Kayaking and Camping at Llyn Geirionydd
It would have been nice to continue my Coast Path Run on Saturday, but the Colwyn Bay Blast had finished my legs off for the day so there was to be none of that running malarkey. I’d been invited to join the Dyffryn Conwy Paddlers on Sunday though for a kayaking session at Llyn Geirionydd in the hills of Snowdonia. It was an opportunity to try some K1 racing kayaks out for the first time. So, after chilling on the prom at Colwyn Bay I headed off into the hills above Llanwrst to find the lake and hopefully somewhere to camp for the night.
Llyn Geirionydd lies in a North Wales valley where the northern edge of the Gwydyr Forest meets the lower slopes of the Carneddau mountains. I’d identified it on the OS map and followed a single track road up from Llanwrst past the start of the Marin Mountain Bike Trail, past an outdoor pursuits centre and along the edge of several upland bog areas and smaller lakes. The road twisted and wound it’s way through the North Wales hills with the ever present peak of Snowdon towering over the western skyline. The road eventually dropped down towards Llyn Geirionydd and into a small car park where a scene of both tranquility and energy greeted me. Llyn Geirionydd is almost a mile long and it’s 45 acres of dark waters were glistening in the sunlight. The strong SW wind was creating wavelets along it length like the scales of a silver dragon. The peaceful lake and it’s water were being energised by the wind.
Access to the lake by car wasn’t particularly easy but it is the only lake in Snowdonia that permits the use of powerboats and water-skiing. Canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and the increasingly popular open water swimming is also allowed and this makes it quite a draw for locals and tourists alike. There are also plenty of walking trails with three way-marked trails signposted from the car park. The fact that it was the weekend and the sun was shining meant that the place was packed. A ski boat was whizzing around the far end of the lake, the strong wind taking the sounds of its engine away from me so it wasn’t disturbing the peace. Smoke and smells of cooking rose from the numerous barbeques that were sizzling on the lake shore. People were swimming, sun-bathing and kayaking.
Dogs were swimming too and there was recreation all around. Cars and vans piled high with stand up paddle boards and canoes, little camps here and there as families sheltered from the wind behind their multi-coloured wind-breaks. Walkers, runners and cyclists passed by along the road and trails. There was splashing, laughing and the sounds of fun all around. Gulls soared across the blue skies as did large white fluffy cumulus clouds. I found myself a parking spot and decided to head off into the sunshine for a walk. The blue marked route took me up over the hill on the far side of the lake, weaving it’s way through the coniferous woodland. First along forest trails and then onto a smaller steeper rooty path that crested the hill of Mynydd Deulyn.
I made my way through the shadows of the trees down towards a neighbouring lake.
I emerged out of the forest and onto a tarmac road that skirted this second lake. Llyn Crafnant runs parallel to Llyn Geirionydd. This lake is similar in size to Llyn Geirionydd and dammed at it’s northern end. The head of the valley offers a profile of crags which are silhouetted at sunset. The Forest Park guide (2002) states that
“the (view along Llyn Crafnant) is one of the most breathtaking views in all Snowdonia”.
It was certainly on form today in the sunshine. The summits overlooking Llyn Crafnant include Crimpiau (475 metres) and Craig Wen (548 metres). I followed the road along it’s eastern shore, past a little cafÃ©. In contrast to Llyn Geirionydd boating and swimming is not permitted, but it is a popular fishing spot, and is kept stocked with brown trout and rainbow trout.
The wind had increased further by now and lines of white spindrift ran along the far end of the lake as the wind whipped up little waves. The trees rustled and creaked as the wind tugged at their heavily foliaged boughs.
I was strolling along gently taking in my surroundings and easing off the tension in my legs from the exertions of the Colwyn Bay Blast. I followed the trail around to the far side of the lake and once again the cooling shadows of the trees. I was now on the yellow way-marked trail that circumnavigates the entire lake. The southern end of the lake has silted up so the path leaves the lake behind for a while as it skirts the boggy ground below.
Eventually it returned to where I first descended the hill having made a complete circuit of this hidden gem in the Welsh Hills. I re-joined the blue way-marked trail and retraced my steps back up over Mynydd Deulyn and back to Llyn Geirionydd. Apparently there are few, if any, fish in the lake, and this, it is believed, is the result of the poisoning of the waters from the adjacent metal mines. People were however fishing from the little beach on it’s southern end as I strolled past in the evening sunshine.
I made my way back to the car park which was now a little quieter and cooked up a dinner of rice and tuna in the back of the campervan. There were still quite a few vans in the car park each with little encampments around them. People were sat in foldaway chairs adjacent to their vans with burgers cooking on disposable barbeques or over raised fire-pits. It looked as though most, like me, were there for the night. I sat there eating snacks, drinking tea and hot chocolate and reading my book as dusk fell over the lake. There are toilets in the car park but little else in the way of facilities. That was plenty for me and I felt quite at home chilling in the back of the campervan.
As darkness fell I pulled out the bed, put the blinds up at the windows and settled down for a quiet nights sleep. I did get up for a wee at about 3am and it was already getting light.
I thought about going for an early morning run or a mountain bike ride, but it started raining at around 6am so instead I sheltered in the van and had a relaxed breakfast. The clouds soon started to clear and occasionally the sun came out to warm things up a little. Yesterday’s wind had abated and the lake look calm and inviting.
Open Water Swimming
After a while I spotted James and headed out onto the grassy banks of the lake for a chat. The Dyffryn Conwy Paddlers were bringing a small flotilla of kayaks up for people to have a go in and he said that they should have a good range of boats for me to try from very stable to very unstable. He also mentioned the fact that a few people would be going for a swim too. I of course decided to join them for that as well as the kayaking.
As more people turned up four of us decided to head of for a swim across the lake a few times. We donned our wetsuits and plunged in to the lakes clear fresh water. It wasn’t cold. The lake is only 15m deep at it’s deepest point so warms up quite quickly in the summer. Around the edges it was easy to see through the brown waters to the rocks and then silty bottom of the lake. We swam back and forth a few times, stopping to chat at either end. We then got out and started playing in the kayaks.
Kayaking on Llyn Geirionydd
As I’ve mentioned in a recent blog post I’ve played around in kayaks on and off all of my life. It’s never something I’ve done properly though and not something I know a huge amount about. I’ve paddled plenty of standard play boats and plastic touring kayaks. I’ve built and paddled a canoe and I’ve paddled my surf ski. I’ve started doing quadrathlons lately though and everyone uses super sleek, speedy K1 Racing kayaks for these. It was quite an eye-opener in my first race just how fast they were compared to my old-fashioned surf-ski. I was therefore here today to see what I thought of a K1 kayak.
K1 kayaks I learnt are rated in stability from 1 (very unstable) to 10 (very stable) and generally the more unstable a kayak is, the narrower and faster it could be. Faster that is if you have the skill to stay upright in it and are able to paddle comfortably and strongly from such an unstable platform.
I started off in a boat that was apparently around stability 6 – somewhere in the middle. I managed to get myself in but it felt surprisingly tippy. Any movement had it wobbling all over the place and it took a few seconds for me to feel at all comfortable. Once it was moving it was a little less tippy but even so I certainly wasn’t relaxed and nor was I in a position to really put any effort into paddling it. I teetered around to the end of the lake and back a couple of times. Steering is by means of a rod between your feet that controls a rudder under the hull of the boat. I never really felt comfortable moving this from side to side and felt as though I was constantly trying to adjust it to stay in a straight line. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for kayaking!
I tried a number of other boats too. The so called super stable (stability 10 boat) was much easier and I didn’t feel as though I would fall out of it. I was able to paddle it properly but still never really got comfortable with the steering. The stability 8-9 boat was OK as well. When I say OK, I wouldn’t describe any of them as ‘really stable’. These are still racing kayaks. In my opinion they are still quite narrow, quite unstable and easy to fall out of. I also tried some less stable boats – that didn’t last long! That was the idea though I wanted to try a complete range of boats so that I could see where my limits lay.
I was able to stay in the stability 5 or 6 boats without too much trouble but was never completely comfortable in them. Anything less stable than that ended up with me getting wet. I also had a go on James’s Knysna ski and felt quite comfortable in that. It was certainly a lot faster than my ski, maybe not quite as stable but it felt fine. James had a go on my ski too and commented on the fact that it was very slow and hard work feeling as though it was pushing through the water rather than gliding effortlessly along it. I was glad he said that as it made me feel a little better about my struggles in the Colwyn Bay Blast the day before and my lack of speed in the previous weeks Brigg Bomber Quadrathlon. Maybe some of these inadequacies were down to the boat and not just my paddling abilities.
Which Kayak or Ski?
All of this just added to the confusion over what sort of boat I needed though. A stability 5-6 K1 racing Kayak was probably at the limit of my current abilities. Hopefully though after a few hours in it I would get to feel a lot more comfortable, would be able to start feeling at one with it and would be able to put some effort behind paddling it. I’d hopefully get the hang of steering too.
Would it be a step too far for now though? Maybe I would be better off with a more stable (stability 7-8) K1 kayak? Something that I could feel comfortable in and race straight away and use to develop my balance and paddling technique without having to worry too much about falling out of it.
There was also the lure of a faster, lighter, more modern ski. A ski may not have the out and out top end racing speed of a K1 kayak but it didn’t seem a huge amount slower than the most stable k1’s. On top of that it would be much more versatile, especially for me living on the coast. Surf ski’s are self-rescuable and therefore safer on open water. I could use it in the sea, I could play on it in the waves, and I could race it (albeit maybe slightly slower) in Quadrathlons. Even if I did fall off in a race I would at least be able to get myself back on and keep going – not so with a K1 kayak. I was gradually gravitating back towards a ski again.
The racer in me wasn’t happy though, I wanted the pure performance of a K1 kayak. The decision is such a difficult one, there is just so much at stake. It’s not like bikes. Faster, more aero bikes with top of the range components are faster than their heavy, non-aero counterparts but they aren’t really much more difficult to ride. If you can ride one road or time trial bike you can pretty much ride any of them. The actual performance differences between similarly priced bikes are also quite small. That’s not the case with kayaks. The potential difference in performance between boats is massive so I want to be in whatever will be the fastest boat that I can handle. But there’s the problem, unlike bikes only the most skillful paddlers can stay upright in the fastest boats. Getting a boat that is too advanced will only result in cap-sizes and an upside down boat full of water is even slower than pootling along on my old stable and heavy ski that I currently have.
I suppose it’s more like windsurfing. I possess a whole quiver of windsurf boards. Some for waves, some for flat water, some for speed, some for maneuverability and all are completely unsuitable for a novice. If I’m going to get into paddling and racing surf skis and kayaks then no doubt a quiver of boats will be required! Funds won’t allow that, unless I’m lucky and can find some 2nd hand deals so I’m still undecided. Do I go for a potentially faster stability 5-6 K1 and hope that I improve quite quickly so that I can start feeling stable and comfortable in it fairly soon? Do I go for a more stable K1 that will be fairly easy to get going in and still quite quick for races? If anything the extra stability will probably make it faster for me than a slightly less stable one, at least to start with. Or do I go for a modern versatile ski that will be better than what I currently have for Quads but not the fastest option? I will however be able to use it on the sea so may actually get out on it more than I would a K1. I still can’t decide.
Barbeque on the Lakeside
After a while on the water everyone headed to the shore where burgers and sausages were cooking on the barbeque. We ate and chatted in the sunshine. I tried to glean as much info as I could from people about what would suit me best but ultimately there isn’t one boat that will do all things. The safest option would probably be the ski, but I also want to get to grips with a K1.
We chatted for a while longer and then people started heading back to the lake for some more kayaking. I had a two hour drive home so I loaded up the van said my goodbyes and drove back through the sun-soaked Welsh countryside pondering over what sort of boat I should get. If only money were no object then the decision would be easier as I could get a ski and a kayak and continue to decide which was best suited to each situation at my own leisure!
It was all good fun though, the Dyffyrn Conwy Paddlers were friendly and helpful. The lake was the perfect location and it was a lovely day out. Llyn Geirionydd is just perfect and I can’t wait to go back. The only thing missing was Anna and Morgan, so hopefully I’ll convince them to join me for a weekend of fun and activities at the lake sometime soon.