Paddling to Seattle

If you add up the days, Josh Thomas and National Geographic television associate producer J.J. Kelley have spent a year of their lives together trekking

through land and water. That includes the five months they spent on

the Appalachian Trail, where they first met 400

miles into what each of them thought would be a solo hike. In 2006, with

mountain bikes and cameras in tow, they headed to Alaska for their second

adventure: a 1200-mile bike ride from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic, out of

which came Pedal to the Midnight Sun, their first documentary film. 

Their second

film, Paddle to Seattle, tells the story of their most recent journey: 96

days spent paddling from Skagway to Seattle through the Inside Passage in sea kayaks that they crafted by hand from pygmy wooden kits. The film is currently screening at film

festivals, and Paddler magazine dubbed it the best feature film about

paddling produced in the last decade. It has won the 2009 Port Townsend Film

Festival Audience Award and took home the Best Documentary prize at the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival last week. It’s screening this week at the Anchorage Film Festival, and will be screened at National Geographic headquarters in Washington D.C. on February 16th, 2010. I spoke with them about planning their adventures, refrigeration tactics, and adjusting to life after being out on the open water for over three months.

What led you to paddle the Inside Passage?

J.J.: Josh said a long time ago, ‘There’s no reason that you

shouldn’t be able to do what you love in life. And there’s no reason that

shouldn’t be a viable option for you to be prosperous.’ For us it was these

trips, going out and experiencing these other places and then just learning how other people and animals inhabit our planet. The more time you have an

opportunity to see all that’s out there, the hungrier it makes you to continue

to follow that path. That longing brought us to the sea-kayaking trip.

Did you become acquainted with the outdoors while growing


Josh: I grew up on a hobby farm where we had chicken and

goats and all kinds of farm animals. We had a fair amount of property and

forest around the house. I’ve always been real close to nature. This was a

natural progression to become more comfortable in it.

How did you prepare to paddle from Juneau to Seattle?

Josh: We both did a fair amount of sea kayaking beforehand.

It’s low impact enough that we more or less just eased into it. The first few

days we were doing five miles a day as opposed to halfway though the trip when

we were doing fifteen to twenty-mile days.

What was your diet like?

Josh: A lot of fat. We always had a lot of butter. I fell in love with mayonnaise. It had lots of calories in it. With the water

being 45 degrees, you could keep a block of cheese for two weeks; you could

carry a pound of butter. We even started carrying half-and-half for our coffee.

J.J.: We ate 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day. We ate fish.

Josh did a lot of the fishing. We’d eat one or two of those a day. They were

small rockfish that he’d catch with a hand line that he’d reel down and pull up

and bring it to shore. He’d slice it in half and start a fire near the tide

line. We’d cook it there, eat it there and as the high tide came up it would

wash away the scent.

How did you interact with the communities along the way?

Josh: We wanted to be a part of the community. When we come

into a town we help out wherever we could just to get involved somehow and

people liked that. Halfway through the trip we volunteered for a swim race that

took place in the ocean. We were safety boaters in our kayaks. We stopped at a lighthouse along

the way south, which was completely unplanned. We ended up spending three or

four days volunteering.

J.J.: We felt privileged anytime we got to stay somewhere

and they shared their lives with us, so we’d get groceries for them or make them

dinner. Just small tiny things that were so easy for us to do but would allow

us a view into their world. For us it’s never like we’re trying to overcome

these wild places. We really truly do it because we enjoy it and we just try to

make the connection to the place. People saw that we were just about having

fun, not trying to prove anything.

After you reached Seattle, what did you walk away with?

Josh: Just having

that time to reflect I think is the biggest thing to walk away from. You have a lot of time to

think and reflect on all kinds of things, mostly what your future looks like,

where you see yourself in a year from now or ten years from now. When

you’re back at home doing your job and going through the motions, it’s really

hard to step away sometimes even for an hour and to reflect on things. But when

you have three months at eight hours a day, you get to know yourself very well.

And that’s huge just to go inside your brain to try to make yourself a better

person. You learn just to be yourself.

J.J.: Knowing yourself better transpires into more

confidence in yourself in your everyday life. Setting out to do a big goal that

you follow through with also relates to that as well. If you can do Seattle,

you can get a job at National Geographic, or you can build a cabin–Josh just

built a two-story cabin all by himself.

What’s next?

Josh: There are definitely a number of trips that I’d like

to still do but it’s hard to lock down and start planning so soon. It seems

we’re still shaking off the paddle to Seattle and just getting into it with the


J.J.: Our thought is to see where this project goes.

We’d like to see this project grow. We’re taking it around the country and

showing folks what we’ve done. But we definitely talk a lot. We have a nice

little short list of new trips we’d like to do. 

[Trailer from Ben Gottfried on Vimeo]