Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be this hard (The Scientist : Coldplay)
It started as a ‘what if’ and turned into a plan. To canoe in Indian-type canoes down the Barrow river to the point where it becomes tidal near St Mullins in South Carlow. Four people, two canoes, camping wild, bring our food (and drink), leave no trace. And so it came to pass…improbably.
The reality – Saturday
Up 6.30am, drive the 50k to meet up in Athy, drive the backroads to St Mullins 80 minutes away to drop the ‘end car’, then back to Athy again through beautiful South Carlow landscape. It’d take us the best part of three days to paddle the same distance in due course. Four guys, two boats. Friends asking us if we’d ever watched ‘Deliverance’. Not funny.
Back in Athy, final checks, get on the water at 12.30 – much later than hoped. We struggle with locks on the way to Carlow – Ardreigh, Grangemellon (my original home patch), Maganey, Bestfield, on into Carlow. Slow going, with portages around the locks. We’re not good enough at this. Yet. Man overboard at Maganey – quickly fished out and no harm done. We realise it takes minimum 25 minutes per lock (and there’s lots of locks)…
We end up at Clogrennan (just south of Carlow) around 8.45pm – starting to get dark. Best we could do in terms of the day, pile out onto the bank and get sorted. Very heavy mist that night – fog wetting everything. We realise our tent is crap. Bonus is an amazing 5.30am dawn chorus – coincidentally the same day as RTE Broadcast on the topic. At least the sun burned off the really thick fog quickly to create a scorching day.
On the water eventually by 10.20 and off down the river. Another beautiful day with amazing reflections on the water. More locks. Very few villages for some time. No-one else on the water. Some people walking the Barrow way, some just local walkers, some people cycling. Lot of fishermen. I managed to lose the Barrow Guidebook – I still don’t know how. So we were blind, relying on google maps. Not ideal.
Milford, Leighlinbridge, Bagenalstown, no evident toilet facilities on the riverbanks. Pity. Then a long, long haul from Bagenalstown to Goresbridge. As it was (only) 6pm at that stage we decided to keep going, with our limited food/drink supplies. We ‘took on’ two shallow weirs (a combination of derring-do and a burning desire to avoid at least SOME locks). And at the second one, a kind gentleman told us to head for Borris House Lock to camp, it was ‘just beyond Ballytiglea bridge’ and up a canal on the left.
We found it and got off the river around 7.30pm. A great location. Secluded, pretty, firewood everywhere, bluebells, wildlife. Pitched camp and cooked up a storm. Good food, few drinks, slept well, shoulders aching. Heavy mist again overnight. Wet feet when getting up to pee at 3am. By now my feet were permanently damp/wet.
We had done 25km on the Sunday instead of the planned 20km, which meant we had about 15-16km to go to St Mullins. And that created a good buzz on the Monday morning. But lots of locks to extend the time. Amazing dawn chorus again at Borris Bridge. Bizarre combo breakfast – eating leftovers like cherry tomatoes, pastrami on sourdough, banana, water running out, no milk. The sun came out again – three days in a row – we were blessed.
Our second lock was Clashganny, with the famous big kayaking weir. We bumped into the guy I had rented the canoe from, and he offered us the loan of a lock key. Manna from heaven. AND they have the most amazing block at Clashganny with toilets, toilet PAPER and even showers. We celebrated with a can of lukewarm cider. Each. Onwards, with fresh enthusiasm (and a lock key). Next stop was a double lock. No problem. We even began to have people taking photos of us as we worked the lock gates. Superstardom of a kind. We also had (I suspect) begun to smell a bit ripe at this stage. No-one came too close…
We learned (in fact) that the key did not really speed up the lock transition. But it took a lot of the physical effort out of it. And that was a big plus by day three, when batteries were running low. On the South end of the river the locks come thick and fast. But one guy in turn did the sluices, the other three dawdled on the canal in the canoes and slid into the lock when the gates opened, then out again. We noticed some lovely lock cottages on the side. Took some drone footage which turned out to be superb.
We got to Graignamanagh (last town of any size) about 1pm and dawdled for a while, had some hot food and a coffee. Civilisation! Only 6km to the end, but also four locks. We mutually and tacitly decided not to shoot the weirs, last thing we wanted late in the day was a capsize. I already had been in wet footwear for 48 hours at this stage…foot-rot was setting in.
The last push down to St Mullins was tough – not much current on the river and a wind in our faces creating a chop. But we could smell the end in sight. Last lock was like a cruiser graveyard with semi-submerged craft everywhere. Finally (!) we swung around the bend to a St Mullins that was crowded with people, canoes, kids and dogs. We made it, maaan.
Along the way – we saw mute swans, one whooper swan, kingfishers, dippers, yellow wagtails, buzzards, wood pigeons, pheasants. But no mammals at all, bar cows in the fields. Odd. Lots and lots of wildflowers that I could not readily identify. The lower river is definitely more scenic, but the regular locks can be a pain. The town of Graignamanagh looks really pretty, probably the nicest spot on the river all in all. There were no pubs along the way actually on the river, but we were unlikely to have stopped anyway, it was all about ‘getting away from it all’…and enjoying the silence.
Obviously we were blessed with the weather. Three sunny days, cloudless sky, amazing visibility, stars at night, no rain at all. The heavy fogs made the grass really wet at night, but that was the least we could expect. Sore shoulders, some back pains, no fist fights or fatalities, and all in all a great experience. And we learned a lot too, for future reference. I can see another trip in the tea-leaves, just not sure where or when.
And finally, from my favourite poem, ever…
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
Patrick Kavanagh – Lines written on a seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.