Open Eye: Messing about in boats

From The Vice-Chancellor; Our little excursion into the wilderness park was brought into stark perspective when my wife broke her leg portaging on The Pig

We each have our preferred modes of recreation. Kenneth Grahame spoke for me when he wrote, in the first chapter of The Wind in the Willows, that "there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats". This summer I had two boating holidays: a week cruising on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal followed by a week canoeing in the Killarney Wilderness Park in northern Ontario.

They were different experiences. On the canal the 60-ft steel narrow- boat could carry plenty of food and drink and its well-appointed kitchen allowed considerable gastronomic scope. Although I would never qualify a canal holiday as sedentary, the locks which provide compulsory exercise on most other canals are infrequent on the 'Mon and Brec'. However, the mountain scenery and the interesting places to visit along the route offered attractive optional walks.

Exercise is not an optional extra when canoeing in a wilderness park. We had to carry our camping equipment and all the food for the trip in the four canoes. Even without the Killarney Park's ban on tins and glass bottles there would be a strong incentive to concentrate on dried foods. The canoe is an efficient design and propelling it is more a question of technique and teamwork with the other paddler than of stamina and physical strength. Portaging the canoes and gear is another matter.

The Killarney Park is a network of lakes separated by ridges of quartzite and pink granite and our route included ten portages, varying in length from 80 to 3,160 metres, to get from lake to lake.

The idea is that one person carries the upended 60lb canoe - which has a built-in yoke for the purpose at its point of balance - while the other carries one of the packs. Both then return for the other packs. You quickly learn that what matters is not the length of the portage but the height of the ridge you have to cross and the evenness of the path.

My least favourite portage, although only 1,800m long, climbed and dropped 100m on a path of wet scree. It is appropriately nicknamed The Pig.

The effort, however, was worth it, for the most beautiful of the lakes, much painted by members of Canada's Group of Seven, could not be reached any other way. The link between these two waterborne experiences, apart from the familiar sound of water slapping against the prow of the boat, is the key role that each mode of transport played in the earlier commercial development of Wales and Canada respectively.

Llangynidr, on the Monmouth- shire and Brecon Canal, is today a quiet and pretty village in the Welsh border country. In the last century it was a dirty and dangerous industrial site where rows of lime kilns were fed with stone brought down on precipitous tramways from the surrounding hills. The canal, and the communities along it, were developed to support the busy coalmines and the steel industry of South Wales that attracted my own paternal ancestors down from Worcestershire.

The canoe was instrumental to the creation of Canada. I cannot claim any family connection to the voyageurs who set off in their canoes from Montreal each year to travel thousands of miles to the west in search of beaver pelts, but having worked for some years in French Canada I understand something of the spirit of those hardy and adventurous people.

The months they spent away from home, living off the land and almost serendipitously opening up a continent, put our little excursion into the wilderness park into perspective. The contrast was brought home starkly when my wife broke her leg portaging on The Pig and was helicoptered away in an air ambulance an hour later. No such succour would have been available to the voyageurs, just as my Welsh miner forbears did not have much in the way of health and safety precautions in the early days.

My grandfather, who became an inspector of safety in a Welsh mine in the first half of this century, could still remark philosophically that "accidents will happen in a large colliery".

The commerce once conducted by canal and canoe now moves efficiently from producer to consumer by other methods.

But will today's methods leave the splendid legacy of recreational opportunities afforded by canals and canoes?

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