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Kayaking the Demon’s Coast

Clear, blue, and well hidden for a lake its size, Lough Hyne sits near the shore in West Cork, a former fishing hub that now serves as a base for aquatic adventures—kayaking, diving, snorkeling, and surfing. The great earthquake of 1755, which wiped out Lisbon, kicked up waves that deposited fine sand in the shallows, creating surfing beaches that mirror Northern California’s best spots. The lough is bordered on two sides by low, tree-covered hills that rise right up from the water’s edge to form a wave-free sanctuary for intermediate paddlers. There’s a yellowish strip of land in the middle—Castle Island—and below the lake’s surface, a snorkeler’s paradise where a thousand different kinds of marine life thrive.

We meet our guide, Jim Kennedy, a thickly built 52-year-old former flat-water kayaking champion and amateur poet, in Skibbereen, a market town in West Cork where the Irish nationalist Michael Collins had his last meal before he was shot to death in 1922. Until the recent expansion of the Cork airport an hour away, this block-and-a-half-long town had completely evaded globalization’s grasp. It’s hardly overrun now. "When we go out in our kayaks we don’t meet anyone for days," Kennedy said. "Five or six minutes out, you’re in the middle of the wild."

Ireland is unfairly overlooked as a winter destination: The February flights are inexpensive, and it rarely gets too cold (the warm waters of the Gulf Stream keeps the ocean above 40 degrees and the air around 50). But on this late January morning, Alex and I seem to have brought the chill with us. As we climb into our waterproof paddling gear, hats on heads, hands in gloves, it starts to snow. Kennedy is beyond surprised; he’s almost embarrassed, swearing that he can’t remember the last time it snowed in West Cork.

Ahead of us, the water floods through the Narrows, a boulder-edged, 490-foot-long channel that connects to the ocean. The cliffs rise higher to the east, and as we leave the Narrows behind, the water hisses and swirls but remains clear, with the lightest hint of blue. On an ebb tide, the lake rushes out into the sea, creating Class III rapids. At slack tide, the flow stops for a few minutes, then reverses direction, pouring back in.

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