AN ‘ECOTRIP’ IN AN ITIWIT INFLATABLE KAYAK
Last year, two friends paddled 650km down the River Tagus from Madrid to Lisbon in two Itiwit inflatable kayaks. The trip looked amazing, so I blindly signed up for the next adventure - not knowing where it would be. We were set on doing a trip which combined adventure with a green mission, and thus the three of us set up EcoTripping.
#1 THE PLANNING STAGE: PADDLING PRACTICE AND PLASTIC PICKUP
After some back and forth, looking at rivers on maps, we settled on the longest river in the British Isles: the River Shannon in Ireland. The idea was to go from the source (the Shannon Pot in County Cavan) and paddle over 300km down to the river's end in Limerick. From our research it was obvious that plastic pollution in the oceans is currently a huge problem but also in rivers where much of it originates. So we decided to do our bit by collecting all the plastic pollution we would find along the course of the Shannon.
With the basic outline put together, I needed to prepare! First stop - get a kayak. Itiwit were really behind the trip and set me up with everything I needed, from paddles to the inflatable kayak itself! I’m a complete novice when it comes to kayaking so to jump into a trip like this… I knew my fitness would need to improve. Some very good advice that was given to me was: the gym is not as good as paddling - get out on the water, as much as you can! This was good advice; my first real practice was on the Regent’s Canal in London, and after repeating the 15km between Limehouse and Little Venice twice in one day, I was left with a sprained wrist and some sore shoulders. This concerned me for the trip but was in fact the best thing I could have done to prepare; I feel like I was much stronger once I was rested up.
The big take home lesson as we went along the canal, was picking up all the plastic would not be feasible. We knew Ireland wouldn’t be as dirty as London but collecting plastic really reduced our speed. We changed the plan to collect as much plastic as we could carry and sought out some litter pickers to help the effort.
#2 ARRIVAL AND THE FIRST PADDLES
Keeping our carbon footprint in mind we chose to get the ferry to Northern Ireland and then the bus to as close to the source of the river as possible, to a lovely village called Belcoo. From there, we looked for a taxi to take us to Lough Allen (the river is too small to paddle at the very source). Luckily a man called Phelim a local bus driver was kind enough to offer a lift!
Setting off on the first of many lakes, we discovered that it rains in Ireland…all the time. We knew we would get wet on the trip anyway, so what did it matter?
That night we learnt the hard lesson to check all the equipment before leaving. Two of the tension ropes inside the tent poles had snapped, meaning only half a tent could be set up. Dark, cold and raining – it was not the best time to find out the tent was broken. I learned a basic lesson the hard way: check your gear!
On the second day we fixed the tent and meandered down the river to Carrick on Shannon and had a pint of Guinness in the pub. Whilst there, we met Jim from Carrick Camping [Insert: https://www.carrickcamping.net/]. We talked to him about what we were up to, and he gave us some tips and offered us a place to stay for the night! In two days, two people had gone out of their way to really help us out - this was pretty much the theme for everyone we met: friendly, generous and chatty. I’ve been told by an Irish friend that this is “céad míle fáilte” meaning a hundred thousand welcomes which is often extended to visitors.
For us city boys used to the creature comforts - being wet, chilly and uncleaned for just about 24 hours we realised showers were going to be a luxury on the trip. But we felt fresh hitting the next day!
#3 WILD CAMPING AND WATER SUPPLIES
Ireland is a beautiful country, incredibly green with wild horses roaming the land. Camping down the river seemed to be straightforward; there were usually sections of unused rural land right on the riverside, where we arrived at sunset and left at sunrise easily enough. There was only one instance where we misjudged this and were awoken by 20 bulls and a mildly disgruntled farmer who explained that this was in-use farmland. A slightly strange early morning confrontation which developed into a friendly conversation ending with the farmer and his herd letting us be on our way.
The other big consideration we had on our nine-day river journey was keeping stocked with supplies. Generally, we came across shops every 24-48 hours, so this was rarely a big issue but there were a few occasions where I was pretty unnerved about how much water we had remaining. My two companions, weirdly I thought, seemed less concerned which I later learned was because they had iodine tablets so that they could drink the river water if it was needed. When we arrived in Athlone one of our team became suddenly ill this, we later discovered, was due to drinking the river water without using the iodine tablets. We were quite fortunate in the timing of this, as Athlone is the only town with a medical centre for most of the journey.
Lessons learnt: don’t forget the water purity tablets and be careful where you camp.
#4 WINDS OF LOUGH DERG
After about six days, the rain had become slightly annoying, but this was nothing compared to the wind. The land is mostly flat in Ireland and some of the large lakes are so exposed that the wind hits you pretty hard! Lough Derg was the largest of the lakes we were tackling, taking two days to cross, and it was here that we found the worst winds and the biggest waves. As the wind travels across the 130km2 lake, the waves are given the chance to really build, and this made paddling incredibly hard.
The first day of Lough Derg was tough, very fun, but on our second day travelling south from Williamstown Harbour, we were unaware the harsh westerly wind had reached gale force levels. This meant that when we came down and turned towards Mountshannon the full force of the weather hit us: my friends were doing the trip on SUPs and this caused them to flip several times, so they took refuge on the banks.
At this point I have to credit the stability and design of the Itiwit kayak. Paddling into the wind and waves was hard but I never felt near flipping, and my stuff was secure in the back. Actually, I was enjoying myself! I paddled on, making good distance against the waves. Then, seeing my friends had stopped I turned back to see what the issue was. We checked the weather to see when the wind would die back, it was forecast for days and we were on a tight schedule, so we were forced to get a taxi to the next section of river.
#5 CASTLECONNELL RAPIDS AND RUBBISH NEAR LIMERICK
The section of the Shannon past Castleconnell I would recommend checking out. There are some mild rapids on the stretch which are very easy to take as a novice, and incredibly fun! The section is restricted for boats (it is managed by the fisheries board – check timings for when you can paddle) and as a result the scenery looks untouched - beautiful plants and bird life everywhere!
Like Castleconnell, a lot of the river went through rural Ireland, so there was hardly any plastic to collect at times. From looking I was pretty impressed with how clean the river was although I suspect some plastic had sunk to the riverbed out of sight and out of reach. It was very noticeable approaching Limerick that we were in populated waters. This was the only section where we struggled to carry all the rubbish we found. There was some gross stuff in this section, particularly near the University. Nevertheless, we bagged it up and took it on our way, entering the final section. The last 10km was really difficult - we’d been at it for nine days now and were in tidal waters…except the tide was against us. It was like paddling through mud. I’d like to say sheer determination got us to the end but I was mainly dreaming about not sleeping in a tent and eating a pizza.
The Itiwit kayak had borne me down the Shannon and I'm sure could've gone much further. I can't fault it!
A massive thank you to Itiwit for making the trip happen!
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