The Higginbotham brothers planned to paddle, unassisted, from Alaska to Mexico, a total of 2,200 miles. When they arrived in Mexico, they decided to keep going another 1,100 miles. We caught up with Ryan Higginbotham to hear more about their journey riding BARK down the west coast.
How did you discover paddling?
Really through our friend Pat, the three of us explored most of, if not all of our county’s coastline together, so when Pat bought a stock board one summer and started paddling to new areas of the coast, Casey and started paddling with him on lifeguard rescue boards.
Tell us what made you want to paddle the entire west coast. Has this been a dream for a while?
It all started with the idea to tackle Alaska to Mexico. We were both living in the same area at the end of 2015, and both at a transition point in life, graduating college. The idea came together trying to figure out some sort of massive adventure that would really test our limits and push the boundaries beyond what had been done.
What did you do to prepare for the trip?
Meticulous planning of every location we landed was key. There’s only so much you can control, so we try to limit the chaos. Food and gear was calculated to determine what was necessary. Along with that of course, lots of paddling.
What has been the most incredible moment on the trip?
It’s hard to narrow that down. The journey has brought both us to some highest highs and lowest lows. The amount of wildlife and coastal beauty is always mind blowing. Along with that, meeting some truly amazing people that we would never have run into otherwise.
What has been the hardest/ most terrifying part of the trip?
Each piece of the coastline has had its difficult and more intimidating sections. At the end of the day it’s all in your head. Though I will say, the Washington coastline felt especially brutal. It was a combination of the beat down from already having paddled hundreds of miles and the adverse conditions we encountered. The entire time we kept hearing stories about how dangerous the Columbia Bar was and how many people have lost their lives there, yet we knew we’d have to cross it to move south into Oregon.
Here in Baja, it comes down to water. When you think of a 1,100 mile unassisted prone paddle down the coast of Baja many potential threats come to mind. Injuries, sharks, malnutrition, theft, bad weather and seas filled with unforeseen swell and currents may be at the top of the list. But for us, dehydration was the biggest threat of all. The hand operated desalinator pump you see in the picture below is our only sources of drinkable water on this trip besides digging. It has proven to be a time consuming task as we gather gallons of ocean water every day only to produce about 1 gallon of drinkable water for every 4 gallons of salt water that we pump. Best case scenario is we stumble upon a kind fisherman or family with fresh water before we bust out the pump. Slim chances of that happening on the remote coastline of central Baja.
How do you stay motivated to keep going?
Growing up we were taught that once you start something you’ve got to finish it. When times are rough you just compartmentalize the day into micro goals. Sometimes that means just getting up in the morning, or putting on your wetsuit. When things really suck, the more laughs we have, just try to have fun with it. What else can you do right?
What was a normal day like on the trip?
We get up and boil water for a meal, fill up the camelbaks and pack food bars for the day. We pack up camp into the dry bags. Then carry our board and gear to the shoreline, strap up, punch the surf, and paddle. We keep track of our distance based on our estimated speed, and landmarks, then land at a location we mapped out months ago. Once we land, water is the first priority. Up North, we’d scout a good camp location, then I would go start collecting and purifying water while Casey setup camp. These things vary based on the hazards, and where we were. For example, when we were overly paranoid about brown bears up north one of us would always keep watch while the other collected water. In Baja we were pumping saltwater and it took both of us to continually collect water from the shore and pump it.
Once we eat, we study the following day’s paddle, re-examining distance, landmarks, and location. Camelbaks are filled to drink at night. Once those chores are done, the rest of night is spent, stretching, and if you’ve got the energy reading and writing.
Has this made you closer as brothers and friends?
I think that it’s made us closer as brothers, were less inclined to physically fight each other after the Alaska to Mexico portion. And I know Casey will always have my back, and I’ll have his through whatever. Although, by the end of the journey it’s definitely nice to not see each other for a while.
Joe is known throughout the paddle and surf industry for making some of, if not the best boards out there. He was the first person we thought to contact when the idea came up. Everyone I know who paddles had or has one of his paddle boards loves it. It’s just a bonus that the guy is a great person and a legendary waterman.
What gear do you carry on your board?
Everything needed to survive is in two bags. The list of what we brought is pretty extensive for Alaska to Mexico: A few clothing items, shirt, wool shirt, puffy jacket, gore-tex, EPIRB, marine flares, flare gun, shotgun, satellite phone, emergency blanket, whistle, waterproof matches, lighters, steel and flint starter. Stove, spork, headlamp, tent, sleeping pad, solar charged blowup lantern, 100’ of paracord, rain boots, thick wool socks, sunglasses, hat, duct tape, epoxy repair kit, extra fin and rudder, screwdriver, sandpaper, extra screws, 12 gauge shotgun shells. Medical kit with roller gauze, and suturing kit, 4”x4”, triangle bandage, medical tape, antiobiotics, Neosporin, bandaids of all sizes, ibprofen, hydrocodone. Bag balm, lots of sunscreen. Voltaic Systems waterproof solar panel and battery kit, two gopros, at most 72 dehydrated meals, cliff bars, coast guard emergency bars, neoprene beanie, backup sunglasses, wetsuits, neoprene wetsuit gloves, booties, and finally two Watershed dry bags per person to hold all of this. When we started out of Alaska the gear totaled about 70 pounds. As we moved south the climate warmed and the seasons changed so we were able to drop much of our cold weather gear. We also find out quickly which things we needed, and which things we only wanted, then dropped anything not required to survive and keep paddling.
For Baja we had to bring a portable desalination unit that we used to pump freshwater. We had less cold weather gear, i.e. swapped rain boots for sandals, gore-tex for windbreakers. No shotgun, we dropped a lot of emergency equipment apart from marine flares. We each carried our own clothing, I (Ryan) typically carried the gun, camera, and water purification equipment. Casey typically carries the bulk of the food and the cooking equipment. In Baja, Casey carried the portable desalinator while I took the camera. We try to balance how much weight we’re each carrying as best as we can. Then we’ll change it up based on circumstance, for example when Casey broke his rudder off in Baja, I took more weight and then we’d switch off boards every hour
We’ve got some ideas for a few brutal journeys to tackle. I think the more difficult, the more appealing. It’s a natural progression in a search for personal limits to endure and learn. Just in regard to paddling, we’ve got a few spots mapped out that look really interesting and are in some really cold climates but I never want to say until it’s a sure thing. You guys will be the first to know.
Thanks Ryan and Casey! Watch the teaser for their upcoming documentary here.