A Life Aquatic: Packrafting in Cumbria

A few weeks ago I received an unexpected phonecall from my friend/landlady, it was only a five minute conversation but the upshot was that I needed to quickly find a new place for me and the boys (and our cat) to live. This wasn’t great news, over the last eighteen months the house we’d been renting had become a home. We were hoping to stay for a few years to come and weren’t quite ready to start all over again once more. Good friends and family were equally amazing, scouring the deepest recesses of rightmove on our behalf. There were many offers to help move from mates with vans, long  late night phone calls from friends near and far, generous donations of furniture and even an offer from an instagram friend to adopt my cat. After a few exhausting and stressful weeks of juggling house hunting, work and parenting we managed to secure a nice new place for six months. Another miniature crisis over and we’re looking forward to turning another house into a home.

In the middle of this I headed out to the hills for a much needed wander. A few nights sleeping under the stars felt like a healthy response to having to move house within a few weeks, making time to enjoy the more leisurely side of being of no fixed abode. The sun was due to shine and the days were getting longer and it was a perfect opportunity to make use of my newest piece of kit.

I invested in a Alpacka packraft late last year, a hardy inflatable boat that packs down to the size of a one man tent and weighs not much more. A portable boat might not be essential for someone in lives in the Midlands but the appeal was too great. All those parts of the map coloured in light blue stop being obstacles and become part of the route plan, opening up a whole new way of exploring the world. A few tentative trips down quiet stretches of the local River Trent with a bike strapped to the boat were enough to get to find my sea legs and get to grips with some basic manoeuvres, it felt like a good time to head for somewhere a bit grander and stick the paddles in the backpack.

A venture out to the North West Lakes seemed like a step in the right direction, paddling down Loweswater, Crummock and Buttermere before heading high for a night on the tops and paddling over Ennerdale the next day, the route looking like a wetter version of the Ennerdale horseshoe.

packraftIt was well after midnight when I parked up, a moonless night full of stars, just enough light to separate water from land. Walking through fields towards the silvery surface of Loweswater I was confronted by the unusual and eerie scene of being stared at by dozens of pairs of glowing eyes, nothing more than sheep and cows looking up through the dark. I’d brought a tarp for sleeping under but it felt like a good night for a bivi, sometime before 2am I fell asleep to the sounds of the water meeting the shore.

It was late May so the dawn light wasn’t far behind. When the morning looks like this I can quite happily live with the sleep deprivation. That’s what coffee is for.

sunrisebiviThe water was calm and silent at dawn, utterly still and perfectly reflecting the surrounding summits and trees on its surface. I stayed warm in my bivi until the sunlight made its way over the hills and made wild promises to myself to spend more nights in a bag this summer.

SONY DSCpackraft8A good pot of good coffee helped to pass the early hours whilst the sun inched its way over the Loweswater Fells. It’s still a novelty to unpack a small rolled up boat from a rucksack, inflated to size in a few minutes, your luggage become your vehicle and you become its passenger. 20150523_082645The first few moments of being afloat are like moving into a different world, drifting away from the shore and adjusting to a slower and more gentle pace, the sound of paddle on water replaces the sound of footsteps on stony ground. This type of travel suits the daydreamer, inviting regular intervals between paddling of laying back and doing nothing.

The journey over Loweswater was over all too soon, just when I was getting going I reached the other side, it was only a short distance to walk along the quiet back roads before coming to the northern edge of Crummock Water. The shallows were incredibly clear, wading out to knee deep waters before getting back in was cold and refreshing. SONY DSC


crummockThe weather drew out the crowds along the shores and cars had begun to queue up along the narrow lanes, I had the whole of the lake to myself. With feet resting on top I let the boat drift again, the current just seemed to gently spin us round rather than push us along in any particular direction. I started to wonder about the possibility of spending a night out in a packraft, paddling under a full moon perhaps or sleeping out on a calm warm night.

Another brief hiatus of paddling before coming to Buttermere where a group of open water swimmers were making the best of the hot weather and doing perimeter laps of the lake. I cooked up some lunch by an old rope swing, I wonder if you could manage to land at the summit of Fleetwith Pike if you got a decent enough run up. swingThe final crossing of the day was perhaps the laziest of all, a little weary from just a few hours sleep and a long drive in the dark, I pulled the paddle in and let the breeze carry us along. With no paddling the boat had a habit of turning side on to the small waves, creating a gentle rocking motion as we drifted. I sat back and drank a beer in the sunshine with my feet resting in the water, enjoying my new life as a drunken sailor. Of course packrafts can be used to do much more exciting things than this, take a few minutes to search what people get up to with them on youtube. Maybe I’ll get to the thrill seeking stuff when I’m a bit more experienced, for this trip I was happy enough to have discovered an innovative way of travelling lazy and was enjoying a slower pace of life.

Getting out and doing some actual walking felt like quite hard work after all the laying about, with the boat rolled up and packed away I took a path up Warnscale, meeting some of the volunteers from Fix the Fells on the way who had all been working away on the footpaths higher up. The afternoon sun was a good enough reason to seek shelter in the well hidden bothy on the climb up. I wondered for a moment whether I could resolve my house hunting woes by changing the locks and getting some keys cut for this place.

SONY DSChaystacksI passed over the grass craggy top of Haystacks before dropping down a little lower near the head of the Ennerdale valley to find a place to camp out for the night. The sun turned the valley golden and hazy as the evening set in, lighting up the stream as it flowed out into the distance. The scene was only unsettled by the noise of a mountain rescue helicopter, it made several visits back and forth, and hovered around the steep northern slopes of Pillar before taking off into the distance.

SONY DSCThe weather broke in the night, wind picked up and rain pounded the roof after dark, I slept through most of it only to be woken suddenly by a barking dog at the tent door at early light. The dog was part of a mountain rescue party out looking for a hiker who had been expected home three days earlier. The rescue volunteer made an appearance and apologised for the sudden awakening and confirmed that the helicopter from the night before was part of the same search. I heard later that the missing walker had shown up alive and well in Wasdale. The hours and effort put in, not to mention the massive selfless risks taken, by voluntary mountain rescue teams is both humbling and admirable.

The mini summer had ended and today was much cooler, damper than before. Blue skies and warm sunshine had been about perfect for a trip out on the lakes, but I preferred the mood of the morning, everything hanging with mist and cloud, sunlight breaking through for a few seconds here and there.SONY DSCThe placid blue waters of the previous day were also gone. At the shores of Ennerdale, a bracing wind whipped up choppy grey waters, flurries of waves coming in. Paddling against the wind in the open water was fairly tough, with not much experience and being mindful of the risks I stayed well close to the edge of the lake. I tried to convince myself that the action of paddling isn’t that different from cycling, spinning your arms instead of your legs to move. I was right, it was like cycling, it was like cycling up an endless escalator that was travelling down. I got about a third of the way across before conceding that it was best to call it a day. The moment of acceptance came when I looked up after paddling hard against the wind only to see that the tree that I’d passed by on my right about five minutes before was still there. No doubt there’ll be ways to paddle more smartly in such conditions, or maybe paddling in open water against a strong wind in a packraft is just a plain bad idea. I’ll invest in some lessons before trying again. Or maybe a motor.

The journey ended with a steep climb up through the pines past Brown How to Great Borne, halfway up I stopped exhausted and found myself looking at the perfect formation of the new buds on the pines. It’s easy to miss the small things when you’re in a place best known for its grandeur.pineA vague and precariously steep path guided the way to the summit which broadened out to a yellow grassy plateau before dropping down. One last chance to take it all in before dropping down to the next valley and leaving this world behind for another week or so.

The first ‘proper’ trip with a packraft had been everything I’d hoped; an exciting step into a different world of travelling opening up new possibilities and enjoying wild landscapes from a different perspective. The first day had been gentle, adjusting to the novel routines of unpacking, repacking. The extra weight of boat, paddles and life jacket was negligible, only the life jacket caused a bit of inconvenience as it wouldn’t pack down and took up a lot of room. The second day was a reminder that things don’t go according to plan and highlighted the need for more adventurous trips to be done in company.

Investing in a packraft has triggered all sorts of new ideas for trips, bivis along riverbanks, visiting  hidden islands on lochs to camp out for the night as well as some more bike/boat trips from the doorstep. Maps of the Highlands especially now look quite different, vast stretches of blue amongst between tight contours waiting to be explored.SONY DSC I lost my house but found some happiness sleeping on the shores and floating around in the lakes amongst the mountains. The attraction of heading into wild landscapes becomes much greater when life becomes trying, not just to escape, but to work things out and get some space perspective, heading somewhere big has a tendency to make most problems seem smaller. For a far more original, adventurous and experienced account of what can be done with a packraft I recommend taking a look at this coast to coast trip of Scotland where you can also find a link to donate to sponsor a good cause.



7 thoughts on “A Life Aquatic: Packrafting in Cumbria

  1. A lovely read for a Sunday Evening Rich. Hope the move goes ok, give me a shout if you need a hand with anything.

    1. Thanks buddy! I will do. New place is a bit smaller but you’ll have to come round once we’re settled in and the antlers are on the wall.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s