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Thread: The Ulster Canoe Festival

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    Default The Ulster Canoe Festival

    The weekend before last was the Ulster Canoe Festival, an open canoe specific weekend in its second year I believe. For much of the year, Big Al and others have been dropping hints about getting me to book some flights and make my way over there, and I was most happy to oblige. They also worked on MarkL, so I knew to pack my drinking head too.

    With the luxury of time on my hands, I chose Friday morning and Monday evening flights, further imposing upon my hosts hospitality. It seemed a whole troop of people had been mobilised to look after Mark and myself, with lifts, boats, camping gear and company.

    Landing at Belfast City after a great flight from Southampton in a clockwork plane, complete with views of Strangford Lough and the Copeland Islands, it was literally 10 minutes from touchdown to collection by my first Tour Guide.





    Mr Nick had made himself easily recognisable by wearing a 15’ Green object on top of his taxi, a kind thought that was far more useful than a “For Hire” sign. It’s the little things that make a guest enjoy a visit. My driver proceeded to show me around the bustling city of Belfast, the huge cranes of Harland and Wolff, the ancient university, and the impressive University buildings. The tour was completed by an impromptu visit to the infamous Falls Road, caused by a slight error in direction…

    Soon, though, we were headed north towards Antrim and Loch Neagh. Unusually, my tour was regularly interrupted by stops to peer over bridge parapets at water, something the usual Tourist is no doubt denied. Once again, I had been made to feel extra special. After driving down a long track from the road, during which some small dogs attempted to eat the taxi, we arrived at a river which we’d been following for ages and which, being over 25 miles long, is known as the Six Mile Water. Here, after inspecting a weir, it was announced that I would be cast afloat at this point, and collected later. I had no idea of where I was, where I was going, how far it would be, or how long it would take, so I agreed instantly. For the day was grand, the river looked enticing, and the kindness of a man I had only just met could not be turned down. Or he might take me back to the Falls Road.

    I was handed canoe, buoyancy aid and paddle, and offered food. Below the weir was an excellent launch platform, one of many that the rivers here are equipped with, and from which I launched into the flow.






    Below was a series of huge rapids. One of them was nearly 6 inches tall.









    Somehow I survived this raging cascade, and drifted downstream. I had now entered a rural idyll, where cows lowed in an Irish accent, and the banks were, of course, an emerald green.









    Occasionally the flow increased a little, and became quite shallow, but there were no points at which I was in danger of running aground.






    A town appeared ahead. I checked on Google Maps on my phone. Oh, this is Antrim. I’ve heard of Antrim.






    An ancient bridge marks the site of a Famous Rescue by some of mine hosts, but today the river was benign.









    Beyond, the Castle walls were now overgrown and pleasant, lying in a peaceful parkland.









    Shortly afterwards another bridge was reflected perfectly in the waters below.






    Now, I needed to maintain my reputation, so at this point I deployed my secret weapon, my Radio Controlled Heron. As it is difficult to fit this into my cabin bag when flying, I have had to fit a tracking device that ensures it can follow my flight at a discreet distance, taking advantage of the slipstream of my Q400 Dash8.









    I had been warned to look out for a line of boats at mooring just before the Six Mile Water enters Loch Neagh. As I approached these boats, some strange gateways loomed above me, the site of a former Military establishment.









    I had been warned not to overshoot the take out at a slipway. There was no chance of this, the Lough was like the North Atlantic in a winter storm.






    I landed and managed not to fall over on the slippery slope, and forced my Tour Guide to stand to attention.






    Here, we were to meet the other Guest of Honour and his own Tour Guide, MarkL and Big Al. Our timing was perfect, and a car and trailer full of green canoes pulled in just as we got out. More evidence of a slick operation on the part of our Tour Guides. Further evidence of this was the immediate suggestion of lunch, which was most certainly not refused.



    Later we journeyed further north along the Banks of the Bann, once more stopping to peer over parapets to see if the water levels were enough to clear the submerged shopping trolleys. After an hour or so’s drive, we arrived at our Holiday Resort, on the river’s green banks at Kilrea. This appeared to be a closed down hotel, Portneal Lodge.


    This was to be the site of the Ulster Canoe Festival, the whole reason for our visit. Pretty much the whole open canoeing community of Northern Ireland was going to arrive in the next few hours, along with guests from both sides of The Puddle. However, Mark and I felt extra special. Knowing that we were now Expert Wilderness Travellers, the organiser, the genial Gareth, had arranged for all mod-cons to be removed from the former hotel, to ensure that we felt as much at home as possible. As a final touch, Thieving Barstewards had been deployed to steal some of the plumbing, so that no water was available on site other than from a yellow pipe poked through a hedge, and blue Turdis toilets had been installed, the closest thing available to mimic the rustic facilities we had become used to on our Scandinavian tours. I was offered the choice of either an excellent quality VauDe tent, or the floor in one of the rooms down gloomy corridors that reminded me somewhat of The Shining. I chose the tent, and my Tour Guide set up next door. Mark was offered his choice of a whole woodland to string his hammock, as long as he didn’t mind having to fight through nettles every time he wanted to head for bed.


















    As afternoon turned to evening, many other folk started to arrive, and the place soon had a thriving, happy, atmosphere.











    At some point, a posse was gathered together and we headed off into the village to trap some Guinness and some nosh. The rather posh looking Golf Club, complete with elaborate dining room, surprised us not laughing at the state of us and turning us away, and a great meal was had. Later, Big Al had arranged further entertainment by handing me his son’s guitar and pressing me into service with a small group of musicians, namely Cherrie and himself. Fortunately there was enough alcohol around for me not to be too overwhelmed by the thought of playing and singing folk music to an Irish audience. Also fortunately, the audience weren’t too fussy…


    When signing up for the weekend, we had been offered the choice of numerous courses, trips, activities etc to join during the weekend. Having plumped just for the river trip, I found that Gareth had just decided to lump Mark, Nick, Al and myself together as a group, presumably so he could keep a close eye on where we were. He’d signed us up to other things as well as those we’d plumped for, which turned out to work really well. So, when Saturday dawned, a tad damply, we were planning for a 9.30 meet up by the Lower Bann a few yards from our tents, for a journey downstream. As we waited by the pontoon for the car shuttle to return, another group was out on the water with a coach already.









    Soon we were on the water, ready to head off downstream. We’d be guided today by Keith, our next Tour Guide, who would give us some excellent pointers on the history, natural and human, of the river and its banks. To the core team of Al, Nick and myself, Roger and Andy joined us for the day, balancing the English-Irish equation. We made our way northwards, flow behind us but wind in our faces, stopping periodically to learn some new interesting fact or other. The weather was, shall we say, mixed. Rain mixed with showers, that is.



























    I have to say, despite the rain, the Lower Bann was proving to be a very pleasant river. A similar size to the inland Thames, and with a similar modest flow, it was a lovely rural place to paddle. Our only problem was a fairly strong headwind, but most of the time we could avoid the worst of this by hugging one bank or the other.









    The Lower Bann is a navigation, complete with locks and weirs to manage the water levels. At Movanagher, a weir blocks the river, and a long “cut” heads off on the right to the lock.















    This seemed like a good spot for lunch, and the Tour Guides had provided umbrellas to sit under on a picnic bench. Almost immediately, the sun came out at last, so umbrellas became parasols.

    In theory, this was about halfway to our finish further downstream, to where the vehicles had been shuttled. However, with several more locks ahead, more rain coming, and the wind in our faces, we decided instead to return to the start with the wind behind us. As the sun warmed us, the team prostrated themselves before the mighty Ra.






    Half of the team decided to deploy their not-so-secret weapons, and sails of various designs sprang from Al, Nick and Andy’s boats. Roger and I simply paddled steadily onwards, while they faffed.









    Naturally, Roger and I easily kept up with the sailors.









    Some went to inspect the weir, for future reference. NOPE!






    I found myself a fair way ahead of the sailing fleet, who’d all been messing about. Still, it was a pleasant paddle now the sun had found us.






    It wasn’t until just before the finish that the sailors finally caught me up…





















    In the end, they beat me by about 2 minutes.

    Having finished early, it was time to wander around and see what else was going on. There was a campfire food demonstration going on under a parachute. We’d watched this “tarp” go up with interest earlier, trying to work out why the chap, Mark, was throwing hammers into trees. (Weighted line) Obviously none of us chuckled when the hammer got stuck…fortunately it was retrieved with a few risky tugs. Elsewhere, there were canoes all over the place















    Greg was on the water giving a little instruction into “American Freestyle” paddling. He should have dressed as Uncle Sam.


















    The showers came and went, but did little to dampen spirits. Fortunately, they stayed away during the ritual food queuing session. Here Gareth shouted “Look, Elvis” in an attempt to distract everybody and sneak to the front.






    Burgers with the works were the order of the day.






    A little later on, the evening festivities commenced. Well, the official part, the unofficial bits was well under way already. We were treated to a talk by Colin Skeath on the amazing “Canoe around Britain” (http://www.canoearoundbritain.com/) journey he and Davis Gould-Duff had undertaken, finishing just a few weeks earlier. A fascinating insight.






    Afterwards, it went downhill rapidly, a small fire provided by our Tour Guides keeping Mark and myself, amongst others, warm, and an early night that nearly happened about half ten, didn’t.


    (Continued)
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  2. #2
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    Default Sunday

    On Sunday, we’d been sneakily signed up onto a whitewater skills session. Given I didn’t have either dry suit of helmet, I was unsure as to whether I’d bother, but having discussed the venue with Keith it was clear that I could do as much or as little as I wanted and we would be basically practicing skills in flow below a weir. I was in. Hopefully I wouldn’t be “in” later on.


    We drove downstream towards Coleraine, where the tidal limit of the Bann is marked by a modified rock weir at The Cutts. Roger, Nick and Al would make up the rest of Keith’s victims, so I knew I would be looked after by all my Tour Guide team. Mark, still slightly broken from injury in Norway, chose to stay closer to home.

    We put in easily just a short distance downstream of The Cutts, and paddled up. Basically, the natural rocky weir has been built upon with 5 “piers” in the main flow, and a big drop weir on river left which was thankfully full closed. With the flow coming down the various channels, and with rocks in the water below, plenty of flow lines, eddies and bouncy bits form. What’s also good is that, as the tide drops, the river changes character so its slightly different every time you cross the flow.









    The order of the day was basically ferry gliding. Keith, with an excellent understated style, explained what he’d like us to try, starting off with simply ferry gliding across in whatever way we fancied, whilst he watched.















    Over the next hour or two, we travelled back and forth across the flow many times, each time being asked to try something new. Particular attention was focussed on paddling on the upstream side, on trim, and on steering at the front to maintain power.










    We had an audience, who seemed to want to join in.









    Of course, this wasn’t just work, there was plenty of fun and banter too. Perhaps the most entertaining, but also educational, part was being asked to paddle across the flow with our eyes shut. Enlightening, strangely enough!!! No photos, strangely enough too!






    Eventually, we were all knackered, and gather to return to the cars and lunch.









    I’d really enjoyed this session, and there are numerous new things to keep in my head and practice next time I’m out on moving water. A leisurely lunch coincided with a dry spell, which brought to our attention that none of us had really noticed it was raining whilst we were playing.


    We returned to base. Technically, Gareth had booked us on another session that afternoon, but I was going to pass on that one, and in the end it had been merged into another group whilst we were out. Instead, I wandered camp, watched a journeying skills workshop and sank in the growing quagmire.


















    Wandering about with Roger, Al’s butler, we came across some pyromaniacs in the woods. Two teams were being encouraged to start fires on a path, with a bit of twine suspended above. The first to burn through the twine would win.
























    Eventually, one team succeeded. An entertaining way of finding out what natural materials burn fastest and hottest.


    And that was pretty much it, for the Ulster Canoe Festival itself. As the rain came down once more, people were starting to pack up and go.






    This had been a superb event, and exceedingly good value at just £45. OK, the accommodation was basic, but there were loads of workshops and trips on offer, both on and off the water, and with support from Hou Canoes and Downcreek Paddles , plenty of boats and paddles to try out too. Most of all, though, the welcome and the friendliness of every single person stood out.


    Next year’s venue is to be on the banks of Lough Earne, which sounds wonderful. I will certainly do my best to be there again. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for details in due course.


    For myself, I now imposed myself upon my Tour Guides once more, specifically Big Al. We’d thought originally of staying another night, but the idea of camping in the swamp, at this run down old hotel, on our own was not particularly appealing. My Tour Guide therefore roped in his family to help, booking us rooms at his dad’s place in Ballyrobert, from where we had an excellent meal in a local pub.


    My last day was spent with a little more Tourist Guiding, heading to Al and Sylvia’s place in Bangor, visiting Tour Guide Mr Nick’s house-with-a-view in Newtownards, and a final superb meal in a pub by the sea at Holywood before being dropped off at my pedal-powered-plane once again.



    Huge thanks to Tour Guides Big Al and Mr Nick especially, for going beyond the call of duty to make my life easy, to lend canoes and gear, and to provide genial entertainment throughout.
    Thanks also to Gareth and John for making the thing happen in the first place, backed up by the Hou Canoes team and Downcreek Jude.
    Good to spend time, as always, with old friends, Mark, Greg, Roger etc, and to make many new friends.


    Sláinte
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    Nice blogg sir, as usual!

    I'm sure I had a pair of these underpants when I was a lad...

    Cheers,

    Alan


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    Quote Originally Posted by Chainsaw View Post
    Nice blogg sir, as usual!

    I'm sure I had a pair of these underpants when I was a lad...

    Chuckle. That's pretty much exactly what Big Al said to Mr Nick...
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chainsaw View Post
    Nice blogg sir, as usual!

    I'm sure I had a pair of these underpants when I was a lad...

    Known locally as Mr Nick's "Lucky Knickers" they only come out on special occasions. But you can be sure to see him "arseing" about with them when the wind blows.

    Thanks Mal for a cracking record of what turned out to be a fantastic weekend. Somehow I actually think all that rain added something to the event, (and I don't just mean the mud). It brought out the best in all the people that were there. It was a pleasure to have you guys over with us, and you are more than welcome anytime.

    As for next year, it's at the Share Discovery Village in Fermanagh and you can be sure of running water, running Guinness and if you so wish, there will even be onsite accommodation with hot showers. But you will probably find me hanging about in the trees again.

    Thanks must also go to Gareth Mahood and John McClean for their organisation of this event each year, it really is turning into one "not to be missed".

    If I can pick out a few pics to add anything to this, I will do so this evening. But it certainly brightened up my dismal Monday lunchtime. Thanks Mal.
    Big Al.

    Only when the last tree has died
    and the last river been poisoned
    and the last fish been caught
    will we realise we cannot eat money.
    ~Cree Indian Proverb

  6. #6

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    Awesome blog Mal, very sorry I wasn't able to join you guys, seems like I missed a fantastic weekend.

    The pub with a sea view in Holywood wasn't the Durty Duck was it? Good for you if it was...

    Stefan

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    This looks like a great event. Might well be tempted to attend next year.

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    Quote Originally Posted by spynappels View Post
    Awesome blog Mal, very sorry I wasn't able to join you guys, seems like I missed a fantastic weekend.

    The pub with a sea view in Holywood wasn't the Durty Duck was it? Good for you if it was...

    Stefan
    It was indeed! A regular haunt of Big Al and family. Nice pint, fabulous duck.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Big Al. View Post

    If I can pick out a few pics to add anything to this, I will do so this evening. But it certainly brightened up my dismal Monday lunchtime. Thanks Mal.
    Cheers Al. Yes, please add whatever you've got, always good to see others' view.


    Quote Originally Posted by Bananaboat View Post
    This looks like a great event. Might well be tempted to attend next year.
    Do it!
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    Looks a cracking weekend away
    Cheers
    Tim


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    Looks great.

    One year ...

    Here comes the future and you can't run from it
    If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it


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    Great blog, looks like you all had a great time. I hope you lot didn't hold up the Downcreek Paddle bods for too long. They're supposed to be making me a couple of paddles and I'm waiting like a kid before Christmas!

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    Mal gave a very good account of things so far, so here are a few of my photos from the event.

    The road to my humble abode.



    My home for the weekend.



    Mal had pitched the tent near the exit from the camping field, and then we pitched the tarp close by. It provided a social area for us later on.



    The camping area started to fill up with more tents.





    Once we had all signed in and more people arrived, thoughts turned to food and beer.
    I went online and made a few calls to the local establishments, then booked us a table up the road in the local golf club.

    It was a short walk in the rain and the craic was mighty.



    On Saturday we set off in the rain, to paddle downstream to Drumaheglis, but the headwind made it tough going in places. We got as far as Movanagher and stopped for lunch. Some of us decided to turn back and make use of the wind to sail back.
    It really was quite a pleasant trip.

    Roger got to try out one of Jude's Downcreek bent shaft paddles. (we had a selection with us and we swapped and tried different ones)



    Whilst the sailors weren't going any faster than the paddlers, it certainly was a lot less effort.



    I have to say that the food this year was not up to the standard of the previous year, but there seemed enough to go round. After eating we all settled down in the "bar with no beer" (possibly the only one in Ireland), to enjoy a really good presentation from Colin Skeath about their "Round Britain Canoe trip".
    At least we had a roof over our heads, electric and a projector and screen that worked well. What else do you need really, as we'd all brought enough booze to keep us lubricated.



    Sunday morning was an early start to catch the high tide at the Cutts.
    But everyone was bright and breezy and on the water pretty sharpish.

    Mal was right at home in my SP3, and seemed to handle it without any problems.





    Mr Nick was enjoying the flow too.





    And Roger was out there in the thick of it, having fun.



    We finished our paddle in glorious sunshine, had lunch at the picnic table and then packed up and went back to Kilrea.

    Roger and Nick at the finish.

    Big Al.

    Only when the last tree has died
    and the last river been poisoned
    and the last fish been caught
    will we realise we cannot eat money.
    ~Cree Indian Proverb

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    Ulster Canoe Festival

    Thanks Mal for posting a great report on our Festival. Excellent pictures as usual.
    It was good to meet yourself and Mark.

    It was the wettest weekend, but once the drysuit was on, let it rain. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the event in spite of the weather, as you say, it is the company that makes it.

    I did not take many pictures, here is a select few.

    DSCF7944

    DSCF7947

    DSCF7952

    DSCF7953

    DSCF7954

    Thanks again for your company and craic.

    Nick

    PS I pissed myself laughing at the comments on my Lucky Knickers !

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    That looked like a fun week-end with an impressively hospitable team. Great stuff.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tim View Post
    Looks a cracking weekend away
    Cheers Tim. No "cracking" of gunwhales in our trip, either...(Sorry!)


    Quote Originally Posted by Crow View Post
    Looks great.

    One year ...
    You'd love it over there.


    Quote Originally Posted by meirion View Post
    Great blog, looks like you all had a great time. I hope you lot didn't hold up the Downcreek Paddle bods for too long. They're supposed to be making me a couple of paddles and I'm waiting like a kid before Christmas!
    Well, its possible Jude was distracted for a few hours from paddle making, but I reckon he'll be up to the job.

    Just wait until that long, then box arrives, that's when the excitement gets too much...
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    Quote Originally Posted by Big Al. View Post
    Mal gave a very good account of things so far, so here are a few of my photos from the event.
    Cheers Al, good to see it from your viewpoint!


    Quote Originally Posted by Big Al. View Post
    Mal was right at home in my SP3, and seemed to handle it without any problems.


    There was a reason for perching on the yoke, honest, in case anybody was wondering...we'd been paddling heavily trimmed to the front whilst reverse ferrying, and my thighs were now knackered!


    Quote Originally Posted by Mr Nick View Post
    Ulster Canoe Festival

    Thanks Mal for posting a great report on our Festival. Excellent pictures as usual.
    It was good to meet yourself and Mark.



    DSCF7953

    Looks like I'd "lullabied" Al to sleep!!
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  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mal Grey View Post

    Looks like I'd "lullabied" Al to sleep!!
    This seems to be a common occurrence when I'm by a campfire and you are singing. You have a very soporific voice, although alcohol might play its part too.
    Big Al.

    Only when the last tree has died
    and the last river been poisoned
    and the last fish been caught
    will we realise we cannot eat money.
    ~Cree Indian Proverb

  19. #19
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    A great weekend despite the weather, the wife and I really enjoyed it!
    When we found we'd rocked up at a deserted hotel and had the option of camping in a room FOC I must admit we looked at the rain and went for it. Call us soft if you want, but to us it was a nobrainer. Driving the tent pegs in was a bit of a bugger to be sure.
    As we're new to the whole thing, and being accustomed to doing things on a budget,we knew that we would be the scruffiest and most ill-equipped outfit there. And we were right. That's our long scruffy green Indian (and as some unkind souls said: antique) canoe atop a small scruffy red car in your photo Mal. But she's served us well all summer, and continues to do so.
    We'd signed up for the rescue skills session, which obviously entails a certain amount of getting wet. However, when we booked back in August this didn't seem a problem, we'd already been for a few "swims" and just laughed, hauled ourselves out and got on with it. On the day it was different: wet before you even start and no sun to warm you up after a dunking. Marion quite sensibly put her foot down and said that no way was she deliberately exiting the canoe. I was still up for it but not looking forward to a brush with hyperthermia.
    Fortunately someone came to my rescue and offered a lend of his spare wetsuit. Everyone waited patiently while I rushed back and put it on.
    Unfortunately he was about 6'2" and I'm 5'8", so it wasn't exactly a snug fit. In fact it sagged that much around the waist that yet more unkind souls said that I looked like I was wearing a kayak skirt. I also put it on back to front apparently, although on this issue everyone was too polite to comment.
    Since when did they start putting zips on the back? In my earlier days of watersports (scuba) the zip was quite sensibly on the front, where you could get at it. Ah well, the wheel has obviously been reinvented and we must move with the times.
    The poor guy who lent the suit (sorry, I forget your name) ended up having to do a canoe over canoe rescue of mine, no mean feat given the sheer weight of it plus the sticky up Indian bits at each end. Fair play to him for managing it though; if you can rescue that you can rescue anything.
    A great weekend, thanks to all and, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, we'll be back!

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