Pulling Power

Matt Gaw pad­dles the River Stour in full flood to discover its wild side

EADT Suffolk - - Inside - Matt Gaw is edi­tor of Suf­folk Wildlife Trust’s mem­ber­ship mag­a­zine. His book, The Pull of the River, is pub­lished by El­liott & Thomp­son on April 5. It is avail­able to pre-or­der now.

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

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