After discovering the wellbeing benefits of our canals in lockdown, Darren took on the first ever solo canoe navigation of the Avon Ring as a fundraising challenge in June 2021. Totalling 109 miles and involving 129 locks, he set a record of four days and 10 hours.
"Our appreciation for canals led to my wife and I learning more about the Canal & River Trust, and how they encourage people to use the waterways to improve their mental health. The Trust does incredible things for wellbeing, and I can't praise them enough for having this ethos.
"I decided my Avon Ring solo navigation challenge would be a great way try and raise some money for them. I also wanted to use it to fundraise for Cancer Research UK, after my wife's parents both had a diagnosis last year within the space of 24 hours of each other.
Turning a passion into a challenge
"I've been canoeing on and off my whole life. It became particularly important to me about five or six years ago. I had a bad accident which affected my right foot and I had to spend months teaching myself to walk properly again. Before the injury, I used to be a keen walker and go for long hikes. To be debilitated suddenly like that was hard, but it reignited my passion for canoeing. I could go off and do great expeditions down the canal without having to walk too much.
"My experience as a canoeist and a need for a covid-compliant adventure led me to researching the Avon Ring. I discovered it was 109 miles long, with 129 locks and that it had never been done before as a solo navigation. A sense of adventure in me began to rise. I started to wonder whether I could take on this challenge.
Finding comfort in canals
"You can see the change in people when they're on the water. I remember the first time I took my wife out on the canoe. The change in her was incredible. She was having a bad time, so we went down to the river and had a picnic. After 10 minutes of being on the water, she burst into tears. Not because she was upset, but because she was so happy and enjoying the peace and solitude.
"My wife has done extremely well to combat her mental health difficulties herself and during the pandemic she really discovered the wellbeing benefits of being by water. During lockdown, we would just go for a walk along the canal close to where we live. It gave us both so much peace and comfort.
A tough, beautiful adventure
"I soon discovered why no one had completed a solo navigation of the Avon Ring before. It was tough! But also very special.
"With heavy rain, a strong headwind and the threat of thunderstorms at the start, negotiating some of the first locks took about 25 minutes each. I thought the locks would be the thing that tested me and they certainly did. Without many dedicated canoe portages, I had to clamber up the side of the locks and use the ropes to lower the boat down. It really took it out of me.
"13 hours in, it finally stopped raining, and I had the wind behind me for the first time. That felt good and I finally started to enjoy it after a dent in morale at the start. The second day was beautiful, so peaceful. The sky was less lively, and there were sounds of woodpeckers close by.
"On the water, you see different elements of the beauty of canals. When you're in a canoe, you're moving quite silently, and the close proximity of the wildlife just struck me. I saw five jays and they were almost in touching distance, and it blew me away a bit.
"Other wildlife I saw, like coots and kingfishers, were a big surprise to me because I hadn't specifically canoed much on canals before, so didn't associate them with these spaces. It was great to discover how much there was.
Bringing it home
"Day four was a big day. The first thing I had to tackle was a huge flight of locks. 30 of them. It was tough work, really hard. Poor Gini, our family canoe, got pulled and pushed and dragged around. The whole flight took a good two hours, which was a huge effort.
"At times I did think it couldn't be done, but when I reached the Stratford Canal on day five I started to feel I was bringing it home. It was a long journey, but worth every stroke and every step. I already think I might want to do it again.
"If you're thinking of taking on a fundraising challenge, my advice would be don't over plan it, because you will plan yourself out of it! Plan it a little, get the logistical and safety elements in order, and then just go for it. What's an adventure if you know everything about it, after all."