Ryan Higginbotham had a choice. Did he want to lose his fingers or toes?
Higginbotham and his twin brother, Casey, were paddleboarding off the coast of the Alaska, just five days into their planned 2,300-mile adventure down the West Coast when he lost a glove. The gruesome choice was due to 42-degree water and the likelihood of frostbite.
He chose to keep his fingers, swapping out his 5 millimeter wetsuit bootie in place of his missing glove and using a wool sock on his foot during the remaining 16-mile paddle to an out-of-season lodge.
“I decided it wasn’t going to get in the way of accomplishing the goal,” Ryan said.
That goal is to become the first people to prone paddleboard from Southern Alaska to the United States-Mexico border, a challenge the brothers took on partially to test their physical and mental limits and to bring awareness to coastal conservation and noninvasive methods of exploration.
Dealing with frostbite from the frigid waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean was just the first of many obstacles — some planned and others completely unexpected — the Higginbothams have encountered.
Luckily, the wool sock was enough to stave off the loss of any digits, and Ryan was able to order another glove from a commercial diver in Prince Rupert, Alaska, delivered via float plane two days later during a layover because of bad weather.
“It was a good gut check five days into the journey,” he said. “I haven’t lost anything since. I think when you have to learn the hard way, it really hammers that lesson into you.”
The San Luis Obispo County natives set out more than six months ago from Ketchikan, Alaska, and are in the midst of their journey, having been forced to return to the Central Coast several weeks ago, thanks to a broken board, to wait for a replacement to be shaped. They left off in Northern California and recently returned to relaunch their expedition.
They have survived sharks, strong currents, wrecked boards and the elements. Every day is an uncertainty, but one thing remains steadfast: their determination to complete the journey.
“I actually don’t like when people ask whether we’re going to keep going or not,” Casey said. “It’s not even a question.”
“There was a point where we were like, ‘I don’t know what the hell we are doing.’ But at the same time, we’re never going to quit,” Ryan added.
Ryan survived the northern passage unscathed. It was Casey who, despite not losing a piece of his wetsuit, wasn’t so lucky. He can’t feel the tip of his left toe, and both of his thumbs under the nail are white from frostbite.
He attributed it to spending a few days navigating around the treacherous Seymour Narrows in British Columbia, where the brothers ran out of food and water, put a hole in a board and had to climb up a cliff to sleep in a cave for the night.
“When we came in the next three days, our hands and feet were swollen and red from frostnip,” Casey said.
Growing up on the water
That the Arroyo Grande High School graduates celebrated their 24th birthdays on the water while on their journey isn’t much of a departure — the ocean has always been a part of the brother’s lives.
They are state lifeguards in Oceano.
The brothers were introduced to paddleboarding through surfing and life guarding competitions, and Ryan credited friend Pat Cullen for getting him into the sport.
“I would never be paddling if it wasn’t for him,” Ryan said.
The brothers said the trip hasn’t brought them any closer than they were before they started the journey.
“We’re tight but we’re not buddy buddy, we don’t hug each other,” Casey said. “We shake hands.”
More important to them is that they both know the other can take care of themselves.
“We’ve gotten in some pretty brutal fights before,” Ryan said. “Our mom thought we would fight out there, but we’re so reliant on the other person — he watches my back, I watch his back. You don’t have the energy for it, and it wouldn’t be productive.”
“Feelings aren’t productive up there,” Casey added.
The pair said they wanted to do “something gnarly” and set their sights high, inspired by paddleboarder Larry Capune, who traversed the East Coast in the 1960s. They’re hoping to bring their conservation efforts to the public eye with a film, which they are working on with local filmmaker Kellen Keene, which will focus on certain areas of coastline they came in contact with along their journey.
The goal is to submit it to film festivals when it is complete. Keene, who also works as a commercial fisherman, drove to Alaska with the brothers and has filmed them along the way in southern Canada and northern Washington.
Navigating the North
The pair navigated the cold, rain, tricky tides and currents of the first section of Alaska to Washington about 11 weeks ago.
“I never knew what rain really was coming from here,” Ryan said.
Once, the two awoke near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, with their map floating in Casey’s tent after a torrential downpour during the night.
Casey battled back troubles during the Washington stretch from the unnatural position that prone paddle boarding puts the body in, requiring a constantly arched back while lying prone. The fact that the weather wasn’t good enough for knee paddling didn’t help.
The brothers said they had to make repairs almost every day on their 18-feet-long, 20-inch-wide boards (which weigh 60 pounds loaded with gear, including food, repair supplies and cold-weather clothing) while in Washington, significantly slowing progress.
“When you’re in a really big storm up there, you have the option whether you can stop paddling or you’re just going to die,” Casey said.
Rough weather also meant they couldn’t eat until they stopped for the night for risk of falling off or, when they were farther north, frostbite.
The two ate dehydrated food for breakfast and dinner. Their favorite? Mac and cheese.
The second stretch has had its own challenges: Big swell and strong winds off the Oregon coast have been a different test. When the winds gust, the swell makes the brothers lose sight of the next set of waves because they are only about 12 inches off the water. This led to the first broken board when a sneaker set surprised them past the surf line.
Crossing the Columbia River outflow at the Oregon-Washington border also proved to be a tough trial. The pair were pushed 12 miles off the coast by the current and had to paddle five hours straight toward shore to make it back to the beach for the night. Just after the brothers crossed into California, they broke their second board, this time off Cape Mendocino.
The brothers were outfitted with a new board right away when the first one broke, thanks to friend and paddleboard shaper Joe Bark, who had it waiting in the wings.
The second time they weren’t as fortunate, as Bark had to shape a brand new board after participating in the the famous Molokai-2-Oahu races, bringing the brothers back home to recharge before continuing their journey.
The pair resumed work as lifeguards in Oceano during their short time off. Ryan said the breaks are “just a detour” and are to be expected when undertaking something of this magnitude.
“It’s hard to think about were you would be now (without setbacks),” Ryan said. “It’s nice to be back back home for a bit, but I want to be back up there moving towards the goal.”
Fighting the ‘mental grind’
While the brothers have fought both the elements and their bodies, the hardest thing they say to conquer is the mind.
“That’s the hardest part. The mental grind,” Casey said.
“There’s not a certain section or day that is the toughest,” Ryan said. “Every day is the toughest. The compounding of the toll it takes on the body and mind is the toughest part. Everyday there’s a new challenge. Every day you don’t know what you’re going to get into. There’s so much unknown.”
Ryan said that while he likes the grind, it wears on a person.
“You can’t plan to suffer like that,” Ryan said. “Controlling fear is something that we’ve learned to do. When you’re way out and the weather conditions are bad, you just have to control it.”
The brothers are two-thirds of the way done with their route, and the beginning of the fourth quarter lies about 300 miles away in San Francisco, but they prefer to think of it on a day-to-day basis.
“You can’t think of it in the long run. You have to break it down,” Ryan said. “Sometimes when we were further north, my goal would be just to make it to the next stick on the beach. I think you learn to compartmentalize each day and each goal.”
“I think the best way to do it was to get up every morning and say, ‘Today’s probably going to be the hardest day I’ve ever had in my life.’ And some days it would be true,” Casey said. “It makes all the other days easier.”
This journey is likely just the beginning for the brothers, who have other expeditions in the works.
“Definitely the next one will be someplace warm,” Ryan said, laughing. “Someplace where we’re not in the water. We talked about doing some stuff in the Arctic and some stuff in the desert.”
The pair hope to be in Pismo Beach in late September to October, and they plan to be at the Mexican border in November. Casey admits they probably won’t make it within that time frame, but for them it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.