The Big5 Kayak Challenge Team complete record paddle for the Inside Passage covering 850 miles from Port Hardy, Vancouver to Glacier Bay, Alaska in 27 days.
A team of British and Irish kayakers have completed 850miles from Port Hardy, on the north of Vancouver Island, up to Glacier Bay, Alaska in record time. What makes their story so remarkable is that they have completed it in 27 days of paddling, averaging over 30 miles per day, unsupported day to day on their expedition and paddling plastic Wilderness Systems kayaks weighing approximately 65kgs fully laden. It is believed to be the fastest time for this journey on the Inside Passage.
The journey north during the last 4 weeks has been successful despite long periods of strong head winds, torrential rain and high spring tides. The team also encountered a heavy storm for 3 days in Alaska. The final push from Alaska’s capital, Juneau, north to Gustavas and Glacier Bay, National Park, a world heritage site (which was scheduled to take two days) almost failed due to heavy northerly winds gusting at Force 6-7 and a tight schedule to cover 46 miles on the second day. Two members of the team, Aisling Ni Chuinn and Richard Harpham ended up paddling for a massive 21 hours to cover the 41 miles, arriving at 3 am for the connection to the Glacier Bay Park and two further days of kayaking around the Glaciers.
Wildlife and Adventure
Along the way there has been plenty of adventure including experiencing flooding during the record high spring tides while wild camping on a beach (The spring tides were measured as the highest for 25 years). They awoke to find a foot of icy cold water in their tents and kit floating at 1.30am. They were forced to sleep in bivi bags, balanced on the driftwood logs. On another occasion they camped on a waterfall ledge and were forced to lower the kayaks three metres down the cliff face the following morning. Once again caught out by record tide levels, but this time a record low tide.
Despite being experienced paddlers and qualified coaches, one of the team, Geoff Tilford, capsized in heavy seas in Alaska and had to be rescued by his fellow team members. Their training with professional sea kayaker, team member and technical advisor to the group, Ollie Jay of Active4Seasons, paid off. Geoff commented, “ Being pitched into the icy cold water came as a bit of shock, I tried to Eskimo roll but with the heavy seas and laden boat I struggled. Getting back into my kayak was tricky and our training with Ollie off the Northumberland coast definitely helped”.
To stick to their ambitious schedule the team paddled for 12 hour days and on occasions, covering as much as 45 miles in one day. Persistent and heavy rain dominated the weather for the first two weeks of paddling, which made it difficult to keep kit such as sleeping bags and spare clothes dry. On the positive side, the rain brought about the appearance of many spectacular waterfalls along the way, and no shortage of fresh drinking water. The team have loved the stunning scenery and wildlife. Aisling Ni Chuinn, the team’s Irish paddler commented “ Almost every day we see orcas and humpback whales and often close up as it seems that our kayaks don’t seem to disturb the wildlife at all. Watching bears in their natural surroundings has been a real treat, although obviously when camping we take the precautions we have been advised to take to avoid a night time visitor to our tents”.
The second half of the trip brought about a distinct change in the weather, and almost two weeks of constant sunshine and with it a notable rise in temperature. The high winds persisted, and the team were advised by local people many times along the way that the price of sunshine in Alaska is strong northerly winds, which the team had to battle against. However, the clear blue skies greatly enhanced the surrounding scenery and the team were constantly in awe of the beautiful but wild and rugged environment they found themselves in. It also made for some stunning sunsets with fiery red colours at the end of days paddling.
The most spectacular scenery of the trip was in the final two days of paddling, when the team arrived at the aptly named Glacier Bay National Park, where despite the impact of global warming many of the glaciers continue to reach down to the sea. The stunning surroundings of Glacier Bay also presented new challenges with moving icebergs, carving glaciers and icy waters. The team completed their final two days of paddling in what must surely be one of the most beautiful places in the world especially with the aquamarine water colours of the glacial melt. The final shuttle back from Gustavus to Juneau with eco-fisherman Doug Ogilivy brought another treat, with dusk approaching the team witnessed a pod of 8 or 9 Orcas including calves playing and swimming in the Lynn Canal.
The team are now heading back down the Inside Passage via the Alaskan Marine Highway ferry and BC Ferries to return to Vancouver to fly back to Great Britain. Viewing the same magnificent scenery from the ferries has been a great finale to an amazing adventure.
Spirit of the Inside Passage
The team have been taken aback by reception they have received from local people along the Inside Passage both in British Columbia and in Alaska. Without exception, all the people the team have encountered along the way have been extremely supportive and incredibly friendly. There have been countless examples of generosity and support along the way. In Bella Bella, a local marine engineer loaned a boat to the team’s film crew for the day. In Klemtu, a first Nation community, Doug, a local eco-tour guide, opened up his office to let the team dry off and sleep for the night.
In Port Simpson, Alaska, a first nation community, Marissa, a town resident, invited the team into her home for tea. The team were provided with a full dinner and sent on their way with a sockeye salmon for that night’s feast. In Petersburg, Bob, a Reverend of the Presbyterian Church, and keen kayaker, opened up the church for the team to sleep in and fix food. Reverend Bob kayaked with the team for the first 6 miles out of Petersburg the following day. The team’s arrival in Juneau, the Alaskan capital, was marked by a stay at the historic 4 star Baranof Hotel, organized by the Alaskan Tourist Industry Association. At Gustavus, the final town along the way, and gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, the team were again taken aback by the assistance of the local people in helping them on their way.
The team’s film crew, who traveled the distance by ferry and met up with the team at various towns along the way, were equally amazed by the friendliness of the local people and the support and assistance they were provided with in Bella Bella, Shearwater, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Petersburg and Juneau. The size of the 5th challenge seemed to capture the imagination of local people, they know how tough life and the natural environment can be on the inside passage. Local press followed the story along the way in Ketchikan and Juneau and the team enjoyed hearing that their endeavours had inspired local people to get out their kayaks and get paddling in one instance after a 10 year break. One local Juneau resident Suzanne befriended the support crew as well as the paddling team, she invited them to breakfast at her home, took them Whale watching for a day in her boat and even baked a cake for camera man Simon Bevan on his birthday.
Expedition Leader Richard Harpham commented, “Our expedition has been fantastic with all the adventure, hardship and beautiful scenery we expected. We have made so many friends and contacts along the way. The support from the local people is something we will never forget. Time and time again we have been amazed at the interest people have taken in our expedition and at the assistance and support we have been rendered. The generosity and spirit of the people along the Inside Passage must date back to a time when people literally could not have survived here without assistance from each other, and so helping others has become an inherent part of how people here live their lives. We feel that we have so much unfinished business and will be coming back. Personally I have fallen in love with the magic of the Inside Passage and many of the places along the way”.
People can follow the team’s expedition with updates and images on their website www.big5kayakchallenge.com This is the 5th challenge undertaken by the team. Others have included crossing the English Channel, the length of the River Thames, around the Isle of Wight and Lands End to the Isles of Scilly. All of the challenges have been aimed at raising funds for the Muscular Help Foundation, a Muscular Dystrophy Charity. All funds raised go direct to the charity and the team cover all costs associated with the various challenges. The team have also been raising awareness for the River Access Campaign, which seeks to allow kayaking and canoeing on English & Welsh rivers (currently there is only access to 3% of them).
You can review the teams expedition route via their SPOT GPS satellite tracker. Just visit this link… http://www.spotadventures.com/trip/view?trip_id=170785
The expedition was being filmed for a feature length documentary, including footage of the previous four challenges.
Lots of support from Tourism British Columbia, Alaska Industry Tourist Association and also Canada Affair, Thanks guys