“This fella’s going to be on YouTube” grins Jim as he tucks away his video camera. The fella in question is a seal which for the third or fourth time has heaved itself from the water, landing on top of one of the kayaks. Its intentions are not clear, though it appears not to be aggressive.
There is a tradition in Irish folklore of a selkie – a shapeshifting sea-creature who can shed her skin to reveal a beautiful woman. This seal looks like if it shed its skin, underneath would be a balding fifty-something man with his children’s names tattooed on his forearm in gothic script
After pausing to nudge the back of a kayaker, the seal – which I have nicknamed Sealy – slips back into the water. We are on the Lee in a group of twelve, kayaking around the city centre. It’s a beautiful spring day in Cork City. The General E*e*tion and the world of I’m-glad-you-asked-me-that and Excuse-me-now-I-didn’t-interrupt-you seems very far away.
Our guides are Jim Kennedy and Barry O’Connell from Atlantic Sea Kayaking who we met an hour earlier at the Clarion. After a safety talk we descend via a walkway to a pontoon on the water. Jim talks about all the wildlife that is now coming back to the river. “Do you see that there” he says, pointing to a dark squelchy-looking substance which was decorating part of the walkway. It looks like suspiciously like what a cat might leave on a new carpet. “Otter.” says Jim triumphantly. “I was sitting up at the Boardwalk Cafe having a coffee and I could hear a screech. I knew it was an otter.” It’s an intriguing thought. That you could be having dinner in the centre of the city while a few feet away otters were … well…making their own contribution to city-life.
The kayaks are tandem ones and Jim offers to share with one of us. I jump at the chance. I know my limits. If I travel with an expert, there’s a good chance I won’t spend the afternoon in a canoe stuck next to the wall with me marooned like a giant floating Subbuteo man. In general I like water for its drinking and jacuzz-al properties but I have never been able to disport in it properly. In Transition Year we went windsurfing. I audibly snapped my groin muscle while stepping off the board into the water.
All these memories are soon left behind. Canoing through Cork is a singular experience. All my usual frames of reference for travelling in the city are changed. When I drive or walk around Cork, it’s all about streets connected to other streets, buildings in-between and every now and then, a bridge to allow you to get to even more streets. Maybe once in a while, if the weather is nice and there isn’t a beggar making me feel guilty, I lean on the bridge and look down at the Lee. But even then, the river feels like something that’s in the way.
When I take a kayak out onto the water my whole perception of Cork changes. It becomes obvious the river was there long before anything else. This is a route that cannot yet be travelled on Google StreetView. On the way up to Patrick’s Bridge you see where the river, that flows under Patricks Street, joins the North Channel. In fact Cornmarket Street, Grand Parade, Patrick Street were all river channels once upon a time. Cork was known as the Venice of the North. Imagine canoeing up Patrick Street – getting your paper in Easons, floating by Debenhams, having a browse in the window as you pass. What’s that? Battery low on the phone? We’ll just tie up by Vodafone and get it charged. The double yellow lines have been washed away, Traffic warden, so put your little notebook back in your pocket.
It seems like a much nicer way to get around the city. We travel for two-and-a-half hours and never once have the tension of wondering whether a green light will go orange. There is traffic – some adolescents row by at speed – but there isn’t a furry dice in sight. People lean on bridges and wave at us as we pass. I’m not sure what to say to them so I smile meaningfully. As if I am some sort of Old Man River coming to tell them that land-based travel is all bullsh*t. “Everyone needs to get back to the water and chill, man.”
Jim tells me he used to be a bit wild when he was a young boy in Ballintemple. Then a local man introduced him and his friends to boats and rowing and it calmed him down completely. It makes sense. I just can’t imagine drunken fights starting on the river.
– Hey langer! What’s your problem biy?
– Nawtin’ biy – just looking at the moon dancing on the water
– Me too
If you were too far over the limit to paddle you could always get a water taxi whose driver would be equally at ease with himself. Even if you opened with the classic starter-for-ten taxi-driver questions:
– Are ye on for long tonight?
– Maybe until sunrise. It’s beautiful this time of the year.
– Are ye busy tonight?
– Not a sausage but I don’t blame Nigerians or the Taxi Regulator. Look! There’s a seal on the bonnet!
Speaking of which, Sealy is back. He snorts a little and attempts another vaguely mating-style move on the back of the kayak. We’d love to stay and chat but we need to get back to Lapp’s Quay before the spring tide rises too high to get under the Eamon De Valera bridge.
As we walk up the gangway to dry land, it feels like we’ve arrived back in the country again. Later, I’m in the car and react a little too slowly to a green light. There’s a beep from an irate driver behind and I see in the mirror his face is all sweary. I want to tell him it’s ok. Because I know a place, where no cars go…