Follow the song of the paddle

Lenny Antonelli spends a slow weekend exploring the Barrow valley on a canoe-camping trip

Irish Times, August 26, 2017


The canoe might be the finest vessel ever built for the traveller. In a canoe you can explore slowly and intently, just like walking or cycling, but from the water you see everything from a new perspective. The landscape takes on a certain freshness.

My first trip in a Canadian-style open canoe was on the Royal Canal in 2015, paddling slowly from Enfield to Mullingar over three days. Then I canoed the Barrow and Upper Lough Erne, each time camping along the way. In July of this year, I returned to the Barrow, the best of Ireland’s big rivers.

On a breezy bright July evening, my friend Dan and I met Charlie Horan of Go With The Flow River Adventures — who’s been guiding on the Barrow for 20 years — in Bagenalstown, Carlow.

Charlie gave us a canoe, paddles, waterproof barrels, buoyancy aids, helmets and set us on our way. We packed the boat with camping gear, spare clothes, food and wine and launched into one of the Barrow’s many side-canals.

We brought the boat through a lock and out onto the river, then paddled on under the Royal Oak road bridge and the high arcs of a railway viaduct. As the wind eased, the setting sun cast the river in pale oranges and purples. The still air above the water thrummed with flies and midges, and bats came out to feast.

At Slyguff, we made camp in the dusk by a ruined lock house under beech trees. A family was eating dinner in a barge just above the lock. Later, when I knocked and asked if they could boil some water for us — to my horror, I’d brought the wrong camping gas for my stove — they offered us hot goulash, then invited us in for whiskey. Dan and I drank ours straight, our new German friends preferred theirs with Coke.

Through broken English, they told us that they came boating on Irish waterways every summer. They had barely explored the west coast, but knew the midlands intimately. And they were taking it even slower than us, planning to travel just four kilometres the next day.

We slept well and woke early. With no fuel to cook, we ate chocolate and got back on the water, paddling in the morning silence.

We pulled in at Goresbridge, Kilkenny, a sleepy little village. The only café was closed, so we went into Spar and bought croissants, chocolate, fruit and coffee. “What’s going on in the world?” I asked Dan, who was looking at the papers.

When canoe touring, you shed your normal concept of time. Instead, your day become a slow rota of activities that anchor you to the present moment: you wake, make coffee and breakfast, break camp, paddle a while, stop for lunch, paddle some more, make camp, cook dinner, have a nightcap, sleep.

“You are kind of a self-sustaining unit as you travel down the river, that’s one of the real adventures of it, you leave the world behind,” Charlie said to me. “You have your tent, your sleeping bag. If you’re smart enough you’ll turn off your phone.”

In 1783, work began on a waterway to link the Grand Canal with the Barrow. This canal, the Barrow Line, stretches through Kildare from Robertsown to Athy, where it meets the river proper. From Athy south to St Mullins, the navigation follow the Barrow and a series of side-canals built to bring boats around shallow, rocky stretches of river.

Weirs were built to provide sufficient water for each side-canal. Experienced paddlers might choose to shoot the weirs and the rapids below. Newbies should take the canals, which means either bringing the boat through a lock if you have a key, which is slow going, or portaging around, which is hard work.

We got back on the water as the grey day warmed up. Below Goresbridge, the Barrow is a revelation, winding south through endless forest. Down on the water, the skyline is nothing but fir and larch, willow and ash.

This is the Barrow’s beautiful deceit. The riverside woods might only be tens of metres of deep, but in your canoe you have no way of knowing. So where woods overhang the river near Borris Estate, the Barrow feels so wild and empty you could be a voyageur exploring the waters of deepest Quebec. Charlie told me that when guiding on this wondrous stretch of the river, he asks his clients to be totally quiet, just to experience the silence.

At Borris Lock we stopped for lunch in the close heat. Dan spotted a young buzzard perched deep in the woods, as one of its parents shrieked overhead. Traveling with Dan, a skilled naturalist, was an education. He pointed out the whooper swan loitering for the summer when most had returned to Iceland, the jays calling from the woods, the sparrowhawk circling overhead.

He told me the woods fronting the river are known as gallery woods, and that one bird call we heard was a great-spotted woodpecker — a species that has only recently re-colonised Ireland.

Later on, the clouds burned off and the evening sky turned blue. We paddled into Graiguenamangh and set up our tents on the grassy riverbank above the village. We walked up the town’s pretty, curving main street, had dinner in the Chinese and walked around historic Duiske Abbey. We climbed up to a terrace of Tudor-revival style “widow’s cottages”, built around 1850 by the local landlords for “indigent widows” according to the plaque, as dusk came over the valley.

Then we made our way back to the tents, but slowly, via three pubs. Kilkenny had beaten Limerick in the hurling, and the town was buzzing. The main street was thronging as cover bands and disco lights filled the bars and locals eased from pub to pub.

The next morning was bright and still. We chatted with some teenagers who had camped beside us in pop-up tents, out for a night boozing in the village. Dan had also been talking to a lady who was swimming in the river, and asked why there were so few tourists in such a beautiful town. “She thinks they prefer to keep it that way,” Dan said.

Back on the water, the morning was hot as we paddled on under the forested slopes of Brandon Hill. The valley grew deeper, the trees seemed taller. At Carriglead Lock a sign outside the lock cottage protested plans to turn the grassy towpath into a cycling greenway.

We paddled down the long canal down to St Mullins Lock, where barges and cruisers sit, some half-sunk and forgotten. This is where the Barrow Navigation ends. We tied up the canoe and walked the kilometre downriver to the Mullicháin Café, situated in an elegant old riverside grain store.

From here south, the river is under the pull and push of the tides. This is also where the towpath ends. There is talk of extending the planned greenway south of here, where the valley becomes deep, wild and inaccessible. And while I’m sure there are good economic reasons for doing so, there are other good, less tangible reasons, for doing nothing at all.

The café was buzzing, the riverbank thronged with people sunbathing in the heat. After a big lunch at the café we got back on the water. Dan’s car was back in Graiguenamanagh. We launched the boat for one last paddle back up river as the white sun beat down on this wild little world.

Canoe touring the Barrow: how to do it

The calm, sheltered waters of the River Barrow are ideal for your first canoe touring trip. “There are a very few waters in Ireland where a compete beginner can just take off,” says Charlie Horan of Go With the Flow River Adventures.

Go With The Flow offers self-guided and guided tours, from one night to week long trips. You can start from as far north as Monasterevin in Co Kildare, or any of the towns and villages down along the river, many of which are accessible by train and bus. Go With The Flow is currently offering a special deal of €99 per person for a weekend self-guided canoe trip, from Friday to Sunday. Charlie can provide tents, or organise B&Bs or luxury accommodation along the river.

Go With The Flow also provide guided day trips, a great way to learn canoeing skills, as well as corporate team-bonding. “I absolutely guarantee it will bond a team together, because it gives them a shared experience that they likely won’t have had before,” he says.