Switching Out Of An Expedition Mindset: Two Days Of Paddling At The English Canoe Symposium

Switching Out Of An Expedition Mindset: Two Days Of Paddling At The English Canoe Symposium

Paddling the River Eden, Cumbria
Paddling on the River Eden as part of the English Canoe Symposium. Photo: Lizzie Harrington.
The English Canoe Symposium happens once every three years as part of a tri-annual rotation with the Scottish and Welsh canoe symposia.

It is held at the YMCA Lakeside, on the shores of Lake Windermere in the English Lake District.

In the past I’ve run camp craft sessions at the Welsh Canoe Symposium and the Open Canoe Association’s Canoefest. It’s somewhat ironic for canoe-based events, with my teaching land-based skills all weekend, I typically don’t get to do any paddling.

It’s a shame really as these events are a good opportunity to attend sessions with leading coaches who you might not easily otherwise have access to, as well as paddle on lakes and rivers outside of your usual locus of activity.

Hence, I signed up for the English symposium as a participant.

Free of any bushcraft or camp craft teaching responsibilities, I fully intended to paddle all weekend.

Organisation, Logistics and Accommodation

In the run up to the 2-day symposium, it was possible to pre-book sessions. That said, a somewhat fuzzy booking process meant that you did not know if you had managed to secure a place on the sessions you wanted until several weeks after submitting the form, only finding out shortly before the actual event.

There were many different sessions on offer – from tandem and solo sessions on flat water to varying degrees of white water exposure to tarpology and other camp craft to freestyle sessions with international instructors.

Two canoeists at the English Canoe Symposium
The Canoe Symposium allows paddlers to come together for a wide range of different sessions. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Even though the event organisers encourage people to use available demonstration boats (supplied by traders who also attend) these boats are only available for flat water sessions. It is possible to hire a canoe from the YMCA for the off-site white water sessions but this is expensive at £45 per day for a dreadnought of a boat.

Hiring a boat at the event also leaves you with the potential quandary of how to get your boat to a white water session. If you have shared a car or come by public transport and therefore do not have a vehicle on site, you are entirely reliant on the goodwill of leaders/coaches and other participants to get your boat to the session. There is no official transport or shuttle to get you there and back. I’m not saying there should be or this was expected, it’s just an observation.

It’s conceivable you could book an off-site session then not be able to get there unless you have your own transport. This was almost the case for some participants on our Sunday session, which became logistically complicated and caused significant delay in us getting onto the river. It also caused us some delay in getting back to Lakeside at the end of the day. By the time I returned to the YMCA, my partner had been waiting outside in the cold and dark for nearly two hours.

In light of the above, despite the tight parking at YMCA Lakeside, I would always take my own transport and boat unless I had booked only on-site flat water sessions or had travelled with someone who has a large roof rack or trailer and attending the same off-site sessions as me.

It is possible to camp at the event – either in tents or in a camper van. This requires a short walk from the main site to the campsite. You can also stay on site in the YMCA accommodation. We chose to do the latter. The cost for a twin room and instruction for the weekend was £155 each. One note on the accommodation we stayed in – a comfortable enough room with a bunk bed and shower – it was completely lacking in any security. YMCA would not issue keys for the individual rooms and the communal key code lock for the accommodation block was not operational most of the weekend. This is yet another reason to bring your own vehicle so you have somewhere to lock away spare kit. The flip side of this is that when we arrived after midnight on Friday, it was easy to get into our room…

My Sessions at The English Canoe Symposium

I had booked – fingers crossed – onto two full-day sessions.

On Saturday I had indicated a desire to attend the White Water Intermediate/Advanced, Grade 2-3 session.

On Sunday my preference was for the River Eden Grade 2-3 guided trip.

Day 1: The Lune

After breakfast on Saturday morning we gathered in the chapel at the YMCA to meet our coaches.

Somebody – I don’t know who as he didn’t introduce himself – stood up at the front of the congregation and made some jokes before getting onto uniting us with our leaders and coaches for the morning or day.

One of the attractions of such an event is to paddle with a wide range of people, attend workshops with instructors/coaches you don’t normally get the opportunity to learn from.

When I booked the sessions, I had no knowledge of who would lead them.

Ironically I had chosen a session which ended up being led by my friend and colleague Ray Goodwin.

He and I work together around 5 weeks per year delivering courses and trips in the UK as well as canoe trips in Canada. The emphasis of our collaboration is equipping people with the paddling and bushcraft skills to make journeys in wild places using the canoe as transport.

So with all it the coaches present, and my desire to widen my canoeing experience by paddling with new people, it caused me some amusement that I was with Ray.

But it was set to be a good day out on the water regardless.

It was relatively warm for early November and we were heading to the River Lune, a river I have not paddled before. The closest I’ve been in the past is walking in the nearby Howgill Fells or driving up the M6 past Tebay.

River Lune with Howgill Fells in the background
The upper part of the section of the Lune from Beckfoot to Kilingsby is relatively wide and open. Looking back upstream with the Howgills in the background. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Only two others had signed up for the session – Mark and Pete. Both very experienced paddlers. I had met these guys before at an OCA event.

The section of the Lune we were going to do was a 5 mile run from Beck Foot to Killington New Bridge.

We drove over there, deposited the boats, which Mark and I stayed with while Pete and Ray positioned a vehicle at the end of our linear route.

On their return we got on the water just by the bridge over the river at Beck Foot.

The water directly after the put in went straight into a little riffle. Below this we gathered in an eddy.

Ray suggested I head out in front to start with.

I moved down a series of straightforward rapids. Before very long I had moved ahead of the other three by some way. So I eddied out.

Ray signalled for me to wait there.

His feedback was that I was still in expedition mode.

He was right of course. I was moving down the river as efficiently as I could without much pause.

Ray pointed out we should be playing, moving in an out of eddies using different techniques, moving around the river and utilising its flow to do so.

This was the point of today’s session.

Two canoeists at different stages down a river
Working the eddies down the river. Photo: Paul Kirtley

With Ray’s explicit permission to “play”, the character of the day changed from that point forward.

Ray took the lead initially, tucking into small eddies, moving back and forth across the river, checking and setting, all in relatively short stretches of river. We all then went for many more eddies, moved around a lot more and really started working the water.

Occasionally Ray would suggest a move for one or all of us to try.

It was a lot of fun and a little challenging in places.

Ray Goodwin discussing move.
Pete and Ray discuss a move. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Ray Goodwin utilises a diagonal wave to move across a river
Ray Goodwin demonstrates the use of a wave to make a move across the river. The keyword here was “precision”. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

This section of river starts off wide, open and gentle. In several stretches further downstream, the river is constricted and it becomes more concentrated in its flow, with some interesting rapids to run, play in or avoid.

The first of the bigger bouncier rapids proved straightforward for all.

We then had a good time working on precision in the rapids above the footbridge.

A later Grade 3 gorge caused a few upsets.

Mark capsized towards the bottom.

Ray went after him.

I chose a good line and stayed in my boat. As Ray attended to Mark, I stayed to spot Pete.

He was looking very good until he swamped right up to the gunwales coming out of a vicious eddy. I was impressed Pete stayed in his boat at all. I don’t think I would have done in the same circumstances.

While I helped Pete get to the side and empty his boat, Ray and Mark had disappeared around the next bend in the river.

When we caught up with them Ray admitted he’d taken a swim too. As he’d stood and curled Mark’s boat facing upstream in a slack section, he’d drifted into a submerged rock, causing him to fall out of his boat backwards.

Pressure had already been applied to me as I was wearing a brand new DAMX drysuit (more on this in a future blog post but thanks for your great service in preparing and dispatching this). I was being encouraged by the others to “test” it out.

Paul Kirtley paddling canoe on River Eden
The others were keen for me to “test out” my new DAMX drysuit. Photo: Lizzie Harrington (taken on the river Eden).

Now that everyone else in the group had got wet apart from me, there was even more desire to see me swim.

I half expected my time for a swim would come at some point during the day but as the least experienced amongst a very experienced set of paddlers, my pride also meant I wanted to stay in my boat, not least because I could rib Ray about it for the rest of the weekend and beyond.

But as he often says, we’re all just in between swims. I knew my window for banter had a limited lifespan.

We continued to work our way downstream and ran everything with two exceptions.

First were the rapids directly before Lincoln’s Inn Bridge. They didn’t look straightforward and what bothered all of us was there were large pieces of pine tree held in the river just beyond where we were most likely to swim. We waded/paddled a side channel to get around this hazard.

The second rapid we didn’t run was what is known as The Strid. This is a twisted drop into a pool. In the outflow of the pool are a couple of rocks which look like blackened, tombstone teeth. These would pose a significant wrap risk for a 15’ or 16’ canoe if you swam going into the pool. We made a portage around.

We were now left with the last section down into the gorge before Killington Bridge.

There were some fun and twisty stretches here and again we played into and out of eddies.

We were moving downstream with more purpose now though as the light would be going in the next hour and we wanted to get to the end.

Just before the final gorge was a set of sizeable standing waves and I ended up on a line that was a little too central. I swamped and on the last wave capsized.

This set me up for what turned out to be quite an unpleasant swim. Swimming on my front, I battered my knees and thighs on some rocks close to the surface then came into a deeper section with my boat nearby.

I made for the painter on the back of the boat so I could swim river left. Pete came over to assist too.

The painter was stuck under my airbag but I pulled the swim line off the back and made for the bank.

This proved harder than expected. The flow was bouncing off the sidewall of this constricted section and pushing me back outwards. I also still had my paddle in my hand. I passed this to Ray as he went by. Before long, the main flow caught my boat before any of the guys could get it and started to pull on my swim line. I let go, made a concerted attempt for the bank but failed to make it. The flow had caught me too as the water accelerated towards another drop.

Knowing I was going down another rapid, I took up a defensive swimming position on my back with feet up and downstream.

When I dropped out the bottom, I went river left again but still could not make the bank. I passed a large rock mid-river and went for the eddy behind it, which I made. After regaining my breath a bit, I continued left and made it to the bank.

Ray had not managed to get my boat before it went around a blind section of the gorge.

He was now river right on the bank, attempting the inspect what was beyond.

I went up the steep left hand escarpment, climbing up through the trees out of the gorge to the footpath above. My legs felt wobbly after my long swim and so I took it steady.

Ray had sight on what was around the corner and signalled Pete it was OK to go after my boat.

I walked above the rest of the gorge as Pete paddled on through.

When I made the bridge, Pete had almost caught up with my boat, which was still upside down, travelling downstream.

He had to call off the chase though as there is a weir not long after the bridge.

My boat went over the weir and eventually came to rest on some rocks as the river broadened and shallowed beyond.

My daybag and Pelican camera case were still in the boat and we cut them free before righting the boat, which took some effort.

With the boat righted, my kit back in the boat and my paddles returned, we pulled the boat up over the edge of the weir. I paddled it back to the bridge and the get-out.

For an idea of what this section of the River Lune is like, have a look at the following kayaking video I found on YouTube. There is more water in the river than when we ran it. The gorge that marked the first swims in our group is at the beginning. The Strid is the section where they are jumping into the pool.

My canoe had sustained some damage – there were numerous scratches on the ash woodwork from the boat having run it’s course down the river and over the weir the wrong way up. This was somewhat galling as I recently gave all the woodwork on the boat a couple of fresh coats of boiled linseed oil.

Most notably though, one of the wooden gunwales was cracked almost dead centre. I think this happened at the point of capsize or shortly thereafter as I recall feeling some splinters when I was initially trying to get hold of the boat. This is nothing that can’t be fixed though. I would need a temporary fix so I could use the boat on Sunday but that would be no different to jury rigging with what was to hand on an expedition.

It had been an interesting, challenging day of paddling. Despite the unseasonably warm temperature, I was glad of my new drysuit. It certainly worked.

In terms of approach, it was different to an expedition, even a short tour in Scotland. We were in unladen boats, wearing drysuits, always close to a road and local farmhouses. It would have been inconvenient and costly to lose my day bag, camera or boat but I could have walked to safety. On a multi-day trip in Scotland or, even more so in a truly remote setting, the situation would be very different.

But I had switched out of the expedition mentality for the day, pushed my technique as well as running things I would not run on a wilderness trip, where the consequence of things going wrong would be more severe. It’s inevitable that you are more likely to swim when making this transition.

When a group of six of us paddled three boats 160 miles (225 km) down the Bloodvein River, we had only two isolated instances of capsizing in 14 days.

Today in 5 miles (8km) of river, covered in only a few hours of paddling, we’d had three swims and one swamping.

I think this illustrates the difference between a remote, expedition mentality and a day-trip training mentality closer to home.

I’ve journeyed with Ray in remote places, learning much from him in terms of applying a pragmatic, cautious, fluid approach to expeditioning.

In the end, having Ray lead this day on the Lune also provided a solid set of contrasts between his expedition approach, which is very familiar to me and his approach to training closer to home. This is a comparison that would not have been so clear cut if someone else had run the day.

Ray’s Evening Lecture

To further highlight this difference in approach, Ray’s evening keynote talk at the symposium was on decision making on expeditions. He used our recent Bloodvein trip as a basis for discussing and illustrating decisions in a remote environment, when severity of any mishap is amplified by the remoteness of the setting.

Ray Goodwin addressing the audience at the English Canoe Symposium
Ray introducing his keynote talk. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Ray set the scene, describing the trip. Then he used photos and video footage of the trip to look at particular decisions we made. I’d not seen much of this video footage before so it was great to see. It was a good turnout and everyone listened attentively. Malcolm, one of the participants in the recent Bloodvein expedition was also in the audience, which added to the discussion too.

darkened room and screen
The attentive audience were very interested in what Ray had to say. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Day 2: The Eden

After a hearty cooked breakfast we were back in the chapel for the Sunday morning briefing.

Again the anonymous announcer stood up to conduct affairs.

It seemed a significant contingent were heading off on the Eden trip.

We all gathered outside and proceedings were a bit chaotic to start with.

I’ve already alluded to the logistical complications above. Suffice to say we all got to the river. We had split into multiple groups along lines of experience and confidence, each with one or more river leader. There were three main groups and we set off at intervals.

We had started at Lazonby and were running the section down to Armathwaite, a distance of about 5 miles (8km).

The nature of the Eden was in sharp contrast to the Lune.

The Eden is broader, more open with sweeping tree-lined banks along much of this section. The Eden is a pretty river and it reminded me of parts of the River Spey. It’s not a surprise then that both are excellent salmon fishing rivers.

River Eden landscape with canoeists
The scenic nature of the River Eden, Cumbria. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The rapids were riffles through straightforward Grade 2 for the most part. Some big, bouncy wave trains covered what would be bottom-scraping sections in lower water. There are plenty of big eddies and good opportunities to inspect what’s coming next at each juncture.

Running rapids on the River Eden
Much of the white water on this section of the River Eden is broad and bouncy. Photo: Paul Kirtley

With the beeches and larches turning golden yellow, it was a beautiful time to be running this river.

Double rainbow with river stretching into the distance and golden larches on the banks
A beautiful time of year. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The underlying rock here is the red sandstone familiar to anyone who knows the villages, stone bridges and castles of the Eden Valley. The warm colour of this rock is also apparent on some spectacular cliff faces.

Paul Kirtley in canoe
Playing on a wave on the Eden. Photo: Lizzie Harrington.

Towards the end of this section of river, at the base of a cliff on the right of the river, carved into the soft sandstone are five peculiar round faces.

They are accompanied by an inscription from 1855, which is a quotation from Isaac Walton’s Compleat Angler.

It reads:

”Oh the fishers gentle life
Happiest is of any
Void of pleasure full of strife
And beloved by many
Other joys are but toys
And to be lamented
Only this a pleasure is.
Timber }{ Fishing”

Faces carved into rock near Armanthwaite, Cumbria
Inscription and faces carved into the soft, red sandstone near Armanthwaite. Photo: Paul Kirtley

After pausing here for a short while, we continued towards the weir a short distance downstream. We landed, en masse, all groups together, river left to inspect the grade 3 drop.

We were welcomed by the owner of the house here and provided him with some good entertainment for the 30 or so minutes were were in the area.

I spend most of my professional paddling life being cautious. In expedition mode, I definitely would have portaged around or lined the edge of this.

I wasn’t 100% confident I could paddle this drop and stay in my boat, particularly as about 50% of the people who went ahead of me capsized or swamped.

I was, however, surrounded by a large number of people who could rescue me.

We were within sight of the road bridge at Armathwaite, which marked the get out. Plus I was wearing a drysuit.

I went for it, almost made it down, including recovering with a nice brace but then hit something in the outflow and capsized.

My pride was regained somewhat by being able to self rescue to a gravel bar in the centre of the river.

After emptying my boat, it was only a short run down to the bridge.

By the time we had all the boats on roof racks it was dark.

It had been a great afternoon on a beautiful section of river and even though the Eden feels like it could be a great touring river, again we were not in expedition mode. We had played on waves and run at least one feature I would not have run on a big, remote trip.

It was good to come out of expedition mode for a weekend. Despite bruised knees and a cracked gunwale, it was good to push the envelope and explore some boundaries.

In doing so, you may extend your abilities but you also learn where the boundaries actually are.

This is useful information in itself, particularly when you switch back to expedition mode.

As Ray said in his keynote “You have to rein it back on an expedition”.

I’m always interested to hear about your experiences too.  Leave a comment under the article to let me and other readers know about occasions when you’ve benefited from switching your way of thinking about something in the outdoors.

Further Information On Rivers Lune and Eden:




Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Six Men, Three Boats and The Bloodvein: Canoeing A Wilderness River

Enter A Virtuous Circle: Take Your Bushcraft Skills On An Adventure

Way Out North: A Boreal Forest Foray

Canoe Master: An Interview With Ray Goodwin

7 thoughts on “Switching Out Of An Expedition Mindset: Two Days Of Paddling At The English Canoe Symposium

  1. I don’t have any canoe trip stories as yet, I have a Sevylor Hudson inflatable and as such have to be extra careful. Basingstoke canal and Langstone harbour are my local paddles, but like yourself I do tend on the side of caution when on the sea, tide times, wind direction and the effect of wind power over tide at the shallows. But a great article and good read. Thanks a lot.

  2. Thanks Paul for the blogg.

    As one of the Freestyle coaches, I had a good symposium as well. Some of the points you you have made, could we changed, some others I think are more difficult. The guy is John. Hopefully he will introduce himself in 2017.
    A mayor reason why the the sessions and thier coaches are mad public on Friday evening, is that anytime before things change to much. I had a look on my scedule send 2 weeks before to the coaches. There are a number of them that could not make it. (illness, broken down vans ect). And a lot of changes where made untill friday evening. On both sides, also participants did alter their workshops when needed.

    Te logistics will always be difficult. Even is the organisation hired a number of taxibusses with trailers it will be hard with so many rivers to choose.

    Hopefully we can meet someday.

    1. Hi Lennart,

      Thanks for your message. I’m glad you had a good symposium and I’m sorry we did not have the opportunity to meet.

      I think this illustrates that everyone has their own experience at the symposium and in this way there are in effect many symposia in one. I did all whitewater sessions whereas others did all flatwater sessions, concentrating on freestyle.

      This is one of the strengths of the symposium – it brings many different paddlers together in one place.

      I actually found out I had the sessions I wanted a week or so before the symposium, not just on the Friday evening.

      I understand there are many moving parts with organising an event like the canoe symposium. Indeed I know the organisers of the Welsh symposium very well and the efforts they go to.

      In my comments about the organisation, I was not criticising – or even suggesting any changes – I was purely reflecting my experiences. Also, I have a responsibility to the readers of this blog to be objective about what they should expect were they to attend this event.

      We were two people in one car. I took my boat. My partner hired a boat and attended different sessions. It was not easy. She did not have a very enjoyable time and was frustrated. On my second day. We spend 2.5 hours getting from the briefing to the river, which was a 60 minute journey away, because we had to organise the logistics and find how we would get everyone and their boats to the get-in. In reflecting this, I am not criticising, just relating what happened. On Sunday, if I had not taken my own vehicle and boat, I doubt I would have got to the river.

      So I would recommend people take their own vehicle and boat if they are going offsite. If your are staying onsite, on Lake Windermere, then it is much easier with good boats available to borrow and no need for transport.

      I hope to meet you in 2017. I will definitely be at the next English symposium and at the Scottish and Welsh symposia in the meantime.

      Warm regards,


  3. This was evidently a great learning experience. Learning a new survival skill is valuable. And, having a good time makes it even more fun. There is another skill-set that was essential for the early waterway traveler. That of traversing upstream. A trapper had to return to where he started, often with a much heavier cargo that he began with. Of course, a great many portages might required, but the battle against the current was constant. The skill of reading the water was a matter of survival. More was at stake than ever.

  4. Paul it was great to meet you on the Eden. The flexibility of the ECS is a frustrating balance between providing the maximum that the leaders volunteer to offer and, frankly, faff! The leaders on the Eden where not the group originally scheduled for that trip and did a fine job of stepping in. Knowing what to expect from the weekend helps and for me to be on the participant side of the divide is a welcome luxury.
    As for the river, I will be back with groups to paddle it. I loved it, the weir at the end is a real bonus.
    I chose the trip to scout the river under guidance so that with groups I have some knowledge to lead from.

    1. Hi Andy,

      It’s good to hear from you and it was very good to meet you at the symposium.

      I had a great paddle on the Eden and I agree it would be a lovely river to take a group back to.

      I agree it was a rare luxury to be on the other side of the divide and one that I certainly savoured.

      As I’ve mentioned to Lennart elsewhere in this thread, my comments about the logistics were not meant as criticisms (if I had any criticisms to make, I’d send them directly to the organisers) so much as a reflection of my experience at the event.

      I hope our paths cross again before too long.

      Warm regards,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.