'Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.'
Three years ago when Athina and I paddled the length of Leeds-Liverpool canal in a dingy boat (‘Pirates of the Canals I’ adventure) me wet Doug and his granddaughter Autumn. We hit it off straight away. We chatted like a bunch of long-lost friends and exchanged details in hope we could paddle together one day. Took us a little while but last weekend we finally made it happen!
The irresistible call of the water isn’t just a convenient way to exercise together, when we’re on water we experience a feeling of relaxation and freedom.
Doug suggests we give open canoeing a try but warns us: ‘Beware little pirates, it can be very addictive!’
Before we part, one of the canoes capsize. Three people find themselves unexpectedly in the water when the last enters and they all lean on the same side. It’s can happen; today it was them, tomorrow it’ll be us. That’s part of the paddling joys.
‘Girls can you give me a hand to lower the canoes in the water please?’ asks Doug. Athina and Autumn in a question of minutes have become best friends for life and join forces in lifting the vessel from one side while Doug lifts the other. Time stops momentarily as I observe them. Sixty years separate the girls from this ‘antique-little-boy’ but our common love for adventure, water and paddling unite us.
Love of water is passed down through our family-
We enter the borrowed canoe with a sticker that reads ‘Prospector 15’. Athina sits at the front, pooch in the middle and I stir from behind. We soon settle into a rhythm and we’re eager to discover Llangollen canal with its historical aqueducts and dark tunnels.
The frequent tea breaks provide an opportunity to share food, paddling tips, a laugh and to exchange anecdotes with new friends. A man sits on a comfy chair, with a foldable side table, a jet boil and a steamy hot soup in hand. He has it all figured out, I admit I’m a wee jealous and taking notes!
Little Miss Shadow, our tiny one year old pooch is a fine explorer dog with a passion for paddling. She’s already ventured down the Leeds-Liverpool and Selby canals, Tweed River and Lake Bala. Her party trick involves launching in water when least expected, so today she’s wearing a buoyancy vest, one designed for small cats!
A bridge lies ahead of us. We exit and port the vessels around it. Suddenly we realise we’re facing backwards and decide to do the obvious; reverse the vessel. A few strokes later we wedged ‘Prospector 15’ between the canal walls. Some by-passers laugh at this ridiculous image and help us unstuck!
Pooch sees this as an opportunity to jump out the canoe and finds herself in the water. The sun is shining and safely back on board she dries out fast. But I’m told the weather is always warm and the skies are always blue in Wales ;)
Autumn and Athina are true water aficionados. Their trusting hearts explore widely, easily removing obstacles. They shout excitedly for Doug and I to paddle faster as they race each other.
With incredible agility and no apparent effort, Doug propels himself forward, all down to excellent technique and overtakes us. ‘Addi, pull the water and at the end of each stroke twist the paddle to stir the direction. Leave the paddle underwater resting for a moment before repeating’ he shouts. ‘Mummy, how does he make his canoe go so fast?’ Athina asks in frustration.
Doug’s example is a fine one that aging is not just decay, it’s mostly growth. Yoko Ono once said: ‘Some people are old at 18 and some are young at 90. Time is a concept people created.’
I remember a piece about the island of Okinawa (Japan) where its 3,000 residents have the highest life expectancy in the world. They take great pride in living to 100 and beyond. They also largely share a devotion to a Japanese philosophy known as ikigai, over-simply translated as the happiness derived from being busy at some activity that holds meaning and purpose for them.
Doug is a ten, a thirty-five and a sixty-year old. He’s been all of them ages and knows what it’s like. When he paddles and leads expeditions he’s a young man and when he sits with the girls he becomes a wise old-ish (!) man with valuable life stories to share. He lives a fulfilled life with meaning and cares for others. That’s the secret of how he ‘propels himself forward.’
We paddle across Pontcysyllte aqueduct with its stunning views. A magical passage through time. This interaction with nature makes paddling an almost spiritual connection.
Next we cross a narrow tunnel in the pitch dark. We forgot our headlights but there’s a vague light at the end of it. We rely on our hearing and sixth sense. Despite the urge to paddle faster, we slow down and focus on the movement and pulling a rhythmic stroke whilst avoid hitting the walls. In times of difficulty it’s important to be playful so we pretend this is the secret passage to our imaginary island where we live with our gang of pirate crew!
Only half a day of ‘old’ and ‘young’ paddling together can have such a positive impact.
Growing up in a Mediterranean family with my grandma as the matriarch and spending a significant part of my life in Asia, taught me to have respect for elders and filial piety. This is the education I wish to pass on to Athina, not the capitalistic view where unconscious bias of our modern society characterise the ageing population as a burden or a cost. We need to change the way we think about ageing and to re-humanise older people. Our togetherness today constitutes a meaningful living. Teamwork and fresh air creates a positive outlook on life and the enjoyment of sharing a paddling adventure bonds us all.