I like winter. I don't mind the cold, as long as I can wrap up against it. I don't mind the wet, as long as I'm warm enough. I especially love those cold, crisp days when your breath steams in the air and the frosty grass crackles under your feet.
For a large number of years, I've loved it even more when my breath steamed and the frost crackled as I carried my kayak to the edge of another river, ensconced in thermals, fleece and drysuit, to launch myself into the whirling flow to see what the river and I can cook up between us in the way of fun.
But, the last two years I've been preciously short of those days. My confidence went to pot two years ago, after an error of judgement, lazy paddling and poor technique led to a nasty swim. Since then, I've shied off rivers, huddling inside my comfort zone like a sleeping bag. I emerged from it, briefly, for last New Year's Scotland trip, but definitely didn't paddle as much as I could have, or indeed should have. Don't get me wrong, I'm comfortable with saying 'not today' when things aren't right, but maybe last year I said it too many times. This will sound old, tired, and world weary, but I've been resting on my laurels. I've been kayaking, in one form or another, for the best part of 20 years. And I've acquired some really bad habits...
I'm signed up for, and paid up for, the Laurent Vales Tours Scotland New Year Paddling Extravaganza, our annual week-long expedition around the best rivers in Scotland, a great mix of grade 3/4/5 paddling, beer, food and company. Possibly the best way you could ever spend a New Year period. Having had nearly two years off boating, to paddle well for the full week, I'm going to have to up my game considerably. I've had all the little excuses lined up, the "I need to weld my boat", the "My drysuit's in for repair", the "I'm seeing the missus this weekend". But, now, in the immediate runup to the New Year epic, the boat's welded, the drysuit's repaired, and the missus is on holiday in the US. I know that if I don't get at least one river in, one good, technical section of whitewater that shakes me out of my nice cosy little cocoon before we gather on the banks of the Leny on the 27th, I'm going to spend a week gibbering and having my backside handed to me. So, our period of waiting is over, this is the time.
We organised it last week. A trip to the South Lakes, just a small group of us, to go and do a bit of playing. George and Josh from RoHo joined us, kindly donating the use of their Sprinter van, and we threw the boats in and headed north west. Quick sausage sarnie stop at Devil's Bridge and we were on our way to the Kent at Prizet Bridge.
Me and the Kent have a chequered history. I've NEVER had a good day on the Kent. I've always either taken a swim or at least multiple rolls. For a long time I just had a full-on mental block towards it and would just find an excuse not to paddle it. One drop in particular, at the entrance to the gorge section, would invariably backloop me - a product of not enough speed, bad body positioning, and a complete lack of control. Force Falls, the final drop, has had me a couple of times too; blind panic on the lip, landing on the head. Fun for all the family.
The level was 'good', apparently. No scraping on the first shoals at the get-in meant it was higher than the last time it had given me a pasting. That uncertain feeling kicks in as I pull on my deck: Is that level a good thing or a bad thing? Are the holes going to be munchier or washed out? Only smarties have the answer.
Feeling strangely isolated, I ferried back and forwards between the two eddies, getting used to the feel of a boat underneath me, trying to collect my thoughts, balance my weight, and remember how this damn thing works. Down the first little chute, low bracing and edging away from the kick of the small curler, no worries. The splash of water in my face wakes me up out of the little self-absorbed trance and I'm back in the real world. And I'm grinning.
We bimble downwards, between the sandstone gorge walls, and finally down to the old weir that marks my nemesis. George is down it already, Josh following him. Two 'guard' stoppers mark the top middle and right, the river curls left round the end of the old weir and slopes down before twisting right and dropping away. Another hole at the base to boof and carry speed over (if you get the stroke right) and into the right hand eddy.
I'm a little anxious to say the least, but it's my turn, and I've got three people watching my line, to see whether it 'goes' or would be best avoided. I twist round the end of the weir and start the bounce down, sticking left. Stroke, stroke... hold... and... PULL on the lip of the vertical and I'm over the hole.
Just the lack of the 'hold...' would have got me into trouble this time last year. Speed, I am learning, is important, but timing more so. This is a recent lesson for me. Speed doesn't necessarily keep your nose up over holes, timing might. Like popping the front wheel over a dropoff, it's not about the speed but the timing of the 'pop', of the 'pull'.
So, I'm sat in the eddy. And I'm still grinning. I'm the right way up. Hmmm.
Let's not count the chickens before they're hatched. I still made mistakes on Sunday, still did some things that I 'got away with' rather than 'styled'. We finished the Kent - Force Falls was a lovely 'popped' takeoff and a nice soft landing, the right way up, ready on a brace - and headed down to the Lune. Through Staircase, Magnetic Rock and the Constriction, things started clicking back into place. Again, not the neatest, but coming back together, and not a bad base to work on.
Frankly, I had an awesome day. Good craic, beautiful weather, good company and a nice re-affirming experience.
A happy, smiley Pyro