Since leaving home in late June, one of the biggest and most constant challenges that Matt and I have encountered is the weather. We’ve experienced just about every type of weather imaginable in the past five months: extreme heat in Croatia; cold and wind at altitude on the TMB; surprise snowstorm in Iceland; scorching sun in Morocco. The weather itself isn’t the problem; it’s that we are utterly unequipped for any extreme conditions. Because we are traveling ultra lightly (backpacks only, and that are streamlined enough to be carried a hundred miles at a time), we are prepared to deal with only the most moderate of weather occurrences: a drizzle of rain, mild cold, a moderate breeze. As soon as conditions slide into requiring any type of specialized gear, we’re out of luck.
So when we set out for a two-week trek through Ireland’s notoriously rainy western coast in October, we were pretty sure we were in for some trouble. Matt and I both lack proper rain jackets, my shoes protect against only the shallowest of puddles, and our tent has gradually deteriorated into little more than a scrap of nylon that we take turns holding over each others’ heads overnight.
Nonetheless, we were excited to hike the Kerry Way, a 200K circuit of the Iveragh Peninsula. Approximately a nine-day hike sans pack, we allotted ourselves just under two weeks to complete the circuit unsupported.
Our bus to the trailhead was several hours behind schedule, so we started our first day of walking late on a Friday evening. We camped in Killarney National Park, hidden from the path by only a thin smattering of wet shrubbery, and when it started raining while we were setting up camp, I discovered that my brand new rain jacket was not at all waterproof. We had brought along a small tarp which we jerry-rigged to keep the majority of our aging tent dry, and slept to the sounds of endangered Red Deer bellowing their mating calls from nearby fields. (These deer are supposed to be elusive, but we couldn’t seem to get away from them.)
When Matt and I first began our career as wild campers (aka sleeping discreetly in “non-designated areas”), I will admit that I was as nervous as a possum. Every twitch of the grass left me certain that someone or something was coming to get us and either a. Kill us, or b. Haul us off jail for trespassing. I would lie awake in my sleeping bag convincing myself that the land’s owner surely took a detailed inventory each morning and would soon ride up on a four wheeler and blow a hole in our tent with a shotgun; or that the whole forest was certainly set to be bulldozed at sunrise and we would be flattened. (I once had myself completely convinced that I could hear a tsunami coming and we would be washed away, though that particular bout of paranoia may have been induced by unhealthy amounts of MSG-infused ramen noodles). So I didn’t get much sleep in the early days. Of course none of these things ever actually happened (though we were once terrorized by a raccoon in Georgia and thank goodness I was awake for that), so I gradually became more comfortable with sleeping “under the radar.” By the time we hit the Kerry Way, I could sleep tucked away in some little grove of trees or hillside nook with almost no qualms at all.
If only I had reserved a smidge more of my paranoia for the Kerry Way.
I knew the walk would be rainy, so I tried not to be surprised or disappointed when the sky inevitably welled up and dumped buckets of precipitation on us. In fact, I tried not to notice the weather at all, lest it should notice me back and decide I looked a little too dry and happy. (Not commenting on the weather at all became my little superstition along the Kerry Way, along with the belief that it wouldn’t rain as long I kept all my rain gear on my body.)
On our third night, though, things got a little out of hand. We pitched our tent in a forest near a little river, in a perfectly ideal spot for trail camping, and once we were all tucked in for the night it started to rain. Happy with our location and our tarp strung up over the tent with shoelaces, we fell asleep peaceful and dry after a 15-mile day. At some point in the night I remember waking up to notice that the rainfall was extremely heavy and persistent, and had a brief image of flooding, but quickly scolded myself for silly paranoia and went back to sleep.
In the morning it was still raining and didn’t seem like it would abate any time soon. We delayed as long as possible, but eventually decided to suck it up and hike out into the rain. It was only an 8-mile day, and we thought we could handle a few hours of wet walking.
As we packed up in a steady drizzle, Matt looked over a few meters and said, “Wow, that creek over there is pretty swollen,” and I clearly remember thinking, “There was not a creek there yesterday…”
We went to make our way forward on the trail, and quickly discovered that there was no trail– it was totally under water for as far as we could see. Having no clear idea of which direction it went in, we vetoed the possibility of staying in the trail’s general direction until it cleared up and joining it later.
In another few minutes, we determined that the overnight flooding had stranded us on an island in the forest. The nearby river had overflowed to create a freshwater moat of which we didn’t know the depth of extent. Thank goodness, I suppose, that we had camped on high ground.
We determined that we could either wait for the water to recede, which could take days even if the rain stopped immediately, or we could wade through the rising water back the way we had come to the nearest town. Envisioning floodwaters sweeping away cars and homes, I wasn’t too keen on wading out. But spending a few days on that instant island wasn’t too appealing either, and we eventually decided to make our escape. Fortunately, our path followed a fence line through a cow pasture, so we were able to follow it and use the posts to gage the depth of the water.
I stripped down to my undies, took off my boots and began slowly following Matt through the sometimes waist deep floodwater, the soaked grass weirdly soft beneath my bare feet. Luckily the water was mostly clear and still, allowing me to successfully avoid the impressive cow paddies that sat weirdly immovable on the underwater pasture.
We slogged for several minutes in this wholly uncomfortable but undeniably comical situation, which I fully realized about the time that I was standing up to my waist in water wearing a rain jacket and no pants, trying unsuccessfully to keep my pack out of the water and I couldn’t contain a burst of nervous and joyful laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of our predicament. It was much easier to see the hilarity once I was assured that we would not be swept away like a car in a hurricane.
Being in Ireland, the nearest establishment was naturally a pub, which we slopped into dripping wet (to the elderly bartender’s certain dismay) to plot our next move.
After discerning that the deluge would not abate any time soon, we reluctantly checked into a hotel to wait it out. (There are some types of rain you can backpack in; this was not one of them.) A full 36 hours later, the rain finally stopped and within ten minutes of its finale, the sun was shining brilliantly over the Irish coast. We later learned from an old man outside of a supermarket (whose credibility I’ll leave open to interpretation) that this was the heaviest rainfall in Ireland since 1946.
With renewed energy and dry gear, we were excited to get back on the trail, though the rest of it was comparatively uneventful.