The year after college can be a mundane purgatory. Recent grads often live at home, work a menial 9-to-5, and spend their spare time dreaming of the next big adventure. But not Ryan and Casey Higginbotham, a pair of twins from Pismo Beach, California. Instead of accepting this right of passage, they opted to make their own path, embarking on an adventure of a lifetime.
After graduating in 2015, Ryan and Casey devised a paddle boarding trip that no one had ever done – or even thought was possible. In March of the following year, after hours of scouring navigation charts, planning resupplies, gathering the gear and saving money while working as lifeguards, the twins departed, to see for themselves if it was possible.
Their goal was simple, at least on paper: paddle from Alaska to Mexico, only using their hands. No paddles, oars, or motors; they would lie prone on their boards and stroke with their arms, moving forward, slowly. Seven months and two thousand miles later they completed the journey, after a few close calls, a couple broken boards, and new sense of self.
They raised money via Kickstarter for a film about the expedition and have enlisted the help of some big names, including Kelly Slater and Jimmy Chin. The coming-of-age story is about the novelty of the adventure and their personal growth. I had a chance to connect with Ryan and Casey over the phone, to learn more about the journey. Below is a bit of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
AC: Where did the idea come from?
RH: After graduating we moved in together and started to feel restless. We wanted to test ourselves and challenge each other to a higher level.
CH: We started looking for a “grand adventure,” something that had never done before and we didn’t know if we could complete. Over beers we dreamed up this idea and almost immediately started planning.
AC: What experience did you have?
CH: We’re both good swimmers and grew up near the ocean. We’re lifeguards too, so we’ve used rescue boards and even done a few races on them. But nothing that compares to this.
RH: [laughing] We’ve done some camping too, but looking back we went in so green.
AC: What’s your relationship like now?
RH: We’re best friends and still our biggest rivals. We used to get in fights once a year or so, but when you’re reliant on someone to stay safe like we were, you come together.
CH: We got into a huge fight right before we left and I remember our mom was worried. But we knew we needed each other. We’ve always challenged each other, but this trip was different. We wanted to raise the bar. We had to learn how to come together through all of it.
AC: Tell me a little about the planning that went into the trip?
RH: It took about a year to get off the ground. The first step was finding the right boards – we learned pretty quickly that we couldn’t use rescue boards so we had to find something else.
CH: Then we had to map it, find the right campsites along the way, estImate the length of each day –
RH: [completing his brother’s sentence] and how much food we would need, where we could resupply. It got complicated quick. We needed to find spots every 200 miles to get 12 more days of food.
AC: You guys didn’t have any sponsors?
RH: Most of them thought it was too risky. They all thought we were going to fail.
CH: Other than a few close friends, everyone thought we wouldn’t make it.
AC: Thinking back, what expectations did you have?
CH: Honestly, not many. We really didn’t know what we were getting in to.
RH: We were both fully committed, but we tried to not overthink it. We knew it would be really hard.
CH: Yeah, we wanted to be a sponge and absorb it all. We know it’d be tough but didn’t know what we’d be up against, so we just went for it.
AC: Tell me a little about the route?
RH: The first 1,000 miles was down the coast of British Columbia through the Inside Passage, a little maze of islands that protects you from the swell of the Pacific. From Washington south we were more exposed, with bigger surf and some large open water crossings as well.
CH: The water became warmer as we went south, but it was also more challenging. The second half certainly pushed us in a different way.
AC: Were there any close calls or moments you thought about quitting?
CH: We got some really good advice in Ketchikan and decided to change our route, taking the Inside Passage. We could have been in real trouble if we had gone on the original route, on the outside of the islands. A local fisherman told us that we would die if we went on the shorter, original route.
RH: Casey broke his board, then I broke my board. Those were hard moments. But I don’t think we ever thought about ending the trip. It just took a little time to get back on the water.
AC: What happened?
RH: Casey got unlucky in big winds off the Oregon Coast, something like 35 knots. A big set came in and slammed him into an offshore sandbar, breaking the board.
CH: Ryan broke his further south, off the California coast new Cape Mendocino. It was really hard to time sets and a big wave landed on him as he was trying to get to shore, and broke the board. Both of those took a week or two to fix, really slowing us down.
AC: Was getting in and out of surf a big issue?
RH: Probably the biggest challenge we had. Somedays it wasn’t an issue at all, but often it was tricky and really important to watch the timing of waves. Once you’re out of surf it’s usually easier going.
CH: Most of the big water crossings were pretty mellow. We’d get up early in the morning or wait until we had a calm day. Columbia River Bar was maybe the most challenging.
RH: There were other things too, like hypothermia, frostnip, rip currents, and animals.
CH: Yeah, I had a great white shark come bump my board a couple times.
RH: And once we had to paddle 28 miles without water. That was hard.
AC: And you still never thought about quitting?
CH: No, we were really committed to each other. We both agreed that we would never quit.
AC: What kind of gear did you use?
RH: Wetsuits with hoods, booties, and standard gloves. We strapped dry bags to the front of the boards with all our basic backpacking gear. Finding the right boards was the biggest thing.
“As far as expeditions go, its got to be up there as one of the most difficult trips of any kind” – Jimmy Chin
CH: We had tents, sleeping bags and pads, a stove, purification drops. Nothing out of the ordinary.
AC: What surprised you along the way?
RH: [After a pause] My biggest surprise was how many people helped us out along the way. It was really amazing.
CH: We’d stumble into towns like Hartley Bay, with only a couple hundred people and nowhere to buy food. A stranger told to visit Cam’s house and that he might give us a soda and chips. We walked there and without telling him almost anything about who we were or what we were doing they took us in like family. We stayed there for two nights. We really didn’t expect that. It restored my belief in humanity.
“It’s like summiting Mount Everest for the first time” – Kelly Slater
AC: What’s the goal with the film?
RH: We’ve both wanted to make a film, especially after all the questions we’ve gotten about the trip. Kellen, the director, saw a story that he felt people needed to see. He drove us north to Alaska, filmed the start, and then kept jumping in along the way. We think the message is important to share.
CH: We didn’t film everything, often we were too tired. But I think we have enough footage to tell a story about going for it, getting out of your comfort zone, and growing up along the way. It was a real adventure.
RH: And the value of suffering. It’s not fun, but it is really fulfilling. Strip everything down and just focus on the essentials. Stay warm, stay dry, make a home and protect your friends. Pretty simple.
AC: What’s next?
CH: For now we’re just working and dreaming the next thing. Ryan works on a fishing boat in Alaska in the summer, we do some concrete and construction, and still are lifeguards too.
RH: We have some ideas for the next big trip – trying to figure out what is possible.
For more like this check out An Interview with Karam Nwilati After his Bikepacking Trip, From Hatchback to Academy Award, or Christian Pondella: Beneath the Ice.