Adventurers describe 1,500km kayak from Canada to Alaska, encountering whales, bears, whirlpools and rapids

Two adventurers who embarked on a self-supported kayak trip over 1,500km between Canada and Alaska have described coming face-to-face with orcas, humpback whales and grizzly bears, while battling through freezing temperatures and navigating “whirlpools and rapids”.

Chris Whittaker, 29, who grew up in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, but now travels all over the world, described the 72-day adventure as “incredible”.

Chris, who is an expedition leader and sea kayak guide, first discussed the idea with his friend, Nuka De Jocas-McCrae, 33, in 2018 after meeting some women at a pub in Canada who were planning to kayak along the Inside Passage.

Chris Whittaker (left) and Nuka De Jocas-McCrae (right) on a boat (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris Whittaker (left) and Nuka De Jocas-McCrae (right) on a boat (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris said: “I’d only been in Canada for a couple of weeks and thought this sounds crazy, that someone is kayaking to Alaska.

“I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and, by the end of the summer, I was like, alright, I think I’m going to do this.”

After pitching the idea to Nuka, who works as the director of active communities for NWT Recreation and Parks Association in Canada, the pair started planning their adventure, which began in Lund, British Columbia, and ended in Skagway in southeastern Alaska.

But, due to the coronavirus pandemic, they did not embark on the trip until four years later on May 20 2022 – and even then, things did not start well.

“Funnily enough, the only day of the entire expedition that we didn’t go on the water because of the weather was the first day,” Chris said.

“There was a huge storm that was coming in, and the people that we had met locally were warning us that it’s maybe not a good idea.

But the following day, it was really sunny, really windy, and we just went for it. We ended up paddling for about 10 hours.”

Birds flying overhead (Collection/PA Real Life)

Birds flying overhead (Collection/PA Real Life)

The 1,588km (968-mile) trip required extensive planning, including mapping where to camp, rationing food, obtaining equipment, and organizing stop-off points to restock.

Securing sponsorship in the form of equipment from several companies – including NRS, Bending Branches, and Blue Dog Kayaking – was also a major factor in order to keep costs down.

But despite their initial setback on day one, the kayakers didn’t have to wait long until they saw “some amazing wildlife”, including killer whales.

Chris Whittaker and Nuka De Jocas-McCrae saw orcas and humpback whales (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris Whittaker and Nuka De Jocas-McCrae saw orcas and humpback whales (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris said: “When I first saw them, we were paddling across a bay.

“I see some dorsal fins come out of the water to our left-hand side and, after spending two years guiding in Canada, I know exactly what they are.

“So, I shout: ‘Orca, orca’, and it’s such a calm day, we have time to get our cameras out.”

While waiting for the pod of orcas to pass, one of the whales “snuck up” on them and gave Nuka “a little nudge”.

Chris described the unexpected encounter as “mind-blowing”.

Chris Whittaker (right) and Nuka De Jocas-McCrae (left) at their final destination in Alaska (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris Whittaker (right) and Nuka De Jocas-McCrae (left) at their final destination in Alaska (Collect/PA Real Life)

“Whilst we were watching them – we were just filming them, having this incredible experience – my friend Nuka, in the corner of my eye, I see him wobble,” Chris continued.

“It’s a completely flat day, completely calm, so there’s no reason he should be wobbling.

And he shouts: ‘There’s one under my boat, there’s one under my boat.’

And as I turn, I see an orca surface about two meters in front of him.

Chris explained that the whale’s actions were “completely intentional”, adding: “These are such powerful animals. If he wanted to flip us into the water, he could have done it.”

Chris and Nuka were “pumping with adrenaline” for hours afterwards, and they managed to capture the “amazing” moment on film.

One of the grizzly bears in the long grass (Collect/PA Real Life)

One of the grizzly bears in the long grass (Collect/PA Real Life)

The paddlers also saw grizzly bears during their trip – the animal Chris feared the most.

Chris and Nuka were lucky enough to meet “Chief Doug”, the chief of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais nation in Klemtu, who offered them accommodation and took them to see the furry creatures.

Chris said: “We anchor up at this inlet, unload our packs, they go in a canoe, and we just paddle up.

“It’s this flat meadow, with really long grass and a stream that comes down the middle of it, with really high, steep, mountainous cliffs around it.

And inside there, we found two grizzly bears just munching away on the long grass right by the water’s edge.

The pair encountered grizzly bears (Collect/PA Real Life)

The pair encountered grizzly bears (Collect/PA Real Life)

He continued: “You know, being around grizzly bears, it’s probably the number one thing I was afraid of during this expedition.

“The number one risk to us was grizzly bears because there’s really not a whole lot you can do if one of them decides to go for you.”

Growing up, Chris said he was always sporty, but his love for kayaking did not start until later on in life when he took a gap year.

He did not know what he wanted to do at university, and so he researched how to travel while getting paid and came across a kayak structuring.

After learning how to kayak, rock climb, hike and camp in Cornwall through a training programme, Chris started working outdoors, doing seasonal roles, and fell in love with it.

Chris Whittaker in his kayak (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris Whittaker in his kayak (Collect/PA Real Life)

But kayaking does not come without its challenges.

Chris said one of the main difficulties throughout the expedition was the mundanity of “having to keep going”, day in, day out.

And as they kayaked further north, temperatures began to drop, reaching single digits.

Chris said it was “really damp and wet all the time” – so much so, that his hands were “completely swollen of water”.

Chris Whittaker's swollen hands (Collect/PA Real Life)

Chris Whittaker’s swollen hands (Collect/PA Real Life)

Yet seeing the wildlife was “incredible”, and another highlight of the trip involved seeing humpback whales bubble-net feeding.

This technique involves one of the whales diving deep under water and releasing air bubbles in a circle, which act as a “net” for fish, allowing the group to feed.

“It was unbelievable,” Chris said. It was just wild to see this behavior and see it in such a remote place as well.

“It’s lucky enough to see it if you go on a whale watching tour, but to actually see it at your secluded campsite, three or four weeks into a kayak expedition, was mind-blowing.”

Humpback whales in the water (Collection/PA Real Life)

Humpback whales in the water (Collection/PA Real Life)

Chris said reaching their final destination in Alaska on July 29 was “bittersweet”, but he and Nuka loved the whole experience.

The pair are planning to release a YouTube series later this year called “For Fun’s Sake Expedition”, which will show “raw” footage of the expedition.

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