Two Victoria, British Columbia, brothers tackle a continent-to-continent kayaking adventure, from the amazon to the edge of North America. Darren Davidson shares their story.
Exhausted and stuck in his kayak with a nauseated belly of cold Chef Boyardee, Russell Henry was losing consciousness. It was 7 a.m. on October 23, 2013, and he and his brother Graham had been paddling the open waters of the Caribbean on a 147-kilometre crossing from Tobago to Grenada—for 22 hours. Before vomiting into the warm rolling sea, Russ was literally dreaming of friends back home as his exhausted strokes began faltering to a halt. The familiar faces and places of the 23-year-old’s quasi-hallucinations, including those from his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, were indeed a dream world away.
Seven weeks earlier, the amiable Vancouver Islanders had launched an unprecedented nautical expedition that started on the shores of Belém, Brazil—the Amazon River’s gateway with a population of 2.2 million. The heinously physical October morning was just one-third of the way through their seven-month trip. It would end February 22, 2014, on Juno Beach, Florida. Total distance: 6,483 kilometres. Think Victoria to Honolulu, then half way back.
Recalling the eventual 24-hour epic to Grenada, Graham, 25, says, “There were other points on the trip when we were much more frightened.” More often, during some of the estimated 175 days they would spend paddling “there was just a gnawing sense of dread.”“We felt very vulnerable at times,” adds Russell. “Like we were on the edge of something happening.”
No doubt. A few cumulative weeks were in fact nights spent navigating open ocean, desolate coastline or jungle riverbanks—sometimes by compass and stars, other times in blackness. The journey took them 500 kilometres across the chai-hued Amazon delta, out along South America’s northeastern Atlantic Ocean coastline to Venezuela. The route then arced towards North America in a colossal island-hop through the azure blue currents of the West Indies and Bahamas, before beaching 90 minutes north of metropolitan Miami.
Kicking off with a patience-obliterating customs problem that left their kayaks held hostage for six weeks, the trip’s itinerary was a radical reel of wild travel through 26 tropical countries and a cacophony of cultures and languages. Accommodation ranged from plush to putrid: hospitality was negligible, absolutely gracious or bizarre. Ranked among their freakiest recollections was their reprieve on the island of Montserrat’s volcanic “exclusion zone” exploring the pyroclastically demolished ghost city of Plymouth. “The downtown core is flattened with only a few buildings standing above ash. In the surrounding hills, homes in livable condition lay vacant,” they wrote in their extensive blog, henrykayak.com.
“OUR PARENTS LET US GET OUT AND MAKE MISTAKES WHEN WE WERE YOUNG. IF A KID CAN MAKE MISTAKES, HE’LL BE A SUCCESS.” — GRAHAM HENRY
Pitfalls aside, the Henrys say the expedition was defined by the generosity and kindness “of folks everywhere,” stellar scenery, life forms under and along the waters, and moments of outright hilarity with foreign-tongued locals, or alone with just their own beaten-down carcasses to cackle at. But there was also guilt for their modern-world adventuring amongst the kind but bitterly poor, and the frustration of meeting fascinating characters for little more than a few hours, a few days at most. “Every country we went to said they had the best looking women in the world,” jokes Russell. “After being in the woods for multiple days, it certainly seemed like every country did.”
They had an ironic meeting with Germany adventure-paddler Freya Hoffemeister, who has circumnavigated Australia. The mega-meistress was in the middle of a 24,000-kilometre circumnavigation of South America.
The boys’ motivation for the Brazil-to-Florida saga? To teach kids the value in getting outdoors and dreaming large, noting that strong interactions with nature makes kids better learners, more sociable and less susceptible to attention disorder.
There’s a lesson for parents too, considering the influence of their dad Brian, who pioneered Vancouver Island’s sea kayaking scene in the 70s ands 80s. He founded then sold paddling brand Current Designs and built Victoria’s iconic Ocean River Sport shop.
“Our parents let us get out and make mistakes when we were young,” says Graham, dismissing the misconception that kids who err feel like failures. “It’s the other way around. If a kid can make mistakes, he’ll be a success.” “I think we achieved what a lot of adventurers strive for,” Graham adds. “When you teeter on the edge, but never go over it. You never fall into panic.”