…

At this point we’d been in the water for a few minutes and had finally made it out of Banbridge proper. I scrambled my way to the bank (which was now the middle of a field) and pulled the canoe ashore as simy and his canoe drifted past at a rate of knots, unfortunately on the wrong side of the river and unable to make his way across the canoe.

So i ran along a couple of fields beside him, dressed in full wetsuit, life jacket, helmet and spray deck, jumping fences and shouting at him. It must have been quite a sight.

Our options at this point were

1) abandon canoe and simy climbs out of the river

2) I get back in the water and we both swim down after it.

being separated was not really a conceivable option. Either practically or emotionally. I would have cried there and then if I’d stood and watched his helmeted hairy head disappear off over the next weir… He owed me a fiver…

So I decided on option 1 and swore at Simy till he let the canoe go and climbed out. He shouted something about “only set of car keys” and climbed out vowing never to canoe again.

So there we were in a field, dressed like a pair of twats with only one canoe and no car keys, mobile phone or straps to tie the only canoe back on top of the car we couldn’t get back into. Said items were in said canoe, rapidly moving towards Lough Neagh with the components of south Down’s rainfall in the past 2 days.

In the absence of a father to ring (and don’t think I don’t think that any time anything difficult happens…) we walked up the road and asked the first guy we met could we borrow his mobile phone. Kindness of strangers and all that…

We phoned Morsies (Simy’s Wife, name changed to protect identity…)  and sheepishly asked for a lift.

Losing the canoe was unfortunate. Losing Simon’s only set of car keys to a second hand car which he had no documentation on was more of an issue. That and his second mobile phone in 6 months (the last being dampened in the last ditching).

So back to Portadown, pick up the volvo (my keys were usefully in my pocket, what a novel idea…), pick up the remaining canoe and begin the long task of driving and walking along every accessible bit of the river looking for an upturned canoe.

This proved to be immense fun, walking round people’s gardens and jumping over old walls and discovering random horses who live by the river bank in Lawerencetown.

Alas no canoe. Not that you would in any way expect to find it.

After two hours or so of this we ended up in Tullylish on the bridge staring at the river (where the first video was taken) when a guy in battered estate pulls alongside. He was obviously a canoeist – beard, fleece, battered estate car, roof bars…

He asks were we thinking of going in. I tell him we went in with two canoes and came out with one. He is wonderfully sympathetic and out of the blue suggests a spot up the road where sometimes stuff gets stuck in the river. He then proceeded to lead us literally up the garden path while engaged in immensely pleasant canoe conversation (who’d have thought, Craigavon had its own kayak club…) through someone’s back yard, past a beautiful old mill and through a field and there it was pinned against a tree in the middle of the river.

It appears the angel Gabriel is bearded, from Greyabbey, likes canoeing and walks amongst us.

A few phone calls to some useful people later and we’re ready to get the canoe. Well, to be fair the useful people were mostly otherwise engaged so we got Skeeno and Jonny and the bird instead. In Skeeno’s own words –  of the field: “there’s an awful lot of mud…” and when it came to brute force: “i’m a lover, not a fighter”. He did provide an excellent role as resident humorist and artistic director of the whole proceedings.

Provided with ropes, helmet, back in the wetsuit, we attempted to fetch the canoe. This was, to be perfectly honest, an awful lot of fun, though on occasion when entire trees floated by it did feel a bit silly.

So after twenty minutes of fulcrums and levers and ropes the combined  three and a bit university degrees realised that tying a couple of ropes on the front and pulling really hard worked quite well.

Inside the rather mangled canoe were a lot of sticks, some briars, a lot of mud and the unsecured dry bag with keys and phone (and my sausage sandwiches) inside, dry as a Free Presbyterian wedding.

Driving the Gilford road to Portadown for the eighth time that day we both thought that it was an awful lot of work for 10 minutes canoeing.

Baby it’s cold outside

One of the advantages of working lots of evening shifts is the random free mornings when people with proper jobs have to go to work and I get to lie around worrying about going to work. Occasionally I manage to do something useful with the mornings, especially when big brother is off work too.

Cold weather, ice, snow and rain are no obstacle to a bit of kayaking. I’ve found myself even wanting it to rain a bit more so we can get a bit more flow on the upper bann. I never thought I’d think such a thought.

But even a quick paddle from town is nice when you get it.

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Despite the Volvo not starting (yet again – looks like I’m buying a new battery tomorrow, either that or always parking the car on a steep hill..) we were eating brekkie at 8.30 and on the water by 9.30.

I had not feeling in my hands for the first 10 minutes or so. Must buy those fruity looking fingerless goves Simy has…

There were a lot of swans who seemed to have abandoned the town in fear of Eastern Europeans poaching them for Christimas lunch. That may only be a vicious racist rumour that’s going about but there have been reports… I have to say I could eat a swan given the opportunity… Err yes…

Maybe the Eastern Europeans don’t know that the queen owns them all (actually, i think she’s official protector or something, whatever that means).

I dislike swans. There was an incident in NZ with a swan that has left it’s scars. More mental than physical i must say. In fact they’re all mental really but it’s a genuine phobia honestly…

There were also two boys with a gun shooting things. Though thankfully it was birds and not protestants. Good that times have changed eh…

My descent into madness

The quest continues to canoe every bit of the river Bann we possibly can. Simon has great plans to carry his canoe up the Mournes from Hilltown and somehow paddle it down the rocky stream that is the source of the Bann. Pending that we did the stretch from Banbridge to Portadown.

In a Ronnie-esque fit of preparation I spent Tuesday morning before walk driving all the country lanes and roads that run alongside the river from here to Banbridge – an experience in itself. Every time I found an access point I got out (in the snow I might add…) and walked down to the river or bridge and took a short video on my camera of whatever weirs or rapids I could see.

The upper Bann is (barely I suppose) famous for the linen industry and the proliferation of mills and accordingly weirs to drive the water through the mills. These form an old (though from the river’s point of view pretty damn young) barrier to the natural flow and a bit of fun for the canoeists (and perhaps the fish…).

By the end of Wednesday morning I’d counted about 4 weirs I could find, all of which (to the novices like ourselves) looked pretty intimidating. Though we’d not done ourselves any favours by watching mentalist kayakers on YouTube doing crazy things.

Armed with such invaluable reconnaissance we set off on Saturday afternoon for Banbridge with the two long touring canoes and the open Canadian that Wylie “borrowed” (I’m not sure he knew it would be scraped over weirs when he lent it…) off his mate in his church.

Now to be fair, Wylie and Legs are even less experiences canoeists than me and Simon are (which is saying something) so their will and enthusiasm to brave the weirs in an open canoe were remarkable enough. Though they did plan well enough ahead to wear full wetsuits.

The first weir was somewhat of an anticlimax with me offering to go first and more grinding down the concrete than being buffeted about by the rapids. The level of the river was a little low despite being Irish.

In the end we must have gone over about 12 or 13 weirs, some more dramatic than others My favourite of which was this one on the left where I stopped to get out and have a look and gave the ill-advised advice to “have a go” whereupon me and Simy went over the edge and prompted grounded our kayaks on a 30 degree weir and had to climb out and carry the canoes over. A tad embarrassing.

Though somewhat better than Legs and Wylie did on a relatively benign rapid where they overturned

The scenery was simply stunning. And though we had a major road rarely more than 20 or 30m away we could have been in deepest, darkest Ireland for all we knew. I always used to think that to do stuff like this you had to go away to (relatively) exotic places on adventure weekends but now i realise that we have all this in our back yard. The colours of the autumnal trees, the kingfishers, the risk of Weil’s disease, the old ivy coloured mills and gatehouses. Different world entirely from the one that lay so close at hand.

I know this is kind of tempting fate and in many ways i hate to say it but i wish it would rain for a week and then the river would be much more fun. This must be some sort of kayaker’s prayer…

By 5pm it was dark and we were just passing Leggy’s house in Gilford (lucky sod has a house that backs onto the river) and so him and Davy abandoned us for the warmth of a hot bath (separately i’m sure) and me and Simy paddled on in the rapidly advancing blackness. I phoned wee Liz from the canoe to let her know we were past all the weirs and her main concern was how we would find our way home in the dark. Which is somewhat like the question asked of Gilly’s friend who canoed round Ireland – when asked about how he would find his way he replied that when he left Portstewart he would just turn left and keep turning left.

Our main concern was paddling into Portadown under the bridge and having Buckfast (often referred to as Lurgan Champagne) bottles chucked at us (if not fireworks directed at us) by the local under-age drinkers. Thankfully we arrived with hulls intact.

My immediate thought is to put this down as “best day’s canoeing ever”, but I can’t. Cause Da wasn’t there. And now everything’s different. In many way’s everything’s “broken”, but maybe that’s too much. “Different” is more accurate. It doesn’t make sense. Not that I really expect it to.

Anyhow, below are some of the vids I took along the way.

Grace under pressure

Eventually you have to get back in the boat and get on with life. Maybe that’s what happen when you grieve, you spend more and more time simply doing the business of life and then hopefully, after a while it doesn’t hurt so much. Not particularly profound but it seems to fit for now.

So I’ve moved back to my own house and spent a manic weak painting and cleaning and sorting. If in doubt clean. It’s what we do it seems.

My room is no longer this horrible shade of orange – the previous tenants having daubed the walls like a painting indian elephant. It is now tastefully (and boringly) white. This is oddly satisfying.

But then we thought we should literally get back in the boat and so we did. Now most of you think that the Blackwater is just a dingy little bit of water (stained black from the cow poo…) separating Tyrone from Armagh and stopping them from beating us in football. This may be true, (even the bit about cow poo) but it’s also quite pretty none the less.

Canoeing is almost the perfect Northern Irish sport, requiring large amounts of rainfall and a sport where you’re gonna end up wet anyhow so it may as well be raining. Though I describe it as a sport, it’s certainly not how we approach it. More of a way to get one from one place to the other with nice scenery that takes much more time and effort than simply driving would do.

It has reasonable support in NI with a number of new steps and trails being opened. The one on the Blackwater describes it as being accessible canoeists of all levels.

And while it started well despite the rain, we were soon avoiding discarded fishing tackle and spinners strung over the first bridge – i’m still not sure if they were lost or intentional in their placement.

There was a fair degree of flow on the river, with what could only be described as minor rapids to anyone with any degree of experience. To us this was grade 5 death rapids. Or so it seemed.

Our major mistake was the wrong turn. Some would have thought that making a wrong turn on a river is particularly difficulty if not nigh on impossible, but they would be wrong. Probably most easily seen on this map is the little island created by the diverging paths of the river. All of this came as a bit of a shock and so we did what any sensible person would do and chose to follow the narrow, overgrown river that left at an acute angle as opposed to following that wide, open stretch that lay straight ahead. Err… yes.

I suppose we got a little carried away, used to speeds of up to 2mph on the Bann we were a little dizzy with the adrenaline of 10mph, thinking we were back in the flumes in Portadown pool or something.

Till Simon hit the tree anyhow.

The nose of the canoe wedged under a submerged trunk and the full flow of the river behind meant it wasn’t long till the boat was flipped and wedged under the trunk – with Simon still inside. I’d love to say i paddled swiftly to the rescue but was busy trying to limbo under my own tree somewhat further up the river.

Now when you’re in a canoe, the most important thing is the paddle. With no paddle you’re just an idiot in a skirt in a plastic bathtub with no control.

So of course Simon, now underwater, tries his best to hold true to this idea, despite the lack of oxygen and the entrapment. Thankfully he lets go of canoe, paddle and finally tree and floats down the river. I, at this point a little late to rescue the brother make a sterling job of saving the paddle as Simon drags the canoe to field at the side.

This is all a little dramatic for a wet Tuesday afternoon two weeks after your Dad’s died. We both imagined what would have happened if Simon had actually met an ignominious end under a tree – we could picture Da saying “what the *&^% are you doing here?…”

In the end it was all a little less dramatic than it seemed at the time. We ended up carrying both canoes through a field of cows (sometimes I wonder what the cows make of it all…) to the junction of the river, had a nice cup of coffee from the thermos and paddled onward without further problem.

We haven’t quite got round to telling Liz yet, though she’ll find out eventually no doubt. She worries. Understandably it seems. The next purchase is helmets. Which says more about how much we enjoyed the drama and not so much about regard for safety…


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July 2020
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