The Post-PhD World
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The Post-PhD World

Canoeing in the Ardèche

I’d rather be canoeing than finishing this interminable thesis

Often I wonder whether I’m really just my fourteen-year-old self trapped in my forty-something-year-old body.

Many of the things that I really love or value in life are things that I was doing or discovered around age fourteen. The summers of my mid-teens were always warm, long and sunny and filled with adventures. The winters invariably had knee-deep snow and days of endless sledging. The things that I really yearn for now are often things moulded and shaped by those halcyon days of my mid-teens.

I find yearning an astonishingly powerful emotion: hopeful desire and rueful melancholy in equal measure. Over the ten years I worked on my PhD and during those unending evenings and weekends I was writing my thesis there were many things that I yearned to be doing instead. Friends went off doing fun stuff, had evenings out, weekends away, great adventure holidays but I had to keep my head down. I would, however, daydream about doing that fun stuff too, reliving my golden teenage summers in my adult world.

Some of those fantasies involved splashing about in canoes.

Messing about on the river

I grew up in a canoeing family. I was born and brought up in Reading, just west of London on the River Thames, and spent lots of time messing about on the river in the evenings and at weekends. I moved to Birmingham, UK, for university and one of the things I missed the most was living by a river. Lots of my fondest memories from childhood and the stories I inherited involved time with boats and canoes on rivers and lakes.

When my dad took his first foreign trip by himself, which I guess was around the time he was at university or maybe in that long summer just before he left for university, he went to see family in Ontario, Canada. He borrowed a car (as the family story goes, it was a huge Lincoln Continental—way too big and expensive for a young man who’d barely passed his driving test … on the other side of the road), packed his bags and took a few weeks to go adventure canoeing on Lake Erie in the Great Lakes.

He took a folding kayak with him for the trip — a wooden framed thing inside a canvas skin, with room for two to paddle or for one with equipment, as in my dad’s case. I remember fondly the stories he told from that trip: of camping on islands so that he wouldn’t have trouble during the night with bears, of lighting a fire at the far end of the island to attract mosquitos away from his camp and then sprinting as hard as he could back to the tent so the mozzies wouldn’t follow him.

He had his first go at painting on the trip and there’s a collection of his watercolours from the expedition that various members of the family share. The paintings feature lots of silver birches, and the reason I’ve always loved the trees is probably because of an inherited romance of my dad’s Canadian kayaking holiday.

The folding kayak stayed with Dad into later life of course, and I grew up with it being set up in the back garden every spring ready for a summer full of evening canoeing trips on the Thames. There we’d be, Mum and Dad paddling along, my sister sitting in front of Mum, me in front of Dad, enjoying the beautiful summer light on the water and the gentle, restful splash of the paddles. The family dog, Sheba, with crippling fear-of-missing-out and an overpowering duty to protect the pack, would run along the bank beside us barking like a banshee, warning that we were close to death by drowning. She would soon decide that things were getting way too dangerous and we needed help, so jump into river to swim to save us where of course she’d try to climb into the canoe, almost capsize it and nearly tip the whole family out into the cold river water to actually drown. Dogs are stupid.

Later, after Dad died, Mum bought me a short course at a local canoe club to build my own kayak out of fiberglass. £50, back in those days, bought a four-week evening course and the canoe that was built during the course, plus £5 extra for an optional glitter finish. Yes, I did.

Fiberglass resin smells wonderful. The evenings up at the canoe club, legally glue-sniffing, were fantastic and I was so incredibly proud of the kayak I made — deep blue glitter with two white go-faster stripes down the middle, front-to-back, coz two stripes must make you go faster than one, right?

I loved that canoe, so chuffed with my own work. I spent endless evenings and weekends, paddling on the river. Sometimes, Mum would pick me up from school and we’d head straight down to the Thames so I could have an hour messing about, up and down the river, while she sat in a deck chair on the bank and read the paper.

A few years later, Mum bought me a kit for a wooden panel Candian-style open canoe. It was huge, long and wide. Each of the panels had to be sewn together with nylon twine, to hold the canoe in shape. Then the joints were glued with fiberglass tape before adding the struts, seats, gunwales and end-panels and finally varnishing everything.

Not my canoe, but it looked something like this.

My trouble was that I was only 14, I didn’t have the right equipment (workshop, bench, clamps, spreaders, etc) or the requisite skills, but I did have an emergent cocky overconfidence in my own capability (cf. previous posts). I wrestled with the kit in the back garden, alternately following the plans and forcing it together by sheer willpower and brute force. I remember trying to use a natural camber in the ground to help get the boat into the right shape. That inevitably meant that the boat ended up being lop-sided—almost flat on one side, sharply profiled on the other—so when it was eventually finished and we finally got it in the water it turned out it wasn’t as easy as it should be to keep in a straight line. Despite that, I built it; I was proud of it.

Such a big boat took two to paddle, and I’d often go out on the river with Jason, one of my best mates at school. We spent hours taking the canoe up and down the Thames in the middle of Reading pretending we were Canadian Voyageurs exploring the great North American wilderness.

Each time we paddled around Piper’s Island, though, a bunch of half-pickled wide boys drinking in the Island Bar would start singing the Hawaii Five-O theme tune at the top of their sloshed voices.

Well, of course we’d play up to it and paddle like the huge, bronze-muscled Pacific Islanders we clearly weren’t as 14-year-old weaklings. And we’d get a great big drunken cheer for our efforts—‘Whay-hey!’

Happy times.

As I said, moving to Birmingham, which has lots of canals but no river, made it hard to leave my canoeing behind (kayaking on the Birmingham urban canals was never an appealing option … though my cousins did it recently, which made me think I’ve been a bit of a wet blanket complaining about the canals).

Occasionally canoeing has come back on my horizon since being in Birmingham. Six or seven years back, two sets of friends with Costco account cards discovered, bizarrely, they were selling Canadian open canoes for tuppence ha’penny and bought themselves one each. Coz why wouldn’t you? … in a city with no rivers and only ugly, litter-filled canals. They’re so cheap, look — why wouldn’t you? For a season, there was lots of canoeing action going on as these friends found every opportunity to paddle, and as far as I’m aware there’s been none since—two huge canoes gathering dust for 5 years or more.

I’ve had other pals do the odd day or weekend trip canoeing down the beautiful Wye valley. Hearing those fabulous stories stung quite a bit, I can tell you.

Another friend had his 40th birthday party at an outdoor pursuits centre during which we had a couple of hours in canoes on their lake. Aah, that was sublime, zooming around playing tag games and more — a brief taste of heaven!

However, the toughest was when a very dear friend went for an amazing week canoeing on the Ardèche, in France.

It sounded amazing. A week-long trip paddling the beautiful Ardèche river, guided through the spectacular gorge with a group of new, interesting people, wild camping and cooking each night on the banks of the river. And being southern France, of course, the weather was fantastic. (In my mind, the weather in the south of France is always fantastic. It’s not just me—it actually is, isn’t it?)

Being a good friend, I listened attentively to my friend’s stories and asked pertinent questions of the photos. But boy was it hard to sit through.

I wanted to go canoeing on the Ardèche.

Me.

I wanted to go.

I want to go.

I know, sounding like a petulant teenager, aren’t I? Like I said, I do continue to wonder whether this responsible, forty-something-year old carcass is really just a host for my inner fourteen-year-old: the chippy me; my grouchy self; my dyspeptic id.

The ugly truth I’m having to confront is that wrestling to finish off this apparently interminable thesis has played into the hands of my surly, needy teenage ego. But it’s a part of me that is shaped by a yearning to recapture those carefree perfect days of limitless adventure.

In the Ardèche.

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Joe Baker

Joe Baker

Writer, sometime programmer, PhD in religion and narrative from Bristol University. Chief Research Officer at Convivio, the collaboration company.