June 21st, the summer solstice. Ten thirty. Night descended like an elaborate dimmer on an antique lamp. Dark, looming ledges leaned over the rare, saltwater lake. My eyes adjusted to barely imperceptible shifts of light as I paddled a two-man kayak through ever-darkening water. Warm, syrupy salted air filled my lungs and swirled around the elderberry cough drop I sucked to keep from coughing. Pneumonia gripped my back and I sat erect, strapped and locked into the skirt of my waterproof waders. Still, water drizzled down my back and I tried to ignore it. I wished more than anything I wore my swimsuit, instead of this neoprene—and that I was swimming. But then I whispered to the lake—I am grateful. This is beautiful. I’m alive. I am so lucky.
Bats swooped. Grey herons shrieked and cackled. Their loud, ear-piercing night calls made my paddling partner, an accountant from Chicago, ask nervous questions from the stern of our kayak. She worried. “Will we get pulled out to sea?” I assured her, “the passageway is way over there. We’re not going anywhere near it, and besides, it’s so narrow, it’s only big enough for a seal to swim through.” “Or a kayak,” she quipped. “Don’t worry,” I said, a bit disappointedly, “we’re not going out to sea.” And we weren’t going out to sea. We paddled away from the direction of the Rapids, a narrow opening in the lake that bordered Barloge Creek, which then broadened into a harbor out onto the Wild Atlantic.
Several months in advance, I’d planned my trip to Ireland with the intention of paddling Lough Hyne, located almost five kilometers from Skibbereen on the southwest coast of Ireland. I’d arrived by electric car, having driven from the small village of Durrus, which should have been a 45-minute drive–according to Google maps, GPS and my guidebooks of the Wild Atlantic Way. By that night, I’d already been driving in southwest Ireland for five days, and had gained the confidence to pass a tractor, drive 80 kilometers per hour (barely 50mph) on curvy back roads between Durrus and Skibbereen—where gut instinct battled confusing GPS commands, and swear in Irish. I’d converted.
When I first arrived at the lake’s launch and parking area, my jaw dropped. A deep azure uninterruptible sky splashed like a reflection over the pretty blue lake. It’s roughly sixty hectares in area, or 150 acres, but splendidly rich in surprises, hidden coves and rock caves, strange myths and an island of castle ruins, an ancient home to a shameful king, an Irish version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. A group assembled beside the launch, practiced paddling in the air, introducing ourselves. One woman and her granddaughter traveled from Perle, Australia to experience night-time paddling on Lough Hyne, an item on her “bucket list,” she told me. As we struggled to climb into waterproof gear—several layers of thick neoprene overalls and hip-waders—that doubled as a skirt attached to the kayak—and strapped life vests over large busts—the four of us women lamented how unnecessary all of this waterproof gear felt. Just minutes before we selected our boats, two local swimming clubs waded into the lake. The Lough Hyne Lappers wore wetsuits. The other group—the one I wanted to join—wore togs, what Americans call swimsuits. These women called themselves the Dippers, an inside joke. They swam in their togs for a good while—long enough for our kayaking guides to run through the safety protocols, and to assist paddlers with their gear. We resembled trainees in Willie the Whale costumes at an amusement park. I’m glad that no one was allowed to take pictures—we were all required to hand over cameras, cell phones, car keys and watches to put in a safety box until after we returned from paddling. We launched the kayaks around ten o’clock at night and returned well after midnight. (We were not allowed to take our cameras or phones while kayaking.)
As we paddled away from the launch in the remaining daylight, I noticed a dreamy rose-colored house that sat nestled in the trees along the shore. Once home to a lord, the 1830 Regency-style Lough Ine House rents for €500 a night in June, complete with a private beach and a small cottage on a 15-acre estate. I spotted an overturned canoe resting beside a little dock but I didn’t see anyone. Immediately, I imagined characters from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: a shy heroine bending to cut roses in the patio garden for a vase in the library; a brooding anti-hero sulking irresistibly in one of the upstairs windows overlooking the lake and the sea beyond. This was one of the many moments I told myself, “One day, I shall live here, and write a book.” (Or, write something, I thought!)
In pitch black darkness, we could only see the red glowing flashing light on the back of the guides’ headlamps, and the fireworks of bioluminescence streamed like comets from a dozen boats. Like silent firecrackers exploding underwater, microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, a group of microalgae that act like animals, swim vertically in the water column to feed. Dinoflagellates feed at night. Pulling my paddle through invisible water, I excited these strange little plant creatures. Minature Swampthings. I remembered collecting some of the same dinoflagellates at Kettle Cove State Park in southern Maine. After collecting specimens in a “plankton tow” with a marine net, I inspected a few of the same species abundant in Casco Bay, Maine that marine scientists study in Lough Hyne. Ceratium furca and Ceratium fusus were two such armored species, both characterized by long horn-like bodies—which fascinated my classmates under a microscope—but truly awed and inspired everyone paddling in Lough Hyne with red and blue flashes of bioluminescence. If you’d like to know more about microalgae, see my previous post.
Since the lake is tidally-fed, the Lough is entirely populated by marine species. It was Europe’s first marine reserve. Now it’s a destination for night-time kayakers, marine biologists who study abundant communities of microalgae, the fabled (and very real) five-foot-long lobsters and giant sea stars, and the blue carbon potential of an eelgrass bed in the creek. One of the kayaking guides, Ryan, told me about his master’s degree project on the local eelgrass, and we chatted about the latest carbon sequestration science on salt marshes and eelgrass—called “blue carbon.” Eelgrass is a submerged aquatic flowering plant, a true sea grass with inconspicuous flowers. It spends most of its life submerged, swaying in the ebb and flow of tidal inlets and estuaries in the intertidal zone; its meadows, or beds, capture carbon, and hold onto it, just as salt marshes do. They are quiet climate avengers, in a way.
As we paddled around the perimeter of the lake, circumnavigating the island of castle ruins, we explored rock caves and listened to one of the guides, a graduate student at UCC, tell us about the holy well, Tobarín Súl, situated just beyond our reach. The Lough Hyne holy well draws believers who leave behind their white canes and old glasses—since they’d no longer need them after “doing the rounds,” walking twelve times clockwise around the holy well. Each of the holy wells in Ireland is known for curing (or causing) health issues related to a specific body part. If a believer wanted to curse another person, she or he need only to “do the rounds” counter-clockwise twelve times to cause the ailment, and in the case of the Lough Hyne holy well, might inflict conjunctivitis or blindness, or stink eye.
Once back at the launch, our paddling party stripped out of the neoprene gear as a bearded man announced, “It’s officially my birthday. I’m seventy! Which of you ladies wants to go skinny dipping?” A few laughed. I got scientific. “That would be quite psychedelic! Our bodies would sparkle and glow with the bioluminescence of dinoflagellates! You know—“ No one was interested in the science. Someone liked the idea of glowing bodies and “seeing sparks” but I bantered on, a little ditzy from cold and flu medicine, and antibiotics: “Well, they do reproduce sexually in adverse conditions—that’s why they’re shooting off the light. We interrupted. They were feeding—and…” Only the accountant from Chicago remarked, “Wow, you’re so passionate about this nature-y stuff.” We helped each other out of the gear while the bearded birthday man watched, a little more than disappointed no one was going to go skinny-dipping. I said, “This explains a lot…” and he said, “The Irish invented voyeurism!”
The cool, dark drive back to Durrus on curvy back roads both exhilarated my nerves and tested my courage. No street lights aided; only my headlights and the GPS—and my inner compass guided my way. I had to turn around twice—once when I came to a four-way intersection with no visible signage, and a second time as I pulled erroneously into the driveway for the Maulinward Burial Ground. I second-guessed myself there—and thought, “Is this a sign—a spiritual sign? Like a dark night of the soul sign?” I turned around, and eventually crept silently in my electric rental car down a dirt road.
The moment I smelled horses—that wholesome meadow-sweet animal scent, I knew I’d come home. On my first night, I’d walked down that dirt road and came nose-to-nose with a mare on the other side of a fence lined with hot pink foxglove. She had a foal just old enough to walk but young enough that it hid behind its mother’s hind legs, staring at me. I talked to the mare in clicks and cries of joy, and sighs—like we were old friends, exchanging gossip from the field. On my last night in Durrus, there was a storm—a wild, windy torrential rain. Tree branches, leaves and flower blossoms danced chaotically through the garden like creatures out of Oz, or fairy land. I spent that last Sunday inside, watching the storm, sipping lemon tea and listening to the sounds of the Four Mile Water falls rushing over the road.
If you’re interested in sea kayaking in this part of Co. Cork, Ireland, and want to paddle at night on Lough Hyne like I did, you can find out how to do this with Atlantic Sea Kayaking.