The team: Team Forces of Nature, an 8-man team of six injured veterans – with a range of injuries from gunshot wounds to amputations, paralysis to PTSD – and two able-bodied civilians. (7 of the team pictured left with local expert kayaker Susan Conrad).
The challenge: A 2,000km unsupported kayak expedition of The Inside Passage from Olympia in Washington State along the Fjordlands of Western British Columbia to Skagway in Alaska, estimated to take 90-100 days from May to August 2023. An infamous route with a forbidding coastline, unpredictable waters and dangerous wildlife. The expedition is raising vital funds for The Not Forgotten, as well as raising awareness of veterans’ issues and encouraging all veterans to aim for their personal goals regardless of their visible or hidden trauma.
Our most recent comms from the team was on 7 July – Day 61 of the expedition – when they had reached Meyers Chuck in Alaska – approximately two thirds of the way along their route from Olympia to Skagway.
The route over the last four weeks:
Since our last update, the team struck out from Port Hardy and the top of Vancouver Island on 13 June – forced by dangerous weather conditions to travel by ferry bypassing Cape Caution to reach Bella Bella.
After a very special night’s stay with the Heilstuk Nations people at Bella Bella they proceeded through worsening rain and fog conditions to Dallas Island, through Higgens Passage West and camped up a series of islands up the BC coast to Oona River then Prince Rupert – where they stopped 27-29 June for supplies and kit repairs.
Leaving Prince Rupert the expedition took on the dangerous Dixon Entrance and Portland Inlet to reach Proctor Island, then crossed the border into Alaska, reaching Ketchikan on 4 July.
They are now navigating up between Prince of Wales Island and the Cleveland Peninsula; on 7 July (the last update from them) they had made it to Meyers Chuck – a distance of some 630km paddled since Port Hardy – or around 475,000 paddle strokes each!
An evening spent at the Heiltsuk Nation’s camp:
“What a special day! The Heiltsuk Nation escorted us into our camp site… We met the Chief and we got invited to the Big House made out of these massive cedar tree trunks. The team was struck with awe. We were invited for dinner with the community, sharing our story with them and they shared their stories with us. The drumming was supernatural and the dances they performed were magical. Being part of this will stay with the team for as long as we are alive. Just catching a glimpse of their history and traditions, the connection they have with nature and their values of respect, sharing, honour and caring for one another and for the natural world. Spending time with these amazing people brought so much joy; I wish I could find the right words to do it justice. I personally will leave Bella Bella a better man with more respect for Mother Nature and will try and live their values…”
Paddling with humpback whales:
“Day of days! This has to be one of the best days of kayaking ever!! Where to start? This day was filled with magic, awe and wonder… The depth of the mountain ranges lining your left and right, the infinity pool effect in all its glory, polished glass to paddle on, flow helping you gently, the mist on the mountains so fine it looks like a blanket spun by a million spiders. Paddling in silence, the flotilla of kayaks carving their way through the water, the sound your paddle makes when you skim it across the surface, the glimmer as the water droplets fall from your paddle. That feeling of being in the wild.
Then the excited shouts! Whales! Whales! 12 o clock from your position – this massive tail crashing down, water spraying into the air! Then another then another then another! Seeing these beautiful creatures breaching then diving – their massive bodies gliding through the water. A pod of four humpback whales – coming together their massive jaws opened breaking the surface. The sound they make reverberating through your core, and echoing through the channel.”
Most of the time the kayakers are contending with the challenges of the wilderness – isolation, wildlife and weather. They are kayaking in 5-6ft swell, through rain and fog, having to paddle with extreme caution when black bears are spotted close by. The mental as well as physical strength to keep going for hour after hour, get up in the morning often into wet clothes and pack everything back into your kayak and carry on.
Longer periods with no contact with the outside world – at one point on this stretch they went 11 days without signal to contact their loved ones.
Their rations are small, having to carry supplies for long stretches. They kayak hard for hours on just one cheese and meat wrap for lunch. Drinking water is collected from rain water and streams then filtered. The excitement was real when two extra men joined the team for a few days, bringing with them ingredients to make campfire chocolate cake! They also meet some unexpectedly different challenges when they come out of the wilderness and hit ‘civilisation’ – such as the many cruise liners, speed boats, hovercrafts and sea planes at Ketchikan.
When Mother Nature doesn’t play the game
“This is where it starts to get hard – every kayaker will tell you anyone can kayak in the sun but not everyone can kayak in the rain. You get stripped of every bit of comfort you have. Your tent is wet, your sleeping bag is wet, your clothing is wet, your paddling clothes still have half the beach on them!
Now you have to wake up damp then look over to your paddling clothes that still have half the beach on them, still wet from the previous day – big sigh as you get out of your sleeping bag, take off your clothes then bigger sigh as you put on your paddle clothing – the cold slimy feeling running down your spine! Get some hot breakfast in you as soon as possible – your day is starting! No comfort, no sunshine, weather against us and kilometres ahead…
Navigating is getting harder with little visibility. Trust the bearing, trust your line, trust the navigator. We paddled with a very confused ocean, the swell and waves coming from every direction. Crossing over vast amounts of water, the fog horns breaking the spell through the mist…”
“When mother nature doesn’t play the game, today was one of the hardest paddling days we experienced! The wind was howling – I can only describe it as relentless sadness… The feeling of pushing a pea through custard – that was our whole day! Every inch was fought for, every inch gained was earned. Every fibre of your being crying out, every sinew and muscle stretched to breaking point. Every callus on your palms tells a story, every scar nick and cut adds to your story.
Then that human kindness from the American Legion Post No 3 – that making of relationships and our shared military past and hearing stories, sharing laughter. Thank you so much for hosting us. Ketchikan was Alaska’s first town and seeing it all decked out in red white and blue for 4th of July Independence Day Celebrations was a sight to behold. And the fireworks – wow! It was such a great feeling to not put up a tent and sleep on a level floor – I worked out the last time I slept in a bed was the 17th April!” (Day 58 – 4th July)
The final stretch ahead…
The final 600 or so kilometres will see the kayak team push themselves even harder as they navigate up the unforgiving Alaskan coastline, past Hobart Bay and Juneau to Glacier Bay National Park and their final destination point, Skagway. The physical and strength required is hard to imagine, and the mental strength even more so:
“The little voice in your head, that flurry of negative thoughts, that little whisper becomes a scream that tries to drown out everything else. You can either listen to that scream or do something about it. The body is a machine that you tell what to do and it will listen and those fibres, sinew and muscles will act accordingly. So you tell the machine what to do: you will put that paddle into the water, you will push with your leg, you will rotate and you will do it until I tell you we are at the campsite.
Feel the connectivity with the kayak, feel the waves, breathe, relax, get yourself back into your cadence, keep the momentum. Look at what you achieved so far! Look at the beauty in everything. Give yourself credit. Time to smile, be a better person than yesterday.”
Quotes taken from the team’s blog: Kayak The Inside Passage – Forces of Nature | Blog (kayak-insidepassage.com)