Eco-tripping on the River Shannon

Words & pics: William Bossman
Eco-tripping: accessible environmental adventure

The eco-tripping team of: Liam Harrison, Oli Back and Will Bossman took on an environmental adventure. Our goal was to combine paddling the longest river in the British Isles, Ireland’s Shannon River, with a continual plastic cleanup and water quality data mission. 

There is a vast array of travel/adventure blogs out there recounting awe-inspiring landscapes and spectacular thrills but so often come with a sizeable price tag and a massive carbon footprint. For us, the essence of eco-tripping is a simple notion: that direct action to help out the environment and adventure can go hand-in-hand – with a decent amount of planning, a gung-ho attitude and support of willing sponsors and environmental partners anyone can set off eco-tripping.

The Shannon: SUP country? 
From the jump-off in Lough Allen until our jump-out in Limerick the Shannon didn’t disappoint. The river offered us top class paddling stretches on its course through the verdant green of rural Ireland. Ideal SUP conditions are a calm coastal stretch and a light breeze but Ireland seemed to assail us with three weathers a day and a prevailing headwind as we made our way southward. Swaps between standing, kneeling and sitting to paddle became habitual to keep up with daily distance targets in the ever-changing conditions.

Plastic patrols and water quality monitoring
Plastic pick-ups were constant. Most were spontaneous involving collection of a half dozen pieces caught in reeds or low hanging vegetation. The SUPs had great storage capacity on the front and back so we had space to strap down our gear plus the Shannon’s unwanted junk before it we deposited for collection. We found a range of items from fishing wire to an Irish flag but far and away the biggest offender was plastic wrapping from silage and discarded drinks bottles – both one use items that could have been disposed of effectively. 

After 75k, we had our first big plastic haul of the trip just up from Lough Ree and a couple more in the following days, where we got down and dirty with some manky plastic pollution for several hours. The town’s hooded teenagers, whom had been watching us from beneath the town’s road bridge, thanked us for the clean-up and waved us on our way. 

Oli Back’s individual project, on top of the plastic clean-up, was to collect water quality data. Assembled with the help of the JBT Lab at King’s College London, which he dubbed Shazza (logging temperature, total dissolved solids and GPS coordinates). In true Frankenstein style, our team scientist had to deal with his creation, which seemed to need more attention then a newborn baby. That was until we reached Lough Derg… 

Stormy mistake on Lough Derg
Lough Derg, the third biggest lough in Ireland at 40km is length, presented the largest physical challenge of our journey. After inlet hopping and paddling against an aggressive headwind on the first afternoon and finishing the day knackered, we set off the next morning for Mountshannon then Killaloe. The chop of the waves increasing, we moored ourselves behind a small island out of the wind and prepared for the final 4km stretch across the lough. 

As our course took us parallel with the cantankerous wind which, up until then, we’d been protected from bore down on us. Liam’s board was flipped. Followed by Will’s⁣⁣. Scrabbling in the water we righted only to be flipped again whereupon Shazza the sensor was lost in the relentless waves. RIP Shazza. 

Without a support boat our attempt to best Lough Derg had gone from precarious to dangerous in a matter of minutes.⁣⁣ We didn’t want to put ourselves in danger or in need of emergency assistance on a matter of ego so we returned, sodden, to our basecamp. There the yachties we met said the wind had built from the night before and risen to a Force 3 when we set off and we surprised we had made as far as we did in the conditions. Us amateurs just hadn’t realised! ⁣⁣With a few locals to guide our way we were off in a taxi to find a way round the final stretch of turbulent Lough Derg.

An enchanted final leg to Limerick 
With the final lough behind us we hit the Castleford stretch, which presented us with some lovely shallow rapids. We stopped to get permission from the Fisheries Board ( to make sure it was OK for us to bozz it. We got the official OK – so it was fins off and all eyes on.

The river continually forked or broke into multiple paths. The Shannon’s depth in this stretch did vary wildly and all of us got caught or waylaid at points as we went. There were a few territorial swans cruising, which we were careful to avoid but definitely added to the fun. 

After more rapids, bumps and bruises, we reached the incoming Atlantic tide as greenery and fresh water gave way to suburbs brackish brown estuary and we caught sight of turrets of Limerick Castle. We hauled our craft onto the marina, startling a few passers by as we piled bottles, boots and a wayward traffic cone we’d obtained, into a neat pile for recycling.  

It was a fitting stretch to bring the eco-tripping team’s Shannon odyssey to an end and one we’d recommend for both SUP and kayak trips.

Céad míle fáilte
Pronounced, ‘Kay-od mee-leh foyle-cha,’ this phase is common knowledge in Ireland but has dual meaning of ‘a hundred thousand welcomes” and “you are welcome, thousand times, wherever you come from, whosoever you be.’

From a local water sports company in Enniskillen ( gallery/) who gave us storage and advice, to Phelim, a local bus driver who halted his day and took us to the shores of Lough Allen, the welcome from Jim at Carrick Camping ( carrickboatbike/) and a family who shared their fire and marshmallows, as they could see we were totally bushed from taking in Lough Derg. Wherever the eco-tripping team went in Ireland, we were bolstered by the warmth of so many people who we met along the way. The island of Ireland really does make travellers feel welcome.

Reflections and exciting plans 
After pulling many kilos of manky plastic pollution from the river, none of us has the same relationship with plastic rubbish. Every bit we chuck in the bin triggers memories of picking it up from the Shannon. Ultimately, as enthusiastic adventurers we have been left undoubtedly conscientious but moreover hungry for more. Plotting our 2020 eco-trip is well underway. The eco-tripping team would be well up to discuss this trip our future plans or anything cool and environmental then please:
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Our thanks 
This eco-trip would not have been possible without the incredible support of:

  • Andy at McConks
  • Jerome at Itwit 
  • Our environmental partners  Mark Horton, Jayne Mann and Emily Cooper at The Rivers Trust & John Bryden at Thames 21; and 
  • Palm Equipment 

Oli’s obituary to Shazza the Sensor
Shazza the Sensor was a water quality monitoring device made in London, UK, on 8th July and was lost to Lough Derg, Ireland, on 17th July 2019.

Creation: Arduino electronics are a simple way of making sensors but Shazza was a tricky number. Full of ‘Exit Statuses’ and the number ‘2165’. To be honest you did my head in, really, really annoying at times – under the skin frustrating, just awful. But got through it and with the help of Bruce from KCL, you were created.

Operating life: what a time we had splashing in the waves of the Shannon. I strapped you to a kayak and you recorded dubious looking data, but it’s fine we can look at re-calibrating back in the lab.

Disappearance: except we can’t recalibrate cause now you’re gone… lost to a storm on Lough Derg where one of the paddleboards flipped you into oblivion.

Wherever you are now Shazza, I hope you’re having a damn good time!

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