A couple of years ago, deep in the recesses of the British Canoeing offices, a little light bulb went on above someone's head in the Go Canoeing team and the Three Lakes Challenge was born!
The challenge was designed to give paddlers of all ages and abilities something to aim and train for. It comprises of the three longest lakes in England, Scotland and Wales - Windermere, Loch Awe and Llyn Tegid (Lake Bala). Paddlers can just do one, two or all three lakes and the challenge can be taken on in any timescale. People then send us in their paddle times and we add them to the leaderboards.
With the leaderboards filling up and feedback coming in from a wide variety of people, the Go Canoeing team decided it was time to take on the challenge themselves.
Craig Duff (Nottingham Kayak Club) and Steph Roberts (Burton Phoenix Canoe Club) agreed to take on the task, in a K2 racing boat, with Jenny Spencer and myself (Cadi Lambert) completing the team as support crew/drivers. Jenny's experience as former Junior World Marathon Champion meant she was able to advise on nutrition and technical elements of the paddle. The decision was taken to start on Loch Awe, getting the hardest and longest lake out of the way first, before heading down to Windermere and then Llyn Tegid. We chose a date in August and Craig and Steph started their many early morning training sessions.
We chose to follow suit of a few other groups before us and complete the Three Lakes Challenge in 24 hours. We would leave Nottingham on Thursday the 15th of August and drive half the way up to Loch Awe before departing the next morning to complete the journey up. We had worked out the timings perfectly - or so we thought - to ensure that the paddlers would not be on the water in the dark for any of the three lakes.
We checked the weather forecast throughout the week and discovered that the calm, sunny weather which had been gracing us for days was due to give way to torrential rain and strong winds. The decision was quickly taken to leave a day early, which would allow Craig and Steph decent weather on at least the first two lakes. Luckily kit lists had already been made, so that just left a speedy packing session and a web search for available accommodation and they were off!
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear, the team had a hearty breakfast and started the drive up to Loch Awe from Conder Green, Lancaster. We had decided that Craig and Steph would do none of the driving, as they would need to get rest in the back of the car between lakes. This also left Jenny and Cadi in charge of the music, a decision that Craig and Steph may have later regretted!
Arriving at Loch Awe in the afternoon, we went to meet with Joachim who runs the Torran Bay hostel at the side of the Loch. Many previous Three Lakes paddlers have stayed there and all mentioned what a good experience they had.
We had taken two boats with us one slightly more stable than the other and with calm, sunny conditions the paddlers decided to choose the lighter and faster, marathon weight K2 Roman kayak for Loch Awe. The temperature was around 25℃ so we also knew that hydration would be key on the 25 mile paddle. Craig and Steph were well organised and were ready to be on the water in no time. Time for a quick photo opportunity with the Go Canoeing flag and they were off.
The previous record time on the leaderboard for Loch Awe was 4 hrs and 41 mins. Craig and Steph were looking to beat this and they set off at quite a pace. Loch Awe is a truly beautiful lake in a stunning location, surrounded by forests and dotted with islands full of history. It is also up to 1 mile wide in places and so it can be hard to spot paddlers out on the water.
As we weren’t entirely sure where we would be able to get down to the water all we could do was tell them to look out for two waving figures and head towards them. Luckily this plan worked and we were able to refill and refuel the duo twice. Our support crew plan to be tourists for an hour and visit the ruins of Kilchurn Castle at the end of the loch were thwarted when the paddlers arrived at the finish in just 3 hrs 38 mins!
Sitting in the kayak paddling on the water allows you see your surroundings from a different perspective. Watching the birds skimming across the water and just being on glass-mirror calm waters make you feel so peaceful and tranquil.– Craig Duff
An accidental overturn into the water for the paddlers was followed by a swift reloading of the car, not because we were in a rush to hit the road, but due to being descended on by hungry mosquitoes! The journey down to Lake Windermere was long but relatively traffic free (once we had been round the roads of Glasgow a couple of times).
Night time was a wonderful time to drive as barn owls swooped across our path, sheep touched noses with a Go Herdwick sheep by the side of the road and the moon lit our way. The fast paddling time and easy journey meant that we arrived in the Lakes ahead of schedule. It was not yet daylight when we reached Windermere and we had to take a decision; let the intrepid pair on the water in the dark or wait until daybreak. We had lights for the boats, as well as head torches for paddlers and support crew, both paddlers were also very experienced and the lake was beautifully still and calm, so the choice was made to press on.
Windermere was easier in terms of where to refuel the paddlers, they could come in at Bowness on Windermere as there is plenty of easy access to the water for the support crew. Whilst waiting for the paddlers to come in we saw a hedgehog snuffling its way along the shore line...or at least we thought we did...we now wonder if it was the legendary Tizzie Whizie!
The blinking light of buoys in the distance deceived us for some time but eventually we spotted a light which was moving closer. The team were clearly making good time again and it was no surprise when they, once again, broke the route record by coming in at 1 hr 41 mins.
Craig and Steph remained upbeat but you really could see the fatigue on their faces as we loaded the boat back onto the roof and climbed back into the car for the final stretch down to Wales and Llyn Tegid. As we got to the motorway and the beginnings of rush hour the weather finally turned. Gusts of wind buffeted the car and the rain started to lash down. Llyn Tegid may be the shortest of the three lakes but, with two tired paddlers and some terrible weather, it certainly wouldn’t be the easiest.
The three lakes were all unique. Distance aside, Loch Awe was stunning with it’s little islands and being overshadowed by mountains. The vast width and expanse made you alert and alive with adrenaline– Craig Duff
Arriving at the car park on the shore of the lake we were surprised to see other paddlers and some open water swimmers braving the weather. The boat was unloaded once more (Craig and Steph chose the, slightly more stable South African Knysna Rush K2 For Windermere and Llyn Tegid) and off they went. This lake is an out and back paddle and no meeting point was required, due to its shorter length. All we could do was wait (or go for a run in my case) whilst they battled the elements.
I managed to glimpse them from the road whilst running and could see they were going strong at halfway and within an hour (57 minutes to be precise) they were back! Brief lakeside celebrations and more flag waving were followed by refreshing in the newly installed shower block by the lake and reviving with a large breakfast before heading for home!
The challenge was a fantastic experience for everyone involved and has also allowed us to review our safety advice and tips around the challenge routes. If we were looking to do it within 24 hours again we would plan our trip around the Summer Solstice, looking to start early in the morning, so as not to be paddling in the dark.
Huge congratulations must go to Steph and Craig on their achievement. They never complained (not even about the support crew singing along to Celine Dion), never flagged and never stopped working as a team.
The Three Lakes truly was a tough challenge. I train a few times a week and still wouldn't say it was easy. I hadn't appreciated the sheer scale of Loch Awe and how difficult it would be to navigate on the water. I am glad that we got the largest lake out of the way first and in the light.– Craig Duff