Yukon River Quest Day 1 and 2 (32 hours paddling)

Getting Ready

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Sarah:

It takes a lot of kit to paddle unsupported. It took a taxi to get us what would be a 5 minute walk to the start. Then the faff began. Gear check. Sending the remainder of our luggage to the right places. Getting enough drinking water.

With everyone doing the same thing it was quite chaotic and I really needed to escape the chaos to a quiet spot before the gathering of all the padders before the start. It was lovely to see Nancy and Bertha from the our bunk house, cheering us on at the start.

Dan:

We had a low race number so had to get the boat ready for gear check at 8:30 am. We’d got the food for the paddle ready the day before, and with that and the required gear for an unsupported 400 mile paddle there was a lot of stuff. We were ready quickly – years of faff have trained us well, got ticked off, allowing us to get water and warmed up before the midday start.

To the Lake (30 miles)

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Sarah:

We started towards the back, but there were still plenty of boats with us. I found trying to get to the best water in amongst everything else confusing and drove Dan a bit up the wall by moving out of the way for other boats. Almost immediately though, it was time to drink lots. Before we hit the lake we seemed to be paddling much more in harmony. it had been a good fast run to the lake, although I hadn’t done very well at getting where we agreed to be when we agreed, instead opting for too much of the touring approach.

Dan:

After a reading of the list of the paddlers and teams; at the strike of 12 midday we jogged to the boats and set off. Many boats got off to good start in front of us. I couldn’t yet read this river to find the fastest bits, but I could work out why people were going where they were going.

Of course we started soon enough with an argument – possibly the only one on the whole of the trip. We got overtaken a few times as boats dominated the river, leading to a little interboat stress. We were both engaged in different ways and it was hard with all the boats rushing about for space and learning about how to paddle in a race. We got into gear after the first 30 mins and started working well together, but we lost a little ground getting it together. We averaged 7 mph which was what we wanted.

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The Lake (32 miles)

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Sarah:

30 miles of lake with a horrible headwind to start with and boiling heat. Tough times. It’s beautiful but we spent hours travelling to each point. As it moved into the evening it was time for shore leave and we stopped by some campers. There were still enough people about to make me need to find bushes. We pulled over again later to get waterproofs on as it looked like rain. Fortunately it didn’t rain. Instead there was an amazing display of gulls chasing moths as we got to the end of the lake. We hopped out for a brief break at the checkpoint. It had been a hard paddle across for both of us and I hadn’t been aware enough of how little Dan was eating. Both of us had forgotten our gourmet chicken and cashew wraps.

Dan:

The lake was sunny. Hot, hot hot. We crossed the first section diagonally – joined by one of the Cockleshell paddling team. Getting to the right bank we found we had a head wind. We paddled hard up the lake and gladly felt the wind shift into a tail-wind as we got about halfway up. It wasn’t quite straight and Sarah found holding the angle hard.

I knew we needed to get a good speed across the lake to hit the timing window so paddled really hard – really working the legs.. Sarah noticed that I was looking very very hot – she was right my head was getting swimmy. I dipped my hat and then my sleeves into the water and kept drinking and drinking – 4 liters down at the end of the lake. 2/3s of the way across the clouds covered the sun, and suddenly soaking sleeves and sweaty clothes were a risk as my temperature plummeted. We got to the side and put on warmer layers, just in time.

I’d not eaten on or before the lake really – it was hard with everything going on – just a few Cherry Ripe bites, a banana and a cereal bar. I was starving when we got to the end, as well as still cold – it was getting close to midnight. I quickly ate a bag of pasta, some porridge and hot chocolate. Turns out that wasn’t such a good idea.

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30 mile & Big Salmon (65 miles)

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Sarah:

I think that the 30 Mile section is my favourite bit of the river. It was the darkest and coolest but from a flat lake onto riffles which are big enough to get the person in the bow wet and big boils is a fun transition and wakes you up. Once the Teslin river joined though the river starts in earnest and its character then seems to stay the same for a while. Dan’s stomach really started to play up once we were past 30 mile and we struggled. Stomach cramps were impacting on his posture and it was extremely hard to keep on going. We carried on to Big Salmon, 125 miles into the race. That’s 125 miles in around 24 hours with one of the team unable to eat or drink as they need to. This was a lively checkpoint and Dan was able to have a short rest and try some drugs to settle his stomach. Not many occasions when you will take any small tablets. We were thinking of getting out here, but we pulled a little something else out of the bag as there was no road access. No choice but to keep going.

Dan:

Heading down the river was a relief from lake paddling – we got some fun riffles as the river sped up, but so did my stomach. I started getting bad cramps which had me sitting oddly trying to keep paddling. We were getting down the river at 7 mph which wasn’t as fast as we hoped – but we kept paddling and working hard.

As the night drew on the river formed mist and then fog. We could often just see the nearest bank, and not that far ahead. Having pink pine scented fog was quite pleasant though. Less so was my tummy. It was hurting and now so was my back. I had to take a few breaks on the bank that weren’t pleasant for me or the woods. I couldn’t eat anything and so couldn’t safely take painkillers either.

Getting to the checkpoint at Big Salmon I was a bit broken and had a lie down in the shelter. Everything between head and hips hurt. Someone offered me a chalky stomach settling tablet – that was wonderful! The staff at the checkpoint offered me dry crackers and a second tummy pill for later. Good people there. After 30 mins it was time to press on.

Little Salmon (35 miles)

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Sarah:

The section to Little Salmon was really tough physically and mentally. I could tell that Dan was really suffering and looking at the 9 mph we averaged I am surprised. We had some good lines to follow on our maps but we were both working so hard that it hurt. Dan simply hadn’t had the energy in terms of food and I’m trying to put in as much as I can. Add to this that we have by now been paddling for around 29 hours and we want out. Physically and mentally it hurts and I can see that we are both on the brink of snapping which is no good when there is only one hotel room at the end. This checkpoint was manned by a guy who has done the race and won several times and there was no way he was letting us off the river there, so we go on.

Dan:

I think it was now afternoon again, my stomach was settling a little – I had one more break at Twin Creek that stays between me and the woods, but the river was moving faster and I was getting better at reading it – hitting average speeds of 9 mph. On this section we saw beavers right beside us, and had an eagle swooping in to grab a snack from the river next to us. I also started to see animals in the patterns in the weathering sides, and the banks spelt out words.

I hurt , but I could eat ginger biscuits and so I could take a few painkillers, but my vertebrae were all cramped and with hindsight I was probably massively dehydrated and out of fuel. At Little Salmon checkpoint I wanted to quit – each paddle stroke was painful. The volunteers chivvyed me along – he was a past winner and said pain was all in the mind. Carmacks wasn’t far and we set off for the final section.

Getting to Carmacks (15 miles)

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Sarah:

This is truly the longest 15 miles ever. It goes on and on and the scenery is all the same. It’s now all about just finding the best bit of the river and sitting paddling in it until we get there – we managed 7 mph though. Dan started fantasy food discussions. He is still waiting for the chocolate pudding that he said he wanted. We made the porky pasta dish the day we arrived on Vancouver Island. All I wanted was a cheeseburger and fries with root beer from the Carmacks cafe.
We still needed a short break to stretch and rest and we briefly explored a island which had a ladder from water level to the campsite. A power line across the river showed us we were almost there. A welcome sight.

At carmacks the campsite crew met us and took us to the showers and our tent and Dan got to see a medic who poked his back. The stomach upset had left him badly dehydrated which is not unsurprising to a logical mind that hasn’t been paddling flat out. We decided to take longer than the required 7 hour stop to see if his stomach would settle and if we could rehydrate him enough to go on. Unfortunately by the time we were looking to leave the medic who we wanted to give him the once over had gone to sleep. We had discussed that if he drank a lot while we were there and kept his dinner down then we could go on. That’s two overtired stressed and worried individuals making decisions about safety and capability in an extreme wilderness situation. What could go wrong?

Dan:

I don’t remember much at all – I just wanted to get it done.
Getting to Carmacks was good, and I was ready to stop. I had blisters on my neck, and grazes 270 degrees around my waist from clothes rubbing. I managed a cheese sandwich and a few mouthfuls of soup after a shower and collapsed into a tent to see how I would feel in 7 hours time.

Want to know what happened next? Read part two of our experiences of paddling in the Yukon River Quest 2015. 

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The race is on!

IMGP7201We start to race in 14 hours time. We start at 12 midday, and in-between then and now we will be getting the kit down to the start line, having a kit inspection, and doing final fiddling.

Today we have cooked food for three days and nights of paddling. It’s all in bags in the fridge, we’ve done the initial kit check and had the river briefing. The day before we did a 2nd and final training run, and food shopped.

Race tracker linky!

The race tracker is how you’ll be able to see our progress along the way, it gets updated from a GPS device we carry for our safety and your enjoyment.

We are team 24. Mixed tandem canoe.

We’ll be paddling as fast as we can. We’ll be satisfied to get as far a we can in the low waters, but hope to see the race out in Dawson.

First Training Run: Whitehorse to Burma Road

IMGP7153Doing the 30km training run was our first chance to spent time in our race canoe. The course was from Whitehorse to Burma Road (close to the start of Lake Laberge).  Importantly, we wanted to see if we could hit the times that we need to stay in the race. We must be paddling at 6 mph on the section before the lake and at least 3.1 mph over the lake.

It was our first time in the Clipper Jensen canoe. We wanted to play a little. We started off by travelling across the river without going downstream –  balancing our power against the river. It paddled beautifully! Feeling confident with the boat we pointed the boat downstream and headed off.

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The river started off fast – we went at 10 mph at one point but it soon slowed down. We reached a wide marsh section where the river had slowed with almost no flow, a bit worrying for the 6 mph average that we will need.  We did take a minute to listen to the birds and animals – it’s not something we’ll have time for in the race.

We also had another few stops watch the plentiful bald eagles. We were lucky enough to come across 3 juveniles and parents with their latest kill. Dan spotted a beaver swimming up the edge of the river, happily minding his own business (the beaver, not Dan).

Though the wildlife fascinated us we had to focus on the training. We tested out the maps we will be using. They are nothing like an os map. Mike O’Rouke’s pictorial guide to the river is more of a story than a map. In conjunction with page-turn alerts set on the GPs it worked well at keeping us aware of where we were.

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It’s made it obvious that the river is very low and very slow so it will be a struggle to hit the required timings. All of the feeder rivers are showing as extremely low on the government measuting site as well, so chances of going super fast after the lake are looking slim.

After paddling Dan researched how to deal with bears and we will be adopting the same approach that we use for swans on the Thames. Don’t get between them, talk to them and if they are attacking you fight back.

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Race planning 4: Feeding the team

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To paddle the canoe for 3 days and nights we need a lot of fuel. People suggest eating real food as much as possible, but laying out three courses is a little hard in a canoe, so all through the training we’ve been trying different options.

We started off trying some foods that we thought we’d really like whilst paddling. Meatballs and pasta was good, paella was bad. Sausage rolls got the vote, so did Spanish omelette. Roasted Mediterranean veg sort of worked, but not with rice. gnocchi just didn’t work. We read up on some sporting fitness websites and found that chicken, avocado and cashew wraps made the grade.

Sarah’s done the race before and tells that on the final day you don’t want to eat. We thought cooking something fresh might be good. On a few trips we tried cooking dried tortellini and frankfurters, which went down very nicely but worried us that would also have called all the bears to the yard if we tried it in their territory.

We’ve also looked at keeping energy and warmth as we stop wanting to eat. We have instant porridge, and cafe latte protein drinks as fallbacks. We,of course, have a huge bag of cereal bars.

Looking at sweet stuff. My brownies just didn’t work, they were just boring, flat cake. But maple syrup flapjacks made everyone happy and they will be even better when I cook them right. Our back up is oatmeal cookies. I know the USA does them better than the UK, and I’m hoping Canada is the same.

Meal planning

using 1 meal bag every three hours – minimum 300 kcal per meal

Start to Carmacks

Meals before Carmacks: 8 meals (plus snacks: bananas + brownies)

  1. Avo wraps
  2. tortilla
  3. tortilla
  4. pasta meatballs
  5. pasta meatballs
  6. Steamed broccoli and mange tout + eggs
  7. sausage rolls

Backup food: Tortellini and frankfurters

Carmacks break

We meet support crew with supplies (in cool-bag with ice blocks)

burgers and drinks on site to buy

Carmacks to Kirkman’s Creek

Meals before Kirkman’s Creek: 6 meals (plus snacks: Flapjacks + apples)

  1. Roasted carrots and sweet pots and eggs
  2. Sausage rolls
  3. Tuna + roast med veg + pots
  4. Quiche
  5. Meatballs + pasta
  6. Baked goods

Kirkman’s Creek break

soup and sandwich provided for break

Bring food to do food prep + use small bakery on site

Kirkman’s Creek to Dawson

Meals before end: 5 meals (plus snacks: biscuits and snickers + sweets)

  1. fresh baked goods
  2. Tortellini and frankfurters
  3. Tortellini and frankfurters
  4. sandwiches (tinned pate)
  5. sandwiches (peanut butter)
  6. carrots washed and dried
  7. shakes / supplements

Sarah: a windy weekend in Norfolk?

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A bank holiday fell at the end of May, meaning a 3 day weekend. We love our bank holidays, time to relax, catch up at home, laze around. We wish. We took advantage of the long weekend by going to Norfolk looking to practice in winds on the Broads.
It had been been a hectic week, I went to Jersey for 2 days for work and Dan spent most of the week in Belgium so getting ready for a 3 day trip away was in itself a challenge – we rose to it and were safely on the train.

We arrived in Hoveton and Wroxham, walked the kit to the river. I went to the supermarket for supplies, whilst Dan built the boat. The put-on is right in town with plenty of space waterfowl to keep an eye on us.

We headed east along the river Bure and north on the River Ant, gaining a opposing tide as we went downriver. Crossing Barton Broad and on up to Nettishead, where we were staying.  On the way I spotted an otter on quite a busy stretch of the Bure but once again my ‘otter, otter, otter’ warning wasn’t quick enough for Dan to spot it.

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It was good to be on a completely different bit of water. but we didn’t get the wind we planned for. Barton Broad, which we remember as a huge sea-like bit of water, has shrunk. It used to take forever to cross – now its about 10 minutes. No comparison to Lake Laberge.

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Day 2 started off by walking the boat back to the river, then a paddle across the broad. We were going north, further along the Ant, heading to an old canal that can no longer be accessed by motorised boats. A lovely piece of water to paddle. Testing the steering as opposed to the speed. When we reached a derelict lock we stopped to practice our cooking. This time gnocchi and frankfurters. It’s never going to go down as a culinary delight but it was warm fuel.

On the way back we stopped to deal with team issues, having a good long chat about communication and what we need to do to complete the race successfully.

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On Sunday we needed to paddle back to the train station and we played with speed and effort. Using the new GPS to track ourselves. Working against the tide most of the way we were banking on it taking us 5 hours, but we were faster even with breaks arriving in 4 hours. In celebration of that we shared a tray of chips before putting the boat away!

We have worked out that lots of little breaks mean that we can keep going strong. Its a key thing to remember: during the race, with the speed of the water, when we take a little break we will just keep on drifting down the river.

We both had unhappy bits of shoulder, neck, and arm and we wonder if the unforgiving nature of the carbon paddles is creating this – wood bends and absorbs the impact, carbon fibre doesn’t. We have one trip left now before we leave the UK and we are taking wooden paddles to see if it’s easier on the muscles. There is a fair bit of organisational stuff to get finished and both of us have work trips away from London so we expect a busy few weeks. It will be worth it.

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Race planning 3: Trying the boat out for size

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Yesterday evening we headed out to the London Regatta Centre at Royal Albert Dock to get a final paddle in.

Some lovely people on Song of the Paddle had helped us get in contact with a Londoner who had a Jensen 18 – a boat very much like the one we’ll paddle in the race. We wanted to have a sit in it, to see how it paddled. And more importantly we wanted to see how fast we would go in it – to get confidence that the can hit the right times in the race.

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It’s an interesting piece of water – long and straight – which means the wind can get up. It’s also the location for London City Airport so communication was a bit a challenge as we tried out first run into the wind. First run was a short there and back. Ironing out the wobbles and getting the steering working. We took a longer second run. A  mile into the wind and a mile back with the wind behind us. How did we do?

upwind: 3.8 mph

downwind: 5 mph

This isn’t bad – and suggests that we can be hitting a speed of 3.3 on the lake, even with some wind. getting a paddling speed of 4 mph (plus 2 mph from the flow) down the river before the lake still could be a challenge, but that’s the point of a race, right? Loads of thanks to Peter from Stylo Sports for letting us borrow the boat.  Thanks to Lennart, and Greg for getting us in contact.

Why we are doing this…

Sarah and Dan are training to paddle in the Yukon River Quest – that’s 440 miles, non-stop in a canoe. We are doing this to learn how we can make it work, and to raise a little money on the way.

We are proud to be raising money for Shadwell Basin Outdoor Activity Centre. The basin uses adventurous activities to grow confidence, teamwork, leadership and learning. Working in one most deprived areas of the UK, this work is essential, and their aim is to offer activities to the whole of the local community. They are a front-line charity and all money raised will be going to directly help the centre.

Don’t sponsor us to be strong, sponsor us to stay the journey. To learn to spend four days and nights moving an 18ft boat through lakes, river and rapids, errors and complications without wanting to kill each other.

Do please sponsor us, you might get a postcard from the finish line! If you have already, we may be in contact soon for a postal address

Race planning part 2: Can we make the critical checkpoints in time?

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Beyond the journey plan, we wanted to take a closer look at our timings to find out how realistic they were. There’s two reasons for this.

There are 3 critical checkpoints that if we don’t make we don’t get to continue the race. Also our food and clothes change stops rely on us running to the clock. if we deviate too much we’ll need to adjust what we do where to be sure we don’t get unexpectedly cold and exhausted.

Turns out that it’s much harder to hit this first checkpoint than we expected. Based on our current timings we won’t make it in time. This is bad news. Let me tell you how we worked it out and what we are going to do about it

How fast do we paddle?

Using a GPS device has been a revelation. I bought it so I could avoid getting lost once we are in the race – turns out it’s much more useful.Whilst paddling I can get live feedback on the speed we are going, when I get back home I can look at the same data in larger chunks – to see our average speed for different sections of a trip.

This has allowed me to work out what speeds we do with different conditions and with different paddles and postures. Such as paddling the broads against the tide and on flat water and returning to wooden paddles.

How fast is the water?

From our training we’ve got an idea of how fast we can go. We are paddling on a fast flowing river for big sections of the race – so we can add that together. But how fast?

We got some potential river speeds from a number of sources. I found some on-line and I used previous racer times to verify those – subtracting time on the lake from the other sections.

We can see that the river starts slow before the lake, and afterwards speeds on up quite a bit. We used two different river speeds in the model.

Pulling it together – and getting the bad news

race time map Once we had the river speed, our paddling speeds, I could combine it all. ‘Course, I have no data for what we’ll do in a sustained race, so I did some modelling to see what the window of success looks like.

The data suggested that we weren’t far off but at our current speeds (3.5 flat, 3.0 against wind) we’d miss the first check-point. We can see that on the run up to the lake we’d need to paddle a solid 4 mph, and on the lake make 3.3 mph no matter the conditions.

We suspect that our beloved PakBoat has a top speed much lower than the 18 ft racing canoe we are going to be in. We’ve asked around and people agree that we should be able to get it up to 4-5 mph easy. Though the lovely Song Of The Paddle and canoeing networks, we’ve found someone local who has a 18ft Jensen. Next week we can give it a go and see what speeds we can hit!

Race planning part 1: What happens where and when?

The race is getting close now, we’ve finished our last training paddle (blogs to come), but we need to put all that experimenting into perspective and look at the race and how we’ll get to the end.

Though Sarah takes the pragmatic view – dealing with things as they come, I take more of a long view.

Building the big picture

A few weeks ago, we sat down with the Yukon River Quest presentation, I put the GPS co-ords they provide on to google maps and we wrote down all the points. Each place where there will a checkpoint or a monitoring point. We added in the most interesting points on the river: rapids and big rivers joining, and highlighted the the three points where we get time-checked and the place we’ll meet our support crew for new supplies.

From the mileages on the GPS points, Sarah worked out rough timings when we thought we’d be at each one and we laid all this out in the front room.

yukon plan

From this we could work out how much food we’d need and when. We also worked out what points we’ll want to change into day and night gear. The race people say most people drop out of the race out due to hyperthermia, fuel and the right clothing will help us to avoid this.

This has allowed us to look at the food we’ve tried out over the training races and build up a list of what supplies we’ll need – we’ll be blogging about this next. More importantly we now have a shared view of the race and what should happen when.

Sarah: An easy day north of Oxford?

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We are planning and sustaining our training and using each paddle to learn new things. Dan is concentrating on his posture to stop everything hurting. We also want to try out new foods and to get used to the GPS we have bought. We also learnt some new rescue techniques we didn’t expect.

At Pool Meadow, north of Oxford there is a good car park and it’s easy to get onto the water. It doesn’t take a lot of planning so we were on the water around 9.30am having reconstructed Dan’s footrest.

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I hadn’t realised, until now that north of Kings Lock, all of the locks on the Thames are hand wind. The lockies are all very friendly, and where there were away the locks were surprisingly easy to operate. With egg and salad cream batches and Dan’s brownies all cut up into chunks the short waits weren’t a problem.

Dan had placed some markers into the GPS so we can see how that works. It, the GPS, not Dan, makes a funny tweeting bird noise when you reach an area you have set an alarm for. I could hear just about every other bird song being sung that day but with the GPS in Dan’s buoyancy aid pocket I could not hear it.

We were paddling hard against the wind, all ears open for a tweeting GPS. When I heard the distinctive cry of distressed sheep coming from a hawthorn bush over the water. Here was a tired lamb in the water, getting more and more caught up in branches. Lamb rescue begins. I paddle Dan into the hawthorn bush with instructions to pick up the lamb. I have a little experience with sheep, having helped to show some Portlands. Dan asks how to pick it up and I answer like a rabbit. This is not helpful for someone who has never spent a lot of time with rabbits. In the end we reverse, I turn round and Dan paddles me in after the lamb. After some encouragement it comes within grabbing distance and I grab it and heft it into the boat. I now have a lamb and a large puddle at my end of the boat. I am concerned by this one as he is not baa-ing. Dan takes him to reintroduce him to his family. I think he is just taking it slowly, no, Dan is now lying on the edge of the field, holding onto another lamb in the Thames.

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Lamb rescue no 2 is in progress. After I finally realise what is going on, I paddle down to where Dan is holding the lamb above water and help to heft this one onto the bank. This one is a lot livelier and goes trotting round, then finds a ewe he seems to think is mum.

No 1 is still looking abandoned so I head over to it to give it a warming rub. There was no farmhouse close so I am hoping that he warmed up and found mum.

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This was a surprisingly tiring process, bending and lifting in unexpected ways and an unexpected injection of adrenaline. However with all lambs now out of the water we set off again.

The river as we travel up river is a lot narrower and a lot quieter than the stretch below. We were getting quite blown about but with the river being so quiet we could work with the wind and let it decide where on the river we were going to be, saving energy.

With the wind and delays we didn’t quite get as far up the river as we wanted to but we were not far off. Be hit our time limits and it was time to turn around.

On the way back we came across yet another lamb in the river so rescue no 3 was commenced. This was much quicker as we were practised and this time the lamb simply shook itself off and continued as it had before.

Is it wrong to spend the day rescuing lambs from the river and then have lamb with dinner? I think not. I can’t paddle by while a living thing drowns and while I enjoy my meat, I want it to have been looked after humanely and had a happy life. My mums friends have smallholdings and value the animal’s well being (even letting them out for a walk: Colin the Ostrich is one of theirs). I am glad now that they let me handle them.

We enjoyed our paddle and worked well together, having fun. The team were tired by the end but a good tired. If only all paddles could be like this, without the sheep.

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