River Wye Recce Pt2

I didn’t quite get the flying start I was hoping for this morning. A double booking with the taxi service to get me up river meant that I couldn’t get on the water til gone 2.30pm. All things considered though I’m pleased with my progress; having covered roughly 35km. Somehow I managed to be convinced by the taxi driver to put in at Glasbury as it is easier. As a result I’ve added another 10km onto the expedition so I still have a further 97km to paddle!

First impressions of the Wye? A great canoeists river, at least at the this time of year. There are several shingle sections that require hopping out to push. I would imagine this could be quite frustrating in a kayak. Much of the river so far has been placid with some short sections of faster water. On most of the rapids the main consequence is grounding or dinging the boat. Both give sufficient cause to read the best lines and navigate the craft down through the safer water. All have been chilled out so far but they are a welcome break to pick up some speed.

There are plenty of other paddlers on the river, many hiring their boats from local tour companies. Slightly alarmingly the taxi driver said that it is very unusual to see solo canoeists. I find that surprising as it seems to be an excellent venue for it. One of the delights of being by yourself is the amount of wildlife you get to see as you are quiet enough not to scare it away. This evening I’ve seen plenty of fish, herons, ducks, deer and now in my bivi overlooking the river, horseshoe bats are circling and squeaking there sonic bug finder noise.

Shoulders hurt but generally feeling pretty good and really looking forward to tomorrow and what the river may have in store for me.

River Wye Recce Pt1

I arrived as the sun was setting over the Wye valley. The river itself flowed with the lustre of precious metals, a honey gold from the final throws of the sun combined with dancing moon light from a full moon.

I had travelled down from Snowdonia having enjoyed a cracking couple of days climbing. The mountains gave way to more rolling country in Shropshire and now Monmouthshire. Finally getting the tent up after dark at a lovely campsite on a hill over looking the valley I was able to start soaking it in. The field was incredibly quiet with only the occasional interruption from a irritated female Tawny owl in the tree next to me, appropriately calling “TWIT” from time to time. As I rugged up in my sleeping bag I did my best to visualise the stages I would need to go through over the next few days to pull this venture off. My plan is to perform a reconnaissance and formulate risk assessments for descents of the River Wye by canoe or kayak. This will allow NT Outdoor Learning to carry out expeditions up here and specifically provide a venue for Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions. A number of people use the river for this purpose already and there is a good deal written on it. To be really sure about it though you’ve got to go paddle it. So here I am! For students the intention would be they paddle from Hay-on-Wye to Monmouth over four days. I haven’t really got that much time so I’m going to attempt to paddle it a little quicker but we will see how it goes. I have plenty of food but my car will be parked 130km away from me so whatever happens I need to paddle back to it! Right, that is enough talking about it for now, time to get on the water. Providing the tech works I’ll try to send updates along the way….

Supervising Silver DofE

This past weekend we had the second Silver DofE practice for this year up on Dartmoor. In unbelievably sunny conditions for the time of year 29 students arranged in 5 groups navigated across moorland terrain and for most had their first wild camping experience.

One of the great things about DofE expeditions is the self-sufficiency the participants experience. When we supervise these expeditions it is known as “remote supervision”. Remote means a lot of different things to different people and certainly different centres will have their own interpretations. It is incredibly important though, firstly to ensure safety, and secondly to provide the best conditions for the participants to build confidence in their skills so that they can be genuinely self-sufficient.

In this blog I thought it would be worth giving an overview of how we remotely supervise at NTOL using this weekend as an example.

The key to good supervision is having the right team and trying to make sure they are always in the most useful place should something go wrong. The bottom line is that you are sending relatively experienced teenagers into a potentially life threatening environment with limited facility to get them back out should they hurt themselves. If and when something does occur that requires leader intervention, as the overall co-ordinator, you must know your team will do the right thing. We are very fortunate at NTOL to have superb and dedicated volunteers that bring a wealth of experience to bear whenever we go out on the hill.

The second guiding principle is that preparation is better than reaction. If you are able to train your group to a level that you can be confident that they will make sensible choices (river crossing, steep slopes, sun screen, nutrition etc) you can significantly reduce the likelihood of something going wrong. Teenagers are inherently unpredictable, which adds to the excitement, but the more practice the easier it is to judge what they might do presented with a challenge.

The other side of preparation is that of the supervision teams. This starts 12 months or more ahead of the expedition with risk assessments and recces, considerable paperwork and consultation. It continues right up to the point that boots hit the ground and then is under constant review with updates as the weather changes and groups’ progress is monitored.

If the overall goal is to provide the experience of self-sufficiency in wild country then a delicate balance must be achieved. Obviously if you park up the minibus, kick a group out on Dartmoor and tell them you will pick them up in three days they will very definitely be self-sufficient. Realistically though without progressive exposure to the rigors of expedition life the group may well come to serious harm and at best be overwhelmed or pick up bad habits out of necessity. At the other end of the scale if you walk with the group all the time and navigate for them you are furfilling the role of a guide/baby sitter and the moment you pop to the toilet the group will freak out not knowing how to make their own decisions.

Every group that goes out on expedition fills out a routecard which details where they will be when and has a column for what they will do in an emergency to escape. If the group was fully predictable and capable to the point that they did exactly what was said on the routecard life would be swell and there would also be no point in me being there. In 13 years of supervising and assessing DofE groups all over the UK and abroad I have never encountered a group that entirely fits the routecard. It is however a very useful starting point. In addition we can check groups through checkpoints at regular intervals so that we at least know exactly where they were, say, an hour ago or pick up on any problems the group might be having. Then there is boxing. Boxing is when you metaphorically keep groups boxed-in either by using features such as roads, forests and rivers that they should not cross or by placing supervisors in strategic places if the visibility is good. On Dartmoor the visibility is rarely good but this weekend was an exception and provides a good example.

The group that shall remain unnamed but I would say is a classic Silver level all boys group that loves to hike in straight lines regardless of the obstacles had a couple of navigational blips but were otherwise strong. At Silver practice level, for me, it feels like the moment you take the stabilisers off a child’s bike and have to trust that they have picked enough up that when you let go of the saddle they stand a good chance of peddling themselves. Similarly when learning they will have a few crashes. To extend the analogy as far as I can the challenge as supervisor is too pick nice soft grass to do it on not hard concrete with broken glass. In the picture above the arrow points the the group. Supervision from this distance simply could not be achieved in cloudy conditions but as it was we were able to stand on high ground and keep an eye on them, allowing them to discover their own mistakes and make corrections themselves. In this fashion the learning is much more permanent and deeper than one of us stopping them and pointing them in the right direction. At the point that they just did not seem to be getting back on course we where able to direct another supervision team in to put them back on track.

In very little time these young people have gone from never having looked a map properly to navigating tors and valleys following contours and compass bearings to sleep out in the wilds away from any settlement. That is quite an accomplishment and we are all very proud of them. Not least as half my supervision team comprises of last years Gold participants now senior Young Leaders demonstrating that not only are they capable in their own right but are also taking on responsibility for the next generation.

Lastly a comment on the difference between remote supervision and snooping. There is nothing worse for a group than feeling like they are never safe from the eyes of authority out on the hill. Supervision, in my opinion, should not be done fully camouflaged up hiding behind a rock with a telescopic night sight (fun through that would be). When I’m supervising or assessing and try to tell the groups that if you cannot see me I’m most likely not there. I try to wear visible clothing so I can be seen for a distance and whilst I do use binoculars to identify groups I do it from a prominent place so it is obvious. The purpose of magnification is to confirm I have the right group which takes moments to deduce. There is just no need to stare through binos at a group for protracted periods of time counting how many times they pick their nose. They need space. Isn’t that why we love the great outdoors, to get a little space?

Well done all Silvers, Gold practices up next!