Tales of the Riverbank

We have tides in the river here but we are not an estuary. Here we are above where the ocean tide meets the down-flowing stream. We are quite up the river, well away from the sea in a winding route. There is no tidal bore so the tide is backed-up river water, not brackish estuarine water. The salt tide pushes upstream, then the brackish tide pushes further up until it reaches Loneswimmer Tower, where the tide is all fresh water, but where, still, it is a tide, a mesotidal reach.

Fifty kilometres away along the coast, the Three Sisters of the Suir, Nore and Barrow rivers empty past Hook and Crook Heads and level out a huge plain under the Celtic Sea.

Graph to show river Suir tide changes over a 5 day spring tide period
Five day graph of summer Suir river tide heights (spring tide)

One difference from the river tide to the ocean tide is that there is no high water slack, and at low water the flowing river current predominates. The change at hide tide from flood to ebb is virtually immediate as can be seen in the typical tide chart in the spring tide diagram. Unlike the ocean, there is a significant level change in the last hour of the tide. I have always found the Rule of Twelfths which is routinely assumed and incorrectly said to apply to all ocean tides only applies in some locations, as the direction of the tide hitting the coast is important, and the rule is even less clear when the coast is on an island, like Ireland, or on island off an island. The amount of water in the catchment is more obvious in summer in the low water level which is unaffected by the tide.

Pools closed, too far from the sea, April passed, like it has for many of the world’s swimmers, without me getting wet, only the second such break from swimming I’ve had in fifteen years. I needed to get proper wet. Not showers or rain. Wet so that my skin wrinkles. Wet so that I smell of chlorine or salt, or whatever lakes and rivers smell of. Wet so my towels start to stiffen with salt, and my togs don’t dry out between swims. Wet so water gets shoved up my nose to run out at inopportune moments, wet so that sand gathers in my hair.

So as April passed and the weather was exceptionally good, I finally took to the river.

Swimming in a river
Into the channel

I stroll a few hundred metres down the road, letting the neighbours get used to the sight. Maybe.

My entry is a slipway for the local traditional angling cots (a flat-bottomed shallow-draft clinker-built boat used for angling in inlets and rushes). So I have to be careful to avoid the moorings and ropes. I also don’t want to be wading out in mixed rock and mud which hide sharp objects like broken glass or detritus from anglers.

With a little observation I have found that the lowest flood height I can go in is 1.8 metres, but it is better if the river is two metres or higher. That’s more depth than required for swimming, but the minimum for a safe entry and exit.

With a little observation I have found that the lowest flood height I can go in is 1.8 metres, but it is better if the river is two metres or higher. That’s more depth than required for swimming, but the minimum for a safe entry and exit.

With a dozen or more boats moored, some to the shore, some to re-purposed gas cylinders fixed mid-river, and with other small power craft being regularly moved in an out of the river at the same time I swim,  the taste of diesel dominates the first twenty five metres. As with all marathon swimmers, this taste is familiar yet always distasteful.

All the anglers here, part of a multi-generational local culture, on one the great Irish angling rivers launch just before or at high tide and motor away to their favourite spots, (known locally as pools), down to Fiddown or the Coalyard, the supply yard to the old river barges, or upriver to town, maybe even across the town weir on the highest tides.

Where I enter the far bank is only ten metres away. But that bank is only the shore of a significant midstream island, which stretches three quarters of a kilometre both up- and downstream. The main course of the river is on the far side of the island but is shallower. The local angling boats use this northern narrower but deeper channel.

Traditional river Suir fishing boat
A traditional Suir cot

If you have ever read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, swimming upriver through this channel would remind you of Marlow’s view of the jungle down the west African coast as he travels to the agent station. The river banks here are dense with alder and young and mature willows. Invasive and impenetrable Japanese knotweed stretches along on the north bank. Rushes, reeds, cow parsley and other low plants filling in the high tide bank, which, though only thirty metres from my house, is impassable. Elderberry trees expand their creamy florets from low to high. As the month passes water irises bloom predominately in free-range egg-yolk golden yellow from beneath the high tide line and indicate submerged banks out in the flow.

In May, the alders drop their white catkins on the water, and at the slackest water bracketing high tide they float on the water like clouds of icing or dry ice. This is what I look for in open water swimming, an image, an idea, something that only an observant and returning swimmer can see and appreciate, can put away as a memory, can keep as secret. New experiences are valuable but why do we not speak of the discoveries that can be had by experiencing the variations of location and season, to see the whole world in one place.

The bark of mature willows tends to black, while their leaves are a slender silver-green, calling to mind Tolkien’s Lothlorien. All that these sights evoke. The lowest branches are grimy with dried silt from higher flows. The water and the green produce a dirty greyness in the nebulous zone that is sometimes, but only sometimes, submerged. Older alders occasionally slip from the watery island soil and slide sideways across the channel. In the water long branches loom and grasp out of the murk to graze my legs or arms with their ghostly fingers.

This is a world where the fecund overwhelming green of Ireland’s May, the month most likely to take your breath away with its virility, is further supercharged here by the water, and it would not surprise you to see Swamp Thing, avatar of The Green, arise from the narrow river in front of you and whisper of the water and the verge, the burgeoning life of the littoral and sing vengefully of the natural world we are killing.

The green world

There are otters here but I never see the ones on this stretch of river, no more than I see the trout and salmon while I am in the water. Herons are ubiquitous and there are occasionally rare white egrets to be seen, who take flight if I get within three or four hundred metres. A pair of nesting swans have bred for years near a gap through the big island. One evening they are in the same narrow channel rather than the main course which is their usual hunting range, and I cross to the far side hoping to pass without disturbing them. But the larger turns and sails toward me, until I turn and even then it still follows me two hundred metres up river, launching out of the water to fly a couple of wing beats at me, veering away within the reach of my arms.

And all the people who have asked me about sharks.

Downriver against the flood tide, the river opens up with flood levees breaking up the banks. Islands and almost-islands, which are submerged in high flood tides, are covered in the same trees and irises and dense with bird life but the space of the river makes them less apparent. The small leaves and thin branches of the trees move in breeze with a delicate grace, like the riverine version of the cat’s paws an otherwise invisible squall of wind pads over a flat expanse of ocean. I live by and swim under willows, and wonder why we so overlook these graceful fast-growing arboreal companions.

Basket-weaving was the local traditional manufacturing base craft until it was obliterated by cheap plastic and mass production. Long stretches of the banks were given over to coppiced quick-growing water-loving willow and the sallies remain, dense, abundant and quick-growing, the seemingly slight plant the only native capable of holding off the invasive knotweed, as they fight an interminable battle of springs and summers for possession of the bank, the knotweed slowly but inexorably winning precisely because it has no value and benefits from its ability to spread from the slightest shred. A small number of families continue to harvest the sallies on the island for firewood, so the trees dance with the freedom of movement afforded by the extra space and provide an elegant and almost coltish reach into the sky.

Suir River God
A keystone in Dublin’s Custom House depicting the River Suir as a river god

A kilometre down I pass the lower tip of the island, in reality it is a string of partially or totally submerged banks, noted only by the yellow and just occasionally violet water irises and rushes. I pass over into the main channel and can see the river widen to a couple of hundred metres down-stream.

Here is a navigation buoy, a cardinal’s hat shape yellow toward the far bank backdropped by looming oak and ash. Here at the confluence of channels is where boats are more likely to pass, this year all slowing to look at this sight never seen down here before, a swimmer. Some slow, some think to throw a bow wash across me, who has swum though metre high waves from massive cargo ship, so their piddling waves are barely noticed. I see phones raised to take my photo, know from experience that nothing valuable or even recognisable will be the end result. To photograph a swimmer, it helps enormously to be a swimmer, to predict the movement of arm and breath and position.

One evening I get a text from my friend Conor, himself the most experienced river swimmer in the area, who has been asked if some impossible-to-recognise, or even see, swimmer is him. All he knows is he doesn’t swim down where I do.

“Strongly rumoured you’re a freshwater man now”, he sends.

I itch. Indeed I scratch. Some days after swimming in the river I find myself dotted with small marks that look like spider bites and start as red patches and over a couple of days develop into little hard-shelled boils that itch and burst and itch. And itch. Oh do they itch. Anti-histamines and creams and ointments are liberally used. They take six to seven days to stop itching, and after three or four consecutive days of these, I am relieved when tide drops to neap and I must break from the river.

I also sneeze. I also sniffle. The river water provokes a similar response to chlorinated pool water, and I start wearing the nose clip I normally only wear in a pool.

And all the people who have asked me about jellyfish.

The Suir (pronounced Shoe-ur, but make those syllables blend together into one. Just like Ireland is two syllables, Ire-land, not three, Eye-R-Land, as our American tourists call it) is one of the longer rivers in Ireland, the fastest flowing over its length. One of the old river gods, the source of the richness of Ireland’s Golden Vale, said to be the most fertile land in the world. From here to the sea it is wide and getting wider. It is not my beloved Copper Coast, but it is something.

One day, a mile downriver I suddenly recall a TV program seen in my childhood, which my wife tells me was called “Tales Of The Riverbank”, a short program that evoked The Wind in the WIllows, a live-action cast of small waterside animals with a narration recounting their small adventures.

I am grateful for and learning the river, it loosens things inside me. I also am having small adventures

“[A]nd when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” Kenneth Grahame, (because who else could I quote for this).

But the insatiable sea is calling. It is always calling, and I long to answer and set free those things that are still tight inside me.

14 thoughts on “Tales of the Riverbank

  1. Hiya, Is there any extra risk in swimming fresh water lakes vs sea water? The tides aren’t always favourable in my closest ocean spot, but I’ve a multitude of lakes in walking distance.

    Thanks love your blog.

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  2. A brilliant read. I’ve been open water swimming now for a number of years but have never really thought about swimming ion a river. I have a couple of lakes near to where I live and they have served me well. I’m interested in the bites that you are getting – I seem to have the same thing and had put it down to the midges feasting on me at every opportunity. I read a brief article today about freshwater fleas… That’s a new one on me.. I think I’ll stick with the midges for now (knowing me I will be Googling that later). Well you’ve inspired me to take a look at river opportunities…………… 🙂

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    • Thank you. The itch are someone pointed out to me, is most likely duck itch. I have an old article somewhere on it, but it’s essentially a parasite of waterfowl. When the choice is between no swimming, and river swimming, well, there’s little choice.

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  3. I tried replying to this on my phone earlier, but the internet ate my homework. Not to worry. Great read, as always. Keeping the spirit of Deakin alive. Delighted to see you’ve crossed over to the dark side of the freshwater domain, though I hope you get to the bottom of the rash; not nice, and certainly not something that would encourage you back to the delights of river swimming. I know the local paddlers here on the Liffey regularly drink Coke before they set out, as they swear by its corrosive, bug-killing properties. Never bothered myself. I swim in it regularly without problems, though I admit I don’t front crawl away for hours at a time. Never had a rash yet, though.

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    • Thanks Declan. I’ve done my share of river swimming, swam from Clneml to Carrick once because no-one had done it, and it cost nothing. Have done a bit in in the Shannon at Limerick and the Blackwater over the years. Never sure if around Manhattan counts.

      Yes, the coke thing goes back a long time,I used to hear it 20 years in surfing more polluted places like Dunmore East. I somehow doubt its efficacy with parasites though. Usual summer Copper Coast offer to you back in operation from this week also.

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      • Thanks again for the offer. Believe it or not, Saoirse and I were down at Ballydowane Beach last Sunday. Alas, it was a flying visit to drop off a dog (long story), so we didn’t even have time for a swim. But I did think of you when we hit the Copper Coast. Hopefully we can take you up on the offer.

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  4. I am a year round river swimmer in the Itchen (although thankfully don’t suffer from swimmers itch here!). I started swimming in the river as a substitute for the sea about 5 years ago but appreciate it more and more for itself. loved your description of getting to know one place intimately over time, that secret view of a place so close to home.

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  5. Thanks for this. Here in the USA we are also dealing with “pools closed: too far from the sea” and it looks like that state of affairs will continue indefinitely. It’s been much harder than I anticipated. At least some state parks are opening now. I swam in a local lake this week – not my favorite, but it will do. It’s a manmade lake fed by underground springs, stocked with small trout for fishing, and I was also asked if I was afraid of sharks.

    River Nose – as we call it here – is a real problem. There are many, many organisms and contaminants that can cause it. A nose clip is essential equipment. Microbes, certain amoebas, and the legacy of ancient pollution can all make you sick if you swim in the wrong part of the river. Your scientific understanding of physics, hydrodynamics, and marine biology is extremely helpful to your readers, but you might want to expand into microbiology and waterborne organisms. A whole new phylum of monsters to swim through your posts.

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    • Thank you Thalassophile, (great name of course). “River nose” is new to me, great term.

      I did a post on swimmer’s itch (aka duck itch) many years ago, but since I’d never previously suffered duck itch, and the itch I more frequently encounter is late summer sea-lice, I didn’t think much about it. I suspect the itch is that, a parasitic infection of waterfowl.

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  6. This is very interesting. I am fascinated by tides and currents and their impact on our environments. We have a few tidal lakes on Vancouver island. One with ocean at one end and river at the other, and the other with ocean to river to lake. The power of these tides is incredible 😉

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