Monday, 2 July 2012

To Whitewater Hell and Back

After Thursday's torrential rain and violent hailstorm, I was sure the river would be in fine condition for a spot of barbel fishing on the Avon by Saturday morning. It didn't hit the whole river catchment, only the northern part of it and the worst of it fell only at the northern extreme, so it wouldn't be in full flood, but swollen enough to create some interesting barbel swims. On arrival at Harvington, my predictions proved correct and the river was two feet up on normal summer levels, a rusty red/brown colour from the red sandstone soil in the north of the catchment that had caught the storm, and in just the right state to get those river torpedoes rooting about for washed in and washed out foodstuffs.

Molly, our springer spaniel, was beside herself in her excitement, but I was suffering a curious uneasiness, a sense of foreboding. She loves this place. It's an an island, and the defining character of an island is that of the water that surrounds it. Being a water lover whose love for water borders on mania, she was off and in it as soon as she was able. She swims every day in the local Coventry Canal or the local River Sowe and has done since she was a few months old. On the first walk we ever went on with her, she slipped into a flooded stream feeding the main river in Longford Park, and for ever since we've not been able to keep her out of the stuff. As a consequence, she swims like a fish...

She finds coconuts in the canal, thrown in as part of the local Asian community's funerary rites and customs. She adores coconuts, and views then as the greatest prize of all. She'll go in for anything she can hold in her gob, whether it be plastic bottles, deflated footballs, discarded shoes, you name it. But coconuts are the thing for her. The only trouble is, they don't fit in her gob, they're too big, so we have the almost daily scenario of a dog thrashing about in the cut batting coconuts about for anything up to half an hour, till she finally gets it against the bank, and gets to grapple with it at last.

Friday evening by the river, she had a small football. Too big to get in the mouth in water, but deflated enough to grip on land. I took her for a walk after pitching the tent, the fishermans essential recce, to see the state of the water below the weir, and have a jaw with anglers on the way down. Dropping in to see a couple bivvied up in the last peg before the weir, I could see the water rushing through in the middle of the river, and rods bent hard over even with baits fished near bank, the current out front being too strong for a lead to hold fished too far out. I failed to appreciate what the size of that ball might mean here, though from experience, I should have taken it away from her there and then.

As we talked, Molly went in after her ball. She'd dropped it in the water, as an excuse to get in the water herself. An old trick of hers. To our amusement she couldn't grab it but batted it about. The gravity of this situation didn't register, till I realise the current had caught the ball and was dragging it further and faster into the main flow. Molly of course, followed...

In ten seconds the situation was serious, in fifteen her life was in jeopardy. I rushed out and ran around the head of the weir, calling her name at the top of my voice, hoping against hope that she'd hear me and pull into the bank, but it was too late.

I got to the first peg below the weir. The water was rolling over the sill in a smooth arc and smashing into a maelstrom of white foam below. The ball appeared, crossed over and disappeared. Then I saw Molly, three quarters of the way across, bobbing as she crossed the sill head first, and then vanishing into the fearsome back rolling water at the foot. I knew she'd die. I couldn't see how she'd ever survive it. I ran downstream to a point where I know the water is at its very shallowest, where I imagined I could feasibly wade out and grab her as she passed by, but it was hopeless, because it was so fierce, deep, and fast moving at that point, that there wasn't a chance. It would surely have killed me if I'd tried.

Then I saw the ball ride by at running pace...

But the dog no longer following.

I ran back up shouting. It was no longer than a minute since this disaster had begun, but it was one of the longest and most heartbreaking minutes of my entire life. My brother had died in such a current, a vicious riptide that turned a family holiday in a tropical paradise, into a tragedy, in just seconds. One minute he and his kids and wife were enjoying a swim in the sea, the next he was floundering in a situation beyond his understanding, and in under a minute, he'd drowned. Now it had happened to me.

My frantic running sunk to a dolorous trudge. My throat was sore from futile shouting. The world was black.

Then, a speck of white appeared upon the bank in the middle distance, shook itself off in a shower of spray, and wagged its tail!


By way of a miracle she'd swam through it, and somehow, and God only knows how, survived.

The previous night, this weir-pool had been a sheet of foaming white water. Molly went over dead centre of this picture but emerged twenty yards downstream in the next peg along. I'm glad she swims in canals every day. 

Next morning I walked back down to the weir and took a picture of it. Overnight the levels had dropped a foot and so it had lost much of its ferocity by then, but the pool was still quite an impressive boiling cauldron of white water. Even by then, you and I would drown should we ourselves go over the top and enter that terrible place at the bottom where our less than buoyant bodies are trapped in the the back roll, never to emerge. It happened just recently on the Avon at Barford, when two children survived, but a father and son were lost in a boating accident at the weir there. It will happen over and over, time and again, and we anglers should take great care not to become victims of swollen rivers ourselves, because they are far more dangerous than they may appear to be, and weirs are certain death traps a long way short of the worst of times...

I got to talk to the angler who'd been fishing that night in the second peg down from the weir. He'd seen  two white objects cross the weir sill far across the water, then ten seconds later had seen a dog swimming strongly and determinedly across the violent current, and in a long arc, cross the very worst of it and come all the way to his bank, where it'd dragged itself out, and vanished out the back of the swim.

She is buoyant, She floats naturally. She survived.

I wouldn't have...

The rest of our little holiday by the Avon was relatively uneventful, and that's just as a holiday should be. I lost a nice barbel, lost a good chub, banked three chub, and a perch too. Got to try out my handmade trotting floats, lazed around, and generally had a good time not bothering too hard with anything, because there really was nothing worth getting het up about. Life seemed precious again, and too precious to waste chasing targets and statistics and other such nonsenses.

We think Molly may be pregnant. She was mated with Martin Robert's springer, Oscar, a few weeks ago, and we've been looking for the signs ever since that she was caught. If she is, then those pups have already enjoyed one of the rides of their lives, crossing the point of no return, to whitewater hell and back.

They will in their turn, be the spits of their mother and father. Water lovers, one and all.

God help their new owners, as God, no doubt, helped her...


  1. You or should I say Molly was lucky there mate. It reminds me of the leap of death over the canal bridge Oscar made the other month when we took them for a run. My heart was in my mouth as I ran round to him.

  2. That leap over the parapet of Oscar's was absolutely priceless, but only after we realised he fallen into the overflow, not broken his neck on the concrete basin. Before then, it was terrifying!

    They're crazy hounds, springers. 'Yampy', in the midlands dialect, I believe?

  3. By God Jeff I bet you were in bit's until the little madam dragged herself out! Lucky girl indeed.

  4. Yampy isn't in it mate. Great dogs, full of life and boundless energy.

  5. I felt your pain there Jeff, our mutt is allergic to water but we've experienced her going missing for a long enough period of time for panic proper to set in, not nice at all, thank god all was good in the end in both cases eh.

    You've answered a long time wonder of mine there, since I was a kid I've found coconuts in the Soar, never realised it was a funeral thing and yet could never understand why they would be in there so regularly

  6. Danny I was. You don't know how much you love, till the one you love is gone. I don't think it even bothered her, though it seriously bothered me!

    Rob, glad I could be of service! It took me a year to work it out, but one day came across the whole shebang, the flowers, the garish pictures of elephant gods, then it all fell into place. Till then, I was totally mystified. Thought there might be a coconut tree growing in the canal somewhere...