• Canoe exped Store Le Sweden

    Canoe exped Store Le Sweden

  • Anxiously taking turns helping someone with one arm on exped in Kebne.

    Anxiously taking turns helping someone with one arm on exped in Kebne.

  • Leading Canoe trip on Store Le, Sweden

    Leading Canoe trip on Store Le, Sweden

Leading them Back

I am just back from leading a fabulous paddling expedition to Dalsland in Sweden. I was challenged by my canoe coach to lead a trip with someone unused to paddling open canoes to expand my leadership skills. The trip and conversations with my friend proved fabulous learning for me and has led me to reflect on how leading people who have for one reason or another taken a multi-year break from expeditions differs from leading normal trips.

In the Open Canoe world of journeying we tend to have older clients than kayakers- in many clubs its often seen as the sport that older people can move onto when they don't want to race or kayak. This piece focusses on how to think about leading those older  or mid-life people- especially when they may have a lifetime of adventuring and expedition skills behind them.

It's a very familiar situation: someone is a very adventurous and outdoorsy 20 and sometimes even 30 year old, but then often comes a phase that necessarily prioritizes kids, family, work... Maybe this phase includes adventure travel with kids - and sometimes even short expeditions - but the pull of accommodating family is often clear as summarized by a very experienced adventurer friend of mine who now has teenage kids - on seeing the pictures from my Dalsland trip he exclaimed " Oh I'd love to take the family on such a trip - but I'd have to figure out some sort of glamping option...." 

Then comes a new stage of life when people might seek their way back to what they always enjoyed - but now maybe twenty years have passed since their last expedition. Often these people are women.

In most clubs older people coming to open canoeing and expeditions are typically labelled as "beginners" and sometimes their previous knowledge and experience might be discounted (or they feel it is). That's not necessary and here I try to objectively look at how to lead that demographic which I will loosely call "returnees". This account emerged from my learning from leading an expedition to Dalsland in Sweden, but I hope some of the ideas may be transferrable to club settings, and that this piece might help both "returnees" and  their coaches and leaders to have those important conversations and make the most of the experience people have. They are NOT beginners, but they do have a specific set of challenges mostly to do with fitness and mobility that need addressing-  and being able to clearly set and explain the expectations for minimum standards will benefit both returnees and leaders. 

Writing this piece has led to interesting discussions with people in my canoe club and the OCA, and through those discussions I have found that many open boaters are indeed returnees. Most have previous outdoor journeying and expeditioning skills, most have some key pieces of equipment that are now old (tent, sleeping bags, stoves), most have quite some other boating experience (e.g kayak) but often no open canoeing; most have had multiple injuries and for many their weight, mobility and general fitness is not where they would like it to be. 

Speaking to this group of people one interesting thing that emerged was their awareness of time passing and a resulting impatience - many said they realized that this phase of their lives (perhaps after kids have left or after retirement when they are relatively free and still also relatively fit) was short and they wanted to do as much as possible right now. Many said this would lead them to challenge themselves and try to go on trips now rather than waiting a few years.  This clearly opens up that heady danger zone between wanting to do something and actually being able to do something. 

In education we distinguish between SKILLS and COMPETENCIES- skills are things that once learned, remain as part of someone's knowledge. Time can pass but someone doesn't become deskilled with the passing of time - the knowledge, once acquired, remains. An example is passing your driving test- that's valid for half a century or more (At some later stage in life you have to prove that you are medically able to drive, but the skills  you have are not questioned.) You can even stop driving for 20 years and then just resume driving using your old license.

Then there are competencies which can be loosely summarized as Someone's ability to actually do something. So I might know how to create fire using a bowdrill and that isn't ever lost- but my ability to actually do it will most likely degrade over time...

So when I led my last trip I found it interesting to start to understand the interplay of skills and competencies in the context of an open water canoe expedition. 


Expedition living skills once learned never disappear- This covers a myriad of often implicit rather than explicit outdoor living skills that might include things like: organizing your stuff, packing so things that will be needed during the day are accessible; understanding what needs to happen when we reach camp, keeping a clean and tidy camp, leave no trace, toilet craft and personal hygiene; cooking and foods, sleeping out, fire setting and fire clearing safety, knife and axe safety; navigation and map skills, knots, tents and tarps, understanding and interpreting weather forecasts, ecology and natural history; what to bring in terms of personal kit and how to pack it.

In terms of paddling - skills are general boat craft, awareness of trim, seeing the best line to paddle; knowing how to use the wind, the theory of using vectors for paddling upwind and across the wind; Moving the boat where you need it to go; Sailing; Understanding waves and moving water and the impact of these on the boat and  line to be taken... How to stow things on a boat for OW travel; How to tie up a boat for a short break vs for the night... and importantly the theory of capsize drills, what will happen, how to get back into your boat.

Competency in one area does not necessarily translate to other areas

But there are many crossovers here with competencies- and I got somewhat caught out.  I had assumed for example that someone who could paddle would also feel confident and have the current fitness and mobility competency to move safely across rocks (on a rocky shore for example).  This is a very different competency to paddling and I had absolutely no reason to make that assumption, except that it is hard in most natural settings to paddle without also having to do some clambering about on the shore or bank. 

So there are competencies that are worth explicitly asking about before the trip, that are about fitness and general MOBILITY (the ability of a joint to move freely through a full range of motion without pain or discomfort - see here for suggested Mobility drills for paddlers). Associated with this were old injuries -  all of which are part and parcel of an active life and usually historical and managed- and therefore usually not declared, but which affect mobility and potentially to reduce someone's resilience and ability to cope with  unexpected events. So for example an old back injury might affect their ability to do a portage around an unexpected obstacle, or get back into a boat after a capsize.

Note here however that anyone journeying through a remote area can of course have something happen that affects their mobility - but what is different here is that when there are many old injuries they can potentially affect not only an individual's but a whole teams' ability to get out of trouble should it be needed.

Learn about mental health

Worth noting here too are the mental health side of things like with physical health there are perhaps patterns and accumulated injuries, or lack of confidence, or general midlife crises and wounds. Why are they going back to what they loved in their youth? I am a Wilderness first responder trained with NOLS and in their curriculum they emphasize MH and psychological first aid considerations on expeditions. There are also fabulous accredited MH first aid courses available.

Leading expeditions is definitely not about counselling - but I have found having a good awareness of MH and when to be concerned is important. The NOLS curriculum is great with a clear focus on guidelines about when to evacuate urgently and when to consider possible evacuation. The MH first aid courses focus on identifying the signs and having the conversations needed to explore and understand those signs- and then to signpost to further care, which in expedition terms might be an evacuation. 

Age-related responsibilities, messages from home, and evacuation

In mid to older life most people also have increased family and social responsibilities. Perhaps their dog is old and perhaps even close to dying- what is their plan should the dog become seriously unwell or even sadly die during the trip? Mobile Phones - where there is signal - are both a blessing and a curse in these situations. Sometimes getting that call or text means they will want to leave the expedition. What does that mean for the rest of the people?

This type of conversation is useful- most people have a plan so its useful to for a leader to know what they are. On a trip I led some years ago way up in the roadless backcountry of Padjelanta National park, one of the participants' mother sadly passed away while we were away. Personally I always let my nearest know how to get hold of me even if I am off-grid (Yes I send them long/lat of expected camps and dates - on even on the most remote trails a message can usually be carried via another hiker or paddler for example, or perhaps there's a hut or somewhere along the route with a radio). She hadn't shared that sort of information and so it was only three weeks after the event that she found out. What followed was a crazy scramble by helicopter and several planes but in the end she walked into the funeral just as it was starting....

People don't declare stuff - expect surprises

Yes we/I do ask for medical and other info - but basically anyone who leads trips will say the same thing- people don't declare stuff! On an expedition in Sarek a few years ago someone brought their old Dad along for his "last" trip because he so loved the mountains- and did not declare that he couldn't see (at dawn and dusk, but basically couldn't see much at all). I  wasn't leading that trip thankfully and the leaders handled it very well and democratically- and they let him continue the trek, but the trek had to be seriously shortened also for all the other participants.

That's the risk  in an expedition setting as what affects one participant affects the trip for all. I did plan and lead a trip near Kebnekaise when someone turned up without an arm (amputated at the shoulder). She refused point blank to use a trekking pole for additional stability. Given that we were carrying big loads and rock-hopping across glacier forelands in the remote high Swedish mountains for most of the trip,  that was one of my more anxious trips! So yes asking is part of our duty of care as leaders of expeditions, but part of the role is to be prepared for more complex medical and MH histories as people get older - and to be prepared for surprises!

In an article by McIntosh et al  (2007) injuries on NOLS courses were explored  during three summers and these were the most common injuries:  Athletic injuries (sprains, strains) and gastrointestinal illnesses were the most common medical incidents. Hypothermia, seizures, appendicitis, heat stroke, and pregnancy occurred but with low frequency. Fractures, dental emergencies, tick fever, athletic injuries, and nonspecific body pains were the conditions most frequently requiring evacuation. The average age on these trips is far lower than the average open boater age however, and so it is to be expected that these figures would be higher on open canoe expeditions.

Fitness and multiday paddling

Associated with general mobility issues, are also issues of being overweight. We are many of us carrying a few post COVID pounds- but this issue affects not only mobility, but also paddling ability. On this trip for example my friend found that paddling in the BA we had hired along with the canoes was very difficult because the design meant she couldn't easily reach across her body to complete a forward paddle stroke, let alone do any cross deck strokes. So I was aware that I had someone with me who would struggle to get back in their boat after an eventual capsize- also not wearing a BA.  Most incidents in the backcountry happen as a result of several smaller decisions that unexpectedly combine to lead to an unfavorable outcome. Small issues such as this need to be considered and mitigated as best as possible therefore. 

A multi-day expedition also requires a level of sustained fitness and paddling ability that is hard to assess prior to a trip- if you have only paddled with people on daytrips (perhaps with a club) there is no real way to assessing their fitness for multi-day expeditions from that. I anticipated and planned to mitigate this by creating short days and building in lots of flexibility. This is beneficial for all, including me, and also allows time for exploring and fishing and makes for an enjoyable trip. But the effect of tiredness is cumulative over days and while clearly paddling over several days does in and of itself build up strength -  someone on an expedition will struggle to build up sufficient paddling strength to compensate for years of inactivity, so shorter expeditions of 4 or 5 days are probably ideal and ore enjoyable "starters" - and even those need rest (half) days built in.

On our Sweden trip I ensured we rested after every headland or slightly open bay (go ashore, eat) in practice on the last days when it was more windy and with more waves that meant that we paddled maybe 30 -40 minutes, rested for 20... Plus a decent lunch break somewhere pretty and a longer break in the morning and afternoon. In fair weather that is sustainable, and keeping people well fed and watered and not too tired is safer overall. its very much what we also do on land on expeditions in the remote mountains. While it might seem progress is slow doing that, it does allow for longish distances to be covered. And on expeditions there really is plenty of time.

In foul weather however, this strategy would not have worked so well as long paddling days increase the risk of getting cold, resting is less appealing as people get cold and stiff and the actual paddling is also harder than in fair conditions. Building in spare capacity in the form of layover days is key therefore, as is being able to take advantage of the best times of day for paddling even if that means paddling when there is less wind at dawn and dusk and resting in between.

Overall then someone who has the skills often thinks they can do something (because they used to be able to do it) but if they no longer have the ability to do it now- then that's a heady danger zone between over-confidence and low actual current ability. That proved hard to lead as it can lead to client frustration - why don't we paddle straight over there (over a km of open water and strong cross wind) .

Everyone has their own leadership style and my style tends to be setting up the conditions for people to realise things for themselves. That's the ideal way as I like to empower rather than disempower, but also keep on the right side of safety considerations.

The importance of a growth mindset 

Adopting and modelling a growth mindset can also go quite someway to countering this overconfidence danger zone - Carol Dweck suggests that overconfidence is often associated with having a fixed mindset, while adopting a growth mindset allows for clearer conversations about the gap between current skills and abilities, and allows for a  more robust discussion about how to bridge that gap. important here perhaps is noting that while Open canoeists are not going to be as fit as they were when they were twenty, the requisite mobility, fitness and other competencies ARE attainable with consistent practice (see e.g. Rosie Swale-Pope who ran unsupported around the world aged 60)    

Don't make age the excuse

There needs to be an acceptance perhaps of the limitations of ageing - and as leaders we need to be very careful not to pin lack of ability on age (prof Rose Anne Kenny  talks about how our attitudes to ageing influence our biology) - most of the time its lack of currency of training, wrong type of training (maybe insufficient mobility and core strength training), perhaps they have changed craft and need a better understanding of the limitations of those craft  e.g. kayak to canoe. We need to meet people where they are at and recognize them for the SKILLS they have and encourage them to understand the COMPETENCIES and ABILITIES by being explicit about what they need to be. If they no longer have that level of ability there can be a conversation about how to move forward to address those

But we all need to respect returnees' skills- and be aware that expedition and journeying skills don't fade. It can be a case of fast-tracking that return to competency- a stove is a stove, and the knowledge of stoves is there- but the design may have changed in the past 20 years. They are not a beginner, they have the knowledge but just need 10 minutes to play with the new design of stove before they can fly. And the same goes for many things.

The two cases where I personally want to ensure potential expedition members who are returnees have refreshed their skills before they come on a trip with me are navigation (yes you know how to do it- but go out and practice before the trip) and first aid needs refreshing although some basics remain the same. And I will find a better way of exploring their fitness prior to a multiday paddling expedition. Alternatively, I will plan a basecamp type trip.

As a training expedition this worked exceptionally well - we were lucky in having lovely sunshine and moderate conditions- and even one very calm day. There is plenty of time on an expedition- so its a lovely situation in which to be able to revise the theory and let them practice which improves their competence. 

Final thoughts

Overall we had a super trip to Sweden and both I and my friend had a great time and learned a lot. I am working on understanding and leading multiple crafts, and have been doing more paddle boarding, as well as a lot of open canoeing here in the UK. Plans for 2023 include sea kayaking and heading to Scotland and Sweden for more open canoeing expeds. My friend also had a very positive refresher expedition experience and has come back a very much stronger open water paddler with a very clear pathway for what competencies need to improve and what level of fitness and mobility she needs before her next trip. She has since returned to her WW kayaking, has done some more courses and is planning an exciting trip for 2023.

I asked my friend to come up with the competencies she felt she had needed for this trip- that's listed below in case it is of use to others:

Competencies / abilities that need to be current

- Ability to swim 100-200 m in cold open water

- Ability to sustain paddling for several consecutive days at approx. 6h per day 

- Be able to get yourself out of mischief ( have the strength and skills to paddle powerfully as needed for bursts)

- Be comfortable paddling in waves of 1 m + (incl. rough water canoe sense)

- Paddling into wind with efficiency

- Paddling across the wind with efficiency

- Paddle comfortably in a steady force 4-5 (with stronger gusts e.g. around headlands where these gusts are often at 8-10)

- Ability to scramble over rocks

- Ability to get down on ground and up again repeatedly (daily camp life, and getting in and out of canoes)

- Able to carry, drag and lift boats onto shore and portage

- be practiced at General outdoor living i.e.. Wild camping

- be practiced at leave no trace e.g. toilets incl. repeated squatting

- Know quick release knots for leashes and hitches for tying a boat up

- Have access to a few key knots so its not something to be thought about

- Be practiced at Box rafting (though I feel this is a five minute teaching job that can be learned during the trip) 

- Sailing downwind (she felt she should have been practiced at this, but this is also not a big teaching job and I feel this can be learned on the trip)

- Self rescue into capsized boat in deep cold water- if needed using a loop to step up into

- Practice at paddling a swamped boat


Scott E. McIntosh, Drew Leemon, Joshua Visitacion, Tod Schimelpfenig, and David Fosnocht "Medical Incidents and Evacuations on Wilderness Expeditions," Wilderness & Environmental Medicine 18(4), 298-304, (1 December 2007). https://doi.org/10.1580/07-WEME-OR-093R1.1

Age Proof: Professor Rose Anne Kenny explores the new science of living a longer and healthier life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7frsWR7-T0)

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