Flash Flood

There was tragic news earlier in the week about 9 people killed by a flash flood in Arizona.  They were enjoying a sunny day at a popular swimming hole unaware of the torrential downpour miles upstream.  Apparently the first anyone knew of the changing conditions was a rumble like thunder and then a wall of water came down the river and was on them in seconds.  As is clear from the video in the above link it is not only the water but the debris in the water that causes such tragedies.

People say the River Dart is a ‘flashy’ river though it is not immediately obvious how that can be.  Yes there are relatively big flood waters but normally from looking at data on the Environment Agency River Level Monitoring Site it looks like the levels rise and fall relatively slowly.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Flash floods do happen here: Lynton and Lynmouth in 1952, Boscastle 2004, Coverack last week, but are thankfully uncommon.

As far as the Dart goes yesterday brought what was a borderline flash flood as recorded on the above Env. Agency website.

Wild Swimming Still Pool
Wild Swimming Still Pool

On Thursday evening I swam my usual twice up and down the 300m pool near Dartington.  The river chattered over the stones and was still perhaps an inch or so higher than the typical summer low after Tuesday’s showers and just touched the last of the steps near the swing which hangs 6 feet clear of the placid, clear water of the main pool.  I swam with a girl who had stopped off on her run, 2 boys were messing about with snorkels in the shallows by the sandy beach and the 2 girls were taking turns on the swing.

The forecast was for rain.

When it came it was torrential hammering deafeningly on the tin roof at work.  I had to go and take a look at the river.

Beneath the bridge the shallows and banks of pebbles where the heron had been stalking yesterday had vanished.  However, the water might be just an inch deep, a covering and with no marker there was no knowing.

At the pool though it is obvious the level is up about 4 feet if not more.  Tree branches drag the surface and the steps have gone along with the little step from which I dive and the concrete ledge is being washed over.

Stepping into the water at the edge of the beach it is waist deep where yesterday there were dry stones and I wade out to the trees where dark brown water slooshes around the willows.  The water here is however barely flowing, dammed into a little pool by trees and bank.  Walking back along the bank it is clear that in just a few minutes the level has risen to fill the hollow under the leaning tree trunk and back at the steps the ledge has gone.

The water in the enclosed corner stirs gently, there is less flow than in the mainstream on a normal day and I bob easily in the surprisingly warm water keeping place with just gentle flicks of my hands and feet but with nowhere to go there is no point in staying in longer than to take a few pictures and watch the world quite literally pass by.

Hauling myself out using the small tree it is clear the water is rising fast.  It has now breeched the last of the rock and the oak tree roots are awash leaving just a few inches of the tallest rock poking above the surface and even that get swamped once in a while.  As I dry off I see a tennis ball whisk by and several plastic bottles and a surprising amount of potential firewood.  A long heavy length hitches on some trailing tree branches hauling them down until the log is released and the branches spring back with a crash.  The log broadsides the next branches and sticks creating a dam and a noisy gurgle of water.

The last of the rock is finally covered and at the same moment the water catches the tail of rope at the swing and sets it dodging and rocking, the water pulls one end in, flips it up and the other end is dragged in.  That is a rise of 18 inches in 30 minutes.

What looks like a honeydew melon in terms of colour and size spins past.

I’d like to stay and watch (as it turns out the level will not peak for another hour and the monitoring station upstream shows another 10 inch rise yet to come) but instead I’ll come back in a day or too and look for the tide line of debris on the all but submerged fence beyond the vanished beach on the far bank.

More heavy rain is however forecast.

 

 

A self defeating exercise.

Outdoor swimming has grown in popularity over the last 10 years and this outwardly appears to be a good thing, but I increasingly feel it is a self defeating exercise.  This suspicion has been amplified by recent events at Spitchwick Common on Dartmoor.

In the blue corner, all those who might not otherwise have seen a jellyfish or a kingfisher.

In the red corner, those who arrive with their instant bar-b-cue, cans, bottles and disposable lifestyle and think the beautiful place they just visited will be enhanced if they smash glass into the water, cut branches off the trees, burn the grass and undergrowth and leave their litter when they go home.

Thoughtless people insensitive to the environment and the wildlife and people they share it with are nothing new, indeed ‘smash, grab and trash’ seems to be an appropriate motto for the human race.  What the finish line of this race will look like remains to be seen, but I have an insight.

Yesterday I clambered down the river bank on the way to my swim, picked up the box neatly packed with the plastic and cardboard remains of someone’s day out and lifted it back tot he roadside from where I collected it on my return.  How is it, I constantly wonder, that people take all the packets to the picnic, eat and drink the contents and then find themselves without the strength to carry the empties back to the car?  Or worse still, do carry it back to the car but simply then leave it in a bush or behind a rock in the car park.

I read recently that the scientific name Homo stupidus was once seriously proposed for Neanderthal people.  I think I have identified a far more deserving people for the name.

Countless people have enjoyed a day out at Spitchwick, the main draw being that it is a great place to swim in the river, and yes there has always been some litter and a few fires, but the land is privately owned.  The litter and vandalism of the environment has however become unsustainable.  Car parks have been closed to choke the flow of visitors.  Double yellow lines have been painted on the roads for miles in every direction and a ruthless ticketing policy enforced.  And now the last car park has been closed, the next nearest shrunk in size and CCTV installed.  It no longer looks like a national park but more like a high street.

It seems unlikely to be effective.

I have heard it said that people park on the yellow lines and agree in advance to share the parking fine.  The litter won’t stop but now the roads are impassable too.

I have in the past contacted the park authority and asked why they do not empty the bins at the nearby New Bridge car park which spill over in a stinking mound all through the summer.  They assure me that the cost is too much for them to provide bins and that not providing bins makes people take their rubbish home again.  Looking at the abundant and highly visual evidence to the contrary I have to disagree.  The bins may not be theirs but they don’t know who they do belong to, they tell me.  But they are turning your car park into a rubbish tip, why not phone the contractors number on the side of the bin and ask who does pay the rental and cost of eventual emptying?  They don’t know why they don’t do this.

Ultimately the land owner may resort to a big fence, it is his land, he should not have to be constantly clearing the area and there is no more an open invitation to go and swim there than there is to all and sundry if you put a paddling pool in your back garden.

A fence in turn will simply displace the hordes to the next place and so on and so on.

As with the situation at Stonehenge I can see a time in the not too distant future when the closest you will be able to get to the river over there behind the barbed wire and attack dogs will be to have an interactive virtual wild swim where at the end someone tips a bucket of water over you which contains some crisp packets, a plastic bottle, soggy cardboard, a knotted dog poo bag and if you are going for the deluxe experience some broken glass and one of those razor sharp grilles from a disposable bar-b-cue.

Rather than being a part of and contributing further to this self defeating moment.  I cannot pick up any more litter than I already do so maybe it is time to hand back my goggles and swimwear and throw in the towel.

 

The Morning Menagerie

The warm weather continues.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

A single day when the temperature gets into the upper 20s Celsius here is notable but we have now had 5 or 6 on the trot and today is set to best those again.  More remarkable is the lack of a breeze.  Geographically speaking the North Atlantic is just over there and then it’s 3000 miles of open water such that weather and wind is the normal order of the day.  But again, the day has dawned breathless.

Walking down the track through the redwoods I startle a squirrel which makes off with that zig-zagging tail flicking run they do to confuse predators and then claws a tattoo staccato on soft  bark and is gone aloft.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The river level is dropping day-by-day, so there is not even the usual chatter of the water to carry through the trees and stepping carefully down the tree roots to the bank the water is even more mirror like than yesterday.  Clearer too, that and I am 15 minutes earlier today so I am catching the sunshine that has not yet swung away from the rope swing, but shafts down into the deepest part of the river, picking out the scoops of golden sand between the dark rocks.  The smooth water slides up my leg as though I am pushing my foot through some sort of membrane.  Lazy concentric circles spread until the reflections begin to bounce back from the bank, colliding and jumbling the surface.

Birds flit and dart, a wagtail skitters down to the stones I have just vacated and jitters nervously almost as if it doesn’t actually want its feet in contact with the ground.  High above a seagull heads up river with a squawk, whilst a pigeon zooms fat breasted over my head away downstream.  The shallows by the rapids are filled with flitting fish.

The gaggle of ducks upstream by the shallows corrals and keeps a distance from my slow progress against the current.  Finally they divide, the 2 males are not in the least bit concerned and seem almost to be asleep just gliding away from me at the last moment.  Meanwhile the mother duck shepherds her flock of 4 well grown young to the far bank beneath an overhanging branch, she stands erect in the water keeping both eyes on me whilst the young are penned, but are otherwise nonchalant.   Close by a dipper stands perfectly still on a stone in the shallows of the splashing river.

The current sweeps me back to the pool where a solitary duckling, younger then the others I have just seen and still with ragged downy feathers, peeps forlornly.  One duckling on its own with no mother is not a good sign but she seems able enough and forages amongst the riverside plants.

Swimming back up to the top of the pool the male ducks still don’t care and mum and ducklings are happy to watch me sweep down in the current once more, this time floating on my back in the dappled sunlight.  Of which there is a lot less now.  Half an hour and the pool is now half in shade and the water is now dark and mysterious.

I have just picked up my towel when there is a splash by the bank nearby and a kingfisher flits onto a tree branch, adjusts its breakfast in its beak and then whirls across the water and into a tree on the far bank.  I continue to drip and watch.  The bird flits down to a log resting in shallow water and then begins an aerial ‘battle’ with a second, each darting from its perch to displace the other only in turn to be displaced.  They go round and round for a few moments and then shoot away downstream.

And so the day begins, heralded in by the 8 o’clock clanging of the church bell as I walk back to the car.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

À bout de souffle

It is just about 7am as I take the bridge over the River Dart at Staverton.  The low sun casts long shadows, but even so it is apparent that the river level is still high after recent rain as the shoal of pebbles is fully covered by water.  As I walk down though the trees the sound of the river seems more urgent that usual and it cannot be the sound is carried by the breeze as there is none of that.

It is rare that there is not some breeze, today is that rare moment.  The water is unruffled except where the flow that is indeed at least a hand’s span up on summer ‘normal’ surges over rocks that have been unseasonably submerged.  Not a single leaf twitches, the rope swing hangs motionless and even the sunlight reflected from the water fails to dapple the undersides of the leaves.  Totally still and almost totally silent.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Diving from the rock there is very little light in the water under the tall oak tree but out in the middle of the river there is a sudden change from shade to sunlight which reveals the sand and pebbles out of reach of my fully extended toes.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The river bed has been changing in recent years.  There used to be a beach and the sand used to slope gently out into mid-stream except when it collected a coat of sunken leaves which bubbled when disturbed.  But the floods of 4 years ago and since have set in train a reconfiguring of the profile.  Some of the bigger logs were dislodged which exposed the longer buried more rotten wood and that has put up no resistance to the river.  Now the beach is barely 1/2 the width it was and beneath the water the edge is a vertical drop off into water deeper than I am tall.  What’s more the exposed face beneath the water is just more compacted twigs, branches and sand, so I expect the erosion to continue.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The water is chilly despite the sun and each time I breathe out I leave a thin, white cloud hanging above the water.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Climbing up the bank and looking back the river has been reset to ‘still’ and there is as yet no hint of a breeze so that all there is to tell I have been there are a few splattered watery footprints.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Trees

The change is obvious as soon as I step from the tunnel of trees that enclose the footpath to the weir.  The oak tree that hung from the bank at the end of the weir has been chopped down.  The space is strewn with leaves and twigs, a few branches lie in the water, but the bulk of it is stacked in neat rounds back from the water.

There are a lot of trees in the world but for me at least some of them have a special place.  This was one such.  True it had been much undermined by recent floods and I suspect it was necessary to cut it down before it fell down and did damage to the recently restored weir, but it is a loss.

In summer the leaves patterned the concrete with their shadows.  On early mornings in autumn beads of dew would glitter and sparkle on spiders’ webs festooned amongst the twigs.  Later in the year there would be the plop, plop of acorns hitting the pool as I sat changing and the roots made very handy seats.  And earlier this year the largest raven imaginable sat casually out of reach in the branches and watched with nonchalance as I wriggled into my wetsuit.

There are indeed more trees and trees come and trees go with or without the help of a chainsaw.  Nevertheless, after those that cloaked the opposite bank were clear felled 2 years ago it seems that this once wild oasis enclosed by roads and cars and people is suddenly in a glaring spotlight.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Goldilocks and the Early Morning Swim

‘Eeek, the river is too cold’, said the winter swimmer.

‘There are too many people’, said the holiday swimmer.

‘But that’s just right’, said Goldilocks walking through the morning sun patterned woods, the air pine scented by the redwood trees and elusively heard in the distance the patter of the river over the stones in the shallows heading down to the deep pool.

The water is mirror calm without the hint of a breeze and the flow is only given away by a few petals of foam carried down from the distant weir.  No people, just the chatter of birdsong, too early yet even for the first walker to have sent their dog in to smash the magic tranquillity.  That job is mine.

I am swim ready beneath the sweatshirt and shorts and my toes curl on the edge of the stones worn down by countless other feet, many of which have been my own.

It is called Still Pool, but only for another 1/2 a second.  Take sight of a little petal of foam, lift up on tiptoes, the water rushes at me and then everything changes from bright glittering sunshine to fiery orange peat filtered sunlight.  Down, down to the rounded pebbles, across the river bed, rising on the gentle slope of the far bank where sand  cascades amongst the pebbles.

Climbing back out on the diving rocks the water at my feet is now a jumble of conflicting ripples reflecting back from the banks, but upstream, fully half the distance of the 300m pool, serried ranks of ever diminishing ripples march onward against the flow.  And then the water is rushing towards me once again.

Early morning throughout June, July and August is the time to be here.  It is the only time that the sun sweeps its path across the river downstream where the forced gap in the trees allows light into the pool.  Swim upstream then float down under the leaning beech trees into the shallows.  The hazel tree that the kingfishers used as a fishing post has been carried away by a winter storm, though its future looked tenuous last year and the sandy beach on the far shore has been further eroded, there is less than 1/2 the area of even 3 years ago.

After 25 minutes I climb out again only to take two more dives from the rock but there is a distinct chill in my toes, it’s time to go, but it is almost no diversion at all to come here on my way in to work, I will see more still water before summer is out.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Ticks – the small crawling kind

It is tick season and for the next 3 months they are likely to be out in force up along the river banks and for some reason they find me irresistible. I plan to spoil their fun.

Some obviously grab on to my clothes as I push through longer grass or bilberry plants which seem to be a favourite and that is sort of unavoidable.  Some I’m sure drop onto socks and shoes in a similar way, they are going to hang on there and get me later. But I am sure some also find out clothes etc. whilst I’m off swimming.

I have adopted strategies in the past with varying degrees of success, such as standing on rocks surrounded by water to get changed and hanging all my clothes in a plastic bag from a tree whilst swimming.  Those have been somewhat successful, but if one is caught on the outside of clothes and you put them in a bag it’s not long before they are on the inside of the clothes.

No matter how thoroughly I check after I get home there are always one or two that get through and the first sign I’ve been bitten again is usually there is an itch at the site of any previous bites.  Then the search is on.  If you find them quickly enough they can be eased out with either a very fine pair of forcep tweezers or one of the special tools you can buy on-line or from vet surgeries and that is usually that.  If it’s later and they have properly got a hold then there will often be a little, itchy scab for weeks after.

That is unpleasant enough, notwithstanding that I do not want Lyme Disease.  Look it up, it’s nasty and whilst Dartmoor has been mostly a low risk environment so far, Lyme Disease is more common on Exmoor and it cannot be long before it moves south.

There are pesticide sprays for clothes but I’m not keen on the idea of that when some will inevitably get on my skin.  However there are also many suggestions for natural deterrents based on smells that either put ticks off or mask the smells that attract them.

The #1 recommendation is rose geranium oil.  Thereafter the popular choices are peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, lemon, citronella or rosemary, singly or in combination.  On the upside, and I’ll smell better too.

Now, because I want to not only protect myself but also mask my clothes and bag etc. I am taking the view that a spray before a run applied to shoes, leggings, bag and towel would be as well.  However, for spraying I’ll need to get the oils into the mix and they don’t dissolve in water.  With a little experimentation I have found that a blend of 15 drops of each of eucalyptus and citronella form a stable suspension in 100ml of 50:50 water and alcohol.  I have heard a suggestion to mix them into vodka which has a 40% alcohol content so I could see that being quite effective if expensive.  Blending in vinegar is also a suggestion, but what exactly will that leave me smelling like?

If you visit the cosmetics/haircare aisle of your local retailer of choice you will find spray bottles with contents for a small cost.  Pick something you will use (children’s hair detangler £2 works for me) and you are ‘quids in’.

2 month update.  There are lots of ticks about I have been told, but the essential oil spray has been 100% effective so far.  The rose geranium does stink mind.