As I sat there rubbing my hands in front of the small vehicle heater I somehow couldn’t shake the feeling that my tired eyes were playing tricks on me. I knew I was in Wales, I’d seen the sign, but this preserved and primal backdrop of winter greens and dusty browns reminded me of something closer to Canada. My warm mobile vantage point afforded me the first glimpse of the river we were to descend, through the tree line its green rolling watercourse twisted amongst the wildness and solitude of the Wye valley.
At its source deep in the Cambrian Mountains the Wye River is still, shallow and gravelly. I’d heard stories of this river and it’s beauty long before I’d arrived. People had spoken of it being the lifeblood of the countryside, an ancient artery of commerce for the local land. They also spoke of its protected landscapes, dense native woodlands, gorges and sandstone plateaus. For friend and canoe guide Aylwin and myself it would provide the perfect multi-day opportunity to hone and refine the much-needed skills for the Yukon descent.
With the front of the canoe pointing up river, we nudged the green Old Town canoe from a flat tongue of gravel into the oncoming flow. Under a bridge near Glasbury the first arms of the river surrounded the canoe and we turned downstream, our paddles angled to straighten and project us down the central flow. On my lap I had the dog-eared pages of a small binded river map, its blue meandering route plotting our southerly course. The air temperature was a frigid 6 degrees, it was just past noon and it was 100 miles to the sea.
For six cold hours our first day descended through the quaint Hay on Wye, Witney on Wye and Bredwardine. The subtle motion of the canoe and the reassuring sound of paddles through water brought on calmness I’d rarely felt. To our east, through the bare winter trees we could make out the rolling wooded landscapes and to our west villages with white smoking chimneys occupied the horizon. We soon found an efficient paddling rhythm of regularly switching strokes, sides and positions. This rhythm momentarily halting as we gazed up at the passing of an abandoned bridge or the sight of a soaring falcon. Later on we sat around our tents in a small dark orchard speckled in mistletoe eagerly absorbing the warmth from a searing fire. We noted how history permeated everything along this river; in the architecture, landscape and geology.
As we slid the canoe back down to the river on the second sunrise our stomachs were full of warm oats, fruit and nuts. The soon to be morning ritual of surveying the rivers temperament was observed high from an overgrown bank. Her flow was like a memory; steady, churning and rolling. The first bend brought us a set of harmless rapids before turning us into a driving headwind and shallow stream beds. With help from the clearing skies and a warming winter sun we soon became accustomed to reading the river’s natural flow hundreds of yards upstream. Standing in the canoe and searching ahead, we’d watch the river in silence, choosing our line. Whether rapids or steady flow we’d point the bow (nose) into the turn and commit the boat to our decision, making minute course corrections with the paddle as we went. In the quietness between conversations, my mind correlated the likeness of paddling a river to that of the ebb and flow of life.
The next morning we awoke in Fownhope to a biting frost that cloaked the landscape. Overnight the skies had cleared and the temperature had plummeted to below zero. As I rolled in my warm sleeping bag I noticed that my body was hurting. My wrists and hands we strained from the thousands of continuous paddle strokes and physical effort of the last three days. My knees, being posed in static positions into an unremitting cold wind, felt stiff. I knew this would pass. A tremendous sizzle brought me round as my stove water boiled over. This wasn’t a time for whining about age and failing joints, especially to a 19-year-old sprightly Aylwin, it was a time to suck it up as today the river became deeper and ever dangerous, boiling into a wild and beautiful section of water.
As we blew the cold morning cobwebs away, the warmth of our rhythmic paddling oozed through my veins, comforting the stiff cold extremities. Past Hoarwithy and Ross on Wye I noticed continued stacks of huge trees cascaded in piles against the stony uprights of bridges, simply torn like weeds from the soil and deposited downstream in flood. As the slow pace drifted us from reaching bend to run down relics we noticed how the river itself was free of human occupancy. Apart from one small group of paddlers in the upper reaches, a few dog walkers and the odd camouflaged fisherman tucked secretly into the riverbank, we’d been the only paddlers descending the river for three days. That night, we slept to the patter and tickle of rain on the tent and the intricate communications of river wildlife.
After the excitement of the rapids of Symonds Yat had settled, I looked up to find a horseshoe bend in the river framing the steep narrow cliffs. On both sides dense woodland clung to the narrow rock faces creating an enclosed, jungle like appearance. The paddles soothingly massaged and directed the canoe as we drifted down stream; the narrowing river shedding its skin once more to reveal a wilderness to which we were the only witnesses. Over my head, the long broad shape of falcons soared between the cliffs and at river level herons, buzzards, cormorants and woodpeckers elusively appeared and disappeared. The beauty and temperament of this section was unreachable, every turn felt as if you were plugging into somewhere different, somewhere far from Wales. By now Aylwin and myself were in sync, driven by an unspoken rhythm from days of paddling, thousands of combined strokes and a little friendship. Moving at such a speed surrounded by such dramatic natural influences has such an effect. Simply boiling down to harmony and adaptability.
As our last sun rose we passed King Arthur’s Cave high up on the hill at Little Doward. I later found out ancient remnants of hyena, rhinoceros and lions had been discovered there. It appears we weren’t the only ones who came to love this section of river. Passed Monmouth, Bigsweir and Brockweir the river now changed its emotion for the final time as the tidal influences of the Severn Estuary began to show their teeth. A once deepest green, the river colour now silt brown; a once fightable headwind now becoming a coastal gale. The incoming wind channeled by the river valley created a wind tunnel forcing us to fight for every metre of progress. As the hours and energy depleted, we revered in the calmer moments, resting and drifting, yet with a burst of intensity and power when faced with the turn of a corner and an oncoming wind. After four and a half days and over 77,000 paddle strokes later we drifted exhaustedly under our finish point, the Chepstow Bridge.
s I sat back in my warm mobile vantage point for the final time, I flicked through the pages of my weather beaten river map absorbing the memories. Turning to the last page I noticed a passage I hadn’t read before. “The Wye is clothed with forests or broken into cliffs. In some places they approach so near, that the river occupies the whole intermediate space, and nothing is seen but woodlands, rocks, water and wildlife; the character is of wilderness and solitude. No river perhaps flows for so long a course through well cultivated country, the banks of which exhibit so few habitations.”
After seeing this for myself over the last four days it would be easy, I thought, to be drawn into this net and move here tomorrow.