Over a couple of weekends, in the dog days of summer, Ham Wall arranges canoe trips through its watery rhynes and channels. It is a chance to peer deep into the reed beds and experience parts of the reserve that are usually closed. They are popular trips and the 256 slots book up quickly. It is a quiet time in the reed beds. Mating rituals are a distant memory, populations are reasonably stable, chicks have hatched, and young have fledged or swum away. The swallows are still with us and we have not started to think (very much) about autumn migrations and our whirling, wintering starlings.
Canoeists are met at the visitor centre and welcomed to the reserve. We walk the small groups (about 16 per time) along the disused railway line beside the canal. As we pass the first viewing platform we note the moorhen and coot families on the reduced pools. A marsh harrier quarters above the reeds. There is always a marsh harrier. We turn across the canal. A large group of mute swans, perhaps 40 or 50 have moved in and the banks are slippery with mud and feathers from their group preening. As we chat, several visitors confess to feeling nervous - mostly about getting in and out of the canoes! Deep in the reserve, we are met at the jetty by the Reserve Warden who accompanies the trips and describes the wildlife and habitats, and by the canoe instructor. After a quick guide to paddling, visitors are clicked into buoyancy aids and loaded into the large, stable Canadian canoes. There is the slap of water against hull. The large wooden paddles clunk against the sides and splash on the water; canoes bump gently against each other as everyone finds their balance and rhythm. Excited chatter and nervous laughter quietens as they concentrate on moving forwards. Some people paddle off confidently, others turn in gentle circles or head resolutely into the reeds. Gradually the group moves away, leaving small waves and increasingly wide ripples. Fish flip on the surface, ducks hoot and gabble in the stems.
Groups return with huge grins and usually paddling confidently. Time spent on the water has been peaceful and relaxing. Some have close encounters with kingfishers, several see bitterns and some groups are lucky enough to be accompanied by clans of bearded tits. But most comment on the quiet rhythms of the water and the hiss of the wind in the reeds.
This year's canoe trips have been popular and fun. The 'dog days' of summer have not been hot and sultry yet but our canoeists have enjoyed themselves, whatever the weather.