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Coast to Coast with Gee Jackson: Part 2

Posted by Lydia Burdett

by Gee Jackson @geeadventurous.

In case you missed it, read part 1 here

I managed to make it out onto my local canal just once with that Compact as part of a kit trial before I set off for the beginning of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on May 28th, 2022. I’ve never been able to get very excited about things up front and it’s always a relief to actually be there, doing what I said I was going to do. This was no different. With all my challenges I wanted them to be exactly that - a challenge. Based on what I knew had been done before and my own abilities, I assessed what I thought I was capable of doing for each challenge to set myself a goal in terms of time to completion. Considering how little experience I had stand up paddling, let alone for that distance on unknown terrain (I had never portaged more than one lock in a day before let alone the cacophony of locks and swing bridges that faced me on this trail), and that I was completing the challenge solo, I was pretty confident I could do it in 10 days. So, I set myself the goal of 7 days, just to give me something to push for.

Day 1: Starting in Liverpool 53/257km

The moment I pushed away from the concrete edge of the canal somewhere near Liverpool Docks just after 6am, I felt like I had arrived.

Edgy urban areas gave way to prettier suburbs, and I very quickly mastered the belly-to-the-board technique of floating under swing bridges. A couple of people in more central Liverpool stopped to ask me how far I was going and how far I'd come on their leisurely Saturday morning walks and there were knowing nods to cyclists and other canal users along the way. It very quickly became clear just how much I had needed this alone time, and just how comfortable I felt on the water naturally. A waterside pub beckoned me in for lunch at around 3pm, and for the first time on this trip I found myself reminding myself that this was actually happening. That I was really doing it. That I was finally on my way.

The weather was beautiful, and I had the canal mostly to myself apart from the herds of ducklings every few hundred metres. Feelings of peace washed over me, and it felt so cathartic to just keep paddling through the serenity.

I met my first lock portage close to Wigan, and the sun was beginning to set on my initial day of stand-up paddleboarding coast to coast. On a borrowed board. With essentially no training. But with the light fading and not wanting to burn out from the first day, I stopped after 53km, not truly knowing just how I had managed to get quite so far already. I wasn't exactly pushing it, but I also had nothing better to do either. The water had already given me a different perspective on things - both figuratively and literally - and I was so appreciative to still feel fresh in my body. Day one already made the entire trip feel like a success, and somewhere along the way I felt like I finally understood what it was like to truly enjoy the journey. In the back of my mind, 7 days to completion had turned into 5.

Day 2: A Mental Challenge 104/257km

Day 2 was difficult mentally.

I had 3 flights of locks to conquer if I wanted to maintain 50km days: Wigan, Chorley, and Blackburn. Urban areas have never been my favourite, and having to pack down my inflatable board, walk the flights with everything on my back, and then set everything up again on the other end was time consuming and heavy. Coupled with a headwind and lots of weeds made for not ideal conditions. But on leaving Blackburn the countryside returned and I found my joy in the challenge again. It is always humbling to be reminded of how much the privilege of enjoying something like this can have an impact on your performance.

I was now officially halfway to Leeds. I was starting to get sore hands in my pulley ligaments from gripping the paddle, but the rest of me was still feeling remarkably ok. In my head I was starting to consider what was coming next on the trail. To meet my new target, it meant tackling the two tunnels (and another flight of locks,) in the next 24 hours, including Foulridge: traffic light controlled, nearly a mile long and the longest tunnel in the country to allow the passage of human-powered watercraft.

I got called 'strong' by a couple of passers-by, and normally this is something I just brush off as I'm not particularly good at anything I put my hand to, I'm just really good at keeping going. However, by the 3rd time it happened, I started to think 'you know what?'. Determination definitely plays a part in it but having paddled over 100km of canal in not ideal conditions in just two days with very little training, I'm willing to concede that actually I just might be strong. And that was a pretty cool revelation to come to at that stage of my journey.

I'm still learning to love certain parts of my body, and I think like many people this is something I will always struggle with. But I have definitely learned to love it as a whole for what it is capable of, flaws and all. 

Day 3: Lancashire into Yorkshire 150/257km

From the outside, this was probably my worst day of the challenge. Over halfway on the whole trail, over the highest point of the canal, and into Yorkshire from Lancashire.

Two tunnels (a novelty at first but soon boring!), more flights of locks, and scratches from a swan-fight dunking that I didn't realise I had received at the time. Unexpected memories of my mum who passed away 10 years ago, proclaiming my love for my board, and dubbing her Caru, heckles from men in white vans and lost paddleboard fins and paddle clips. I taped my neck up to prevent further rubbing from my PFD, and I taped my hands to help prevent the blisters from becoming worse. Throw in some rain and a headwind, and it was a lot.

Running on around 5 hours of sleep each night, it was the first day that I really started to feel tiredness set in after the adrenaline rush of the morning's events. I realised I now struggled to lift my arms up above my head as my triceps were so tight. But I was approximately a whole day ahead of schedule with regards to my original 7-day plan, and I was taking that as a win.

In a strange way, the hardship was exactly what I wanted from this challenge, and having the privilege of watching barn owls, water vole, deer, hare, and of course cattle and waterfowl all making use of our beautiful canals made it even more special.

During my lunch stop at a lock-side cafe, I caught the reflection of someone who looked like a paddler in the cafe window as I opened the door and got excited at the prospect of meeting another paddler on the canal, as I hadn't actually met one yet. It took me a second to realise that it was me. That reflection was mine, and I looked like a paddler. Bizarrely, at that moment, any imposter syndrome I felt about being good enough or experienced enough to take on this journey simply melted away. There wasn't any doubt anymore. In that instant, I knew I could do this.

Part 3 coming soon!

To follow more of Gee's adventures, follow her Instagram @geeadventurous