As I listened to Bex talk about finding a Starbucks cup with the name ‘Phil’ written on it in Israel where they don’t even have Starbucks, I realised, like all the other people in the room at the Paddle Pickup launch party, that this is why we were all there. To learn more about plastic pollution and share ways on how we can reduce it in the hope that it’s not already too late.
In this article I talk about what Paddle Pickup is, why I did it, where we went, what we found, how I found out about it, who else was on the Paddle Pickup team and my daily diary.
What is it?
Paddle Pickup came about when Bex Band, adventure blogger (The Ordinary Adventurer) and Erin Bastian, experienced adventurer and leader (Evoke Adventure) had the idea to do something about ocean pollution combined with their passion for adventure.
Paddle Pickup is a female only expedition covering around 20km of waterways per day in sea kayaks, collecting plastic along the way. The journey started in Bristol and finished in London after 17 days and 308km, paddling through the English countryside and some major cities and towns including Bath and Reading. It was the first ever Paddle Pickup expedition in August 2017.
Why I did it
Recently I’ve become more aware of single use plastics. Let’s stop and think about it for a second. When’s the last time you bought a plastic waterbottle? How many do you use in a day? A week? A year? Multiply that out by around 25 million people in Australia, 65 million people in the UK or whatever the approximate population number in your country.
Example: I myself would have purchased on average two plastic bottles per week. Don’t forget the bottle of juice, soft drink or water you probably bought with your Sainsbury’s meal deal. That’s at least 100 plastic bottles per year. Multiplied by your country’s population number gives you the amount of plastic bottles alone that need to be disposed of or recycled. And don’t even get me started on straws.
Actually, while we’re on the topic, have you seen the video online of the straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose? What about the interview with David Attenborough talking about the filming of the albatross feeding their young which included a piece of plastic? Sadly what they are saying is true. It’s bad and I’ve seen it for myself. Once you start looking, the water is full of plastic, whether a plastic bottle bobbing among the reeds or the micro plastic floating visibly in the water because on average, plastic takes 450 years to break down. It’s so disheartening to see the ducks swimming among the plastic on the top of the surface. But seeing it for myself has motivated me to change my habits and encourage others to do the same.
Where did we go?
The Paddle Pickup journey started in Bristol Harbour. Five days and around 100km later we finished leg one in Great Bedwyn. The towns along the way in leg one included Salford, Winsley, Melksham and Pewsey. For our two leaders and one other, they spent a total of 15 days in the water. With one day rest in between legs, it was a 17 day expedition away from home. I did leg one only and others joined along the journey for legs two and three.
What did we find?
So many plastic bottles. They were number one on the list of plastic items we collected by far. Out of 629 pieces of plastic collected on leg one over 100km of water, 278 were bottles. It’s important for me to point out that we could not collect everything. Manoeuvring around in a sea kayak is tricky for beginners and some plastic is tucked away in branches or reeds, just that little bit out of paddle reach. Also stopping and starting to collect each piece takes time and with around 20km to cover each day we needed to keep moving. This is a summary of what we collected in leg one:
Over the full length of the expedition and 3240 pieces of plastic collected, 1169 of them were plastic bottles, a whopping 32%. Here is the final tally:
How I found out about it
Casually scrolling through Facebook I saw a post on the Aussies in London Facebook page looking for adventurous women to complete their kayak expedition teams, collecting plastic along the way. I thought it was a great idea. After clicking through I read about the expedition leaders and felt like it would be a good opportunity to meet some inspirational women, see more of the English countryside and do something good.
Who else was on the Paddle Pickup team?
On leg one from Bristol to Great Bedwyn there were a total of eight ladies. The two leaders and six of us with varying levels of kayaking experience. Clare from Whalefest / Incredible Oceans was previously a lawyer before becoming a volunteer. Anna is a kayaking instructor, the perfect person to buddy up with. And the others were a mix of teachers and waste management specialists. Half the team was international with Lea from Canada, Vanese from Bermuda and myself from Australia. The age range was between early 20s to 50s. You can meet the Paddle Pickup team here.
Day 1 – The first day
Feeling full of energy and ready to set off on our adventure from Bristol Harbour, I noticed a plastic bag and drink wrapper in the water and almost got started straight away! But we needed to put on our kayaking gear and organise all our personal belongings into the kayak hatches. And it was lightly raining.
I went to the bathroom at least twice, unsure of when we might be able to go again, and where. We were given an introduction to the kayaks and some general water safety tips before carrying the kayaks down to the water. Confidently carrying the first kayak to enter the water, I slipped on the ramp and for the rest of the day I was damp from the waist down.
Most our time was spent that day in Bristol Harbour trying to pick out all the plastic we could see from the water, right down to the bottle lids. But we soon realised there was too much plastic for us to carry and we were spending too much time in one area. One sight I’ll never forget as we paddled along was a bird picking at a dead bird’s body in the water. These sights combined with a local guy telling us that removing the plastic from the water is the responsibility of the Harbour Master and that by being there, people would intentionally throw plastic into the water, put a further dampener on our purposeful adventure.
But we were determined to continue paddling and spread the message about plastic pollution. For lunch we stopped at a rowing club where we tallied up and emptied most of the plastic rubbish collected so far into their recycling bins. The remaining plastic was for the artwork that Clare from Whalefest / Incredible Oceans is crowdfunding for to raise awareness about single use plastics.
It was a full day of around 20km of kayaking and with the vision of five chihuahuas in my dreams from the window of a canal boat we paddled past, I fell fast asleep on my blow up mattress in the warmth of St Mary’s Church in Salford which I knew would be luxury compared to the next night. Wild camping.
Days 2 – Swapping the kayak for a canoe
Turns out most days are quite similar when you have to paddle around 20km a day. The differences for day two were:
- Anna and I paddled the canoe which is essentially the bin for everyone to dump their collected plastics into when they have no more space left on the top of their kayak
- A local puppy dog launched itself into the canoe and sat on my lap for a millisecond before jumping out and running back towards its lovely family that had collected a bag of rubbish themselves, inspired by our journey
- My friends Helen and Derek that live locally came to visit the Paddle Pickup crew at our wild camping spot on the aqueduct in Avoncliff with gifts of chocolate and the love of their dog Humphrey
- Wild camping including dinner on the camp stove but thankfully with the nearby pub and head torch, no need for wild toilet experiences… yet
It was a tough day paddling the canoe against the wind for what was actually 22km from 9am until 7pm. We even saw a dead fox floating in the water towards the end of our day (though seeing dead animals became the norm and added to our list of rabbits, toads, rats, mice and a heron). Aside from the positivity of the girls and Anna’s motivational singing, the other things that got me through the day were a brownie and latte at a cafe in Bath, points two and three above and the unique singing group at the Cross Guns pubs near our wild camping spot including a song about rolling down the river.
Day 3 – First shower of the trip!
A few extra kilometres on day two meant a few less on day three. Seventeen kilometres in fact. And not only did we have a shorter distance to paddle, we were up at 7am and ready to go by 8am meaning an earlier arrival at our campsite. The wind was even in our favour today, giving us a little push in the right direction.
Just like the other days, locals looked at us in disbelief as we paddled past them and told them we were on our way to London, collecting plastic along the way. We agreed that we needed to make a Paddle Pickup sign for a better chance of locals believing our story and checking us out online.
Today was also our first time encountering so many locks together. Six of them. What I haven’t mentioned so far is that we have to get out of our kayaks and portage them beside each lock including in some cases across roads which is actually the most exhausting part of the day. For safety reasons we’re not allowed to take the kayaks through the locks like the boats. We took the opportunity at this set of locks to have a toilet break at the nearby Somerset Arms pub. Here we met Bonnie the beautiful old dog that asked me for a belly rub and a selfie.
Around 3:30pm we arrived at the Foxhanger’s Farm campsite and had our first shower of the trip. A £1 coin inserted into the slot gave you a total of seven minutes of hot water heaven. It was almost too long so I took the opportunity to soap up a second time and the water shut off soon after. For the rest of the evening we painted a Paddle Pickup sign and had a pint of Guinness in the pub with the local pub dogs.
Day 4 – Encountering the famous Caen Hill locks
And I thought six locks in a row was a lot. How about around 30 of them instead? Approximately 4km long? Up a hill? Having woken up early again today this time with a sore throat, the Caen Hill locks were tough but they were equally as beautiful and we all put in more effort and teamwork to get through them. We had a photographer with us today too so we had to look the part!
Despite the longest day of paddling (and walking) around 24km, we arrived at St Francis School in Pewsey around 6pm. We were camping there for the night and were spoilt again with a hot shower. Bex, one of our leaders, met Clive the school gardener and neighbour who offered us some fresh eggs and raspberries. That was breakfast sorted!
Instead of pitching a tent I decided to join most of the others and set up camp in the bandstand on the oval. We then cooked dinner on the camp stove (mac cheese for me tonight and peaches for dessert), had an Adele singalong and watched the rabbits hop about on the oval. Like nights two and three, there was a nearby pub so we waited for each other to finish their showers and made our way there.
It was a long cold night out in the bandstand. I wasn’t equipped with the same quality of camping gear and clothes as the others and was tempted to sleep inside on the basketball court. And then there’s that moment where you need to pee in the middle of the night. After a few steps towards the school building on the cold wet grass that I could feel underneath my feet even with socks and thongs (flip flops) on, I had my first wild toilet experience at the nearby tree.
Day 5 – The last day
With less than 20km to go, we could smell the finish line (or was that us?) but it was another tough day for a different reason. The locks were spread out in such a way that it almost wasn’t worth putting the kayaks back into the water between locks. Our teamwork was fading a bit today too because we were tired and it resulted in half of us paddling the kayaks in the water as much as possible and the other half pulling them alongside the water.
Highlights of the day included Erin rescuing a baby pigeon that had fallen from its nest onto the water (they can’t swim or fly), meeting Mike who lives off the grid with solar power, grows his own fruit and vegetables and collects plastic from the canal every year, being interviewed by BBC Cornwall while on the water and Bex falling out of her kayak right at the end of day five. Classic.
We made it to the finish line mid afternoon. Much earlier than the anticipated time of around 5pm and my train back to London around 8pm. But it meant that we had plenty of time to… visit another pub! So a few of us headed to the Three Bridges in Great Bedwyn for a burger and a beer. The burgers are better at the Three Bridges. Yum! When it was time for my train back to London, fellow kayaker Hannah and I made our way down to Bedwyn station. What an adventure!
How you can help raise awareness
Clare from Whalefest / Incredible Oceans who paddled all three legs, 308km over 17 days, is crowdfunding for a piece of artwork to be made out of some of the plastic collected during Paddle Pickup. This will be used in community displays and information sessions at schools for education about plastic pollution, especially single use plastics. Please dig deep for our future generations and donate what you can here: https://chuffed.org/project/incredibleoceans