Obituary - Ian Walsh

11th March 2011 at 00:00


To friends and family, Ian Walsh was "the kayak guru", a man who had yet to meet the river that would intimidate him. But to his pupils, the Southport supply teacher was also an example in how to turn adventure and conquest of fear into a way of life.

Ian William Walsh was born in Lancashire in November 1956. From early childhood he was at home in the water: before he had even learnt to swim he was fearlessly leaping into local bathing lakes. He also had a natural daredevil streak: whenever he and his brother climbed trees, jumped off diving boards, cycled down hills, it was always Ian who was highest, bravest, fastest.

After completing A-levels at the local grammar school, teenage Ian went on to study science at Coventry University. It was here that his talent for practical jokes - possibly an extension of his desire to live life on the edge - first emerged. He would, for example, push a fire hose through the window above a fellow student's bedroom door, turn on the water, and laugh as the student tried to dodge the jet.

In 1981, after finishing his degree, he enrolled in a maths and PE teacher training course at University College Worcester. Education was a career of convenience: as a supply teacher, he realised, he would have enough money and freedom to pursue a life of expedition and exploration.

This is not to say that he did not take teaching seriously. He enjoyed life in the classroom, and in 1984 enrolled in a postgraduate diploma in computing science at Staffordshire University, so that he could teach ICT as well.

Teaching also allowed him to share his passion for the outdoors with pupils. He oversaw Duke of Edinburgh Award training at some of the Preston and Southport schools where he worked; in others, he doubled as a climbing and orienteering instructor.

But where others might develop orienteering, mountain-biking or rock-climbing as part-time hobbies, Mr Walsh always took things to the extreme.

He joined a canoe club in Manchester in the late 1980s, starting out with just the occasional quiet paddle. As time progressed, however, canoeing trips became more and more frequent, more and more challenging. He and fellow canoeists would often arrive at an intimidatingly swollen river. While colleagues suddenly remembered a debilitating hangover, or a piece of vital equipment left at home, Mr Walsh would glance at the racing rapids and pronounce: "It's a friendly level."

Fellow Manchester canoeists' stories about "Walshy" reflect this bravery in the face of danger. There was the time he disappeared down a pipe in his kayak, for example. Or the many times he returned the club's kayak in more than one piece.

But despite such bonding incidents, he did not talk about himself much, either with friends or with family. Friends describe him as a "free spirit", going his own way. Certainly, he saw strength in observation, rather than in commentary: he would quietly contemplate the people and places around him. And he believed that it was not what you said, so much as how you said it: timing was everything. He would, for example, condemn any fellow canoeists not pulling their weight with a wryly delivered: "Mutinous filth."

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, he took the autumn term off school and headed out to Nepal for three or four months. He canoed among the Himalayas, but he was also an enthusiastic trekker, relishing the challenging terrain. Often, he would fund these trips by working for white-water rafting companies. He would trail the rafts in his canoe, picking up any stray tourists who had fallen overboard.

Despite these wanderings, he did have a long-term partner, Christine. She lived in Yorkshire; whenever he was in the country, Mr Walsh would cross the Pennines to spend weekends with her. They split up about a year ago.

In January this year, Mr Walsh arranged a weekend kayaking trip to North Wales with a friend. The River Ogwen was swollen from heavy rains; typically, Mr Walsh chose to venture in regardless. The other kayak capsized; by the time his friend had swum to the bank Mr Walsh had passed him in the current.

His empty kayak was spotted by a passer-by on Saturday afternoon. Shortly afterwards, Mr Walsh was found unconscious on a river bank. He was airlifted to a nearby hospital, but died shortly after his arrival.

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