Kayaking books

Recent weather in western Scotland has been conducive to pulling up a chair in front of the fire and reading a good book. I might argue that any weather is conducive to reading a good book, being that reading ranks up there with food, water and air in terms of necessary sustenance by my reckoning. Certainly, we’ve been a teeny bit averse to going out kayaking when wind speeds are reaching up to 80 mph, or temperatures are in the minuses, both of which have been the case lately. As much as I remain highly impressed with the performance of my drysuit, I feel it’s best to leave immersion trials in the more extreme temperatures to the good folks at Palm and their team of expert testers, of whom I am not one.

So, that brings us to a little interim vicarious pleasure in the form of reading about other people kayaking. As promised, I wanted to share my impressions of a few books I have read in recent times, and I would be happy to hear the thoughts of others who may also have read them. Here are 3 to get us going.

Hebridean Waves: Kayaking Scotland’s West Coast by Ewan Gillespie (unsurprisingly, from the title) chronicles the author’s journeys on the waters of the west coast of Scotland, including circumnavigations of Skye, Mull, Arran and Islay. This is definitely a book to read if you are planning to paddle in those vicinities: at the very least, it helps to encourage the realisation that you must be prepared for any conditions, and that a sustained period of good weather is very much a bonus. A somewhat flexible schedule (and attitude), as demonstrated by the author, is definitely of benefit. And, of course, decent paddling skills are also a must. It’s apparent that Mr Gillespie is no slouch when it comes to kayaking, nor is his companion, the oft-mentioned Andrea. The book efficiently documents the landscapes, the logistics, the difficulties and the pleasures of each trip and I would say it is very much a book for kayakers as opposed to just any old armchair adventurers. I personally would have liked to have learned a little more about the author, and indeed his companions, but maybe that’s just my nosiness natural inquisitiveness. Mr Gillespie revealed very little of himself – his personal life and feelings, and the answers to some pressing questions were left in doubt, such as what he does for a living, and whether or not he and Andrea are just good friends. Some may ask why this should matter, and indeed it need not. It would, however, add a certain element of “personality” (for want of a better word) to the narrative that I think would enhance its appeal. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading about the author’s travels and I shall return to this book particularly when planning a trip that corresponds with any of the areas described therein.

In contrast, On Celtic Tides by American author, Chris Duff, is much less reserved when it comes to the expression of personal sentiment. A quite intimate account of his circumnavigation of Ireland explores the author’s reactions to the landscape, heritage and people of Ireland, against a backdrop of ever-troubling snatches of news from the wider world. Mr Duff has no compunction about expressing his emotions, whether it relates to a particularly arduous section of paddling, the welcome hospitality of locals, a sense of his ancestry in some of the ancient sites, or bad news from abroad. It may be an especially American trait to appreciate and ponder one’s lineage, to feel “at home” when visiting a place of origin, but I was left with an improved awareness of how special it is to be able to visit such places, as yet unspoiled, and to take in the same landscapes that one’s forebears viewed. And of course, there’s plenty of kayaking involved. Having read the author’s account, let’s just say that I am in no particular rush to paddle in the vicinity of the Giant’s Causeway. Other than that, this is one book that would certainly motivate the weekend kayaker into considering something a little more expeditionary, something to fill up those empty hatch spaces for a month or two (or three).

The book that started it all for me, however, was Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the North West Passage by Victoria Jason – a book I shall return to again and again. The author is a quite ordinary Canadian woman who sets out in her 40s with a copy of “Canoeing and Kayaking” magazine’s article on “A Primer on Paddling Strokes” on her lap as she teaches herself to paddle on a lake in Ontario. Motivated by a love of the North, she undertakes the epic journey of completing the Northwest Passage by kayak across a span of 4 summers. This is no small feat, especially as she encounters considerable adversity in the form of a “difficult” (to say the least) trip leader for the first 2 years (who would doubt the direction of the sun before he would doubt his own judgement), as well as illness and, of course, weather. It is evident from the author’s writings that she is very much a people person, revelling in the company of fellow travellers and the Inuit people who inhabit the Northern Territories, whom she holds dear. But she is also someone who appreciates the solitude of kayaking alone, of absorbing the nature, the beauty and the harshness of the icy Arctic landscapes. It is all the more poignant to contemplate that she died not that long after the completion of her journey, however, the prevailing sense is one of a life lived to the full. Perhaps, as another ordinary woman setting out in the world of kayaking, I feel a special kinship with this lady. She is someone who, in her own gracious way, remained undeterred by circumstance, by conditions, by egos, or even by grizzlies – and she will continue to be a source of inspiration to me for a long time to come.

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