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Kathryn MacKay is seen at the site of her misfortune. (courtesy of Kathryn MacKay)
Kathryn MacKay is seen at the site of her misfortune. (courtesy of Kathryn MacKay)

Biking along Birmingham's old canals, I took an unexpected detour Add to ...

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.

It was October in Birmingham, England, and my partner, Drew, was visiting me from Toronto.

I had just met with my PhD supervisor at a café and was taking Drew to see the University of Birmingham, where I study. The plan was to do some work, then later I would attend a talk. I was carrying my brand-new MacBook Pro, which I both adored and still felt guilty about buying because it was so expensive.

I always cycle along the canals from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, where I live, to campus – about a 20-minute ride. Drew was borrowing my flatmate’s bike, and I was excited to take him along the canals for the first time. They’re one of my favourite things about Birmingham. The network of narrow, old canals is a relic of the days before steam-engine trains, when goods were transported by narrow boat to London from England’s industrial heartland.

Let’s be clear about one thing: No one wants to actually go into the canals; no one wants the water upon their person (even though it’s said to be clean). The idea of one’s body being submerged, partially or entirely, in Birmingham’s canals is terrifying.

It was a beautiful autumn day – warm in the sun, cool in the shade, with a surprisingly blue sky – perfect weather to ride under the trees through speckled sunlight. We were just outside what you might consider the centre of the canal system, heading along the canal that leads to the university, when it happened.

I was in the lead on my bike, and as we approached the (wide, modern) Five Ways underpass, I suddenly and mysteriously* wobbled and felt myself lose control.

Having ridden along the canals for some time now, I had devised a plan in case of such an emergency: bail as quickly as possible onto the ground to avoid falling into the water. Which I did. But it did not help. Momentum was not on my side, and though my knee struck the ground (giving Drew time to think I was going to stay on land) I felt horror as my bike, and I upon it – still somehow almost upright – plunged into the water.

My entire being had one feeling at that moment, and it whispered in my ears: No!

But yes! I saw the surface break, saw my hands brace as if I could stop myself from going under, felt my bike sink away from me, saw the water wash over my glasses. I was under for the briefest moment, and yet my body had time to register the temperature (warm compared to the air), smell (like a river), appearance (clear) and depth (greater than I had been led to believe).

Then one thought entered my mind: computer.

I surfaced in full-panic mode, screaming as I kicked and paddled, grabbed the side of the canal and launched myself up onto the path. I frantically cried, “Drew! My computer!” as I tried, legs still submerged and wriggling like a seal, to shake my soaking backpack off my drenched leather jacket.

Drew was already in action, pulling my backpack off and taking out my things. I hauled myself fully out of the water and stood stock-still repeating phrases such as, “Oh my god,” “I can’t believe that just happened,” “My bike.” To his immense credit, Drew was looking at me with the most concerned and sympathetic eyes. I would have been dying with laughter if our roles had been reversed.

Two women who were walking by witnessed the entire spectacle. One of them asked if I was all right, but the other was straight-up impressed. “I’ve never actually seen anyone do that,” she said. I was congratulated on getting myself out of the water. “Most people can’t get out.” Satisfied the damage was emotional, they went on their way.

My bike was gone. But, by some miracle, my computer was dry. My phone had the slightest hint of moisture on its case. Drew tucked both into his warm and dry backpack as I stood on the path, dripping. My thoughts turned to my poor, poor bike. My trusty, German-made, puncture-proof-tired, fully fendered, wicker-basketed bike! I considered going back in the water for it. I changed my mind. I took my boots off and squeezed out my socks, put them back on and started trudging, boots squelching, back home with Drew.

I was swinging between lamenting the loss of my bike and oddly unsettling laughter. We passed groups of people and police officers, but my sogginess was met with the British stiff upper lip. Not once did anyone comment on my sodden and bedraggled appearance. It would have been so much less embarrassing if someone had commiserated or made a joke (back home: “Hey, is the water wet?” Ha ha!), but everyone was straight-faced.

Thanks to the Canal & River Trust, I got my bike back. Two men with a long shepherd’s hook dragged it out of the water (after first chancing upon some bags of trash). In the end, everything came through intact. The only things left to mark the event are my new canal-centric anxieties and our memories.

* Leading theories of what caused the bike to wobble include: Five Ways bridge trolls, exacting their price; towpath elves playing tricks; kelpies, attempting to eat me.

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