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Paddles to the mettle on the Swan
Paddling along the Swan on a crisp morning. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

The morning traffic snarl that crawls north along the Windan Bridge doesn't bother me so much today.

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Rather than sitting stationary between bumpers, I'm idling ever-so-slowly below, tracing the Claisebrook shoreline in a kayak. And although it's only 8C, I'm hooked into the hypnotic rhythm of paddle strokes, my muscles warmed by energy expended.

I drive over the Swan River twice a day, to work and then home, and I've done it thousands of times, rarely thinking about the beauty or texture of this ribbon of life that sluices the metro area into rough halves. But now I'm taking time out to get a feel for the Swan with Leonie Cockman from Water Wanderers and a couple of her friends from the Ascot Kayak Club.

Earlier, we'd set off from a sliver of beach, where Nile and Nelson streets meet, in new crimson sea kayaks each named for a famous redhead.

"Julia" had been left at home; today we are cruising with "Bette" and "Shirley". A hint of glitz on the Swan, I think as I grapple with a long velcro skirt, trying to pull it over my legs and up to my chest while keeping my life jacket in place.

"It's not a glamorous sport, is it," says Leonie as she watches me contort. I will later be glad of the protection my skirt gives me from the cold river water that slips off my oars.

A veteran of 10 Avon Descents, Leonie started her tours in June and with the scenic Swan as a "playfield" and her knowledge of the river, they should go well. Leonie has kayaked across the vastness of Canada and paddled down the Mackenzie River in to the Arctic but it is our very own Swan that is her home ground.

And as we sweep into Claisebrook Cove, now edged by townhouses and restaurants, she talks of how little Claise Brook once drained the wetlands of what is now the northern suburbs and was a pantry for indigenous people.

"It's funny how we talk of reclaimed land as if it was already once ours to use," Leonie remarks. And she has a point.

But although the city has long since encroached on the river, much of the Swan is sandwiched between long, thin strips of park - a bastion for runners and cyclists. Dolphins frequent the waters, corralling fish in the shallows, and birds are at home there, too.

As the sun rises higher, light glinting off ripples in the river, a pelican takes to the sky.

Heavy and languid, it just clears the cove bridge. On the rocky shore, a trio of cormorants are more graceful, standing tall as they hang glossy black wings in the wind.

And then out of the warmth, we slip into the chill concrete shadow of Windan Bridge, a rush-hour reality check. On the near bank the Old East Perth Power Station is a monument to the derelict and to beigeness.

My peak-hour panorama is of the graffiti-scrawled part of the building - this bland facade is a new look for me.

But that's true, too, of the more agreeable parts of the river. Of the little wooden jetty slapped gently by the waters, of the stooping eucalypt canopy and of the pelicans, shags and fat little ducks that live and die by the Swan.

  • fact file *

·Water Wanderers offers a range of Memorable Kayak Tours. The two-hour Claisebrook Tour is from 9-11am each Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and costs $90 including all equipment and a great morning tea of hot drinks and apple crumble and custard on Heirisson Island.

·The two-hour City Sunset Tours leave Mends Street Jetty in South Perth each Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 5pm from September to May and at 4pm from June to August. The cost is $90 per person, including nibbles.

·The 2 1/2 -hour Ascot Waters tour explores the Swan River between Adachi Park and the Garrett Road Bridge and includes lunch. The tour is on from 12.30-3pm each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and costs $110 per person.

·All tours are close to public transport. Tours of the Swan and Canning rivers can be tailored for groups. Each of the "redheads" is armchair comfortable. Basic tips on paddling are provided. waterwanderers.com.au