Off-The-Grid Canal Boat Journey
Early Spring, even though it’s only February, feels late this year. Winter off-the-grid is hard!
Tangled grey thickets and towering, gnarled, silver barked trees await in mute stillness, for new velvet dresses- luxurious green garments made of leaf. The well-trodden mud between our boat and the bridge has become like a wet Glastonbury sludge, a slide between gate and canal edge, with the downhill risk of losing one’s cool and command, as your boots slip, resulting in a comic slapstick moment. Joggers, hikers, dogs, trolleys, bikes and canal boat travel bloggers- a steady daily mulching up and down of wellington boots treading the same route, after the rain, compacts the earth, pushing back the fresh growth of grass. Oh the joy of living off-the-grid!
The weather lashes us with rain, then dives into minus zero temperatures…
with Siberian blasts of freezing winds that shake and rattle our canal-boat windows like an angry man. The air flows through loose fitting glass panes and blows cold against your hand. Then, the clay- frozen, and with a crunch, becomes a welcome reprieve from the former deep mulch. The canal freezes over solid for three days, then defrosts with a quiet crackling sound as the icy Siberian winds quit. African winds instead, cloak us with warm, exciting tiny birds and releasing captive ducks from their spiky patterned ice prisons.
Old nests fall from last year’s high up positions, filling overgrown twigs with showers of debris, making way for the new. Ducks gather together, calling at each boat in turn- annual visitors on the scrounge for any food offerings; they are hungry after a winter’s fast. The world gradually awakens, yawns, stretches in a feeble sun, on the threshold of another Spring. Odd boaters appear, movements are limited and engines quiet as their ghost like presence pass by.
The canal waters are still now; not a stick or a stone breaks the surface.
It is tranquil to sit affront one’s boat in the open air, as it meanders down the canal, a gentle tug-tug of the engine, with the whisper of a breeze in your face. We follow a winding glass road, a shimmering path of light dancing through reflections of trees. Messy unkempt scrub, the blackberry bushes, bulge out from their winter resting place. This is no place for worries- whispered past failures; they flee quick like forgotten dreams, spirits searching for someone vulnerable and sleeping, a new home, as you at that exact moment awake.
We keep a stove burning throughout our winter days and nights.
Without it, and within steel walls hidden behind copious amounts of spray foam insulation and wooden panels, the narrowboat is like living in a fridge. The yellow and pink foam bulges out of small holes not yet dressed, and I dig my little finger into one habitually because I like the spongy feel of it. A well-insulated boat is the key to defeating condensation, damp and cold. Any exposed metal in winter, even a nail head, drips water. The old insulating material that came with the boat was polystyrene, yes, the white crumbly kind! It instantly melted during welding one day, when we had the hull over-plated. Taking the wood panels off and insulating beneath them, once you live aboard, is chaos! It’s also alleged to be toxic until dry, so it’s a fine time to stay at a friend’s house for a few nights.
Often we get up in some godforsaken hour, to top up the last glowing red coal remnants before the fire dies.
Smoke escapes quick through the wood- stove’s doors, more so on blustery days! So opening a window in preparation (only on the vessel side that the wind blows towards) means I can thrust my head outside and take deep breaths of fresh air until the cloud of sulphur dissipates. Here I study the night sky’s many stars and relish the raw cold air slap in the face, waking me from my heavy slumber. Open the window on the wrong side on a windy day and the smoke is sucked out the fire, filling the cabin with choking smog, you’ll catch it outside too as the chimney billows fumes into your delicate gasping lungs.
I cough from the smoky boat cabin- not healthy karma. Off-the-grid living is like problem solving. Finding a solution is a necessity! A cowl on the chimney that looks like a silver knight’s helmet, spins the wind funnel away from the worst gusts, but a little more elevation could help. Boaters remove this taller chimney before navigation as the bridges are low; I’ve seen a few squashed chimneys from such thoughtlessness. A good quality multi-fuel stove is not worth scrimping on; it burns all night if adequately stocked and allowed to get to an optimum temperature, before closing down the vents. All fires thirst for a little air flow, but it burns quicker as the wind howls around us. But never fall asleep with the door or vents open. If you’re lucky you’ll wake to smell the heat and if not, well it’s ‘adios amigo!’
You might be a tartuffle trite, or one of those peck-sniff neighbours…
to complain, “The woodstove is an environmental disaster for an off-the-grid lifestyle and everyone else!” But then, so is a gas boiler, a petrol car, a plane journey, a power station, a beef-burger, a duck tangled in a used Covid- mask… Don’t get me going on that! The fire is sooty and smoky but it retains many useful qualities too. Boiling an old traditional blue enamel kettle, it blows off steam with a shrill impatient whistle; with the urgency of a crying baby, only when you pick it up does it calm its state of anxiety. Keeping tea hot, cooking a hearty stew, perfecting the bottom of a crisp pizza, grilling fish, warming soup, drying washing and making the cabin toasty warm; the fire is at the heart of a boatman’s life. It can even heat all our water and provide for radiators, from a back-boiler. But central to life, the fire is an earthy and primitive kind of warmth- a social meeting place which draws to its flames our quiet gaze.
Our kind coal man lets us bulk buy; we pick up the smokeless ovoid fuel sacks as needed so we don’t have to store much- releasing valuable boat space. Logs need to dry out for a year before we bag them, so a log store, somewhere, is the way to go. The two-wheeled shopping trolley bag is my boater’s must have- carrying twelve fresh water bottles, heavy fuel sacks, logs and a full, sloshing loo. Carry them yourself if you’re training for World’s Strongest Man- a daily work out anyone? For bravado; the prize?- A bad back is in store. A lady boater trundles past towing a little trailer behind her bike.
Spring is a time for change, cleaning out the old, refreshing with the new.
I covert my cordless rechargeable vacuum cleaner (adapted to be one of the best gadgets we have on our narrow-boat), as I clean up the mess. It beats getting down with the brush and shovel any day! I empty the hot ash pan-neatly sliding the sulphur smelling dust into an old fashioned bread bin, and bang on the lid. With Winter’s hasty retreat, we let the fire go out in the morning, only lighting it at night, as the cabin warms with the rising sun. A bunch of bright yellow daffodils in a simple jam-jar, refresh the boat with the subtle scent of an early Spring morning .
Like nature, we are alert to the elements; every powerful gust and gentle breeze, rising water and drying drought, early dark and advancing light. You can hear the wet ice melting if you stop and listen, crackling like cold ice cubes dropped in a drink, as thin jagged lines grow long. The frozen prison diminished, it lets go its captive; both the duck and the boater sail free. Like the end of the evil Snow Queen’s world, the sun pushes in, and vibrant green leaves begin to grow, reaching for day light. The tear of a snowdrop is shed, reminiscent of a melting snow, now gone. Farewell winter’s wood-stove and wellington boots!
As warmer days approach, I ponder our journey on our small boat, our off-the-grid lifestyle, this long Winter, then Spring.
What is freedom? Is it opportunity, flexibility perhaps, or liberation? Lies come to bind you and truth sets you free. Deception hides in darkness. The truth and light, they have no need of darkness yet, darkness wants for a light. Fear and stagnation make a gruesome pair! Winter has been long and dark, yet in the darkness even a small light shines bright.
I’m a canal boat traveller- seasons come and seasons go.
Faith is a test and risk is a fool; they ride out hand in hand. Faith is belief when the odds stack against me. Belief is a leap in the dark, a leap that seeks the light. This light is not of a Winter gone. The tiny song bird comes out of hiding and sings aloud, announcing Spring; all is invigorated, the beating heart, the will to go on, all dance with fierce energy; fertile, fresh growth, divine purpose- abundant life.