The river Wye has always been pretty special to us here at Palm, so excited about the new River Wye Canoe and Kayak Guide coming out in June, we caught up with its author Mark Rainsley. With several guidebooks, and the popular UK Rivers Guidebook website to his name, Mark has also embarked upon worldwide paddling adventures by river and sea. Mark now lives on the Isle of Purbeck, in Dorset.
Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door are fifteen minutes away; they’re not ugly. Also, at the end of my road is the River Piddle (I’m not making this up), it’s a six-mile bushwhack to the sea which I occasionally enjoy, complete with amusing weirs and indignant fishing bailiffs.
What sort of boat can you be most often found in these days?
My current fleet is a whitewater creek boat, a fast expedition sea kayak, a rockhopping sea kayak, a racing surf ski and an open canoe the size of HMS Ark Royal. All honestly get equal use! There was also a nice shiny marathon racing K2, but I sold it the next day after completing the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Race, to ensure that I didn’t do anything so silly and masochistic ever again.
Your new book is a guide to the river Wye, so why the Wye?
I started out paddling on the Wye during family holidays. This was in the 70s(!), so sadly I have no GoPro proof of my pre-teen descent of Symonds Yat rapids. I am now a daddy (which is awesome) and in recent years have re-visited this amazing river with my daughter, on mini-expeditions … I have been reminded of what a beautiful and unique river the Wye is, and wanted to share this personal revelation with other paddlers.
What new things have you discovered about the Wye?
Loads and loads. For example it is a birthplace of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, it hosted Britain’s first package tour holidays (Eighteenth Century toffs floated down the river to admire the scenery, known as the ‘Wye Tour’), it is our most freely flowing major river (no weirs!) and it’s greener and wilder now than it has been for centuries. Mostly, I have learned that it’s all good! From source high in the mountains of Mid-Wales down to the tidal reaches, there are no duff bits. This river rocks my world, no exaggeration.
As somebody who’s had a few paddling books published, where do you take inspiration from? What are your coffee table favourites?
I’m a bit of a sad case, so own several hundred paddling guidebooks. Yes, I really do. I take particular inspiration from the late Terry Storry’s British Whitewater (when this game-changer first appeared in the 80s, most paddlers couldn’t name more than half a dozen classic rivers), Chris Sladden’s original Welsh Rivers (because he checked out and even mapped every last crappy little barbed-wire festooned ditch, like a true explorer) and any of William Bliss’s 1930s guidebooks … this chap was out there claiming runs like the Upper Dart, before we’d even beaten Hitler!
What are the challenges of writing a guide book?
It’s all a pleasure. You spend your holidays and weekends paddling, not exactly a hardship … and guidebook research leads you to all sorts of awesome places that you wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. Win win win. I have set myself an interesting new challenge now that the Wye guidebook is finished … I’m working on a guidebook to the River Thames. Amazingly there are no small boat guides to Britain’s most famous river! I have a feeling that the Thames has much more of interest to touring paddlers than is widely known – especially in terms of wildlife and wild places – but ask me again in about eighteen months…
How long does it take to get everything together – days paddling vs days at the computer?
The paddling and writing go hand in hand. My day job is teaching so I get absurd amounts of holiday, which I fill with paddling (*cough* I mean ‘research’) and I just type things up in the early morning or late at night. South West Sea Kayaking was written in a series of beach cafes between tides, whilst River Wye Canoe Guide was largely banged out in my man-shed-office-van between paddles on that lovely river.
Has a disgruntled paddler ever taken a swim and had a pop at you over a guidebook’s river description?
No, but bring it on …
You’re somebody who’s known for exploring some of the UK’s, less paddled rivers – are there any which you really wish you hadn’t bothered?
Absolutely not! For example, I’ve had some amazing genuine adventures exploring obscure ditches in the West Country, regardless of the quality of the paddling. I hope that I never reach the day when I find that I wish I wasn’t paddling something.
How do you make time to see and record it all yourself?
I just go paddling, is all. But to make the trips more efficient, the camera is never far from hand. Those who paddle with me are carefully selected for their catalogue-model looks, ability to strike a guidebook-friendly pose at the drop of a paddle and blind obedience when asked to run a rapid whilst doing ‘Blue Steel’.
Access is a notorious issue in the UK? How do you think we should be moving forward?
This is a massive topic; I could rant about the issues ad nauseum (and often do). I don’t know all the solutions but I do believe that the open sharing of information through websites and guidebooks in the past two decades has done more than anything else to individually empower and encourage paddlers to get out there and paddle their river heritage, armed with solid knowledge of their rights and responsibilities. We have come a long way in this short-ish space of time, and we’re still moving forward.
You’ve travelled all over the world with your kayak, what have been your highlights?
I’m lucky enough to have kayaked whitewater rivers on six continents, and I’ve even taken on a few relatively gnarly rivers and first descents. Funny thing is, all of the highlights which spring to mind now are less about the river, and more about the friends I have shared these amazing experiences with. Friends are both awesome and precious. I’m just saying.
Any sticky situations?
Quite a few spring to mind, but all-time low points include …
- Being rescued from a deep Bolivian gorge by four-foot tall grannies.
- Being chased down two different rivers by the Indian Army.
- A ninety-hour bus journey in Latin America, entertained by continual Spanish-dubbed Steven Seagal movies.
- Driving south for twelve hours to escape cold weather in the USA, on the same night that the blizzards shifted … twelve hours south.
- Breaking my spork in two on the first day of a week-long wilderness trip in northern Quebec.
- Arriving in Australia after five months paddling in Asia, where my mate immediately contracted Leptospirosis (Weil’s Disease) from the artificial whitewater course.
- Paddling right past dozens of increasingly large ‘Peligro De Muerte’ signs on a Chilean river, not knowing what it meant.
- Discovering the poor synergy between Asian cuisine and drysuits.
Anywhere left to visit?
Ask me a serious question! There are rivers in my home county I haven’t paddled yet, and I definitely need to finish paddling around Britain.
Now that you’ve written the guide to a popular canoeing river, will you be travelling with a camp oven and canvas teepee in your boat at all times?
Canoeing and kayaking is a very broad church, and I’m fully willing to embrace and able to enjoy all aspects of it. It’s always great to try something new and to challenge your preconceptions! All that said, the general thrust of your question – that open boaters are all freaks – is valid.