Microadventure No.2 – A sunrise Ascent of the Afon Conwy
I hate early starts. My body, mind and spirit are suited to late nights and no sleep – being wrenched from my bed, sleeping bag or tent to go and do something in the wee small hours has never been my idea of fun.
This microadventure caused me stumble downstairs at 4am, pour myself into the car and set off for the coast, via a slight diversion to collect my friend Steve. I had packed my kit the night before but still there were the niggling questions in the back of my mind – did I put this or that in the barrel, did I actually load my PFD and boots or were they still hanging up in attempt to keep the damp out? The striking difference between my ability to pack for an expedition or a training course and my own packing is of constant wonder to my friends and instructors…
Steve is a relative newcomer to canoeing, but a few trips on the lakes, rivers and canals had put us in mind of attempting something a bit different – travelling the ‘wrong way’ on a river. Given that we had recently been experiencing some of the worst weather in the past 150yrs in North Wales it seemed wise to choose somewhere sheltered and where we would be unlikely to cause a nuisance to the rescue agencies… The tidal section of the Afon Conwy is a popular spot for ascents – using the flood of the tide to paddle against the normal flow of the river – and a bit of free time for us both coincided with a suitable tide one weekend in early January.
We launched from the slipway just south of the imposing Conwy Castle (SH 7853 7733) at 6:30am, about two hours before high tide. We were unsure of how far we could make it in my 17ft NovaCraft Prospector in that time, but we were happy with whatever distance we managed to cover before the waters ran downhill again. As well as the usual essential canoeing gear such as PFDs and spare clothing etc we carried a variety of powerful head torches and lamps – which were immediately required for the novel sport of buoy-avoidance. Although we kept close to the Western shore we were very aware of our presence on a large body of quietly powerful, moving water with unpredictable currents and unseen hazards. The twinkling amber lights from Conwy and Deganwy were a pleasant distraction, but our minds were almost entirely focused on what were doing and doing it properly.
Thirty minutes or so later our paddles struck bottom as we floated past the sandbank at Carreg Groes. A faint glow in the Southern sky betrayed the coming dawn, and the world began to fill up with that soft blue light that shows the shape, but not the colour of things. Torches off we pushed back into the main stream and just floated, listening to the birds, the wind and the water flowing past and under the boat. The temptation to sit there for longer was strong but we had an approaching deadline and a mission to accomplish. We put the paddles back to the water and pushed on.
As the light changed from blue to a purple we carried on past the road bridge at Tal y Cafn, shooting through the central span between concrete piers and disturbing one of a dozen or so herons we saw that morning. The river here was narrower, maybe 100m across (compared to the kilometre at the widest stretch we passed) and the flow had changed accordingly. We began to see the effects of the recent storm surges and high tides, with fences strewn with seaweed and reeds, plus the huge amount of plastic debris that seems to be ever-present on our beaches now. We were within 30 minutes of high tide now, and tempting as it was to push on as far as Dolgarrog we chose to make the turn around the yellow buoy just North of Canovium Roman Fort and put ashore on the nearest beach. This was just downstream from an idylic cottage, which looked to be as soundly asleep as its occupants no doubt were.
We took photos, poked around at the debirs littering the banks and the trees and watched the sky to the East change from blue to green to orange, looking for that glowing ball to give us some warmth and change the world beneath. However our reverie was disturbed by the dogs from the cottage tearing down the beach to greet us, barking their joy at seeing us (I assume…) and shattering the peace of the morning. We said our goodbyes, put back into the boat and drifted downstream to investigate a cave we had spotted on the way up (SH 7836 7103).
Breakfast beckoned, and we alighted onto a muddy bank under the cover of trees. Barrel was unloaded, stoves were lit and meals prepared. Regardless of how mundane the food may be I still get a tiny buzz of enjoyment from cooking on trips like these – something about the enforced reduction in pace or the fact you have to sit still and do something unexciting amidst all of the activity and movement either side of the meal…
We watched the water fall and moved the boat further up the bank accordingly. Alluvial mud began to creep its way into our lives, coating waterproofs, boots, paddles and boat as we moved about, repacking gear and relaunching into what was now a different river. A definite downhill flow had developed and we looked forward to an easy descent. Except the current this close to high tide was still rather sluggish, the wide waterway slowing any flow right down to a crawl. We still had to dig in to gain momentum, and the early start and previous hours of paddling began to drag up the old injuries of tennis elbow, bad shoulders and aching knees.
The passage back under the bridge was uneventful, and the only difference we noticed for most of the journey was an increase in visible bird life and the mud and sand banks gradually revealing themselves either side of us. We kept to the middle of the main channel and pushed on with a wind to our right and a gentle current behind us.
The final approach back to the town and harbour was as uneventful as the rest of the trip. The large buoys were easier to avoid in full daylight, and the only other item of note was an increase in wave height and frequency as the wind pushed along with the falling tide. Our heavy canoe pushed through the waves, barely noticing as the water began to make its presence known for once.
The Ascent of the Conwy is a classic North Wales inland journey, but great care needs to be taken in these tidal waters. We had gentle winds and clear weather and were glad of it, we had adequate equipment and experience and had notified people of our intentions. There is an excellent resource on the CanoeKayak.co.uk site, and there is an annual race/tour of the Conwy Ascent, further details of which can be found HERE.