Mark Wilkinson used to have an office. It was dry inside the office, clean too. No one had dirt under their fingernails or smelled like a smoked haddock. No one had to do number twos behind a tree and bury it with a trowel. No way. Mark sold sensible pension deals and financial packages. He was a man who planned for rainy days but never got wet. Now I was with him, surviving in the woods of Norfolk. "There is no wilderness here," he had said reassuringly, "Not in the Broads. Its quite tame."
I pushed through the tangle of branches and got inside the clump of low trees. It was dark and the rain was siling down. My soaking feet were sinking in mud. The whole world was sinking, returning to primordial squelch, taking me with it. Mark was back at the bivouac site, attempting to cook dinner on an open fire in a wind that was swirling, sending clouds of acrid woodsmoke under the tarpaulin we had drawn up as a shelter. Id been sent out to find dry wood. I sidled up to a tree trunk and got some respite from the falling water.
After more than 20 years selling pensions, Mark caught a bug. Lets call it The Great Outdoors. He should have been inoculated as a child because his parents sent him to scout camp, but Mark got a bad case. He started paddling canoes through the Norfolk Broads, then this year he had the idea of a canoe trail trip, guiding visitors through the Broads, stopping overnight at various sites - woods, riverbanks, reed beds, that sort of place. Then he invited me to try it.
Marks packing list ought to have warned me: it appeared to be missing a couple of pages. Where was the tent? Despite this lapse I took the train down to Norwich and on a cool Tuesday morning, with rain threatening, I found myself on the banks of the River Bure. The canoes were packed with dry bags, leaving space for two paddlers. There were comfortable seats too - my fear of knee damage would be proven wrong. Mark explained that the canoe trail took two forms: in one you stayed overnight in comfortable B&Bs en route, in the other you slept outside in makeshift shelters and cooked over fires. Inexplicably he had me down for the latter.
Under the trees in the rain, I shine the torch around and manage to find a couple of likely logs, not exactly dry, but what the heck: Mark had said there was a good hotel over the field and I was pretty sure I would be heading that way before too long. This was the first night, and the last, I told myself, no way would I manage two more like this.
Mark, however, had other ideas. For a start the man had somehow solved the swirling wind problem, by the careful positioning of a windbreak, then laid out a sleeping area under the rigged-up tarpaulin - ground sheet, mats and sleeping bags - made a stack of dry timber and conjured up a three-course dinner (grilled sardines, chicken stew and strawberries) with wine. Thirty minutes later, while the storm still raged, I was warm, dry, well fed, with a mug of coffee in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other.
Just like being in the office. It is possible, I thought, to do this in these conditions, and even enjoy the experience.
I woke once in the night. The rain had not stopped, but I was still dry and warm. The cool night air felt good on my face. A tawny owl hooted above.
The typical trip through the Norfolk Broads has long been the self-drive motor cruiser, a floating caravan that takes you on a sedate trip past the reed beds and woodlands. You can sit down and read about local creatures that you will neither see nor hear, like the otter and the bittern. Until now, extended canoeing trips have been ruled out by the lack of camp sites - but Mark has permission from various landowners and authorities to wild camp on a route through the area. Its a measure of the confidence he inspires and he is careful to respect the sites. Each time we departed, there was barely a trace of our passing. In fact much of the pleasure in such a journey is the sense of being inconspicuous, a part of the natural scene, ignored by the birds who delivered an impressive dawn chorus every morning right above our heads. On the water, we were equally unnoticed.
"With the canoe," Mark had said, "you get to see wildlife and birds that you would never see otherwise."
There had been plenty of proof of this already - kingfishers fishing, carp spawning, great-crested grebes mating - but the point was brought home with staggering force on our final night. We had made camp on a side creek of Barton Broad, a lovely expanse of water fringed by reeds. As evening came, we paddled silently along the edges of those reeds. A barn owl flitted past, then a marsh harrier. Ahead, in the water, an otter watched us approach. Then he submerged, leaving a trail of bubbles. In the background a bittern boomed and we watched as a roe deer stepped delicately to the waters edge for a sip of water.
Later, with the water utterly still, we paddled through the stars, spotting more otters, three of them, each a brief shadow then a silver trail of light cutting across the darkness. Away to our left a motor boat, heading for a pub landing, chugged past, the people on board chatting, oblivious to the magical night around them. Their engine noise covered the bitterns mournful cry and sent the otters into cover. The canoe, however, was silent and missed nothing.
B&B Canoe Trail: two nights B&B with two full days paddling, £175pp guided, £150pp unguided, inc packed lunches. Bushcraft Canoe Trail: two nights with three days paddling with a guide, £150. Under 16s 25% reduction. One- and three-day trips are also available.