Matt Gaw paddles the River Stour in full flood to discover its wild side
WE decided to paddle upstream as a test of our mettle, our traps and biceps against the river’s fluid muscle. But it’s no contest. The Stour, swollen with rain and run-off, trembles between her banks, the water rolling as if it is close to the boil, churning with silt and mud.
In an hour we barely cover a mile, only inching forward if both James, in the front of the canoe, and I paddle in unison. Every time our rhythm falters, or I try and rudder towards a bank, the canoe is pushed back, its nose spinning slowly anti-clockwise, eager to follow the water downstream. A horse refusing a jump. It’s a cold day but I’m sweating in my drysuit. The snood that covers my mouth and nose is damp with my own hot breath. In places the river has cut its own corners and poured onto fields and meadow. We follow the water, escaping to get a breather from the current, paddling over grass and molehills before slipping back into the river that surges and pulls.
A heron is standing by the side of the bank. Stock still. The sun shines through its dagger beak and highlights feathers that move from grey to almost pink. The black markings on its throat look like tyre tracks. I can see the pre-flight tension beginning to build in his hunched shoulders before he takes off with a prehistoric kronk, leaving us alone with a few gulls that sit on half submerged fence posts, their heads white except from a thumb-print of black behind the eye. For the past year I’ve spent a lot of time around
rivers, or, more accurately, on them, canoeing small tributaries, stent-straight canals and thick arteries that pump towards the sea. Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud, through fields, woodland, villages, towns and cities. Upstream, downstream, wandering free. Paddling with James, who built our canoe in his back garden, the journeys have involved tackling waterways across the country in all seasons and all weather, paddling in the day and stringing up our hammocks on the river banks at night. Locally, we travelled along the Waveney, the Stour, the Alde, Granta and Cam, the Colne, even smashing ice to paddle up the Lark to the Great Ouse. Further afield we took our canoe along the Thames, moving from close to its source to London. We tackled rapids along the Wye and even crossed Scotland on lochs as deep and as black as space. I also travelled alone, navigating the Severn to feel how its power shaped both the land and human history, and seeing wild beavers in Devon.
The Stour was one of the first rivers we tackled. It was here that we first tested the canoe and then, later, returned to follow its flow through Suffolk and Essex, feeling it change from fresh water to salt. I feel I know it well, but its force today has still caught me off guard. The wildness in its waters is a surprise.
Past the flooded water meadows there are more trees down, creating blockages called ‘strainers’, big branches which sieve out logs, sticks and weeds but let the water boil through. We manoeuvre under an arch of willow, pulling ourselves forward on the trunk. But as we go to dip our paddles, the current takes us, turns the canoe and jams us against the tree. Before we can do anything I can feel the canoe shifting under us, the starboard side lowering to let in water, which surges over the wooden gunwales and washes up to my shins. What takes just seconds feels like hours. My brain can see what’s happening but I can’t communicate it to James. I try to shout a warning but it comes out as little more than a strangled bark. We’re sinking. And fast. I go in first, tumbling from the back before the canoe capsizes in a slow death roll that leaves James in the water too. For a moment I’m with James, clinging to the tree, and then I’m off, floating with the canoe, and a log about the same size, downstream.
Even in a drysuit the cold of the river is sharp. It takes my breath away and causes me to gasp, the water’s pressure a heavy weight on my chest. I try to swim to the side but the current is too strong. My strokes do little but burn energy. The experience reminds me of a dream I had when I was young, of trying to run but being pulled by an invisible force. Instead I lie on my back and decide just to relax and let the river take me, to feel and embrace its pull. I guess that’s what I’ve done all the time, inside the canoe and out.
The heron, now hunting downstream, doesn’t move as I float past.
‘I feel I know it well, but its force today has still caught me off guard. The wildness in its waters is a surprise’
Grey heron in flight. Photo: Adam Jones
Taken shortly before Matt and James fell in . . . Photo: Matt Gaw
An earlier trip down the Stour. Photo: James Treadway
A heron on watch