Pismo brothers paddle the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja
It was a simple day-to-day task, the type most us think little about.
For Ryan Higginbotham, it carried more weight. Getting through life’s day-to-day shook him — especially after spending months living anything but a mundane routine. He hammered the tasks out quickly, but had nothing planned for his time afterward.
“I was like, ‘I need another goal right now,’” he said. “’Because if I don’t have a goal, I’m going to go crazy.’”
For those always looking to push themselves, the din of normal life can seem lackluster. That would hardly describe what Higginbotham and his twin brother, Casey, had just spent the past three months doing: repeatedly straining the limits of body and mind on a 1,100-mile unassisted paddleboarding trip from the Mexican border to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.
The Pismo Beach natives and Arroyo Grande High School graduates had spent every day accomplishing something, working toward the larger goal of completing the trip. Returning to normal life was an adventure in itself.
“It’s OK,” Casey said shrugging. “It’s different. You don’t have a daily goal.”
“You’re out there, and you have a lot of highs and lows,” Ryan said. “And you come back, and everything has this dull overtone to it in comparison. You create a narrative in your mind of how things will be when you get back, and it’s never the case.”
Time flies for the twins back in the real world, their current reality after completing their latest paddleboard adventure. Casey said a month here is comparable to a week on the water; how long can they last before the pull to get out there again becomes too strong?
‘Let’s do it’: planning for a new challenge
About two years passed between their first paddleboard feat, a seven-month 2,300-mile endeavor from the tip of Southern Alaska to the United States-Mexico border.
Neither of them had undertaken something of that magnitude before — no one had, at least in that part of the world. They were well-versed watermen, growing up in and around the ocean, participating in lifeguard competitions and surfing. Eventually, they were introduced to paddleboarding through a friend, Pat Cullen. Still, no amount of training could prepare them for what lay ahead.
After starting the first trip in April 2016, it took until June for them to refine their launching and landing technique. At times, dense fog banks limited visibility and made progress impossible. Swirling currents at the Seymour Narrows in British Columbia put a hole in a board and gave them both frostnip. The Columbia River outflow at the Oregon-Washington border pushed them 12 miles offshore. Torrential downpours flooded tents. Boards were broken.
But they never deterred from their goal, reaching the black fence in San Diego that marks Mexican-American border in late October that year.
In the time following the first trip, Ryan worked two seasons on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, while Casey continued as a lifeguard in Oceano. Void of major sponsorships, again, virtually all of the money they made went into financing the Baja trip.
Their second paddleboarding adventure started much like their first. It was simply time.
They had already discussed a second leg, but nothing had been definitively planned. After Ryan returned home from working in Alaska at the end of July last summer, they looked at each other and said: “Let’s do it.”
The second trip came together with less planning and preparation than the first, and Casey admitted they could have used a bit more of it. But by leaving in October, they missed the worst of the winter rains in the northern portion of the trip and summer heat in the south.
The climate of Baja California is roughly divided into two sections: The upper portion generally follows the weather patterns of Southern California, while the other is more like that of Arizona.
“If we had left in November, we would have been done for,” Casey said, due to the big winter swells along the coast.
This time around, the brothers were seasoned.
A little help along the way
Setbacks such as bad food poisoning just days into their journey were minor in comparison to things they had already faced. Something what they ate led to both being sidelined for a couple of days before they found a pharmacy to purchase anti-nausea medication and a gas station for electrolytes a few days later after pushing through it.
They had further refined their launching technique, switched their boards to smaller, extra-thick glass models and trimmed down their amount of gear. They no longer needed the thick wetsuits complete with gloves and boots to stave off the cold. Still, the gear weighed about 50 to 60 pounds in all and took some getting used to.
Each rolled their boards multiple times on the opening day of paddling.
Even with the experience, the second trip had its own unique problems. The pair managed broken fins and a rudderless board — Casey made do without one for a week until a replacement came. They outran storms, big swells and at one point were stuck in a lagoon.
The bags of gear became a large profile for the wind, constantly trying to push the board sideways. Casey said with something that big, you need the ability to steer. Fins help with stability, too.
They timed massive swell events so they were sheltered inside estuaries, safe from waves that could tip a board, or worse, break it.
But food and water quickly became the main challenges on this leg. The brothers had buried six food drops in plastic totes prior to the journey — which included three dehydrated meals and two snack bars per person, per day — to dig up along the way. But with the coastline as desolate as it was, there weren’t towns along the way for calorie loading.
The pair were also burning calories to simply obtain water to make food and to drink. Making dehydrated meals became an incredibly labor-intensive task, as it took eight gallons of salt water to desalinate into one gallon of fresh.
Luckily, they were met with compassion from the people they came across.
“The generosity of the people of Baja is often overwhelming. We don’t have much to offer in return for the water, food and near familial company,” they wrote in an Instagram post.
“The people just completely saved us,” Casey said. “You’d go days of just being really, really hungry, and you’d get to a fish camp. These guys would take us in and feed us lobster. It was pretty great.”
The Baja coastline is advertised as unpopulated, but compared to the 10-day isolated stretches in British Columbia, the 40-mile gaps between fish camps were small. These “pescadors” also provided the brothers with important weather updates, which helped them avoid some of the extreme conditions they faced on their first leg.
The brothers were tipped off by locals and were able to outrun a major wind event by skipping a scheduled rest day. Wind leads to waves, and waves mean difficult conditions. A similar event led to a broken board on the first leg in Oregon because, during a big swell, the next set of waves can’t be seen to prepare for it. That event also left them food-rationing on the beach while being blasted by sand as they waited for a new board.
Grueling but ‘fulfilling’
Casey calls their grueling expeditions “fulfilling,” but their bodies may never be the same. To them, it’s a small price to pay.
While they stretched and warmed up better during the second leg, they still dealt with injuries incurred on their first trip, namely spinal and shoulder problems. The body simply isn’t designed to lay prone for 20 miles a day, for months on end.
Casey got cortisone shot in his shoulder to help, and Ryan gutted it out.
“If I lay prone long enough, my back will always get some pain from that first Alaska to Mexico,” Ryan said. “But we’re still young.”
“I like to test myself and see how hard I can go and how far I can push it,” Casey said. “It helps build character, I think.”
The brothers are already looking at their next way to get out of their comfort zone. They say it will be somewhere cold because “everyone wants to see you suffer.”
Their ultimate goal is to bring awareness to coastal conservation and noninvasive methods of exploration through a documentary in the works with local filmmaker Kellen Keene.
The pair rattled off names of explorers and trailblazers who had achieved incredible feats of willpower and determination.
Ernest Shackleton. Colin O’Brady. Roald Amundson. Ross Edgley. Could someday the Higginbotham twins be part of that conversation?
“The more miserable the experiences, the better you’re going to come out on the other end,” Ryan said. “As long as nothing terrible happens.”