Seafaring twin brothers paddling from Alaska to Mexico

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Follow the Higginbotham Brothers

On March 18, Ryan and Casey Higginbotham set out from Ketchikan, Alaska, on a 2,200-mile, prone paddle board journey to the Mexico-United States border. Lying down, using only their hands for propulsion and without the support of a boat, they aimed to be done by July.

They reached Point Reyes National Seashore Sept. 1, 167 days later and already 60 days behind schedule. They met up with Sonoma County Lifeguard Aaron Pendergraft for a rest day before continuing south to San Francisco. They will reach Big Sur this weekend, with 30 more days of paddling to reach Mexico.

“Right now it’s looking like we’ll finish by mid-late October, but you never know with weather/swell,” the pair wrote from their camp in Carmel. “We’ll see how we manage it with rest because the body is starting to break down.”

Great Training Paddle with ??:@onewithnatureco @gold_chaynes shooting from above #shadesunscreen #voltaicsystems #barkpaddleboards

A video posted by Ryan & Casey Higginbotham (@the_north_american_paddle) on Feb 9, 2016 at 11:06pm PST

Their Cause

The twin brothers, who turned 24 during the trip, are California State Lifeguards from Pismo Beach, and have been surfing most of their lives. They have said they wanted an adventure after graduating from college, “a real experience in a rugged, pristine part of the world.”

Their website, northamericanpaddle.com, describes the trip as “not just a historical waterman’s journey, but a way to raise awareness for greater coastal conservation, an homage to all watermen.”

Their Boards

The Higginbothams’ paddleboards were specially shaped for the expedition by Joe Bark of Torrance, a well known shaper of paddleboards and surfboards. They measure 18 feet long and 20 inches wide, constructed of solid foam a foot thick, with a rubberized kneeling deck, carbon fiber, epoxy glassed and gear racks on the front and back.

The boards are quite light but can tote 60-70 pounds of dried food, clothing, safety and camping gear, the bare minimum needed for extended bouts of solitude. Both have broken their boards, Casey in Florence, Oregon, and Ryan at Cape Mendocino when big swells prevented their safe passage to camp through the surf zone. Both times they were delayed while a new board was made.

Navigation

They planned to navigate with a GPS unit that lasted a month and a half before it “went down.” They have done the rest of the journey without it, using waterproof maps to help them find their way through the nightmarish maze of islands and inlets along the Pacific Northwest.

Nuts and Bolts

The brothers paddle 5 or 6 hours a day and cover 10 to 25 miles, depending on conditions, and rest every five days.

Their camping scenarios can best be described as feral. They camp on random beaches or up rivers, set up camp in dunes and move out before being noticed.

Without major sponsors, they are funding most of the journey themselves, so tents are the norm, with occasional cheap motels when near shore. For the most part, nights are spent sleeping separately in one-man MSR tents donated by the manufacturer and wearing wetsuits donated by Patagonia.

They backed dehydrated food boxes before they left, and had them shipped to post offices in Canada. Now that they are in California, their mother ships them boxes.

Wildlife Encounters

Grizzlies were of particular concern in Alaska and British Columbia, but the brothers never encountered an aggressive bear. Casey did encounter a great white shark near the mouth of the Cal Salmon River in Oregon.

Follow the Higginbotham Brothers

“It cruised by my stern in crystal clear water, came back and bumped my board,” he said. “Ryan didn’t see it. I had to do a double take. I thought it was a big whale calf at first, maybe 10 to 14 feet.”

Ryan said he recognized the look on Casey’s face and noticed that he was paddling with his fingertips. “We’ve seen sharks before down where we live. I said, ‘What did you see, what did you see?’”

Casey answered with a yell, “I didn’t see anything.”

They said they got rousted by police once or twice, then added that if an officer would have offered them a ride to town, a warm meal and a soft bedded jail cell for trespassing, they might have obliged.

“Jail would have been awesome at some points,” they said, laughing.

Significant Moments

Bad went to worse while crossing the Columbia River Bar June 12. The system of bars and shoals at the mouth of the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon is known as one of the roughest in the world, requiring bar pilots are used to guide ships across it.

Before starting the trip, they contacted an endurance athlete named Will Schmidt who made it from Canada to Mexico on a stand up paddle board. He advised them to tell the Coast Guard what they were doing before crossing the bar. They did, but it didn’t help.

To position themselves far enough away from the deadly sandbar itself, they planned to start at noon, paddle five and a half miles offshore, about three miles out past the jetties that stretch from shore to position themselves well past the large waves and tidal rips that could capsize their boards.

From there, they planned to start at noon, paddle three miles south — the width of the river mouth — and then five miles back to shore.

“Well, that was the plan. Didn’t work out,” Casey said with a chuckle.

“We were sent 12 miles out to sea,” Ryan confirmed. “It took us till 9:30 p.m. to get back to the beach. Anytime you get across that thing on a little board and you live, you did OK.”

“For the gnarlier crossings like the Columbia River Bar, we would put our SPOT beacon near the tops of our bags and get strobes out just in case,” said Ryan. They never felt compelled to use those devices, despite the harrowing passage.

Epiphanies

Casey: “There were times we ran out of food and didn’t see anyone we knew for months. It was just us out there in the middle of nowhere. You learn to appreciate little things, like having anything dry and warm, and your friends and family.”

Ryan: “You plan on every day being the toughest day ever, and sometimes it’s not that bad.”

The word “stoic” began to resonate with them and has stuck with them throughout these challenges:

• Ryan had never been on a camping trip longer than three days before this trip.

• They never did a run with all their gear on board until the day they left Ketchikan.

• It rained all but three days during the first month.

• Washington was brutal. It felt like every 20 miles there was a river bar, with breaking waves rather than rolling swells.

• Five days into the journey Ryan lost his neoprene glove, a catastrophe for hand paddling through water temps in the high 30s. Casey thought the trip would be over due to frostbite. That night they came up with four different options. The winning solution was a wearing a booty on the hand, a wool sock on his foot while they paddled 16 miles to reach a lodge on Whales Island. At the lodge, a couple took them in and fed them.

• A big rainstorm hit while they were coming into Prince Rupert, British Columbia, with 20-foot tidal swings that kept them from reaching shore. They got within a mile of their destination, pulled out of the water at an island, got out of their wet suits and made camp. They woke up to perfect weather, completed the mile-long paddle to Prince Rupert, went to a café and ate for the next four hours.

Jim Nevill is a nature, surf and commercial photographer based in Northern California. Contact him at Jim@JimNevill.com.

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