By Conor Mihell
Inspired by stories of people walking, biking and boating across entire countries, California-based 77-year-old Beth Smith was traveling in England when she noticed that there were waterways traversing the entire length of the country. "Now there was something I could do—kayak across England," says Smith. "Forget walking, biking or motorboating." In 1996, Smith set off on the River Avon to the Thames and crossed England in three weeks. She followed it up with cross-country tours of Ireland, Scotland and Denmark in a diminutive eight-foot Innova inflatable kayak named "Junior." Then, in 2000, upon retiring from her career as a Bay Area biotech researcher, she took on bigger challenges in Sweden, France and Germany. Finally, "as an afterthought," she undertook open water journeys in Greece and Turkey.
We caught up with Smith to learn more about the stories that inspired her new book, Water All Around.
CanoeKayak.com: What inspired you to travel to Europe and paddle across these nine countries?
Beth Smith: I've always been intrigued by accounts of people walking or biking across countries, so when I heard of a couple motorboating across the USA some years ago my interest was piqued…Then, while traveling in England and looking at a map I could see that there were waterways that went all across England. Now that was something I could do—kayak across England, forget walking, biking or motor boating. After crossing England, Ireland and Scotland followed, then Denmark. By this time I had retired and could spend more time on a trip. Sweden, France and Germany took much longer. Then, finally, as an afterthought I added Greece and Turkey. These last two didn't involve rivers and long canals but more open water. After these nine countries I couldn't find any more so I hung up my paddle until something else came along.
There's obviously something special about traveling the full length of a waterway. What's it mean to you?
Smith: It's a satisfying accomplishment. Every kayaker knows the freedom one feels from dipping a paddle in the water and moving out. It's like losing the bonds of earth just to glide silently across the water. To add this feeling on a daily basis with a real goal in mind was perfect for me. It's something I—or anyone—can do that is fun to plan, physically within reason, and supposedly non-life threatening. For this goal-oriented person in her golden years it couldn't have been more rewarding. The added bonus is enjoying a non-tourist look at the countryside and immersion in the boating culture.
What was your most memorable experience paddling these rivers?
Smith: Each trip has its own memories. I try not to remember the times when my skills, planning, determination or equipment failed me though they're still foremost. On the brighter side, I remember all the encounters of locals who directed me to food or lodging or helped with the boat and who seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing. It was a tremendous thrill to have crossed the Vänern, the largest lake in Western Europe after being thwarted the year before by misguessing the coming weather.
You say you encountered "equipment failure." What happened?
Smith: One of the first days in England I rubbed a large hole in the inflatable hull. Multi-patches and days later it was finally corrected. Kayaking with a crippled boat was a new challenge. Also, my makeshift carts for carrying the boat when not in the water kept breaking or falling apart. In order to keep a cart small enough and under 4 pounds, I compromised strength. I went through four of them. The one that's left still isn't very strong, but I'm working on a new design. Also, the supposedly industrial strength Velcro that fastens the spray skirt to the hull was continually coming off and the spray skirt would come loose so I had to bail more often than I would have liked in rough water.
Have you considered taking on a similar project in North America?
Smith: North America, as other continents, is mountainous, you know—so even if it were possible to paddle up river (I've tried a section of the Snake unsuccessfully), there would be a long portage across the continental divide. The only place to cross would be the Panama Canal and the authorities would class my kayak as they have with others as "unseaworthy". I had similar trouble in Germany trying to cross the Kiel Kanal and in Poland the Swina Canal. Both places I was stopped by the water police and ordered off the water.
Smith: Well, I'm still searching maps to find another crossing. I may have to resort to paddling rivers from source-to-sea or circumnavigating islands. I'd run out of years before I ran out of those!