Three weeks have passed since we started our 3 day trip from Glasgow to Edinburgh, but I have only just had the chance to sit down and reflect on the challenge.
During the Hungarian leg of our Summer trip, and 2 days after completing Trailwalker, I received a message from Adam asking if I would be interested in a new challenge. He had caught me at the right time. Adam convinced me that we would make light work of kayaking between Glasgow and Edinburgh during the last week of October. From that point I was looking forward to a relaxing paddle broken up with regular visits to riverside pubs for refreshments. Our expectations could not have been more wrong, but our accomplishment was far more rewarding than any of us expected.
Myself and Adam caught a plane from Stansted to Glasgow and swiftly made our way to the local chippy for a deep fried Mars bar. Once we arrived at the hostel we were soon joined by Oli, who had caught a later flight.
We spent a couple of hours catching up in the bar downstairs before retiring to our bunk beds fully aware that an early start would give us a chance to make headway along the canal in the morning.
We woke up early enough but had a couple of hiccups buying a tent and refreshments before walking to the kayak hire store. Once we arrived it soon became apparent that our plan to get the kayaks back from Edinburgh by train was a tad ambitious. Adam suggested that we could make a real go of it and attempt to kayak to Edinburgh and back by the Friday. We were willing to give it a go, given our ignorance to the challenge ahead. We decided to take 2 heavy but streamlined kayaks and one lighter, more sturdy, kayak. We then had to carry the kayaks just under a mile to the start of the canal. This turned out to be a bruising and arduous task which got out arms warmed up and bonding as a team. I could already see that my arms were somewhat weaker than Oli or Adams, which was quite embarrassing.
By 11:30 we had our life jackets on and were safely positioned in our kayaks and ready to go. We had planned to be on the canal by 10 so we were already slightly behind schedule. The first mile or so was jovial. We were cutting each other up, collecting footballs that had landed in the canal from Partick Thistles ground and having races in the kayaks. It soon became apparent that we weren’t travelling as fast as we expected to be. I was quite happy that I needed very little time to manoeuvre the kayak properly and was moving forward in a straight line. I had actually been worried that I’d be in the water or going around in circles.
By about 2pm we stopped off for our first pub stop. We were still very positive about our start and all agreed that kayaking was enjoyable. When we checked our distance we realised that we had only travelled about 5 miles. This was a much slower pace than we needed. For some reason I was already very wet and used the pub to dry some of my clothes. I continued to be soaked throughout the whole week, where Adam and Oli stayed dry. My technique was clearly questionable.
After lunch we got back into our kayaks and decided to try to pick up the pace, and get serious. It was at this point that it became apparent that I was either a slower kayaker or my kayak had a slower maximum speed. I didn’t want to find out as I was happy with Oli and Adam agreeing that they had the quicker kayaks.
We were unfortunate that the clocks had gone back the weekend before so darkness set in earlier. I presume Scotland gets darker anyway as we were well beyond suburbs and kayaking in darkness by 5.30. We agreed on ‘The Boathouse’ as a target stop. None of us knew how close we were to it when we stumbled across it, and it was a feeling of relief when we did. We had travelled for much longer than we anticipated and were 3 miles short of our original target, but we were glad to be our of the kayaks and into the warmth as the temperature had dipped drastically since the sun disappeared.
‘The Boathouse’ turned out to be a swanky restaurant but we quickly made it far less classy. We took ourselves straight to the toilet were we stripped out of our cold, wet clothes and put dry clothes on. We then used 2 empty tables to dry off our clothes. Despite the way it looked, the workers weren’t too bothered.
We were very reluctant to leave our positions once we had eaten but knew we needed to rest if we were going to make up the ground we lost today on the next day. We stepped out of the restaurant to find the temperature had dipped even more and the grass had begun to freeze beneath us. Undeterred we quickly assembled our tent on top of the ice and jumped in to warm ourselves us. The fatal error of owning one sleeping bag between us soon became apparent. I opened the sleeping bag and used it as a quilt over the three of us. Still we shivered. We became so cold that we huddled together with a form of intimacy that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Brokeback Mountain. We even went as far as phoning the restaurant to ask for a sleeping spot…they didn’t have one.
Inevitably one of us was going to leave the tent at some point for a wee. I was the first to accept defeat against my bladder. I jumped out of the tent in my longjohns and ran into a man walking his dog. I thought it was quite odd as it was now about midnight. He asked in a think Scottish accent “you’re not camping here are you?”. I admitted that we were and he confirmed that we were mad given the freezing temperatures. He then asked if I would like to stay on his boat. An interesting proposition put forward by an old man walking his dog at midnight to a young man showing his bulge through tight long johns. Still, I accepted to check it out.
I followed the old man who revealed that we is staying on another boat and the boat he was offering me was the one he gave to disabled children during the summer. There were 12 bunk beds, a heater, and countless quilts. He set up a double bed for us and shoved loads of quilts on top. He offered a cup of tea as the heater warmed up….I couldn’t wait to show the other two.
When I returned to the tent Adam and Oli were on deaths door and close to giving up on life. They were delighted with our luck when they found out where we had been offered to stay. I maintain that whenever I get into a position where things appear hopeless something fortunate happens. This was once again one of those situations. I don’t get why I get lucky like that.
We went from shivering to sleeping shirtless in the warmth of a barge. We slept amazingly well, perhaps too well given we woke up an hour after we had planned to get on the water. Yet, the old man had already bought us a croissant to get us going. He requested nothing from us and we were so grateful to him for his hospitality and grateful to humanity again.
Eventually we were back on the water and making our way towards the Falkirk Wheel, which we considered to be roughly half way. Having learnt that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park we kept a good pace I. The morning and clocked another 10 miles by lunchtime, only stopping to have a cup of tea at a canal side restaurant (which was so cold and wet that I wanted to get straight back in the kayak where I could move and keep warm).
The obstacles during the morning were locks. Unlike a barge, kayaks need to get out of the water and need to be walked around the lock to get through them. This was quite hard and became tedious after the the novelty wore off. Still, teamwork prevailed.
At the Falkirk Wheel it became apparent that no one who works on the canal was familiar with anyone kayaking from Glasgow to Edinborough. Instead they told us that we had to carry all of the kayaks 900 yards uphill to the canal which leads to our destination. We used this opportunity to stop in the warm cafe, eat, and discuss our next steps. This was probably the low point of the adventure as it appeared impossible to finish. It was 2pm on our 2nd day and the sun was due to set around 5:30. This meant we had about 30 miles to cover in a day and a bit. We were beginning to think of alternative end points. Adam was in no doubt that we could finish, but I, regrettably, was festering doubts.
3 hours and 7 miles later we were in a small town called ‘Brightons’. We warmed up in a very local pub (where we got a few funny looks) before being picked up by Adam’s girlfriend’s dad, who lived nearby. He took us back to his house,despite it being his wedding anniversary, and gave us all a bed for the night. It was much needed.
Luckily he was getting up early in the morning and gave us a lift back to the canal so that we were paddling again before 8am. We then had 26 miles to achieve in a day. This meant that we only left our kayaks if it was 100% necessary, otherwise we just kept going.
In fact, there was not much else to report during the day except the idilic scenery and the constant paddling. It was relentless determination from all three of us, making up time every miles and pushing ourselves as hard as we could.
It got to 4pm and we were still 8 miles from the finish. However, we thought back to the Falkirk Wheel and realised that the when pessimism set in we didn’t even think we would get this far. As a result we decided that the end was in sight and it didn’t matter how late we arrived, but we would definitely arrive.
Within an hour the sun began to set but we were entering the outskirts of the city and the street light were illuminating the canal. We kept up our pace and the adrenaline began to set in despite 12 hours of constant paddling.
At around, 6:30 we teamed up once more for the final mile of our adventure (as we were still moving at different paces). Together we made a burst for the end of the canal, although we we regularly separated by a rowing club traveling in the opposite direction.
Just after 7pm we achieved what had appeared impossible 24 hours earlier. We paddled at great speed towards the end of the canal where we allowed the noses of our kayak’s to collid with the wall that marked the end of the canal. As mine did so the scale of the achievement hit me, and it felt quite emotional. Two of the hardest challenges I had faced, this and Trailwalker, completed within months of each other and I could get used to this feeling!
Myself, Oli, and Adam spent a lot of time congratulating each other and sharing our delight in actually finishing before heading to the hostel, showing and then reflecting on the last 3 days. Despite being in celebratory mood we could only manage a Halal Curry (much to Oli’s delight) and a beer before our bodies told us to sleep….we had paddled a marathon after all.
The kayaking was over but the adventure was not. On the next morning we had to get the kayaks back to Glasgow and the van carrying them back to Edinburgh again and the driver back to Glasgow all before 1pm.
Adam woke up early and planned the morning the military precision. I was to walk to the canal to locate the kayaks and send a map of my position to the other two, who were at the hire van centre. They were then to pick me up, load the van and we were to all drive together to Glasgow where I would be unloaded with the kayaks and process the paper work whilst they drive back to Edinburugh. I was then to catch a bus to the airport, whilst Oli and Adam get the train.
Everything went exactly to plan!
Together we had achieved everything we set out to achieve at the start of the week. The fact that it was harder than anticipated made the accomplishment even sweeter.
A big thanks to Adam and Oli for making it possible, and not losing patience with a slower kayaker.