Dermot Higgins and his youngest son Fionn (10) have paddled on many of the major Irish rivers in a double kayak over the past few years. But last Easter, they decided on their most ambitious expedition to date – a paddling pilgrimage from Dublin to Donegal. They aimed to set out from Dublin’s docks on the Irish Sea on Sunday and to reach Belleek on the Donegal-Fermanagh border via the canal and river network a week later. They believed that, if successful, they would be the first paddlers ever to have crossed the country using this route.

Words and photos: Dermot and Fionn Higgins

The Royal Canal runs from Dublin through the midland towns of Maynooth, Kilcock and Mullingar to the Shannon near Longford Town. We hoped to spend three days on the Royal and then paddle northwards on the Shannon through the towns of Roosky and Carrick-on-Shannon to Leitrim. We would then paddle eastwards along the newly restored Shannon/Erne Canal, through Ballinamore and Ballyconnell until we reached Lough Erne near Belturbet. A long paddle through the upper and lower loughs would take us through Enniskillen and into Beleek.

We estimated the total distance to be just short of 400km. We hoped to travel at an average speed of 3.5mph for 55km (35 miles) every day for seven to eight days. In order to achieve this we would need to paddle for eight to hours every day – ambitious by any standards!

Our vessel of choice for the journey was the Chrisobel 111. She’s a 20-foot fibreglass veteran of many expeditions with two keyhole cockpits. She’s nearly as old as myself and doesn’t have watertight bulkheads. In fact, there’s nothing very watertight about her. She’s been holed and repaired so many times over the years that it’s impossible to keep water from seeping in. However, she’s fairly light and sleek and easily capable of making 4-5 knots on flat water.

Fionn and I decided to be as self-sufficient as possible. We hoped to camp along the banks and to source some food en route by foraging, fishing and hunting.

As in previous expeditions, Fionn and I decided to be as self-sufficient as possible. We hoped to camp along the banks and to source some food en route by foraging, fishing and hunting. We brought a sizable quantity of staples with us. All of the food was stored in a watertight barrel secured to the kayak by bungees. We carried a small single-ringed gas burner, a simple cook-set with dishes and cutlery, fishing lines, nets, head-torches, sunscreen, a mobile phone for emergencies and an indispensable hand-pump. As in previous expeditions, we decided that if possible, we wouldn’t spend a cent all week!

kayak dublin to donegal

Travel light

We brought our lightweight Vango two-man expedition tent, two self-inflating sleep mats, pillows and two winter sleeping bags. We carried one spare paddling kit each, and two changes of warm, dry clothes. All of the sleeping kit and clothing were stuffed into two big dry bags to be stowed at our feet in the kayak. We also planned to bring a fold-up bicycle lashed to the deck of the kayak. This would allow Fionn to cycle along the canal towpaths when he became tired of paddling. The plan to include the bicycle was a big mistake!

We slowly lowered the heavy kayak over the jetty into the water but unfortunately, the weight of the bicycle and food barrel shifted suddenly as she hit the water and she began to sink slowly into the dock.

On Sunday, after some very rushed preparation, we were ready to launch on Dublin’s Spencer Dock at 2pm, kayak fully loaded. A large crowd had gathered to witness the launch, mostly curious kids expecting some fun, something which we dutifully provided in bucketfuls! We slowly lowered the heavy kayak over the jetty into the water but unfortunately, the weight of the bicycle and food barrel shifted suddenly as she hit the water and she began to sink slowly into the dock. I’d no option other than to jump in and to try to halt her descent into the murky depths. Much to the amusement of the assembled kids, I had to swim after the food barrel and assorted items of clothing and dive down to retrieve the bicycle.

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Eventually, we were left with a sodden mess of gear and clothing on the jetty. Disaster! It was the end of the expedition for that day and we hadn’t moved a single metre of the 400km. We called our support team – my wife Isobel – who kindly returned to pick us up. And so we retired that first afternoon, quite humiliated, our tails between our legs.

kayak dublin to donegal

Back in action

The next day saw a much better prepared and trimmed down operation. The bicycle was abandoned and the weight of provisions and clothing greatly reduced. We had time to experiment with a few different options for lashing and loading and were at last satisfied that we could get going this time.

Our relaunch early on Monday morning was as smooth as could be imagined. We were in high spirits as the kayak glided effortlessly through the still waters of the Royal Canal, through Dublin’s western suburbs and into the broad expanses of the Kildare and Meath countryside. We were buoyed up by snatched conversations with dog walkers and loitering teenagers along the banks.

“Where yez goin?”

“Donegal!”

“F*** off! Ye can’t be!”

F*** off! YES WE CAN!”

It really was a great day’s paddling. We reached Maynooth for lunch and powered on to Moyvalley, just as dusk was falling. We set up camp a metre from the water just beside Furey’s Pub. Freddy the barman welcomed us warmly. We had a blast chatting and filming the locals and eventually snuggled down to sleep, well fed and watered in our warm little riverside tent.

For the next six days, we followed a broadly similar and quite predictable pattern. I’d wake up at 7.30am, answer the inevitable call of nature as discretely as possible, have a very quick wash in the river and prepare breakfast. After two mugs of good coffee I’d wake up Fionn. We’d finish breakfast together, wash up, strike camp, reload all the gear and food, struggle into the cold and wet paddling clothes and prepare to launch. Most days we were on the water paddling by 10am.

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We generally paddled non-stop right up to 2pm or so when we’d haul up somewhere for a half-hour basic lunch. We snacked on thick slices of cheese, some chocolate and swallowed down a warm brew. Every afternoon, we’d resume paddling without delay and power on right up to dusk, normally about 8pm. Only once, we were forced to paddle in the dark in order to reach our pre-planned camping point in Jamestown. As we’d lost a full day’s paddling on Day 1, we had to paddle 10 hours every day in order to make it to Belleek by Sunday.

Into the flow

Many people are amazed at how we were able to do 10 hours or more of almost continuous paddling every day for a whole week but in reality, the paddling actually becomes easier and more enjoyable as time goes on. The rhythmic nature induces an almost trance-like experience. The scenery along the riverbank is ever-changing and always enthralling. Conversation between us ebbs and flows.

We’re stroking rhythmically together, father and son united together, body and soul, muscles bulging, never tiring, powering onwards, through wind and over wave, like a well-oiled machine.

Sooner or later we reach a point when it all becomes almost effortless. We’re stroking rhythmically together, father and son united together, body and soul, muscles bulging, never tiring, powering onwards, through wind and over wave, like a well-oiled machine. It’s a truly awesome feeling! Time has no meaning on the river. Hours literally slip by in the blink of an eyelid and finally you’re there, safe and dry, sipping whiskey or tea by a smoky campfire, the tranquil waters gurgling quietly in the background, peace at last!

Temperatures struggled to reach double digits on any day and night-time temperatures plummeted to -5°C on two consecutive nights. We had to thaw out our paddling gear in the mornings before we could get into it!

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The weather gods weren’t at all kind to us on our long pilgrimage. Temperatures struggled to reach double digits on any day and night-time temperatures plummeted to -5°C on two consecutive nights. We had to thaw out our paddling gear in the mornings before we could get into it! But far worse than the cold was the wind. It came from the north and west directly into our faces for most of the expedition. It brought with it rain, hail, sleet and even snow. It sapped our energy and chilled us to the bone.

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The other serious threat was the difficulty which we encountered in dealing with the locks on the canal sections. There are 46 locks on the Royal and 16 on the Shannon/Erne. We weren’t allowed to open the gates on the Royal due to low water levels. The alternative was to portage our kayak and 70kg of gear over every one of them. Our trolley wheels helped with the process but the business of unloading, hauling and reloading really drains the energy levels and demands concentration and patience, both of which were often in short supply at the end of a long day on the river.

It also takes a great deal of time. We certainly couldn’t have managed without the support of the many people who assisted. The electronic smart-card operating system on the Erne-Shannon Canal also made lock passage a lot smoother later in the week. Fionn became quite an expert at ‘lock labouring’. However, it has to be said that we both breathed a sigh of relief when we passed through the last one late on Thursday evening.

kayak dublin to donegal

The spirit of teamwork

Our greatest asset on the expedition was the spirit of teamwork which developed between us. We’d worked well together on many trips in the past but this one brought the importance of teamwork to a new level. We often played games, joked and sang together to keep spirits up. It really amazed me that Fionn didn’t complain even once for the entire duration of the expedition, despite the many deprivations. He really enjoyed the experience. “I think it’s like heaven,” he said one evening, as we settled in for the night.

The kindness and generosity of the many strangers who helped us in so many different ways will never be forgotten. There were so many small acts of kindness, from plying us with food to the offer of beds, all of which made our arduous journey such a joy.

Suddenly, on silent wings, a barn owl swooped just alongside us. I caught a brief glimpse of its eyes as it disappeared into the gloom – a moment of pure magic!

People often ask about how far and for how long we travelled each day.  People also ask what were the high and low points of the expedition. The highlight for me happened very late one evening as we were approaching Jamestown on the Shannon. Darkness had fallen and a light drizzle was falling. Fionn had actually nodded off asleep in front of me and I was at the very edge of exhaustion. Suddenly, on silent wings, a barn owl swooped just alongside us. I caught a brief glimpse of its eyes as it disappeared into the gloom – a moment of pure magic!

Fionn claims that his high point was waking up surprised to find himself in a warm, dry, cosy bed on the Sunday morning. We were planning to camp at the Share Holiday Village at Smith’s Strand near Lisnaskea in Co Fermanagh on Saturday night but the kind-hearted staff took pity on us and offered us a room for the night in their quarters.

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The lowest point for both of us was the calamity at Spencer Dock – although we’ve learned never to overload a boat again. Fionn also hated when a rare navigational error took us an hour off course up the very stinky River Camlin in Longford. We both enjoyed the solitude on the waterways. Often we’d paddle for hours without seeing a soul.

What we did see was the wonderful and prolific wildlife along the banks. We saw all three native species types of swan, lots of interesting species of ducks and waders, kingfishers flashing like jewels in the gloom and the first swallows of the summer flying low over the damp Fermanagh lakelands. We saw otter, mink and a fox. The sheer exuberance of springtime bursting from the hedgerows was a real joy to witness.

We reached our destination, palms blistered, bums chaffed and between us nearly 8kg lighter than we were at the start. But we’d finished the pilgrimage, safe and sound.

On all levels, this was a most successful expedition. We reached our destination, palms blistered, bums chaffed and between us nearly 8kg lighter than we were at the start. But we’d finished the pilgrimage, safe and sound.

Why did we consider this to have been a pilgrimage as well as an expedition? We were elated as well as being exhausted by the journey. We both felt proud but also strangely humbled by the experience. I felt that the journey had added a new dimension to my being, to my relationship with my family and with the earth. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims in the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, the journey had made us better people

‘Full wise is he that can himself know.’ – Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

 

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