Flock to the Canning River
Paddling on the Canning. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

This is part of the Canning River that I know well, but only from the banks.

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I've lived in the area for most of my life and the path that traces the river through Cannington is one of my favourite places for a Sunday cycle. But I've never been "out in the middle", something Tom Suffling from Rivergods Paddle Adventures chides me good-naturedly for as we push our twin kayak into the Canning.

We're a party of 12 in a fleet of banana yellow and burnt orange - good stable kayaks with rudder control, and Tom says we're in for a treat. A kayaker since his youth and a trained biologist, Tom has been paddling on the Canning for nearly 40 years. He remember the years of flood such as 1988 when the water level reached the tops of the she-oaks and has watched the river ebb and flow as it battled low oxygen levels, reduced rainfall and algal bloom.

And as we swash through the murky brown waters under a heavy July sky he steers the fleet upstream from the Shelley Bridge and further into the Canning River Regional Park. I'm calmed by the still morning air and the rhythmic slurps of the paddles as they are eased in and out of the brackish water.

Up ahead, a semi-circle of seven pelicans are hunting for bream and mullet. As one they fall into single file and edge towards the stooping she-oak where they will doze in the low branches. Any movement in the still wall of foliage on the banks tickles the senses and we're soon picking out a plethora of birds; cormorants drying their wings, black ducks with obedient young, a white-faced heron with stick-thin legs picking its way daintily along a slender branch. A magpie chorus shatters the quiet as we drift between islets. And soon we hear other birds - rainbow lorikeets and the daft whistles of Port Lincoln parrots and black cockatoos screeching in the distance.

More cormorants fly low and quick, eyes peeled for fish. Dead bream bob on the surface - they stay untouched. Warily watching us glide by, a swamp hen puffs itself up, blood red beak and iridescent blue plumage garish amid the dull of contorted tree limbs.

Many of the birds are accompanied by a mate.

Two darter cormorants, one black, one white, make a fine couple and pay us no attention as they fuss over the nest of thin branches they are assembling in a she-oak. A pair of spoonbills land on the bank ahead of us, the larger is proud and upright in ivory white, the other more cautious, with dirty grey down feathers.

Most likely a parent and a young bird, thinks Tom. I'm surprised at the amount of avian activity on the river but Tom says the high tide which causes the birds to move away from the banks and recent rain which encourages them to seek out bug-filled puddles mean the river is "quieter" than usual.

That quiet is shattered as we approach Castledare, where the miniature train toots its way along the river bank. Two things surprise me as we reach Kent St Weir. I remember, as a child, water gushing downstream in the winter, the fresh flushing the saline back towards the Swan River and the ocean. But now the old weir, first made out of sandbags more than a century ago, serves as little more than a bridge and, disconcertingly, there is no evident flow.

I'm also struck by how the bush changes either side of the weir, and as we paddle east, the she-oak and casuarina forest untangles into bulrush, gum tree and paperbark as we leave the estuarine environment and enter the freshwater of the river.

Tom says there are frogs here and tiger snakes are sometimes seen swimming and, although we spot neither, the river is bustling in the mid-morning sun.

A sacred ibis tills the mudflat, a spoonbill picks between bulrush stumps, jet black coots bob sedately, and I spot my first grebe, a fluffy ball of grey (even cuter than a duckling), that I'd only ever seen on a postage stamp.

We drift along, taking it all in, trying to pick bird calls out of the cacophony around us. "It's hard to believe we're in the heart of the suburbs," Tom says, and I struggle to think of a more refreshing way to spend a Sunday morning.


FACT FILE

• Kayakers of all levels of ability will enjoy Rivergods Paddle Adventures, the newest of which is the Canning River half-day tour. It lasts about three hours and is offered daily for groups or during weekends subject to numbers. Kayaks, paddles and life jackets are included and the tour costs $95 for adults, $75 for students and $55 for children under 16. Rivergods also offer Wine Cruises by canoe (kayak) on the Swan River as well as expeditions on the Blackwood River, Warren River and Broke Inlet.
• A new season of Seal and Penguin Island full-day trips with snorkelling start on September 15. Participants will get to see Australian sea lions and visit the Penguin Centre either side of a picnic lunch. The tour runs daily until June 5 and costs $139 for adults, $125 for students and $95 for children under 16. There are limited places on the five-day Sea Kayak Expedition to Monkey Mia from October 5-9 on which travellers share the sea with dolphins, dugongs, turtles, fish and rays. The package includes camping gear, food and a 4WD trek and costs $995 per person.
• rivergods.com.au or 9259 0749

The West Australian

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