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The Art of Journeying
Richard Harpham is a human powered adventurer , outdoorsman and motivational speaker who has completed over 9,000 miles of journeys by canoe, kayak, bike and on foot. His journeys have seen him sea kayak 1000 miles from Vancouver to Alaska, cycle part of the Sahara by Fat Bike, Canoe the Yukon River and lots more closer to home. www.richadventure.com
Richard runs Canoe Trail www.canoetrail.co.uk with his wife Ashley Kenlock in Bedfordshire where they run canoeing and kayaking trips and courses. Canoe Trail has a private riverside woodland where they offer canoe and camping trips. They work closely with local Bushcraft experts Woodland Ways providing dedicated Bushcraft and Canoeing training days and weekends.
In this article Richard shares his passion and knowledge gleaned from completing long journeys by human power.
Selecting your journey and simple research of the route whether short or long helps ensure you enjoy all the best bits, prepare sensibly and also draws you in emotionally to the challenge. I have always tried to make my journeys meaningful and connect to either a recognizable challenge or where possible connect to our heritage and living history. Following the army road on the West Highland Way or canoeing the Yukon River following the Gold Rush route of 1898 makes the journey feel linked to our ancestors and the history you can see around you.
Plan your route to meet the objectives of the group and your own goals. For longer journeys then training is important to allow you to maintain the pace.
In Alaska there is a saying that “Airline tickets and schedules kill people!”. They don’t mean a severe paper cut from a boarding card, they refer to the risk of pushing too hard, not observing the warning signs such as dangerous weather and risking a serious accident. The weather and elements don’t throttle back for anyone irrespective of good causes, title or reputation. Setting a manageable schedule is important. On the Inside Passage we kayaked 32 miles per day on average whereas on Hadrian’s Wall we walked the 84 miles in 4 days. Don’t forget of course when you plan to allow for elevation and local conditions. On longer expeditions I allow one rest day in seven for unforeseen problems, inclement weather and also to enjoy things I find along the way.
As you develop your journeying skills you will soon get an understanding of the right pace and schedule that suits you and any companions.
One of the benefits of human powered journeys, (other types are available), is the opportunity to connect with the land, flora and fauna and to witness moments of magic. With a tinge of irony, these often happen when you are thinking of giving up, at that moment I have witnessed bears swimming the river, dolphins surfing my bow wave and even the perfect rainbow. It serves to reinforce the supercharged feeling of ‘being alive’
This slow lane human powered aspect of the journey provides a depth and 3-D perspective as your senses tune into the landscape and wildlife around you. For example, hearing owls or eagles calling, or whales breaching, feeling the river speeding up, or seeing a grizzly catching salmon. Occasionally you experience multiple senses receiving simultaneously which can provide a real rush of emotion as you reach overload point. For me this invigorating input of the natural world is the perfect antidote to modern life.
My awakening to the beauty and spiritual nature of long journeys happened whilst sea kayaking from Vancouver Island to Muir Inlet in Glacier Bay, Alaska (A UNESCO World Heritage Site), a 1000 mile journey. Such journeys help define us and in my case I remember being sat on a remote beach with a fire lit, fed and watching pods of humpback whales patrol the waters. The shore was located on Admiralty Island part of the Canada’s Inside Passage and home to more than one bear per square kilometer. It changed me and sparked my imagination for more human powered journeys, to locations I had only dreamed of, testing my skills in wild and remote locations.
I wanted more and plotted to canoe the Yukon River.
There is a poem by Robert Service called “The Spell of the Yukon” which was written during the Klondike Gold Rush around 1898. The verse includes “It's the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder, It's the forests where silence has lease; It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder, It's the stillness that fills me with peace. The Yukon Territories, nestled next to Alaska is twice the size of Britain with a population of just 35,00. It is the perfect place to explore and test skills.
When Skookum Jim, George Carmack and Dawson Charlie found gold in 1896 on Bonanza Creek in the Klondike it coincided with a world depression. An estimated 40,000 stampeders made their way to the Yukon with most navigating the infamous Chilkoot Trail. They entered Canada via the Golden Staircase and Scales where prospectors had to weigh in 1 tonne of supplies before being granted access by the Canadian Mounties. The route was treacherous with the Chilkoot Pass reaching 1067 metres in elevation before the Stampeders trekked down to the trail-head at Lake Bennett. They built rafts and boats to reach Dawson City, approximately 550 miles downstream with big rapids at Miles Canyon, Whitehorse (before the dam) and 5 finger rapids.
Canoeing the Yukon River
Today most people tackling the Yukon River start in Whitehorse paddling 444 miles to Dawson. This iconic canoe journey on the fast moving Yukon River offers bears, wolves and eagles hunting along its banks. My first experience of the Yukon was paddling from Whitehorse to Circle in Alaska (beyond Dawson). We set off tentatively from Whitehorse breaking into the aquamarine flow making our way towards the first major obstacle, Lake Labarge, which is shallow often producing treacherous short pitch waves.
We got hammered by a squall at Policeman’s Point at the top of Lake Laberge before enjoying a clear passage along its 32 mile fetch, which can drag on. We entered the ‘30 Mile River’ and were joined by an inquisitive beaver. This was the first of many such wildlife experiences where we were blessed to paddle alongside black bears, a family of moose and even a wolf traversing the foreshore of a slough. It was incredible to be up close to these magnificent creatures rather than only watching them on TV. It was a dream come true.
Equally the living history of the Gold Rush with the abandoned sternwheeler SS Evelyn Norcom on Hootalinqua Island at the confluence with the Teslin River reminded us of an Indiana Jones scene. As we climbed up on the decaying superstructure taking in a kaleidoscope of colours displayed in the wood I wondered who had been here, when and their stories. There were plenty of other sights spanning over a hundred years of history with Fort Selkirk and Stewart River settlements abandoned during the polar winter conditions.
There are two rapids on the Yukon before Dawson, Five Finger Rapids and Rink Rapids, both are treated with caution, staying river right. As experienced canoeists they proved a great place to play in our canoes, eddy hopping, ferry gliding and surfing the wave trains. Our destination at Circle was 300 miles beyond the frontier town of Dawson requiring a border crossing into Alaska at Eagle. We paddled through the Charlie Yukon River Reserve, past Calico Bluff and the Rock of Ages to Circle, an abandoned town nestled in the mountains.
Our journey had been all that we had wished for, wild animals, huge vistas, endurance and of course so much history. The Yukon had not finished with me yet, there was a 250 mile gap between the Inside Passage trip and the Yukon Canoe Journey from Whitehorse. I returned the following year and sea kayaking from Juneau to Skagway before hiking the Chilkoot Trail and then pack-a-rafting from Lake Bennett to Whitehorse. When I reflect on the impact of this enchanted place I am grateful for the opportunity to explore it in slow motion, to hear the sound of the White River htting my paddle and boat gently hissing, to meeting pioneering people and to witnessing the myriad of incredible skies from the land of the mid-night sun.
This year saw me compete in the Yukon River Quest, 444 mile canoe, kayak and SUP race. I also visited last winter to interview Alex Van Bibber to retrace his 500 mile winter ski expedition across the Mackensie Mountain Range from 1943. But those are stories to share another time.
I hope you will create your own bucket list of meaningful journeys where you can develop your adventure, bushcraft and survival skills. You can access video and images galleries from my website to help whet your appetite. We will be running trips to the Yukon this year so if interested drop us an email
A huge thanks to Canadian Affair and Air North for supporting my trip along with local outfitter Up North Adventures. Thanks also to Paramo Clothing, Bamboo Clothing, SPOT trackers, MSR, Valley Sea kayaks, Silver Birch Canoes and Flint Group for supporting these expeditions.
Top Tips For Journeying
Get into your stride by starting small and building on success rather than failing and having a bad experience. The UK has 15 national trails of differing lengths and difficulty and also 15 national parks to get your teeth into. You could also come and try canoe camping with us! You can make it as hard as you like by considering supported or unsupported? Camping or using accommodation? Weekends or longer? Equally choosing a suitable format for your journey is important from hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, skiing, horse riding and so on.
Become Map Friendly
I love maps, traditional and made of paper, no batteries required. I do use Garmin GPS devices from time to time and also Google for route planning but being confident using a map and compass for navigation is an essential skill. Maps provide the gateway for new journey ideas and plans.
Develop Your Adventure and Survival Skills
Use your bushcraft and survival skills. Make them habit so you can use them when you need them. In paddlesport for example being able to set up pulley systems for pinned canoes on moving water is critical when needed. Equally being able to identify essential kit versus nice to have things and being able to repair things is important.
Self powered journeys usually mean you are calorie credit and can eat what you like. Calorie burn increases to 3000 (warm climates) to almost 6000(cold climates) when working hard for long periods. The reality TV myth suggests you need to eat the wrong end of a kangaroo or a witchetty grubs as a staple which is of course untrue. Chose rations you really enjoy (wraps, mint tea, real coffee, noodles, peanut butter, parmesan cheese and other treats) and of course those treasured foods you can forage or catch yourselves.
Test yourself, test your kit! When I lead teams on expeditions, (mostly my trips are not solo) then I always want to ensure we have the right skills, equipment and competence for the conditions. It is no good finding out that someone cant navigate in a white out, or paddle a grade 2 river or sea kayak in 3ft swell once you are facing it. Equally knowing how your kit works, battery life for electronic products and how it can be fixed is important too.
Expert instruction and coaching for skills you need to develop can avoid the need for rescue which can be embarrassing or worse still involve injuries. The UK has many professional instructors, robust qualifications and lots of bushcraft companies to help you grow your skills and knowledge base
Leave No Trace
With over 7 billion Homo Sapiens inhabiting this planet we call earth it is vital to reduce our impact and leave no trace. Take pictures, make ripples and try where possible to avoid using disposal plastics. Better still take other people’s rubbish home with you.