Saving the coots, one dinghy at a time

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Mitchell Ransome. He was an English author and journalist, who is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books.

Ransome is still popular in England, especially among those who live in or travel to the Lake District or the Norfolk Broads, where the books are set. He’s less known in the US, which is a pity. The books relate holiday adventures of children, including sailing, fishing, and camping, and offer adventures for both young and old.

We lived with our kids inside of those books during our 1996-97 sabbatical year, as we traveled in China, Australia, and Europe. While in England, we visited many of the places described in the book. Little did I know at the outset that we would be living the adventures themselves.

We had an inauspicious arrival in England in March, 1997. We were tired from a year of international travel, living in strange places, eating new foods, and each living out of a ten kilo bag of clothes and toiletries. As we left Heathrow airport we encountered a huge downpour and to top it off, it was late afternoon and getting dark.

Coot Club, the fifth book in the series, was published in 1934. BBC produced a film based on Coot Club in 1984. In the book, Dick and Dorothea Callum visit the Norfolk Broads over Easter holidays, hoping to learn to sail.

Being devoted Swallows and Amazons readers, and as it was almost Easter season, we had to journey to the Broads ourselves. En route, I had this conversation with eleven-year-old Emily:

Emily: We’ll be staying in a houseboat there, right?
Me: Emily, I wish we could, but it’s after five already. We have no reservation anywhere, much less a houseboat.
E: But in Coot Club, they were in the Norfolk Broads and they stayed in a houseboat.
M: That was in the novel, but we’re not. You can’t just find a houseboat any old time,
E: I know we will.
M: It’s off season. I have no idea whether there are any houseboats, much less how to find one. I’m afraid we’ll be sleeping in the car.
E: I know we will.
M: [gives up]

Just as I was beginning to look for an unflooded spot to park the car for the unpleasant night ahead, we rounded a turn and saw a house lit up. There was a sign out front:

HOUSEBOAT FOR RENT

E: See?
M: OK, there are houseboats, but I still don’t know. Is it really available? Can you rent it for a couple of nights? Please don’t get any unrealistic expectations. I don’t want you (or ten-year-old Stephen, her silent ally in this parent-child struggle) to be disappointed.

Nevertheless. I went up to the door:

M: Do you really have a houseboat for rent?
Owner: Yes.
M: Is it available now for a short rental?
O: Yes, I hadn’t planned to open the boats up so early in the season, but decided just today to get one of them ready.

So, we ended up in a dry houseboat that night, just as the Callum children do when they stay on the Teasel. There was even a dinghy attached, just as in Coot Club. More conversation ensued:

E: Tomorrow we can go out to protect the baby coots from the Hullabaloos, just as they did in Coot Club.
M: I’ll ask whether we can use the dinghy, but I don’t even know what a coot is.
E: I know we will.
M: Even if there are coots, I don’t know that any of them have babies now.
E: I know they will.
M: And there may not be any Hullabaloos either.
E: There will be and we need to protect the coots from them.
M: [gives up]

The next morning we went out in the dinghy, as I remember, just Emily, Stephen, and me. We followed along one of the canals so common in the Broads. Around a bend, we saw a water bird’s nest. Inside were baby coots. Just then, a large motorboat filled with Hullabaloos came into view, heading perilously towards the coots’ nest. We quickly maneuvered the dinghy so that it stood between the motorboat and the nest, protecting it from the Hullabaloos, just as the children did in Coot Club.

We came to know the boats of Coot Club: the Hullabaloo’s motorboat, the Teasel, the dinghy, and esepcially, the childrens’s pirate boat, the Death and Glory. The Death and Glory is described as “an old black ship’s boat, with a stumpy little mast and a black flag at the masthead.” It’s rowed with oars or propelled by a “grey, ragged, patched old lugsail, far too small for the boat.”

As we related our adventure to the houseboat owner, he reminded us about that boat, too. He asked, would we like to see it?

E&S: Yes!
M: But that’s not possible.

Then he told us that when the BBC produced the Coot Club film, they used the Death and Glory boat. He now had that very boat on his property, just 100 yards from where we had been staying.

Yes, we went to see it, yes it was wonderful, and yes, I learned something about arguing with my children about literature and life.

The Fun Theory

My sister, Susan, just sent a link to the Piano Staircase, which combines health, music, and fun, three of my favorite things:

Take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator and feel better” is something we often hear or read in the Sunday papers. Few people actually follow that advice. Can we get more people to take the stairs over the escalator by making it fun to do? See the results here.

The Piano Staircase is from the Fun Theory, which

is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.

The site has all sorts of clever ideas, many of which have been realized, and some with videos.

Voyages with the Rob Roy

rob_royI had shoulder surgery on August 18, so my days of paddling through rapids or hoisting a canoe on my shoulders need to be postponed. As a substitute, I’ve been reading A thousand miles in the Rob Roy canoe on rivers and lakes of Europe (1866), by John Macgregor (1825-1892).

singers_wagonMacGregor himself led a life that sounds like an overdone adventure yarn. At the age of three months, he was rescued from a burning ship whil een route to India with his parents. At the age of 12, he helped launch a rescue boat for a ship in distress off Belfast, then slipped aboard secretly a the last moment to help out. He grew up sailing, boat-building, riding, reading, and experimenting with home-made steam engines, batteries, and chemicals that led to several major explosions. He attended seven schools before graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in mathematics. He traveled throughout the world, fighting Greek pirates and crocodiles, climbing Mont Blanc, Etna, and Vesuvius. He won awards for sharpshooting, drew for Punch and illustrated books, and wrote his own books on marine propulsion, patent law, travel, and transcriptions of Syrian and Egyptian melodies he had heard in his travels.

MacGregor built a hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and a double-bladed, kayak paddle which he named the “Rob Roy”. He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. His account of the journey became a best seller and was the beginning of the recreational canoeing movement. His trip inspired many, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who made his own voyage in a Rob Roy, and then wrote about it in his first published book, An inland voyage.

morningMacGregor’s account portrays a Europe with only distant resonance to today. Instead of shopping centers and freeways, there were people cutting hay with hand tools. Instead of the Web, there were newspapers, 3241 in Germany alone.

A thousand miles displays a buoyant optimism and refreshing sense of discovery. MacGregor talks of “a strange feeling of freedom and novelty which lasted to the end of the tour,” (p. 15), and throughout, of a reverence for the canoe, which I share:

Something like it is felt when you first march off with a knapsack ready to walk anywhere, or when you start alone in a sailing-boat for a long cruise.

But then in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, I was in a canoe, which could be paddled or sailed, hauled, or carried over land or water to Rome, if I liked, or to Hong-Kong. (p. 15)

digueI also like his descriptions of wildlife, for example of herons “wading about with that look of injured innocence they put on when you dare to disturb them.” (p. 35) Later, he refers to a gathering including the

long-necked, long-winged, long-legged heron, that seems to have forgotten to get a body, flocks by scores with ducks of the various wild breeds, while pretty painted butterflies and fierce- looking dragon-flies float, as it were, on the summer sunbeams, and simmer in the air. (p. 71)

At the village of Geisingen it was discovered that the boiler of my engine needed some fuel, or, in plain terms, I must breakfast. (p. 59)

meuseMacGregor’s challenges along the way become not discouragements, but the very stuff of the journey. He  reminds me that a broken shoulder is just a toss on the billows, one that can be an opportunity to learn:

It is, as in the voyage of life, that our cares and hardships are our very Mentors of living. Our minds would only vegetate if all life were like a straight canal, and we in a boat being towed along it. The afflictions that agitate the soul are as its shallows, rocks, and whirlpools, and the bark that has not been tossed on billows knows not half the sweetness of the harbour of rest. (p. 37)