Biologist and nature writer, Amy-Jane Beer describes an ambitious canoe trip to the island made famous by Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, that didn't quite go to plan.
Our son Lochy was born in 2011, not long after we’d bought an old house. The perfect storm of a semi-detached money pit, unpaid maternity ‘leave’ and economic austerity put horrible pressure on the combined incomes of a teacher and a freelance writer. For several years since, family travel has been mostly confined to places we can reach in a car laden with camping equipment. We know the wide world is still out there, but, because we’ve become such avid explorers of our own land, there’s been no real sense of missing out.
Discovering or rediscovering parts of the UK and seeing its variety through the unprejudiced eyes of a child has been an unexpected gift. Having slept under outback stars, heli-kayaked white-water canyons, bounced on to the runway of the highest commercial airport in the world, seen glaciers and boiling mud and explored barrier reefs, mountains, rainforests and deserts, it is easy to forget that, as children, we could have made an adventure from a cardboard box, a bale of straw, a single small tree or a puddle. By that that measure, Britain is a limitless wonderland.
© Zivica Kerkez, Shutterstock
Lochy believes he has explored. He’s climbed mountains of his own, canoed rivers and lakes, wild camped and stargazed, biked and hiked, surfed and swum. He’s keen on wildlife and has seen plenty, even in his home county – starling murmurations, one of the world’s largest colonies of gannets, and minke whales. Last month he watched a wild stoat killing a wild rabbit from a distance of no more than three metres – a spectacle whose intensity and immediacy might not be matched in a year of safari. But ask him for the place that he most remembers, the adventures he has loved best, and there’s a common theme. It’s the islands.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. Islands of one sort or another have a special allure for most of us, I suspect, be they remote sun-drenched paradises or slimy platforms with a duck house in a municipal
And this is especially true when you’re small. In Lochy’s view, the smaller and less inhabited the island the better, and the best of all islands is the first he remembers visiting. It’s also one of the tiniest, though it could hardly command a bigger place in his imagination. Most maps of the Lake District call it Peel Island – but fans of Arthur Ransome’s blissful Swallows and Amazons adventure series will know it as Wild Cat Island. They will also know that properly, you should have no map, but make one for yourself. You should pack your rations and a few other useful items – telescope, pocket knife, Jolly Roger flag – and set forth onto uncharted waters. Your craft may look like a canoe, a sit-on-top-kayak, an inflatable dinghy or (if you’re really going for authenticity) a sailing boat rented in Coniston, but you know that really, it is a pirate brig or a raft you have cobbled together from bits of shipwreck.
On reaching the small island huddled close to the southeastern shore of the lake, you find your way in among the rocks to the hidden harbour. You disembark, watchful for natives, and you explore every track, every cluster of trees, every cliff and lookout, every rocky corner, and then you plant your flag and declare the island yours forever.
This, in essence, was the plan on a cloudless May morning when we shoved off from a stony beach on the western shore. We’d brought our own canoe, which accommodates three, but had spiced up the challenge by wrestling a six-month-old Border collie into a life jacket and coaxing her aboard. It was beguilingly warm, the lake and the fells blazed in saturated Instagram hues.
Ten minutes later we launched again after stopping for the wee Lochy remembered he needed moments after we set off the first time. A further ten minutes after that we realised he was missing the sun hat he’d set out in. On questioning, he thought he might have left it by the weeing tree. In the interests of making progress, we decided to press on and try to retrieve it on our way back: ‘Here, you can wear Daddy’s hat for now’. Roy proffered the cap he usually wears for running. It’s nothing special, but Lochy was pleased with it.
Some time later, just as we attempted to push out from the shore towards the island on the other side, the breeze picked up. Funnelled by the fells, it blew almost straight down the lake, driving the well-laden boat sideways, away from the island and back towards the western shore. Our progress suddenly required constant correction, and the comfortable lapping of water under the bow was replaced by abrupt slapping on the port side.
In the space of two minutes, our lazy stokes became laboured, and in the space of five we realised we’d made a mistake in not crossing sooner. From where we were, we couldn’t continue to alter our approach without turning fully sideways to the wind – and already it was strong enough that doing so would be difficult and unstable.
We decided to carry on into the shelter of the next bay, then attempt to cross the lake at the narrowest point. ‘We’ll have to do it by heading into the wind,’ Roy shouted from the stern. ‘It’ll be harder work, but we’ll be able to keep on course, and if we pick the right place it won’t be long before we gain the shelter of the eastern shore.’
He wasn’t kidding about hard work. There was no flow on the lake but the wind forced us to paddle as though we were crossing a river – angling the boat well upstream of our destination and pushing hard against the current, seeking to compensate for the ground we would lose.
By halfway, my shoulder muscles were starting to flood with lactic acid, and the boy was starting to fret. Partly it was that the wind was chilly, and our paddles were spattering him with water, but he’d also picked up the vibe. It’s nigh on impossible to keep up cheery chatter when you’re paddling as hard as you can. Lochy fidgeted, was told sharply to sit still, and suddenly he didn’t like it any more.
© Romiana Lee, Shutterstock
You read things from time to time about canoes with children in, capsizing in the middle of chilly lakes. And we often see boats heading out in which nobody is wearing dry kit or a buoyancy aid – or perhaps only the children are. It gives me the absolute willies. British lakes are cold, most of the year, especially the deep ones. And if you’re not used to it, cold affects your ability to swim, to think, or do anything useful. If the adult is in trouble, the kids are too.
We were kitted up. Personal flotation devices all round, dog included, and buoyancy bags in the boat. None of us would sink, no matter what. But still, I’ve not had to work so hard with Lochy in the boat before and I was stressed. A sudden strong gust of wind elicited a long wail… ‘Daddy’s haaaat!’ It had blown off Lochy’s head and into the water. The boat lurched and lost momentum as Roy made a single unsuccessful attempt to catch it with his paddle. One lost stroke was lesson enough. ‘Forget it, keep going.’
‘But… Daddy’s hat!’
There was no way I was going to turn our boat broadside to this wind in the very middle of the lake. We tried to explain, in short, breathless sentences, that we couldn’t stop, or turn, or go back, and that Daddy had other hats. But in the moment of loss, this inanimate, easily replaceable object had gained disproportionate sentimental value, and Lochy was beside himself. He could see the hat still, bobbing inexorably ever-further behind us, and our wilful betrayal was beyond his comprehension. He started to howl, like Tom Hanks’s character Chuck Noland sobbing for Wilson the volleyball in the film Cast Away.
A deep burn in the deltoid muscles and a heart thudding with exertion makes it hard to find soothing words or tone. So for a couple of minutes we just dug in, letting him cry and protest. And then, suddenly, we’d done it, and it was like gaining the crest of a hill on a pushbike. The resistance wasn’t gone, but the boat was suddenly gliding rather than lurching. A few more strokes and it was safe to make a turn, then cruise downwind towards the island. My arms felt like spaghetti. Lochy was still crying.
But then we were sliding past a low tree-lined cliff that tapered to a rocky promontory. As we rounded the end and nosed the boat into the lee of the rocks, we found ourselves in perfect shelter. The sun was delicious, the water clear and quiet – and Lochy realised where we were. ‘It’s the hidden harbour!’ And so it was, exactly as he knew it from the books, a tiny landing place, guarded by phalanges of smooth, grey, sun-warmed rocks, and trees clustering like curious onlookers.
He was first ashore, splashing a bit, holding the painter as we unloaded, and positively vibrating with anticipation. And the island didn’t disappoint. We stayed a couple of hours, in which he explored every square metre, from hidden harbour to camping place, to lookout point. Lochy beat the bounds of his new territory, checking the entire waterline, just in case, against all odds, the cap had washed up. It hadn’t, but when Roy sat down to eat lunch, he wriggled uncomfortably for a moment, then patted his bum, and with puzzled frown giving way to rueful grin, pulled the original sun hat from the rear pocket of his shorts.
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