The power of people
It is a recurring theme on this adventure that the most memorable and positive moments we experience are due to the people we encounter along our way. This week has proven no different; while the paddling has been uneventful and straightforward, the people we’ve crossed paths with have made the week an utter pleasure.
The last five days of paddling have felt like a bit of a breeze compared to most of the expedition so far. There has been a notable lack of extreme weather, illness or equipment-related mishaps, and as a result our progress was so good that we arrived in Nancy for our day off a day early!
Most of the week was spent covering the final stretch of the Meuse, the waterway we have been on since Belgium. As this last section was a canal, our view over the man-made bank was obstructed by the trees that form an avenue either side of the water. Though not an unpleasant view, it does get somewhat monotonous.
The new friendships we’ve made have therefore provided very welcome interludes over the last few days. There was the girl who not only gave us a packet of biscuits but also arranged for us to camp right by a small lock one evening as there was nowhere suitable along the canal ahead, and the older chap who became our number one fan in the time it took for a lock to fill. His reaction and initial disbelief upon hearing we had crossed the Channel in a kayak was by far the most entertaining response to this fact...
Towards the end of the week we were struggling to find somewhere suitable to pitch our tent as the impenetrable woodland sloped away steeply either side of the canal. As a last resort, we stopped by a pontoon in a town where there were already three pleasure boats moored up. Immediately next to it was a grassy patch, a few large trees and a picnic bench, an ideal set-up for camping. However, after a few run-ins with boaters over the last few weeks who are not particularly keen on sharing the water with a kayak, we were anxious to not further disgruntle them. With that in mind, we loitered on the pontoon until a man climbed down from one of the boats, presenting an opportunity to essentially ask permission to camp.
It transpired that we had chosen the ideal person to speak to: the gentleman and his wife, Viv and Sharon, were from Cornwall. Viv was fully supportive of us camping there and assured us that the other two boats would share his view. A short while later, as we were unpacking Benji, Sharon came over to invite us onboard their boat for a shower and a drink. Very aware of just how much we needed a good scrub, we leapt at the generous offer and clambered up onto the deck where we were welcomed with cold beers and exceptionally good company. A few enjoyable hours passed by quickly as the conversation - and beers - flowed. Too soon darkness was setting in and the long day of kayaking began to catch up with us. We returned to our tents feeling the warm glow of having received such kindness.
The following morning we were up in good time as we faced what had the potential to be one of the toughest days yet: a total of fourteen locks in a 10km stretch, preceded by a tunnel of nearly a kilometre in length. The locks were automatic and there was a very strong chance that we would be too low in the water to trigger the sensor.
Thankfully, we managed to arrange for a Swiss couple on one of the pleasure boats to accompany us through the tunnel and the series of eleven locks, removing any need to worry about the locks not working. Their willingness to wait for us absolutely saved the day. As we set off in the wake of their boat, we were highly amused to see them cracking out the beers... Regardless of the fact that it was only 11am. Moments later, a third person appeared onboard their boat, we have no idea where from!
Between each lock we had a somewhat desperate 700-800 metre sprint to keep up with the boat. Our Swiss companions waved and cheered from the comfort of their deck, emboldened by their rapidly decreasing sobriety. On more than one occasion the driver completely lost focus on the task at hand and would head straight for the bank. Realising what was happening, he’d grab hold of the wheel and swerve, zig-zagging across the canal a few times before regaining control. Safe in the knowledge that we were following this erratic style of driving rather than being pursued by it, it provided a great source of entertainment for us!
Having eventually made it through eleven locks, we stopped in the city of Toul for a few hours to explore the cathedral and have a bite of lunch. With three automatic locks remaining, we were unsure of how we would make it through them and were starting to prepare ourselves to portage (which would involve taking Benji and all of our equipment out of the water and around each lock). Just at the last minute, a lock-keeper turned up in his van to follow us between the locks and operate them for us, going above and beyond the support that is expected for any boat, let alone a kayak like us.
Popping out of the final lock we waved goodbye to the Meuse and joined the much larger and faster flowing Moselle, grateful to be finally heading downstream once again. That evening we planned on finishing our day by a lock that was two-hundred metres long and seven metres deep. Not expecting to be able to continue paddling through the locks on the Moselle due to their size, we had decided to camp near the lock so we could continue paddling the other side of it the following day.
Wanting to maintain our clean record on this new river, we asked the lock-operator’s permission before assuming we would be able to camp near the lock. Upon realising that we were “deux filles”, the woman was hesitant about letting us camp there as there was a main road nearby. Instead, she ushered us into the compound and showed us to a secure area where we could pitch our tents for the night within the safety of the locked and monitored lock facility, mere metres from the lock.
The following morning, the lock-keeper filled the lock so we could put Benji straight into the water, eliminating the need to cart everything a few hundred metres further down the river before re-packing and setting off. She even phoned ahead to all the locks we would encounter that day... Each time we reached a lock, Anna would phone to ask if we were allowed to enter, just to be told the lock was ready as they were awaiting our arrival! This went against all warnings we’ve been given about trying to kayak through commercial locks and once again our day was unexpectedly straightforward.
And so it goes that we have finally had an entirely uncomplicated, drama-free and pleasant week. The last few kilometres into Nancy were accompanied by stares, waves and the occasional squeal of excitement from a child in a window high above the water as they spotted us paddling past; we’re starting to get the impression that locals here are not very used to seeing a seven metre bright orange expedition kayak!