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McConks reading corner #2: The river; the recluse – never judge a SUP by its cover.

McConks reading corner#2: The river; the recluse – never judge a SUP by its cover.

Welcome to the second instalment of the McConks reading corner. Be sure to check out the first here – The Fisherman: an ocean lesson for us all.

He was a little odd that’s for sure. Some may even call him a weirdo, but that’s a tad derogatory in my book. Reclusive, shy, maybe agoraphobic and I suppose anti-social but not weird. None the less the chap had never done anything to harm me or cause issue. Even when my ever so faithful, but oh so dumb, chocolate Lab decided to empty his bladder on the poor guy’s houseboat.

I say houseboat…It was more a dilapidated shed perched precariously on the river bank. In all the years I’d been walking Wilbur here the shed had weathered the storm. Severe gales, lashing rain and rising water levels had done nothing to undermine the house boat’s (seemingly) sturdy foundations.

On a couple of occasions, usually after particularly bad weather, I’d seen him fixing up window panes or bodging holes with bits of two by four. Every time I’d approached he’d made a quick getaway and disappeared inside. 

At one point I felt I should knock and see if the chap wanted anything; supplies or whatever. Thinking better of it I decided he wasn’t a cripple and could quite easily get to the shops. He would therefore have all he needed.

The recluse’s behaviour did nothing to enamour the local kids. Time and again I heard the spiteful jeers and name-calling from neighbourhood youths. On a couple of occasions, I’d also heard what I assume to be breaking glass. Presumably, stones splintering windows after being chucked. Kids can be so horrible! But in some ways I got it – after all, I’d been a kid once. And I remember similar with regard to the ‘Cat Lady’ who lived down my road. Back in the day, she’d been the target of me and mate’s abuse for nothing other than her fondness of felines. Yet kids being kids we’d decided she should put up with a tirade of name-calling and heckling. I guess Mr Recluse was this generation’s version of Cat Lady from my teenage years. 

I put these thoughts to the back of my mind, instead focusing on the warm spring sunshine that was belting down. Not a cloud in the sky, the riverside path quiet and Wilbur roaming free. Occasionally he’d stop, point, listen and then dart off into the undergrowth convinced he was going to find something fun to play with. It was probably rats or some other wild riverside dwelling creature.

My gaze turned towards the river. It wasn’t particularly full but was flowing fast. The weir, just upstream where Recluse’s houseboat was, would be a lot of fun today. If I had time I’d head home, grab my kayak and hit it. There was also a decent stopper hole for some rodeo action quite close which made this area one of the reasons so many boaters chose to reside close by. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time and my ankle was still giving me jip after a mountain bike spill. Oh well, you pays your dues I s’pose.

Suddenly my idle daydreaming was rudely interrupted by shouting and screaming. I was just round the bend from Recluse’s house but I knew that’s where the kerfuffle was coming from. And there was something different about these shouts. It wasn’t the usual jeering and jibing. There was urgency and alarm to the tone. No, make that fear… 

Instinctively I began to run with Wilbur following heel side, tail wagging, tongue hanging out thinking this was the beginning of a fun new game with his master. My pace picked up. Rounding the bend, the weir and the houseboat came into view. I also caught the act of Mr Recluse legging it over the side of the railing with what appeared to be a stand up paddle board. He lobbed it in first before deftly vaulting the wooden houseboat rail – paddle in hand – and landing dead central across the centre line of the board. He had no top on and his lean, toned and tanned body glistened in the sun. I couldn’t work out whether he was sweating or had just got out of the shower.

As I’d previously noted there was quite some flow, yet Recluse was completely wobble free on his stand up paddle board. He began sprint paddling the short distance to the weir. As I ran I could see three lads gesticulating and animatedly pointing to the weir. I didn’t know what was happening at first but then it hit me. With horror I realised someone had obviously gone in and was now facing a life or death situation. 

Knowing weir hydraulics intimately I put the hammer down, Wilbur still hot on my heels, although his panting was becoming more pronounced. If someone without any experience of moving river water had fallen in they were going to be in plenty of schtuck. The recirculating liquid at the weir’s base will do its level best to drag you to the bottom when the flow’s powerful. At first you go to the green room (some may even say this is quite pleasant), but then, pretty quick everything goes black as you’re pinned down in the depths. Any experienced kayaker will try and ride it out, relying on their buoyancy aid and buoyancy of the boat to eventually aid popping out. If you’re not used to this, which most aren’t, then you panic, try to fight it (which is fruitless) and in fact make matters worse. From the movement of the three lads I concluded whoever was in the drink wasn’t having the best of times.

I arrived next to the boys just as Recluse touched down at the weir. I squinted into the bubbling depths and couldn’t see anything. The water was a spiralling cauldron or whirlpools, froth and foam. Just as I was beginning to think the worst Recluse stepped forwards on his board towards the nose, engaging it with the recirculation. He expertly kept the board flat with quick and efficient brace strokes. The board was almost stationary, both sets of water movements pushing and pulling to keep his craft stock still. Yet I wasn’t fooled, there was a hell of a lot of skill going on here. 

Spray and water bounced frantically off the nose of Recluse’s board. The relentless cascade of aerated fluid was also making him considerably more wet. Even though the sun was warm I started to fear for Recluse’s safety also – after all hypothermia can set in fast if you’re not wearing adequate protection. And here he was, paddling with bare torso. If he happened to fall, then he too would be in dire straits.  

Suddenly, with swift and precise movement, Recluse dropped to his knees and reached down into the water. His hand disappeared below the surface for a split second before he yanked a person’s arm and finally whole body free of the weir’s clutches. Weighting the opposite rail of his stand up paddle board he pressed on the overhanging paddle blade, to further remain braced, while continuing to haul with his free arm.

The whole scene was horrifically compelling and all playing out in slow motion. How the hell Recluse managed it I don’t know but with the blink of an eye a teenage boy was now draped across the SUP’s deck. Recluse was now on his knees, using the paddle deftly again to keep things level as he let the board drift backwards. Once out of the main flow he used a ferry gliding technique to get back to the bank where the teen was hauled ashore. He was unconscious but breathing – fortunately.

Recluse wiped the sweat and additional moisture from his forehead, looked and smiled at me. Before I could say anything the sound of paramedics behind caused me to whirl round…

John, the teen who’d fallen in the river, made a full recovery – much to the relief of everyone. It was touch and go at first with him drifting in and out of consciousness on the way to the hospital. Secondary drowning was a concern but it seemed John hadn’t inhaled too much water and was therefore well on the mend a few days later.

Apparently John and his mates had been drinking. They’d made a quick stop off at Recluse’s riverside houseboat for some ‘fun’ (John’s mum had clipped him round the ear upon hearing this but then burst into tears and began cuddling her son while shaking). One of John’s mates had chucked a stone too hard and smashed a window resulting in the group legging it. Unfortunately for John he’d been too close to the bank and slipped and fell. The weir currents had grabbed hold and dragged him towards impending doom. Recluse, or rather Richard Wilson, had observed events as they unfolded and without thought or concern for his own safety had acted.

After everything had calmed we’d had a chat. It was at that point I realised I knew Richard only too well. He’d aged a little, was slightly gaunter, but was the same Richard Wilson that for years had charged some of the fiercest high volume water on the planet. He also had an addiction to ‘hucking’ massive waterfalls and drops, which resulted in a broken back five years ago. This put paid to his professional kayaking career overnight. 

Depression set in, he told me, along with anxiety. He’d felt worthless and without purpose. A whole life’s ‘work’ and career down the pan. Following an extended period of rehab, he’d opted for a simpler life, taking on the dilapidated houseboat as a ‘doer upper’ project. Planning a full renovation instead it had become a chore waking every day with mental health problems. And then, six months ago, he found his love of paddling again – this time in stand up mode. By sheer luck than judgement Rich realised he had the perfect white SUP water training ground right on his doorstep – literally. Things had started to improve from there. 

Rich didn’t quite know why stand up paddling had been an attraction. Whatever the case, it was damn fortunate for John that Rich was around and had such paddling expertise. Anybody else would’ve drowned that day…

I still see Rich from time to time – sometimes stomping shuv its aboard his SUP riding the weir (his level of skill is unquestionable). Rich’s antics often grab local news attention and social media groups are always buzzing about Rich when the river’s in flow. Recently a bunch of US white water stand up paddlers made the trek across the pond to check out Rich’s spot. Rich blew them all out the water!

He very much continues to be a recluse. But at least I get a nod of recognition these days. Wilbur still thinks it’s a good idea to urinate against Rich’s house boat as well…