Packrafting the Medway – video

River status

The Medway is not a river I’d choose to run in mid-December or probably any other time of year. I’ve kind of given up on English rivers, with all the access and angling hassles and the Southeast of England is more congested than most, with a lot of canalisation and locks. But the other day Steve and I drove down to Tonbridge to give Kent’s historic river a try.
He’d invited me to take his Feathercraft Big Kahuna for a spin and the Medway would be just as wet as the Thames, but a bit nearer and easier to train back to the car. The Big K was a boat I was thinking of getting so it was a real fluke when I realised one of the few people I knew who was into paddling actually had one. Then, as we tooled up in the town car park I realised I’d forgotten the Sunny’s pump. Shame. It had been a while since I’d paddled my Gumby Longboat down south but luckily I’d also brought the Alpacka packraft which Steve was curious to try. A slick Feathercraft spending the day paddling alongside the dumpy Denali was not how we’d planned it, so having messed about looking for the right put-in (the map guide above was not so clear) we decided to just get as far as we got before dark and train back to Tonbridge.
Either they’d built the dock platforms extra high to discourage canoeists, or the water level at the Tonbridge’s Town Lock was a good 2 or 3 feet lower than normal. It made launching the Kahuna 4 feet below the dock too awkward. Even getting into the Alpacka would have been tricky, so we plodded on into the woods out of town and found a muddy bank from which to deploy our portable water craft. Watching Steve assemble the Kahuna proved it was a pretty quick job – maybe 25 minutes out the bag. I can’t say I was hanging about twiddling my thumbs by the time I’d pumped up the packboat, put on a drysuit and clamped the two halves of my paddle together with that satisfying ‘click’.
‘Merdeway’ Steve had called it, not having done it either and expecting the usual jetsam slalom through a neo-urban river’s kayak-stabbing detritus. The Kent countryside is not like the wilds of Scotland and the Medway didn’t exactly look like the Everglades in springtime. He’d picked up the official river guide somewhere but it looked a bit basic to me. If we’d looked online right here or on www.medwaycanoetrail.co.uk (MCT link  dead) we’d have found out why the river was low. In fact Steve had checked online and just saw ‘Green – All Clear’ at Allington, rather than a skull and crossbones.
The river hereabouts had actually been closed for boating a few days earlier because Eldridge Lock was about to get a make over and was wide open, running a dodgy 3-foot drop followed by a train of nasty-looking eddies (below left). You’d think they might have put up a red flag or a boom or something. It’s just as well we’re not hard of hearing because whatever that ominous rushing noise was, we wanted a look first which meant clambering through more cloying mud up the exposed river banks and onto the lock. [I’ve since been informed that there should have been signs at Town Lock and the bridge 500m upstream of Eldridge Lock saying “Danger River Works ahead – River closed ” but I can’t say we saw them.]
Looking down on it (left), with a fast run up a long boat like the Kahuna would probably have speared itself over, but I’m pretty sure that with half the available speed, the Alpacka would’ve merely plopped over the edge like a wet mattress and promptly flipped backwards (or ‘bandersnatched’ as they call it in America). Soon after, I’d get sucked into some lethal hydraulic tumbler with all the plastic bottles and dead badgers. Urgh, gives me the creeps. I don’t like canal locks at the best of  times.
Just past here we swapped boats; I eased myself into the yellow Featherc Raft and shoved backwards off some rocks. Without any anatomical adjustments, first impressions were not good. The seat back was too inflated, pushing my shins off the foot rests up onto the underdeck. Plus Steve’s Bending Branches paddle, hand carved from a narwhal’s tusk by a blind Inuit shaman, seemed all wrong in my hands. It took me 5 minutes before I even managed to turn the 14-foot boat round but once Steve deflated the backrest I fitted in better and felt more at home.
Man, it sure is nice to g–l–i–d–e smoothly and quietly along a river after half an hour splashing left to right like a ferret in a whirlpool. This surely is at the heart of kayaking’s appeal: smooth, quiet, weightless, waterbound progress. The £2200 Big  Kahuna was a pleasure to paddle, once you’re in it’s all go, but getting in an out was the usual ballet on barbed wire for me, and there are a lot of locks on the Medway Canoe Trail. It can’t be all that bad though. Last summer Steve has spent weeks and weeks Kahooning down the Danube (above left) with a posse of Germanic Rührschaufellen.
Back on the dreary Medway, there was a conspicuous lack of complaining emanating from the Glorified Inner Tube. Could Kahunaman be secretly enjoying the little packboat? We swapped back to our own paddles, much better for me. I was breaking in my new oversized and super-light Werner Corryvrecken, and could now really shift the Big K. Every stroke translated to a breeze across the face. It had been a long time since I felt that in a packboat.
I knew there was a canoe chute somewhere on this river, which added an element of un-Kentish excitement. I never even knew the Brits were into these like they are in France where they’re called glissades and are a lot of fun on a hot summer’s day (let alone the portage aggro they save). Porters Lock was the chute – or ‘canoe pass’ as they call them here – but suddenly the idea of being hurled down it wrapped in a rubbery sarcophagus of alloy tubes filled me with horror. I really do have a problem with these SinKs! We got out and recce’d the raging sluice which drops all of a metre or maybe even two over 10 metres or so. That done we deduced confidently that at least one of us might survive the drop and crawl to the bank alive to paddle again.
We swapped back to our own boats and interestingly Steve admitted after he had a lot of bother regaining control of the long Kahoo and thought I’d sawn through one of the tubes as a jape. It transpired that just a short spell of nuance-free packboating – requiring as it does all the poise and balance of slouching semi-conscious in a sofa – had been sufficient for his cerebral cortex to delete eons of kayaking skills. Or so he thought though actually increasing the pole tension on his FC at the swapover had altered the hull dynamics to tippier and less turnable. Eventually he lined it up and slid down the chute like a component on a production line. No big drama; nor for me in the raft.
Clambering over the next lock we came across a barge lady chopping up wood in advance of the next cold spell forecast in a few days time. Three more locks to Yalding she said, our planned take-out at Mile 8 by the famous thatched Anchor pub. As we dropped the boats in we realised this stagnant back channel was actually under an inch of mostly intact ice. No problem I thought reboarding the Kahuna, the pointy end will cut through it like an icebreaker making a nice sound effect and a path for the Alpacka to follow. No it won’t. Instead the bow will ride up onto the ice sheet and start tipping the boat sideways if the ice didn’t give way in time. Yikes! Even in a drysuit I was getting chilled and didn’t fancy tipping myself into the pea-green, near-freezing waters of the Merdeway. Meanwhile, propped in the handy packboat, Steve attacked the ice with his sturdy narwhal tusk as the boat bobbed and spun around.
He had more success in the raft because the kayak’s distant prow was too far ahead for me to reach up and hack at the ice – plus my super-light Corry didn’t have the clout to do any more than scratch and slither over it. The patch of iced-up river was only about 30 metres long and Steve bashed on through along the bank like a contestant from whatever they call It’s a Knockout these days, until we were free again and on our way to Yalding. Now you know, when the Ice Age returns, packraft better than long kayak.
By the time we got to Sluice Weir (left) I was back in the packboat. We could see the chute was on the right, access blocked by a big tree trunk (below left). I nipped out to have a look from above and was a bit shocked: this chute was twice as steep and twice as long as Porters. The photo on the right taken during repairs shows it to be about 30°. Where were we, Alton Towers all of a sudden?
Rather tellingly the Medway Canoe Trail website features lots of shots of wholesome young couples with great posture shooting down Porters chute with toothsome smiles, but you won’t find a trace of the Juicy Sluicey Weir chute other than sexed-down refs that it’s a bit on the steep side for long boats [which may bury their nose and send you flying]. In a packraft – who knows how it would handle it, but on a warm summer’s evening it would sure be fun to find out. A couple of degrees above freezing in winter had less appeal and anyway, Steve was paddling commando with no skirt or dry suit and was already feeling the chill. Had the bank been accessible and not a scrum of brambles I’d have tried wading in and pulling the tree away, but a few minutes in that near-freezing water would have got nasty, let along the worry of slipping and getting sucked on a boatless ride down the chute. Maybe we’ll go back with a saw and a rope some time. [Again, I’m told a more explicit sign warning ‘Warning: steep chute’ is in the pipeline.]
From then on it got to be a a bit of trudge for me in the packboat towards Yalding. Steve was getting cold hanging around waiting for me and I was getting puffed out trying to keep up, and both our feet were numb from the cold. In the end he instructed me to hook up and towed me along by my packrafting ears. The GPS had proved what was fairly obvious, the Kahuna was easily twice as fast as the Alpacka and as you’ll see in the vid, a pointless head-to-head race had me thrashing at the water like a drowning addax, while Steve pulled ahead calmly, lighting a cheroot and texting in bids to his broker.
Another lock, and portage? Who knows I’d lost track, but we arrived at Yalding and managed to haul ourselves up a wall onto the pub’s forecourt where they screw the ashtrays to the tables. We rolled up our boats and inside had a tea and a burger, waiting out the icy chill until the train back to Tonbridge was due.
All of 8 miles we did in 4 hours or so. The classic run is from Tonbridge right through to Allington in Maidstone, 32kms it says. And from there as far again to Rochester is on the estuarine tides and beyond the reach of river byelaws. But once the Eldridge lock is fixed up and with at least two other chutes on the way to Yalding, the Medway sounds like a fun run between the tame flatwater stages and portages. The river agency have certainly done a good job building in canoe*-friendly infrastructure (at normal water levels). 

There are bigger maps here. * ‘Canoe’ by the way is what non-paddling English and the media call kayaks and canoes.
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