Thursday, 23 December 2010


etched, fretted and millennia sculpted
worn away by a river’s rhythm
to immense walls and walls and walls and walls
russet, red, raw umber, brick, pink, salmon peach and rust
and the colorado, ‘coloured red’
we constantly marvel at the marvelous and grand
mentally dwarfed by strata to camp ants
turrets, mesas, spires, caves and citadels of lost hopi and navaho tribes.

rollercoasting we raft and rodeo roll each rapid
gripping oars
eddylines, boils, laterals snatch and catch
but we, we ride wide eyed the wavetrains
then float with rainbow party parasols
more colourful conquistadors than
intrepid explorers.

camp, dry heat, sand and cool shade
cold water and milky silt in chunky pails
tables and groovers
tinitus of cicadas drowns the white noise of water
while we sweat wet hot in tents
pipistrelles ride the moon’s playwaves
in the quiet time of desert dawn and night breezes
then we ride the river all again in sleep.

Written by Debs McKeown in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado,
August 2010

(Photos by the Brookes Grand Canyon Expedition team 2010).

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Buoyancy Aid Manufacture: helping our environment sink or swim?

The ‘Personal Flotation Device’ or ‘Buoyancy Aid’ is probably one of the the most important pieces of paddling equipment you own. Most people wouldn’t think of getting in a boat without one. There are plenty to choose from with models to suit your specific needs and style of water sport. When purchasing a BA down your local paddling shop, we all have a list of criteria we want to see: Safety harness, big pocket for camera, slings, mars bars, a colour that matches your boat/helmet etc and a good fit. However, how many of you have even thought about what materials it is made from?

Buoyant foam is the main ingredient in BAs, and the selection of the foam material can not only affect product performance and lifespan, but also make a big environmental difference. To start the discussion we should point out a couple of details:

1. Plastic foams are a petroleum based product. So from the get-go, they require the use of a non-renewable resource.

2. All plastic foams currently available gradually lose their buoyancy over time.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foam has been the main type of flotation used in BAs for the past few decades. On a technical level, PVC is cheap, easy to work with and very soft, so it produces a comfortable BA. Unfortunately, most BA manufacturers only consider the above positive technical specifications of this material and ignore the obscene amount of negative effects and health risks this material creates. The information about this material’s negative environmental and health effects is overwhelming.

The PVC lifecycle, including it’s production, use and disposal, results in the release of toxic, chlorine based chemicals, which as we speak are building up in water, air and the food chain. The results: severe health problems, including cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption in both wildlife and us! All humans, wherever we are, contain measurable levels of chlorinated toxins in our bodies:

 - PVC manufacture releases Dioxins into the environment. These are a group of some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals and environmental pollutants known. Experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems. Once dioxins have entered a body, they endure a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. In our polluted environment, dioxins bioaccumulate in the food chain. The higher in the animal food chain one goes, the higher the concentration of dioxins. Guess where we are?

- So how can the chemicals in PVC affect us during use? The plasticiser Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is added to PVC during foam manufacture to create that soft, flexible and squishy property. As there is no covalent bond between this chemical and the PVC it is able to leach from the product to anyone using them. Studies in animals and people have linked long term exposure to pthalates can lead to various health issues...
For example, in animal studies, phthalates cause an array of reproductive problems in male offspring, including small or otherwise abnormal testes, undescended testes and abnormal urinary openings. In studies on people, boys born to mothers with greater exposure had altered genital development. Pthalates may also cause asthma as well as liver and kidney damage. Pthalates do not build up in our bodies. However, because we are constantly re-exposed to sources of phthalates, levels in our bodies can remain fairly constant.

- Following the harmful toxins released into the environment during PVC manufacture and use, when PVC reaches the end of its useful life it can be thrown in amongst the landfill, where it leaches toxic additives into the ground and watercourses. Or, it can be incinerated, again emitting further dioxins, heavy metals, and hydrogen chloride!

So, what are the alternatives??

NBR aka ‘Gaia’ foam:

Philip Curry, owner of Astral Buoyancy, pushed their main foam supplier to create an alternative to PVC foam. They responded by introducing this foam they call “Gaia”. This NBR (Nitrile butadiene rubber... the stuff non-latex gloves are made from) based foam offers a very similar weight, feel, softness and buoyancy as PVC foam, but it is non-halogenated (i.e not made with chlorine and fluorine) and does not include phthalates or heavy metals. Therefore, it is a lot cleaner, safer to produce and is less toxic when disposed of.

However, although both PVC and NBR foam could technically be recycled, this recycling process is incredibly toxic in itself and is not regularly practiced. So on a practical level, neither material is recyclable. Unfortunately, the foam cutting process also creates a lot of waste. In order to avoid sending this waste to the landfill, Astral reuse their foam scraps to make dog-beds! 

A number of paddlesport manufacturers have recently adopted the use of NBR (‘Gaia’) foam into their BA designs, including companies like Kokatat, Nookie, and Palm Equipment.

PE foam:

Polyethylene (PE), the stuff your plastic pop bottles are made of, is as you know, very regularly recycled. It requires a lot less chemicals to produce yet is much more stable than PVC and NBR, which means it retains it’s buoyancy longer. The best advantage of PE foam is that it requires much less plastic to achieve it’s buoyancy. For example, 100% PE foam requires almost half the amount of plastic as PVC or NBR foam. This means the use of petroleum for the production of a buoyancy aid using this foam is a lot lot less. It also means that BAs made with this foam are substantially lighter than they would be with other foams.

The downside of PE foam is that it’s typically rather stiff, so using it requires some creative design and construction techniques. This usually leads to more complicated construction and more expensive labor costs. Unfortunately, there is currently no recycled foam that is approved for use in BAs. The good news is any waste offcuts during manufacture or your old BA foam can be recycled just like your used plastic bottles.


Ceiba pentandra is a tropical tree native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, northern South America and Africa. These trees produce a fluffy fibre in their seed pods known as Kapok that is naturally buoyant and very soft...

In the early 1900s, Kapok filled life jackets were used by Naval mariners, for many years before the introduction of plastic foams. The secret to kapoks buoyancy is revealed when looked at under a microscope. It’s fibres are in fact small waxy tubes of encapsulated air! BAs made with Kapok provide some of the softest most conforming fits, and the use of this material (made up of lignin and cellulose) is incredibly environmentally friendly. It is sustainably and organically harvested, requires no chemical processing, and unlike foam it can be compressed and shipped in very small bails which make it very efficient to transport. A one cubic meter parcel of kapok can produce twenty cubic meters of finished buoyancy aids!  Another great advantage is that all of it can be used without creating any waste, unlike the cutting of foam sheets.

For BA manufacture Kapok fibres are encased in a Polyurethane bladder, a durable waterproof enclosure which allows the material to retain it’s buoyancy for much longer than any buoyant foam. Once a Kapok BA reaches the end of it’s life cycle, the kapok fibres can be cut out of these bladders and composted in your garden.

The downside to Kapok is the labor involved in it’s harvesting and processing into the buoyant inserts that go into the BA. It is also relatively heavy compared to PE foam.


As you can see, ‘Gaia’ is just one of several options currently available to BA manufacturers. Because it is the most similar to PVC, it is an easy solution for many BA manufacturers and is a great alternative for them. However, there are other alternatives which are much cleaner and more environmentally friendly. Of course the possibilities for other materials and construction methods are limitless.
‘We are constantly working to find new methods and materials to make outdoor products more sustainable, so we can enjoy the outdoors for generations to come.’  - Yonton Mehler at Astral buoyancy.

Next time you’re in the shop eyeing up your next paddling purchase have a little think about which is the most environmentally responsible product available. You will not only help by buying that one piece, but also do a great service by supporting the companies that choose to use more responsible materials. Moreover, you will help support the few material manufacturers that produce these alternative options and prove that these materials are economically viable.

Happy Floatations,

Ben x

Many thanks to Astral Buoyancy for providing information on this topic and their ongoing passion and work developing these more environmentally friendly products.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Sandy goes paddling on the big Zambezi.

Getting to Zambia was a mission that involved three flights and a six hour bus journey (that broke down) spread over three days making it a tiring place to get to. To then to find out your kayak hasn’t showed up made it very annoying. 

However it is an amazing once you are there and the Zambezi River turned out to be just as legendary as everyone made out, even if it wasn’t quite as warm as I had hoped for. I stayed in Livingstone, situated in the South of Zambia, right beside one of the seven wonders of the world, Mosi o Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders) or Victoria Falls. Above the falls the countryside is lush and green supporting loads of wildlife like hippos, crocodiles, elephants and giraffe. But once the river has plummeted over the 108m drop it enters a deep gorge making walking in and out difficult and once in you are faced with huge rapids and a couple of crocodiles that survived falling off the falls and watch you as you paddle past.

The water levels were a lot higher than normal meaning a few of well known features were washed out, such as the pour over at number 5 and the surf wave at 12b and it did make river running much more tricky with the amount and size of the boils and whirlpools that where a lot larger than anything I had experienced before. This meant that sometimes when you where online a boil could appear and push you a couple meters to the left or right and meant that a good kicking would be in order. 

I had a great time on the river trying to make it down the rapids without flipping. The rapids are numbered 1 to 25, with the biggest rapids between 1 and 10. My first day on this section I was lead by Will Clark who hadn’t been on the river for a couple of years so when he announces that he thinks the line is left but isn’t sure it makes it pretty intense. We made it down safely though with huge smiles after each rapid. 

I managed to also do a four day multi day trip down the river. This is one of the most beautiful trips I have done where we camped on bright white beaches in luxury with a support raft providing steaks for dinner cooked over a fire followed by gin and tonics as we watched the sun set. It was great to travel down the river and do so many rapids while spend that amount of time on the river. However on the drive back we did manage to get break the 4x4 and get a puncture so the two hour trip took around five! 

Another highlight of the trip was swimming in a natural pool above the falls where you can swim right up to the lip of the falls and peer over while the water runs past you and over the edge. It’s amazing getting that close to the edge but still swimming about safely. 

That swim marked the end of my trip and so I packed up and headed home and back in time for University to start again. 

Sandy x

Thanks to Level Six for all their support

and cheers to Will Clark and Nick Roberts for the sweet photos.

 All Content Copyright.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The White Nile, Uganda 2010

Arriving in Africa was awesome, Entebbe Uganda greeted us with sun and smiles, and a fair amount of stares, although 8 or so play boats probably wouldn’t go unnoticed anywhere! We loaded all our boats and kit onto the Mutatu (the Ugandan minibus for which nothing is ever too big or too heavy), and set off for the Hairy Lemon – one of the islands on the Nile, run by a South African guy named Paul (an absolute legend). The noise of all the insects and frogs was amazingly loud as we arrived in the dark and set up camp. Waking up there was probably the coolest wake up ever, I had no idea how beautiful the island was or how cool the views from the various little beaches were, as we had arrived in the dark.

The first 2 weeks of my Ugandan adventure were spent on a Love It Live It course, getting used to the waters random boils and thick eddylines and being taught how to surf. I had been fairly unsure as to how great an idea it was for me to head off to the White Nile when I had only started kayaking the October before and I was still swimming more than I was rolling. However, Emily and Will (our coaches) were awesome and really patient, and helped me get my roll, it took a good week or so but we got there in the end. Emily and Will were super coaches, and after many an afternoon spent at the Special and Superhole we were all pretty happly surfing and pulling out our various tricks. . .flat spins for me. Also I loved how good Emily was, as I hadn’t come across many girls who could give the boys a run for their money.

So the course finished and most of the guys went home, then it was me and the boys, Nick, Dom, Andrew and the guys from Aber Uni, Joe and James. They were all so nice to me and really helped me learn, by making me lead down the rapids even Grade 5’s, and definitely taking me out of my comfort zone. But I loved it!

 The river is so deep and warm that it’s not that unpleasant being upside down –bar maybe on silverback, generally though you have plenty of time to get yourself sorted. On my first day I nearly swam, I went to grab my deck after probably the twelfth attempt at a roll then made myself try one more time and came straight up, determined to roll. I only swam once in the whole trip. Stupid Pour over on Rib Cage Left!



The White Nile is all about the big volume stuff, prime example being Silverback, at first I didn’t get how people actually enjoyed running it, I just found it uncomfortable with water being forced up my nose and my arms being wrenched about, the struggle to roll up between waves and the general lack of oxygen. However the more times I ran it and the better I became, I started to have a little more of a say on what happened to me rather than just getting a beating, I’d definitely say it was my favourite rapid. 

There is another rapid that runs parallel to Silverback called Jungle Book, which is more slidey alpine stuff, well that’s all the boys had to say before we took it on one day, “just read and run Debs” I was super nervous, but nailed it, and did the fastest roll of my life as everyone had said how you do not want to be upside down on this one. Though it didn’t go as smoothly for everyone, Joe hurt his shoulder and snapped his paddles, and James broke his too. 

I ran a few of the back channels, though I never took on Itanda, Kala Gala was enough of a thrill for me and the bottom section of Itanda, clipping the Cuban and seeing how nasty the Ashtray looks up close, I don’t think I would have been able to hold it all together doing the whole thing, but loved being chief photographer as the boys all ran it for the first time.

We stayed at two places while in Uganda, Nile River Explorers in Bujugali and the Hairy Lemon. NRE was very much the party place, and the starting point for Day 1 and the Silverback Sections. We would head off to the Lemon for recovery after the fairly brutal Funnel Fridays and spend our days on the two waves just upstream from the island or at Superhole. Mornings were spent on Club wave and as the levels rose we would head up to surf the Nile Special. As I had never surfed before surfing the Special really was something else! The feeling you got when you broke through the crashing barrier wave and soared down the smooth tongue of it. The water was moving so fast! And if you lost your edge for a split second then it would have you upside down and battling to roll up in the ferocious eddy line. The best feeling ever though! A good surf on the special, was worth all the effort it took to get on.

  So my Ugandan adventure had me extending my flights to stay for seven weeks, paddling some of the funnest waters in the world, renting boda boda’s (the taxi like motorbikes) and having run ins with the police, taking ourselves down the Day 1 section on a rented raft, a ridiculously fun all day bender featuring a slip and slide down the ramp at NRE, a Safari to Murchiston with a scary hippo attack in the middle of the night... Helping out on the Lemon, an afternoon safety boating for some tubers, improvements to my roll and confidence on the river, and generally having the best times with some of the nicest people ever! 

Debs x  

(Words and Photos by Debs Perry.)

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A fishy tale....

“Oi, yer disturbing the fish!” shouted the irate fisherman from the riverbank as a loud swarm of colourful kayakers bounced and scraped their way past, through and over the rocks and pebbles of the shallow river. They ignored him and bounced on round the bend... once out sight they giggled and laughed at the red faced man in waders, flicking his rod about in frustration. “Disturbing the fish!? Yeah like yanking them out by by a sharp hook in their mouth doesn’t disturb them!’’ a few quipped sarcastically.

Well... Here is a story about Steven and Susan the Salmon who were also swimming about the river that day...

Steven had just made it back home to his birthplace after a long swim from the North Atlantic where he had spent his gap year ‘finding himself’ (apparently) but had mostly spent his time eating a lot of herring and sand eels until now he was quite fat. Steve was born out of one of a few thousand little red eggs deposited by his mother in a clearing of pebbles known as a redd. Through his life Steve went through a quite a few phases, before growing up to be the mature adult Salmon he is today.

His first phase was the Alevin stage. During this phase, he stayed in the Redd hiding from bigger fish that might eat him. Him and his siblings lived off the the remaining nutrients in his yolk sack. During this stage, Steve developed some cool new gills and became an active hunter catching little bits of floating vegetation. Three weeks after hatching he had reached the adventurous Fry stage and escaped the breeding ground in search of better tasting food and danger...

Steven soon got fed up of being a small fry being picked on and almost eaten by bigger fishes and thought it was time to develop the ability to live in salt water (Parr stage) so he could leave the river and go off pirating around the high seas. During these early days Steve and his little Atlantic salmon friends were very susceptible to predation. Half of his brothers and sisters were eaten by trout, and most of his other ones were caught by other fish and birds. It was time to get out of there and see the world. So that summer, as a young Smolt, Steve headed out with his other mates traveling about the Atlantic ocean, all the way up to greenland and other far away places.

About a year later Steve became bored of his adventures and thought it was a bout time to come home chat up a lovely lady salmon with his epic tales of sand eel hunting, seabird dodging and swimming away from Sharks! Perhaps time to think about starting a family of his own maybe. So he began an epic mission back home! It was a lot harder than when he left, he had to swim up the rapids this time, but he got there eventually, and headed for the the nice gravel beds where the water was nice and steady and chilled out cruising about checking out the girl salmon he had known as a smolt. They had grown up a bit too it seems... especially that Susan Salmon!

After plucking up the courage, Steve swam over and asked her how she was, took her for a bit of a dance about, one thing led to another, he ended up going back to her place, she popped a load of eggs everywhere while he ‘fertilized’ them if you know what I mean. Aye! Anyway after their frolicking about in the Redd they were both totally knackered, especially after their long epic home in the first place, and they hadn’t eaten a thing for weeks! So they both drifted off downstream a bit worse for wear, in search of a much needed drowning fly or two.

Steve died a few days later, he was eaten by an otter. Susan followed soon after from a broken heart and total exhaustion. But remember... their little red eggs were still in the Redd that they had cleared! Being bounced gently by the current, the little embryos inside growing slowly bigger by the day.

A few months later, on a nice, sunny day, when the river was flowing nice and low, the eggs began to pop and little bright eyed Alevins began to appear and swim about the gravel. Lots of little baby Steves and Susans!

Suddenly out of nowhere a bright green mass of plastic, flies down on them from the surface and crushes them all to smithereens!!!

The end.

All Content Copyright Ben McKeown

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Iceland Gallery and Mini Video Segment

Mountains,  Glaciers,  Volcanoes, Geysirs, Vast Plains, Towering Seacliffs, Icebergs, Bleak Lava Fields, HUGE Skies, Hundreds of Spectacular Waterfalls, and... not an awful lot of trees!

I struggle with words to describe the surreal and hostile beauty of Iceland’s landscape. However following a weeks roadtrip around Route One we did come home with a quite a few photographs.

Click on the images below to check out the photos and short video...

Ben x

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Rachael's Alpine Adventure!

The other week I ventured to France’s Southern Alps for some warm whitewater paddling in the sun. This was my first trip paddling out of the UK. I learnt a lot! The first thing I noticed about the rivers compared to Scotland was the speed. In the fast flowing melt-water I realised I had to be more on the ball with making eddies, and that if anyone swam there would be some hard work chase boating. I won’t deny that this un-nerved me, but I was brimming with excitement for what the next fortnight had to offer.

We started easy to help build confidence and comfort in these Alpine rivers. Our first day involved eddy practice on Les Argentierre’s slalom course. The following day we paddled the lower Durance section known as “The Sunshine Run”. Many swims indicated how we were not used to this type of paddling.  We had an epic on the Rabioux wave, where about half the team were spat out the boils without their boats. Despite some frights, we had to smile: it wouldn’t be a student trip without some carnage!

Other rivers we explored included the lower Guil, the lower Claree, the upper Durance and some of the more experience tested their ability on the Gyr. Personally the lower Guil was my favourite, as it wound round the countryside displaying beautiful patchy snowy mountains, steep sided cliffs with waterfalls and tree-covered banks. The river itself was bouncy and provided plenty of eddy practice.




After two weeks of paddling, and enjoying a slower pace to life with a few beers always awaiting us at the end of the day, it’s a wonderful feeling to look back and reflect on the experience. Some lessons were learned and it feels great to see and feel how my paddling has improved over the holiday. My thanks go out to Sam and Sandy, who organised the big adventure, and everyone who pulled me out me when I needed a hand!

Rachael x


Friday, 7 May 2010

Norwegian epic, June 2010.

Crossing the border to Norway was amazing; we had finally arrived and were immediately staring out of the minibus to tree covered hills and crystal clear lakes. This made a great change to the flat, dull farmland of Denmark and Southern Sweden that we had travelled through. It is easy to see where they get their myths of trolls that live in these dense pine forests.

The first few days we spent in Telemark, a region in Southern Norway, where we got used to Norwegian white water. It is just huge slides or massive drops and then once you did one, another horizon line was less than 50 yards away, waiting for you. The only other boaters about were some Germans who were very efficient at getting down rapids, but it turned out they portaged more than us!

Wild camping every night, cooking on fires and not really having the opportunity to wash, meant we were soon pretty smelly. It was worth it though, as we always managed to wake up to incredible views of the stunning norwegian country. 

With the water levels dropping in Telemark we moved onto the Zambezi section of the Numdalslagen. Just like the real Zambezi this is a high volume river with no rocks and some big holes. Somehow though, we still managed to hit the only rocks in the whole river and this resulted in Anne breaking her foot and me snapping my paddle and pinning my boat. Whoops. The next day we spent around the hospital in Lillehammer with Sam and Dom entertaining themselves with an Ice Cream eating contest (Sam won), while Anne got an x-ray. With her foot put in a cast we drove to Oslo airport so she could head home early.

We then moved further North to the Sjoa/ Otta region, stopping regularly at Statoil on the way which has a super deal where you buy a mug and then you get a free tea or coffee whenever you visit. After hearing every kayaker saying what a wonderful boating place Sjoa is, I was keen to see it. But it turns out the town is a couple of houses and a lot of wooden trolls. The boating was still amazing though and the Amot gorge turned out to be a favourite. We spent a couple more days in the area, doing the classics and enjoying the sun. However, Will hurt his shoulder and had to stop. Luckily he only had a couple days left until he had to head back home so no major drama.

Our final week was spent in Voss just before the Extreme Sports week was about to begin. The area was packed with boaters and this made an abrupt change to being the only ones on the water. But Voss was a cool town with some cool rivers. Some just a wee bit too scary for our liking, (e.g. ‘double drop’ where we watched some guy break his bum,) to others that were quality including a team run down the ‘lake to lake’ rapid.

We then turn our attention homeward and after a long drive made it back to a much anticipated comfy bed and a warm shower.

On our trip we managed to break 1 boat, split another boat, dent several boats, break 2 sets of paddles, lose 3 sets of splits and brake a foot. It was awesome!

Sandy x

A big thanks to for their support.

Photos by Sam Sawday.