Getting time away from a busy life, a demanding job, two crazy preschoolers, and a lovely wife can be tough. At the end of a working week, my usual routine involves reaching for an ice-cold beer, playing out in the garden with my girls, shuffling them off to bed, followed by a curry, mindless TV, and actively avoiding any form of commitment until Monday morning shows its ugly face again. My friend Adam has a very similar set up – minus one daughter, but his one girl is ten months old, which I think increases the intensity!
Adam and I grew up together. Played in the same band. Best men at each other’s weddings. Godparents to each other’s kids. But living in different cities means we don’t see one another nearly enough, so catching up requires sticking a date in the diary. This time we penciled in ‘Canoe-camping trip – Shropshire’.
So Friday afternoon, around the time I’d usually be carefully selecting which craft ale I’d be consuming, I was throwing tents and inflatable kayaks into my car and kissing the girls goodbye, aware that I was about to willingly join M6 motorway hell. I crawled away from Birmingham in glorious sunshine, on my way to Shropshire to meet Adam at the campsite.
Ad was running late, a consequence of driving out of Manchester at rush hour. But I was happy getting on with putting up the tent. I reached into the cooler box and pulled out a can of IPA, sat down, bare-feet on the grass and read my book until my friend arrived. I felt guilty that my wife would probably be bargaining with the girls right about now, in an attempt to get them into the bath.
Adam arrived and we went to the pub for food, before lighting a fire and sipping single malt from hip flasks until we were both too tired to talk anymore. Crawling into my sleeping bag, I briefly thought about how much I love sleeping inside a tent, before swiftly conking out cold.
I awoke to the early morning summer sun, already warm as the forecasted British heat wave loomed. We cooked breakfast – bacon, eggs, beans and mushrooms with toast – then packed away to drive ten miles upstream to the Welsh border at Melverley. This would be our launch point onto the River Severn, eventually getting out back at the campsite.
We inflated my bright orange and grey raft, applied sun cream and launched downstream. The paddling was easy going, as the river had not long been in flood. Signs of recent high waters dominated our views – fallen tress and debris lining the banks either side. With the water now back at normal level, but with an encouraging current doing much of the work for us, we spent the day deep in conversation, eating lunch on the water while taking in the surrounding wildlife.
At the end of a calm and uneventful ten miles, we pulled our kayak out of the Severn at Montford Bridge. Ad ferried me and my boat back to Melverley where I’d left my car. We said our goodbyes and promised to do this again soon, before driving off to rejoin our families.
Now, I can only speak for myself here, but I’m certain Adam would agree. When I glance at my iPhone diary I’m usually presented with a scattering of dotted dates, indicating that I have something on for each of those days. Booking in a trip like the above requires filling in one of my rare and protected empty weekends, despite an intrinsic desire to keep it free.
But I argue that time in the outdoors is essential for balancing out the bonkers-ness of modern life. Centuries ago, stress was crucial to our survival, adrenaline pumping through the veins of our ancestors as they hunted antelope or ran towards a clash with enemy tribes. Stress arrived when it was needed and dissipated shortly after. In our modern world, most of us no longer face life or death situations but our inherent response to something uncomfortable still lingers. Our blood boils in heavy traffic. Work deadlines keep us awake at night. We fume when Tesco has run out of avocados! Mental health is a biggy.
Time outdoors reconnects us to being a simple part of this earth. The fresh air. The wide sky. The wind, rain or, if you’re lucky, sunshine all help centre our attention back towards what is going on right in the moment. When paddling along a steady-flowing river, hours away from the nearest car, computer or shopping centre, there’s not much you can do there and then but enjoy what you’re surrounded by… It’s also a far nicer way to catch up with and old friend, than in a coffee shop in Birmingham!
I returned to my family refreshed and energised, present and playful with my two nutcase daughters and my ever-understanding best friend wife. Had I been selfish escaping normal life for 24 hours? Perhaps. Usually we’re told to put others before ourselves. But I’m reminded of what the Air Stewards tell us during their pre-flight safety demonstration – “Place you own mask on before attending to any infants or children.”
Essentially, you’re not helping anyone if you’re passed out in the aisle!