The Pull of the River begins with the completion of Matt Gaw’s canoe by his travelling companion, James. It is named ‘Pipe’, a nod to Roger Deakin and his recording Cigarette on the Waveney, a journey by canoe. It is the Waveney where Matt and James begin their year-long adventure. The narrative is rich as they meander through each chapter, using historical references, folklore and first-hand observations to form a bountiful account of each river.
The canoe is like no other means of transport: it is silent, unobtrusive, and it offers the passenger time and space to observe and contemplate. Matt Gaw understands this. His canoe drifts silently into a scene, it passes through, the song of the paddle is slight, and the contemplative world is easily reached.
Roger Deakin’s voice echoes throughout the book, especially during the eastern adventures; his words drift in at opportune moments, offering snippets of poetry and advice. Gaw writes on Cigarette on the Waveney:
I listened again and again, soaking up his words, as well as the moments where he lets the river talk. Some of the most evocative parts of the recording are simply the sound of water under the canoe, chuckling drip of dipped paddles as Deakin eased himself into a hidden, more contemplative world.
The Pull of the River is a journey into the soul. The power of the water is a constant flex on the spirit – be it a storm brewing off the shore of Loch Ness or a riffle on the River Lark, there is fear and there is calm. On the final leg of the Stour, marooned on a salt marsh due to a strong tide, the pair are fearful. The only escape route will take them across mudflats, their other option being to return to the turbulent water of the estuary. They regain their composure and take the later option, and not only survive, but start to flourish in this watery world.
In the chapter ‘Alone on the Water’ Matt Gaw observes the re-wilding of the river Otter. This time he paddles solo, and the experience is wholly different. He seeks out the newly introduced beaver, and one evening is rewarded with a sighting.
Little by little, the author is synchronised with the river and the world around it. The river and the canoeist through osmosis are kindred.
Before the final chapter, where Gaw tackles the wilds of Scotland and Loch Ness, he takes a contemplative trip to his childhood river the Colne. It’s a telling tale – a river his father knew well – but The Pull of the River does not dwell on looking back. At heart, it is a book which encourages its readers to live in the present: to contemplate, to explore, to be lost, to lose control and to regain it again.
The Pull of the River is out now and available here, priced £14.99.
Nick Fallowfield-Cooper is a photographer, picture editor for Fallon’s Angler, and keen canoeist.