It was the naiveté of youth that first led them to the water’s edge in Ketchikan, Alaska, where twin brothers Casey and Ryan Higginbotham dropped their 18-foot paddleboards into the water and slipped off the grid.
The 22-year-olds had first discussed riding horses across Mongolia, then somebody reminded them that they knew nothing about horses. Having grown up surfing and lifeguarding around Pismo Beach, California, they switched to the aquatic.
Their plan was decided in a single evening’s discussion. Paddle by hand, unassisted and unsupported, from Alaska to the California-Mexico border, more than 2,200 miles away. They sold their possessions, including a boat their grandfather had given them, to raise much-needed funds. Their father thought they’d be eaten by grizzly bears. Their mother feared they’d kill each other.
Casey and Ryan, however, envisioned themselves cruising down the coast and pulling off to surf isolated pointbreaks when the opportunity presented itself. But as they began planning and training, they discarded their surfy California dreams in favor of simply surviving the ordeal. No one had ever attempted such a paddle, much less total amateurs. They had no sponsors, no chase boat, and minimal paddling experience.
Setting out in Alaska, all of their gear, food, and equipment was confined to two dry bags apiece. They hadn’t actually tested the boards with the bags, and found them unbalanced and difficult to manage. The GPS device they’d brought crapped out in the first week and they were left to navigate by hydrographic maps, a compass, and coastal landmarks. The only reliable source of information they had was the book Alone in the Passage, by Denis Dwyer, who’d solo kayaked part of their route. They dissected every page.
“Everybody told us that we were going to get eaten by bears,” says Ryan, “so we bought a shotgun and carried it with us through Alaska and British Columbia. One of us would set up camp and get our water dialed, and the other would stand guard with the shotgun.”
Weeks went by where they didn’t see another human. But the absence of people would teach them the most about humanity, like Henry David Thoreau and his little Walden Pond. But saltier. “As you simplify your life,” wrote Thoreau, “the laws of the universe will be simpler. Solitude will not be solitude. Poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. I never found the companion so companionable as solitude.”
“There were definitely some times where we were just out there with nothing around but trash and whale bones,” Ryan says. “We’d regularly come across fishing camps, and they’d always take amazing care of us. But there’s a lot of nothingness, too.”
One night while wet, exhausted, and with a storm on the horizon, Casey and Ryan clawed their way into Hartley Bay, 400 miles north of Vancouver. At a remote, self-sustaining community of about 150 Gitga’ata people, the brothers sought food and shelter for the night.
They knocked on the door of a big, white house and the two drowned rats were invited in for dinner. A small consortium of doctors happened to be in town visiting and a feast of salmon and rice had been prepared. The twins had been living off of freeze-dried rations for weeks. The calories were like a gift from heaven. The following day, they were invited to a tribal banquet.
“I can’t express the gratitude I have for them,” says Ryan. “They saved our lives. It gives you hope in humanity.”
The biggest adversary Casey and Ryan had to reckon with—more than the grizzlies, hunger, and weather—was the tides. With 20-foot swings surging through the matrix of islands and straits forming Alaska’s coastline, the brothers faced tidal rivers, whirlpools, and impassable currents. And they had no idea until they were in the middle of it all.
The Seymour Narrows was nearly the death of them. A three-mile stretch of the Discovery Passage between Vancouver Island at Menzies Bay and Quadra Island, the channel is only about 800 yards wide, but it focuses the tidal shifts with the fury of a firehose. Infamous and deadly, currents here can top 15 knots and have sunk well over 150 vessels. Captain George Vancouver labeled it “one of the vilest stretches of water in the world.”
Casey and Ryan planned to paddle the Seymour Narrows on a slack tide. Everybody told them they were going to die. They quickly learned why. Their forward progress was halted and they were sucked backward. They were flipped from their boards. Vortexes and whirlpools were everywhere.
“I didn’t realize whirlpools like that even existed,” Casey recalls. “I thought that was something out of Greek mythology.”
They debated paddling back to nearby Browns Bay to reassess their situation, but instead found a nearby sea cave where they could spend the night. Scurrying up a cliff, Ryan smashed his shin down to the bone. With rain pouring down, they captured gallons of freshwater, made tea and a hot meal, and climbed into their sleeping bags. In the middle of the night they were awoken by a cruise ship passing by so close that they could see people onboard eating shrimp and drinking beer.
“It was a good night,” says Ryan. “I didn’t want to be one of those people on the ship. I was happy and content right where I was.”
Farther south, on the Columbia Bar in Washington, the precariousness of their journey was exposed like a nerve. Certain that he was going to die before making the crossing, Casey called their sister to say goodbye.
They’d known this stretch would pose problems. Prior to the trip, Casey and Ryan had consulted with a stand-up paddler named Will Schmidt who’d survived the crossing during an aquatic trek from Canada to Mexico. He told them to put in five miles north and paddle three miles out to sea to avoid the “graveyard current.”
The current whisked them 12 miles off shore anyway, and they barely made it back in after nine hours of paddling. They landed on the beach at 9 o’clock at night and collapsed.
Other days were just routine. Wake up. Fuel up. Find water. Load the dry bags. Strap them to the boards. And start paddling. They’d paddle 16 to 24 miles per day, depending on conditions. Their arms ached and their backs groaned, but there was nothing else to do but keep paddling.
But when it comes to the ocean, there’s no such thing as routine. One morning they woke up to swell so big they couldn’t paddle out through the sets. Another time, they were followed by a massive white shark. And then, about a mile off the coast of Florence, Oregon, with the wind whipping 30 knots, Casey was smashed by a rogue set and broke his board. Blown apart with gear akimbo, they eventually made it to shore where they hiked over the dunes and found a phone.
Their first call was to paddleboard builder Joe Bark. They were going to need some new lumber. The next call was to a lifeguard buddy, informing him they’d busted one of their sticks. Fifteen hours later, their friend was in Oregon. Disaster averted.
They passed the Golden Gate Bridge. Took out at Ocean Beach and drank beers with friends in San Francisco. They kept paddling. As they rounded Point Conception, the weather and currents shifted in their favor. Blue skies and familiar scenery. They breezed through the homestretch, stopping along the way to stay with friends and enjoy home-cooked meals and roofs overhead. A group of lifeguards joined them on the final leg, from Imperial Beach across the Mexican border.
They’d been paddling for seven months.
“It was pretty surreal to be on the water for all that time, and then all of a sudden it’s over,” says Ryan. “It took some adjusting to civilization again.”
After drying out for a few weeks, the boys reacclimated to “normal life,” returned to work, and basically put the trip in the rearview mirror. They’d gathered a large amount of video footage and photography from their journey, and had dreams of turning it all into a movie. But like their paddle expedition, their proposed documentary project was entirely unfunded. They launched a GoFundMe campaign to help offset the costs, but it languished.
The sea called them back. Two years after their adventure, they loaded up their boards and put in at the California-Mexico border. They now had visions of paddling the Baja peninsula in its entirety—again by hand, unassisted and unsupported.
“It took us two years to forget how miserable the first trip was,” Ryan says, laughing. “But after a while it becomes normal, almost routine. Eventually, I think you get really comfortable living in that environment.”
Despite warmer waters, and fewer storms, Baja proved harsh and unforgiving. The coast was more barren than the lush rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, so food, water, and exposure presented new challenges.
“We assumed we wouldn’t be calorie-deficient,” says Ryan, “but we were never able to sit down and just go crazy eating like we did last time. And after a week of only having 1,800 calories a day while still paddling for six hours a day, we were pretty beaten down.”
“There were no disasters like the broken board,” says Casey. “The hardest part was just the grind. The slow, physical breakdown. We didn’t have enough calories and the food deprivation was definitely worse than last time. But you have to keep going south, you have to keep paddling.”
After paddling 1,100 miles over the course of 82 days, Casey and Ryan stroked under the iconic arch in Cabo San Lucas on January 2, 2019.
“The finish was weird,” says Ryan. “You’re going through Baja and then you get to Cabo, and Cabo is nothing like the rest of Baja. You show up and there’s a massive beach party going on. It’s a full tourist zone. That was a trip.”
Nobody’s ever accomplished what Casey and Ryan have done. Probably no one else will. They’ve since finished the feature-length documentary of their journey, which has helped them digest and memorialize their experiences. It wasn’t until that process that either of them even bothered to ask why they’d attempted such a feat.
“We just wanted to do something and have an adventure,” Casey says.
For their next act, they’ve expressed interest in paddling somewhere like the Arctic.
“We haven’t been in ice yet,” Ryan says. “That might be interesting.”
They may not have a definitive answer to why they paddled 3,300 miles, or what they’re doing next, but the lesson the Higginbotham brothers have taken away is to keep paddling. Just don’t stop.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned through all of this,” says Casey, “is to be able to compartmentalize goals. You have to shut down the view of the end and think in terms of small pieces.”
It’s like the old saying: You eat a whale one bite at a time.