In which our hero goes canoeing on the Exeter canal and, in the space of a mere 5 hours, manages a width.
It transpires that The Dagnall, who you may remember from the incident when I tattooed his eye a few years back, is off for the whole winter break, whilst I slave over a hot Dell, & Is getting restless at home. In an attempt to break the mundane routine of spending time with his lovely wife and adorable son, presumably by way of spending time with In order to juxtapose that Idyllic home-life against my ugly mug, Invited me to come out with him In his canoe. I readily agreed. Sadly we had entirely different activities In mind.
No, It's not going to be one of those stories, you bloody pervert.
Anyway, the entirety of the canal and the river In Exeter have been covered with a thick layer of Ice. Very thick. Thick enough that I was confident enough to go ice skating on the overflow with my children. Thick.
See? It's thick. I have been pumping my friend Iain's yacht whilst he is away in Barbados and of late it is simply a solid hull of ice. (Here is Iain - he is the chap in the lower image, being hauled out of the water as his boat sinks beside him).
The river has cleared now, for the most part, but the almost stagnant canal still sports about a 4" thickness throughout, with the exception of the swing-bridges, where it is clear for a few yards.
This in mind, I am envisioning going ice breaking, but The Dagnall seems not to know of the iciness of the canal and has his heart set on paddling. This nearly scuppers my evening at the offset, but fear not, trusted reader, for the night was much fun.
After some arguments and a bit of going the wrong way, we set off to the Countess Weir swing-bridge at about half six. It was only once we arrived that I realised The Dagnall's confusion about the solidity of the water in the area and he was all for calling our expedition off, but I was having little of that and began smashing the ice near the bank with a hatchet. This was considerably harder than I foresaw. Ice which is 4" thick does not smash, it merely allows the blade of an axe to pass through it on the 4th or 5th blow. This was going to take some time.
On my own, wet of socks and tiring of arms, I was beginning to make up entirely new swear words to curse The Absent Dagnall when lo, he returns triumphant with a stainless steel length of pipe, like a heavy scaffolding pole around 4' long. With this we should be able to make some progress, no?
No. Well, not much. With My Lordship in the rear, holding us steady with an axe in the ice, and The Dagnall smashing away at the solid mass ahead of us, we manage to travel around 20' from the bank before he is exhausted and I am cold. We return to the bank feeling dejected, but I am not one to give up easily. Pure British Mindedness is bloody important, you know.
Whilst The Dagnall is having a wander around, looking for some wood to build a fire with, I go for a walk along the bank and out onto a jetty. It is slippery and a bit dodgy, but then I find my way under the swing bridges and sight clear water, so I return with a compromise. Peradventure a bit of a paddle in the open water will placate matters? I have, you should note gentle reader, absolutely bugger all intention of leaving tonight without making a passage through the ice, but at this early juncture I fancy that it is too soon to start pushing matters.
We hoist the canoe out of the water and place it upon the ice, upon which The Dagnall begins dragging me across the surface. Because the ice is floating it moves with my weight a little and, if I am honest, this is nothing like as exciting as I had hoped for. Much more 'dragging a legless dog through gravel' than 'midget face slide'.
So, sliding around on the ice is right out then. I get out and we tow the canoe across the surface to the bridge. This involves walking out into the canal on beams in a manner pretty much designed to make my mother shout 'STEPHEN' in the screeching manner of mothers everywhere, who tend to resort to using their husbands names for their children in times of real stress. None of the evening has passed by without stress, to be fair. The times when we have not been in danger of falling through the ice and drowning are by far fewer than those where we have, but that's the point, no? Anyway, I digress.
View Ice breaking. in a larger map
We paddle around a little in the water before striking out under the bridges to see what we can find on the other side. A quick scouting out of the river shows that the current is far beyond our capabilities this evening (well, we could go downstream quickly, but we'd have to walk back and we are seventy years old between us, so that's just not happening). We get up some speed before we suddenly come to an abrupt, ice-fuelled halt which almost capsizes us and so we stop for a wee between the bridges.
That's the thing about icy water, you see, it shrinks your bladder to the size of the combined brains of the EDL, which makes for numerous comfort breaks. Back in the canal we venture back to the far bank and onwards downstream to the main body of ice.
The ice is thinner here and I am able to just smash it with the scaffolding pole, breaking out a large area of water around us, but it soon thickens and we return to using an axe to cut a path. This is not going well, but again, there's no giving up on these things.
I soon develop a successful, but ultimately painful technique. I smash the scaffolding pole through the ice as far ahead as I can reach, then lever it back and forth, smashing both the top of the ice on my side of the puncture and the bottom of the ice beyond the holey fulcrum. The downside to this being, of course, that when the far tip of the pole finally breaks through, I punch the ice will the full force of my rapidly swelling fist.
Having cut a line of this nature on either side of the canoe, I then give it some welly and break off the central square, before pushing it down, under the canoe, moving forwards 3' and beginning all over again.
This is clearly less than refreshing and I am soon wet and tired. Additionally, at this stage we have a long wooden pole supporting a gas lamp hanging from the front of the canoe and, for fear of coming over all Ratty and Mole, it features the twin qualities of being quite beautiful, in a tranquil, countryside kind of manner, and utterly in the way.
Being the sensible chap I am, I soon counter this issue by implementing a 'splash and smash' manoeuvre, causing hazing to the glass of the gas lamp and eliciting some mild expletives from The Dagnall, who owns the lamp, yet understands the inevitability of the incident. Sorry Dangall.
A brief inspection of the damage is as good a reason for a break as any, so I begin breaking out a more narrow channel and engineer a situation where we are wedged into the ice flow and can hold ourselves steady using the handle of a hatchet with the minimum of fuss. We need to relocate the lamp amidships and also could do with some sustenance ourselves. This is not easy work.
Wedged in, as we are, we unload the wood from the bottom of the canoe, piling the pieces of plywood onto the ice beside us. Fire and ice are not natural companions, yet we still press on, placing a few lengths of four by two (two by four for any Americans out there, not the cloth we used in the army with our rifle pull through) directly against the ice, with a platform of ply upon them and the fire basket straight on the ply.
What does an Englishman do when stuck fast in the middle of an ice flow in a canoe? We made tea, what else?
Once we had the kettle boiling on the fire and some crisps inside us, the world became more peaceful and more painful concurrently. My bruises and cramps started to ache, but I cared less about it. By the time we had boiled the kettle a second time and had four mugs of tea between us, I was more than ready to continue opening the breach. The question was, where had it got to?
In order to make our way along the narrow channel I was breaking, it was necessary to push the blocks of ice which I cut free from the main sheet down under the canoe or beneath the solid ice in order to leave us clear(ish) water to pass through. During our tea break, however, much of this ice had floated up from wherever it had lain and our path was nothing more than cracked ice where the slabs had resettled in some sort of auto-completing jigsaw puzzle. That solved the problem of 'on or back' for us anyway.
I hadn't got but a few yards when the ambulance arrived.
Now an ambulance is not something one wants to see whilst being overtly intrepid. The brave ladies and gentlemen of that particular profession have to deal with the result of misadventure on an all too regular basis and, it is fairly safe to say, they view acts of utterly unnecessary bravado with an element of disdain. The average paramedic is wholly of the opinion that climbing mount Everest is all very well for your professionals, but that they really would be a whole lot better off staying in with a nice cup of tea. Not too hot, mind.
It was therefore not without some anxiety that The Dagnall and I watched their approach. For approach they did. Ill-content with merely parking up beside the canal, the ambulance crew turn their steed towards the canal and pull up (with a slightly worrying crunch of gravel, of the kind seemingly designed to make silly canoeists believe that they may well just brake too late and end up in the frozen channel) with their headlights blinding us.
By now we have the gas lamp (in a poor state of repair) hanging amidships, so I am utterly retina-free by the time I manage my third blink and this is all a little authoritarian for my liking, however the situation was not all that bad. Beyond a little judgement on our characters we had nothing to fear. The conversation went a little like this, although you have to imagine my half-frozen Lordship continuing to break ice all through the exchange:
"Are you all okay out there?"
"Yes thanks, we are doing this on purpose."
"Are you not frozen?"
"No thank you, we had a nice fire and a cup of tea, just back there" I motion backwards with my scaffolding pole, highlighting the site of the camp-fire, so recently abandoned behind us.
"Haven't you got anything better to be doing?"
I have to admit that I was a little put out by this, after all, what could possibly be better than an ice-breaking expedition across the canal? I was, however, acutely aware that in this era, where reading the Daily Mail is still not an offence which carries a sentence of even a little incarceration, a bit of bitching at a copper could have my mug on the front of the Star, after an idiot ambulance driver tries to save someone who is in very little peril. Certainly not even as much as he desires.
"If we were not out here, breaking our way through the ice in the middle of the night in a canoe, we would be forced to remain at home with our horrible wives."
I have always found that the derision of the opposite sex, coupled with the use of a term of manly endearment, works wonders when dealing with public service workers (regardless of their gender). "Mate" I add.
This does the trick and, a few minutes of chatter later (during which I continue working, seeing as I can, in the light of their ambulance halogens, the large break where The Dagnall had first set out) they drive off, leaving us with an ominous 'see you later, then boys' to remind us of the situation which a cut or pierced hull would land us in.
I make good use of their short stay to mark out my path a little with some flung chunks of ice, which flitter across the surface as would spittle on a wood-burner. and we reach the bank in another twenty minutes of so and are able to rest.
Now, we never quite made it to the far bank and I am keen to manage a full width, so after a much deserved rest, I convince The Dagnall that he needs to take us back across. This proves almost too difficult to complete - getting the canoe into the tight passage from a position of floating around in an open lagoon is nigh on impossible, since the canoe is bounced back into the bay with ever ice strike, but eventually we are in and with The Dagnall pushing down the floating ice with a paddle and I propelling us along with the hatchet, we make admirable progress across to the opposite bank, where the thin ice we encountered earlier is weak enough that we are able to drive our way through and The Dagnall picks a piece of foliage to mark the occasion.
That is about it really. We return to the bank where the car is situated, load up, warm up (I make use of the Passat's heated seats, although I generally eschew them with zeal), return the length of scaffolding to its home in the fence (I dearly want to keep this as both a useful tool and a memento, but it is not mine to have) and return home for a cup of tea and glory.
A worthwhile use of my time and no mistake.