In starting this post I can’t help but comment on the recent kayak related tragedies that have struck the kayaking community at home and abroad.
Juanito De Ugarte was somebody I’d meet regularly on the Ottawa River. Mostly I’d just spend time listening in on his coaching tips and take note of the endless stream of positivity that he’d give the people he was coaching everyday. We didn’t speak much, only to greet and thank each other when we worked together to help in customer rescues. Just one of those people that you look up to without even knowing and I know the people who do know him well are going to miss him very much.
Much closer to home two recent tragedies in the kayaking community are still very raw with the passing of young Shane Murphy and Niall O’Broin. The Irish paddling scene is a close knit community, we all know each other and these events affect us all. Shane and Niall will be deeply missed and my thoughts are fully with the families and close friends of all involved.
Such incidents and outcomes have made me question why I even kayak over the last while.
If you told me I’d be questioning why I kayaked eight months ago I’d call you crazy as I was just about to embark on a summer I’d dreamed about for years.
Going on a paddling trip with a solid group of your best friends is the ideal experience for many, its how I have travelled in the past and how I originally planned on doing my first European summer tour. My goal of knocking off as many of the classics in mainland Europe and Norway as I could over a nine week trip was not fully matched by any of my go-to friends. Instead of being dismayed and giving up on the idea, I became intrigued. How far could I get over the summer without a staple crew, vehicle or even cooking equipment on a minimal budget. How far could enthusiasm and meeting new people take me?
Getting to the Alps was the easy bit. The University of Limerick Kayak Club make an annual pilgrimage to the Sesia valley in Northern Italy, I hopped in the banter bus and two blurry days later we were on the Sesia River in Northern Italy. I helped to run an intense advanced week course for the club mainly consisting of two river trips a day and reached a peak on the advanced Egua river where a huge group of club members made a successful descent. Limerick then took off to Slovenia while I choose to play on Italy’s steep creeks. Fortunately for me an old pal James Smith’s short trip to the Sesia coordinated with this week. Him and his UK crew including Dom Burrow and Ieuen Peace brought me in on their meal plans and made extra effort in order to drive me to rivers. We ran many of the classics in the Sesia valley and had high water adventures in the stunning Aosta Valley.
With promises to reunite at a later stage, my UK friends took off to France while I remained in Italy as I still had rivers to check off the list. I ate bananas and biscuits for one night before the generosity of the kayaking community reared its head again. This time it was Simon, Jakub and Jake from Gene 17 driving me to rivers and inviting me to wine and dine with them. Shortly after this more university kayakers from Ireland showed up from Dublin and Galway, without even asking I was invited to paddle and join in their food plans. This culminated in being offered a lift to France. Here I was reunited with good friends Joe Rea Dickins and Dom Burrow who ended up driving me around for the next four weeks. Then Ieuen a person I had met for three days in Italy contacted me from Norway saying he had space for me if I wanted to come up. I didn’t hesitate and spent a fantastic two weeks in Norway finishing with the famous Pimp and Ho party at the Sjoa River Festival before a three day drive back to the UK.
Over the summer I discovered that always travelling with the same crew can become a comfort zone in itself. By breaking out of this comfort zone I managed to paddle with at least twenty different groups of people over the Summer. It’s facinating how different crews no matter what their ability level, operate in different ways in the river in how they communicate, run safety and paddle and I felt I was in a state of constant learning throughout my time abroad and loved every minute. The only advice I can offer to people is that while having a crew that you know and trust is always a huge asset, you can take so much from paddling with new people all the time. A minor shoulder injury near the end of the Norrway trip felt like a minor blip in an otherwise fantastic summer.
Unfortunately the minor shoulder turned out to be more serious then first thought after re-injuring it while working, I did physio exercises six times a day to be able to get fit for the European Championships in Slovakia. After a fantastic summer full of wilderness experiences and adventures down new rivers around mainland Europe and Norway I just felt disinterested and fed-up at myself for not being able to paddle to my ability in the competition. I got home and immediately began a semester of college, the disinterest remained.
I took up board surfing and forgot about kayaking for a few weeks, finally getting myself back in a kayak at the end of October for a high water day on the Clare Glens which ended in my first swim in Ireland for four years, my shoulder still hurt and I wasn’t enjoying kayaking. Shortly after this news of various tragic events began to filter through. I focused my attention on a tough semester of assignments and exams and forgot about kayaking completely.
Luckily I have good friends who rang me at 8 am the morning after my exams finished last week having probably recognized my fading from the scene over the past few months. Their hilarious phonecall and coercion got me out of bed and to the high water river. I remembered the feeling of redemption and the buzz of overcoming self-doubt when I nailed my line on the rapid that had made me swim weeks beforehand. High fives at the end of the river with the people I like to kayak with most and I could feel the love returning.
Last Saturday was the day I realised I will be kayaking until I can no longer physically kayak anymore. I kept up my involvement in running the Ennistymon Race and although it was a day tinged in sadness as we remembered Shane and Niall the atmosphere and buzz about the place was amazing. Meeting friends I hadn’t seen for months, greeting new people I hadn’t met before and just joking around and laughing all day whilst running waterfalls made me realise that these were the sort of experiences that got people like Shane, Niall and Juanito addicted to the sport in the first place and that falling away from this atmosphere and community would be a massive mistake.
I’ll sign off by leaving some photos and a video I created recently of an amazing summer. Thanks for Reading and have a very Happy Christmas – Andrew.