For two B.C. students, class assignment led to seven-month kayak trip

By Rachelle Strelezki (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: April 2, 2014

Graham and Russell Henry from Victoria, B.C. recently finished a seven-month kayaking expedition from Belém, Brazil to Juneau Beach, Florida. The kinesiology department brought them to UFV to speak to students last week, where, in the confines of the Abbotsford campus lecture hall, they walked through the whole open-water experience.

The Henry brothers were raised in Victoria and spent a lot of time kayaking with their family. Their father owned a local kayak store and their mother was a guide. Both parents kayaked in their free time and always brought their two sons with them on these excursions.

Growing up, they didn’t enjoy paddling that much because it was something they always did with their parents. However, later on in their childhood they attended the YMCA Camp Thunderbird and came to love paddling with friends.

In university (Graham at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, and Russell at Thompson Rivers University) they still had their passion for paddling. Russell had to plan a dream expedition for a school assignment, and came up with the idea of paddling from Venezuela to Florida. They decided to extend this trip, starting in Brazil instead.

Shortly after, they wrote up sponsorship letters to kayaking businesses asking for equipment for their trip. Within a few weeks they had received responses offering to donate to their trip. “This was when we actually realized ‘we are doing this,’” Russell said.

They began their trip in Belém, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon River. Unfortunately, their trip got delayed due to having to wait for their kayaks to be shipped, and once the kayaks arrived they had to drive 21 hours and wait five days at customs in order to finally start their voyage. Later on in their expedition they realized this sort of unplanned inconvience had an upside. “This delay turned out to be a blessing because we were forced to learn Portuguese.” Graham said.

On their trip they faced many challenges such as bugs, harsh weather conditions, mud, minor injuries, and fluctuations in the tide. They got minor cracks in their boats and broke multiple steering devices. Paddling for 12 to 14 hours a day also had its dangers — on one occasion they had to spend 36 hours straight in their kayaks because there was no land nearby.

When they weren’t busy paddling they stopped at schools and talked to kids about their kayaking trip. They also paddled with locals and learned from them.

“The people we met on our trip were beyond generous,” Russell said. They were blown away by how people treated them when they arrived to a new destination. The locals would carry their boats, feed them, and accommodate them.

They finally arrived in Juneau Beach, Florida in just under seven months. They were greeted by their family, friends, and ESPN. In total they stopped in 23 countries and territories and paddled for 365,000 kilometers.

“The most interesting part of our journey was that things always changed between landscapes in each country,” Graham said.

When asked what they would do differently if they had the chance, Graham said, “We would definitely do more research before the trip — we didn’t think that the conditions would be that bad. And we would also learn how to speak Portuguese.”

For Russell the most difficult aspect of the trip was “moving so fast and meeting all these different people. The longest relationships we made were for three days. It is very hard not to form any long-term relationships with anyone for seven months besides your brother.”

“[But] we didn’t do this trip to beat a Guinness Book of World Records,” Graham said. “We wanted a challenge and wanted something that would be the hardest thing we ever had to do. We also wanted to do something that was very different. We have found that there is a huge benefit in outdoor adventure. It challenges you in ways that nothing else can.”