So it all started late in 2015 when Milton Keynes Canoe Club member Jez Young had an idea after reading about the Go Canoeing 3 Lakes Challenge done in 24 hours. He thought “I like a challenge and I like a paddle so why not combine the two?” He set about finding a team of fellow paddlers and slowly a team of 6 willing participants stepped up for the challenge, ably supported by Pauline and Richard volunteering as support crew. Willen Hospice was chosen as our charity to support, hotels were booked and a training programme set up for the paddlers, Jez, George, Adam, Paul, Andrew and Max. This involved various paddles at our local Caldecote Lake and stretches along the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes, with distances from 8 miles up to 25 miles covered. Eventually with everybody kitted with suitable sea/long touring kayaks, the last practice was along the canal starting at 2pm in the afternoon and finished in the dark to get the team used to what they would experience during the challenge.
Now it was time for the real challenge to begin. Kayaks were loaded onto the trailer on the Tuesday before the weekend and cars were filled with fuel, kindly paid for by Interserve. The long drive started on Friday 29th April with the overnight stop of Carlisle being reached just after 10pm. The MKCC team was met by their friends from Harbour Challenge who had driven up from Poole, also aiming to complete the 3 Lakes Challenge. On Saturday 30th April, after a light breakfast, the second leg of the journey started up to Loch Awe in Scotland. With the wind due up from the south west, the launch was best from Torran Bay Hostel so although the drive was long, it did mean that we passed some stunning locations and beautiful scenery, especially as many of the mountains were topped with a coating of snow which contrasted well with the blue skies. The teams arrived at the start point just after lunch and after launching fees were paid, paddlers had got kitted up, the before challenge photos had been taken, the 3 Lakes Challenge started at 2.15pm.
Loch Awe is a truly remote place and certainly a good place to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Surprisingly good pace was made northwards up the Loch with the slight tail wind proving very effective, pushing the speed above 4.5mph. Support vehicle were spotted heading to the north end of the Loch along the narrow road to the east side but soon disappeared into the distance. George’s lighter breakfast soon proved to be not enough and the team briefly stopped for a quick break at Ardchonnel Castle to refuel. Progress was then quickly made towards the finish point dodging the busy traffic on the water of 3 small fishing boats during the entire length of the Loch. Far sooner than was expected, the site of Kilchurn Castle came into view. Jez in all his excitement to finish nearly went the wrong way to the right of the castle and then forgot about the shallow water warnings and got himself beached on the shore. After getting himself free and then Max also getting stuck, the team landed at 7.30pm, completing Loch Awe in 5 hours 15 minutes. Pauline and Richard, aided by the harbour challenge support crew of Gareth and Vicky, prepared an outstanding Chorizo Pasta dinner while the paddlers got dried and loaded the kayaks. Dinner was eaten to the sound of bag pipes being played, which really did top off our Loch Awe experience and the earlier than expected arrival, meant that the packing up and cooking was done in daylight, making life easier. Refuelled, the team’s journey south to Lake Windermere started around 8.15pm.
After driving through the early hours of the morning, the teams arrived at Fell Foot car park exit just before 2am. Paul and Andrew’s paddle of Windermere proved valuable as the darkness would have made it difficult to find the lake from the car park. The launch site was quickly located and the teams set off 12 hours after starting Loch Awe at 2.15am, kitted up with reflective gear, head torches and flashing beacons. The water was fairly calm to start with but the paddlers still kept closely together for safety. This proved valuable when at 3am in the morning, a party boat heading south down the lake from Bowness, was able to keep well away from the array of lights shone at them to warn them of our presence. The high energy music being played loudly clearly helped the paddlers and the half way point was soon reached, although the forecast tail wind was also now picking up, starting to make the water a little choppy. The chain ferry seemed almost ghostly deserted as we passed it as, in daylight; you often see it going back and forth many times as you approach trying to guess which side will be best to pass. Again Paul and Andrew’s paddling of Windermere three weeks earlier helped navigate through the only potentially tricky part around Bowness, although rocks were bumped by several members of the team, but thankfully only minor. The decision was taken by the team to pass to the east of Belle Isle, to use it as shelter from the gusts of wind, and then head up the west coast of the lake on the second section towards Waterhead. By the time Wray Castle was reached and the team headed across towards the landing site, the previous darkness was turning to a lighter grey. Pauline and Richard were happy to see the twinkling lights from the head torches heading towards them and cooking breakfast commenced. The journey had taken 2 hours 40 minutes, landing just before 5am. Paddling Lake Windermere in darkness had proved a highlight for many of the paddlers and this was only added to by the wonderful cooked breakfast served up by our amazing support crew in Waterhead car park, as the Lake slowly started to appear out of the night, as morning light arrived. Kayaks and gear were loaded up and the journey south to Bala Lake for the final leg of the challenge started just after 5.30am.
Wales provided a stereotypical welcome of rain but, undeterred, teams arrived at Bala Lake just before 9am. Paddlers quickly got ready and car park and launch fees were sorted with the very pleasant man at the lake facilities. Richard had decided to join the team paddling Bala Lake so the double kayak was prepared for him to team up with Paul and the team left at 9.15am. Pauline wisely made the decision to stay in the nice warm car and enjoy the peace and well-earned rest from all of her driving efforts. The water was very choppy and the first half of this paddle was against the wind for the first time during the challenge. Progress up the lake was slower than Loch Awe and Lake Windermere but never the less, spurred on by the nearing completion of the task, good progress was made towards the turning point at the end of the lake. Adam won the battle with George to be the first to reach the turn after Jez had ruled himself out of contention by dropping his paddle and having to unsuccessfully use his hands instead. Paddle retrieved, the team started the final leg back to shore with a fairly strong wind blowing across the lake. We all thought Andrew had decided to catch the miniature train on the southern side of the lake back as he veered off towards it but it turned out, he was just fighting the wind which did make tracking challenging at times. Just before the finish line, the team joined up together and after the attempt to drift in with the wind failed, the last paddler came ashore just after 11.15am, in a time of 1 hour 57 minutes. Although half an hour behind the Harbour Challenge Team, who had much more expensive fancy composite sea kayaks, not that we were jealous, honest, the MKCC team completed the 3 Lakes Challenge in 21 hours 2 minutes and 46 seconds. Paddling time on the water was just under 10 hours at 9 hours 52 minutes. The weather had been very good to us and the decision to paddle northwards on Loch Awe and Windermere to make the most of the forecast wind had certainly helped. Drivers had been swapped at regular intervals to ensure the tiredness had not been an issue. Months of planning and preparations had all been worth it and the whole team had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, with memories they would keep forever. Jez was delighted he had suggested and organised the event, although he was not happy when he got a puncture in his front wheel when he moved his car for a second time at the overnight stop in Shrewsbury to block the trailer in. Thankfully it happened at the end of the challenge and not during, but this didn’t seem to be of much comfort for Jez. A hearty celebration meal was eaten that night with a spot of champagne followed by a very sound night sleep, despite the short beds that some of us had.
A really big thank you to the support crew of Pauline, Richard, Vicky and Gareth, Interserve for covering fuel costs and everyone who sponsored us and helped us exceed our £2000 target for a really good cause, our local Willen Hospice. What challenge next for the team then but just maybe not for a few weeks or months?
If you would like to donate the link is - www.justgiving.com/mkcc3lakechallenge
Written by Paul Jeffs 4th May 2016