Kayaking Across a Continent for a Cause
Photo by KEEN fan @annablackwell; kayaking a French canal.
By KEEN Fan Anna Blackwell
Trying to act as if I knew exactly what I was doing, I lowered myself into our tandem kayak. This was easier said than done; the wash from passing boats created waves that repeatedly smashed against the wall, doing their best to take us with them. Once we were both seated securely, we pushed away from the wall and into a safer zone.
Now bobbing gently with the movement of the water, I was able to take a moment to survey what was going on around me. A small, cheering crowd lined the South Bank footpath, overflowing onto Westminster Bridge above us. On the other side of the river, Big Ben hid behind his cloak of scaffolding. This was it; the day had finally come. Our expedition was about to begin.
Anna Blackwell and Kate Culverwell set out on a 4,000km journey to the Black Sea to raise money for Pancreatic Cancer Action in memory of Kate's father. While paddling, they also collected data to contribute to the research of FreshWater Watch, an Earthwatch research project investigating the health of global freshwater ecosystems.
Itching to Explore
Six months earlier I had stumbled upon an advert; a girl named Kate was seeking someone to go on a world’s first kayaking expedition with her: paddling from London to the Black Sea in Romania. As an adventurer with itchy feet, I was captivated by the prospect. After discovering that Kate had been five years below me at school—and that we still lived a few miles away from each other—we officially formed our team of two.
We had a big challenge ahead of us to get everything in order before we left from London: training, brushing up on kayaking skills, finding a kayak, funding and sponsorship—not to mention really getting to know the person we were embarking on a 4,000km journey with. Somehow, by our departure date of April 21st, we were ready to go—raring to go, in fact. Through the process of preparing for the expedition, we had already formed a close friendship and we were looking forward to really getting into the flow of expedition life.
The paddle out of London down the Thames flew by in a blur of blue skies and tailwinds, which sadly left us as we reached the Kent Coast. Here, we were pushed to our limits as we battled gale-force headwinds, big waves, and poor visibility.
After successfully making it 'round the cliffs to Folkestone, we faced what is often assumed to be the biggest single challenge of the expedition: crossing the English Channel. However, we had to wait for a week for gale-force winds to die down, and on the morning we paddled out of Folkestone Harbour, the sea was silky smooth, barely a breath of wind in the air. The horizon—and France—were hidden behind an early morning pink haze. Five and a half hours of problem-free paddling later and we made it to France.
Crossing the English Channel.
During the first few months of our expedition, Kate and I were confined to small industrial rivers and canals across Northern France and Belgium. The scenery around us left a lot to be desired; on the rare occasions that we could see over the manmade banks, our gaze would fall upon factories or vast container yards. We shared the waterways with intimidating shipping barges and hours of each day was taken up with the process of hauling our kayak and equipment out of the water, onto the bank, and around the countless locks we faced.
Into the Calm
It was a relief to leave these canals and rivers behind us as we approached Germany. We now spent our time surrounded by holidaymakers on smart yachts as we paddled through the many picturesque villages and towns. We quickly discovered that the people here were incredibly hospitable and generous: in our final few weeks in France, on an almost daily basis we were invited onboard various boats for drinks, dinners, showers—even afternoon tea and cake.
France. (And a great #shoeselfie of her KEEN Clearwater CNX sandals.)
This kindness continued throughout our journey as we progressed onto bigger rivers and eventually the Danube. Before setting off, Kate and I had regularly politely listened to people preaching their fears surrounding our safety and vulnerability, an air of disbelief hanging in the air whenever I mentioned that we would be wild camping. They seemed particularly concerned about the types of people we might run into.
They saw our vulnerability and took it as an opportunity to show us just how much kindness there is in the world.
It was little surprise to me that we didn’t encounter any problems with people, bar having a set of wheels stolen while we were staying in a family-run campsite in Belgium. Rather than constantly being seen as an easy target, we discovered that the majority of people we encountered welcomed the opportunity to go out of their way to support us in some way. They saw our vulnerability and took it as an opportunity to show us just how much kindness there is in the world.
Camping on the Danube.
Lessons of the River
Over the five months of the expedition, it was the people that we met that very quickly became one of the highlights. It gave me such pleasure to be able to return home to share that we had met many people—and not only had they not robbed us, they had been wonderful, welcoming us to join them for a meal or a drink.
...one of the aspects I valued the most was being able to spend five months outside...we pitched our tents on isolated sandy beaches and islands on the river and watched the sunset and sunrise while we ate our meals...
Aside from the people we were lucky enough to meet throughout this adventure, one of the aspects I valued the most was being able to spend five months outside, surrounded by some truly fantastic scenery and landscape. Thanks to the glorious weather we had for so much of the expedition, we were able to enjoy lunchtime and evening swims surrounded by forested mountains or vast, empty spaces. We pitched our tents on isolated sandy beaches and islands on the river and watched the sunset and sunrise while we ate our meals, a fire sometimes crackling away nearby.
Camping on the Rhine.
By the time we reached the Black Sea 150 days after leaving London, Kate and I weren’t ready to finish our journey. We had grown so accustomed to the wonderful unpredictability of this life that the thought of parting with it was heart breaking. Neither of us knew exactly how to feel, but one thing we did know for sure was that we couldn’t begin to imagine taking this expedition on with anyone but each other. The friendship and closeness that we had developed was without a doubt the thing that made the whole experience such a genuine joy and success.
Dinner on the Rhine.
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