The 55th annual canoe test on the River Wye took place between 26-30 May, falling in line with National Go Canoeing Week 2017; perfect for this year's theme of 'The Big Adventure.' This year, for the first time, the 3rd/9th Welwyn Garden City Scouts and Muntjac Explorer Scout Unit decided to take on the challenge. With fire in their bellies and an air of cautiousness, they set off on the River Wye, unsure of what to expect along the way...
"Arriving late in a dark field in Fownhope we pitched our camp with some trepidation as to what might lie ahead. We felt prepared; but were we?
"The next morning at 8am all the paddlers and all the leaders met by the flag pole and we realised that we were very young and the only team that were new to the challenge! Nerves were beginning to mount as we realised that we had quite an undertaking to face. Words of welcome and encouragement from Andy Oughton the event organiser and from Laura Pope were just what we needed.
"Arriving at the start in Glasbury we lined up on the shore and were quickly surrounded by the land crew who offered advice, reassured us, cracked jokes and told us where to look out for their friendly faces along the route, the other teams were quick to help us get organised and we began to realise that we were part of something unique and rather special.
"Day one took us 24 miles from Glasbury to Byford. We saw kingfishers, herons, cormorants and many many swans, ducks, geese and all their babies! We quickly learnt to spot shallows, submerged rocks, small rapids and how to avoid overhanging branches! The weather was mixed, some rain showers and some wind but it was not cold and we completed the distance tired but happy. Back at camp we found that our food shelter had blown down. The group next to us had arrived back on site before us. They had tidied up the now broken shelter, rescued our food and equipment, pitched a new tent for us and safely stowed all our bits and pieces inside – now we were certain that we were part of a team that looked out for each other and that welcomed new comers.
"Day two covered 33 miles from Byford to Hole in the Wall. The weather was warm, the suncream was out and there were no cagoules in sight! We paddled past Breinton House with it’s beautiful ornamental gardens and we saw so many beautiful wild flowers along the river banks that even the boys commented on how different the world looks when you’re paddling a canoe along the river!
"Day three offered a mixed bag of weather with showers, sunshine and wind – we soon learnt that a head wind is not a friend to a weary paddler! But once again other teams were on hand to offer words of advice and tips on slightly altered hand or seating positions that could help to beat the wind. We covered 28.5 miles from Hole in the Wall to Whitebrook; taking on the infamous Symonds Yat at mile 20.
"We were met just ahead of the rapids by Andy Oughton who gave great advice on how to get through dry but also what to do if we did take a dip – suddenly the prospect of Symonds Yat was less scary; we all drew in a breath and went for it and with Andy’s advice fresh in our heads we conquered those rapids unscathed!
"Andy stayed with our group for the next 8 miles, sharing his experiences, teaching the boys new skills, sharing his paddles with them and nurturing their developing love of the river. What a privilege for the boys to have such expert advice and time from such a qualified canoeist. Even our more challenging team member was heard to say “he’s quite cool actually” – praise indeed!
"Day four arrived and suddenly none of us wanted to go home. A mere 14.5 miles seemed as though it should be a walk in the park but would it be? We started at Kerne Bridge and finished at Monmouth. We again took on Symonds Yat but with more confidence than we had the day before. Canoe crews had swapped around and one of the boys even went solo and once again we all remained dry!
"One mile before the end we joined all the other paddlers in the test so that the whole lot of us could finish together. All four leaders hung back a few boat lengths and watched the boys confidently paddle the last part of their 100 mile challenge; singing with the others, sitting a little bit straighter in their canoes, with their heads held a little bit higher and with their paddles keeping in time with all the others around them. Our nervous little ducklings that had started the test small and unconfident were finishing brim full of confidence paddling along as big strong ducks.
"We were extremely proud of all of them, tired, achy, a little bit emotional but so privileged to have been part of such a fantastic weekend.
"A huge thank you to Andy, all of his crew, the river marshalls and all the other teams for making us so welcome and for making us believe that we could indeed paddle 100 miles with the big boys!