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Photo by Kathy O'Reilly

Port McNeill: The Forces of Nature Invictus Group

North Island Eagle Article

(Originally published June 9, 2023)

By Kathy O’Reilly

The Port McNeill waterfront turned into an impromptu campsite for a group of kayakers on their way to Alaska.

The group is on a 2,000-kilometre unsupported kayak expedition of the Inside Passage from Olympia in Washington State along the Fjordlands of British Columbia to Skagway in Alaska.

The Fjordlands is a unique ecosystem and is considered one of the best examples of glacially gouged fiords with sheer granite cliffs that soar over 1,000 metres.

There are eight men on the team – two able bodied civilians and six veterans with a variety of injuries such as head/abdomen gunshot wounds, bilateral above knee amputations, viral induced paralysis and PTSD, chronologically from the Falklands conflict to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The team left Olympia May 7 and their journey is expected to take 90-100 days depending on weather conditions.

Steve Best from BC Marine Trails is accompanying the team from Port McNeill to Bella Bella which will take a minimum of eight to 10 days.

The paddle from Olympia to Port McNeill took 26 days, said Team Skipper Cayle Royce.

They have been averaging about 15 to 20 nautical miles each day.

They spent a few days in Port McNeill waiting for a break in the windy weather before tackling the Queen Charlotte Strait.

While some of the crossings they do are a few miles at a time, “the reality is you are not sleeping in these boats overnight, they are far too skinny for that” so they come ashore to camp each night.

“What we spent a lot of time doing was working with Steve at BC Marine Trails and in the south with  Washington Water Trails to try to establish a bunch of camps we would be aiming for every night,” said Royce.

“Having those camps in mind and pre-established so we knew where we were going to go made things a hell of a lot easier,” he said.

“Weather wise, we’ve been incredibly fortunate and looked after shall we say by Mother Nature.”

The team members each carry enough supplies for two weeks before stopping to restock, like they did in Port McNeill.

“It’s been spectacular,” said Neil Heritage, 2nd in Command, of the trip so far. There have been sightings of an Orca, Humpback and Grey whales, lots of seals and sea lions, sea otters for the first time heading into Port McNeill, two black bears, as well as numerous species of birds.

“The location is just staggering. Every corner that you turn around there is another new spectacular vista. It’s all pristine as well. You’ve got these amazing forests. A lot of the time, I kind of end up in this weird daydream feeling where I suddenly wake up out of it and the team have disappeared over the horizon because I’ve been completely lost staring into the woods at a piece of fungus. It’s awesome. This is an awesome part of the world,” Royce said.

The team have been together for four years. 

“We’re all based in the UK, but not all from the UK,” said Heritage.

Their original plan was to kayak the Amazon River back in 2020, but, of course, COVID hit, and then the region was deemed too unstable to visit.

At the forefront of their journey, the team is raising funds for ‘The Not Forgotten’ a military charity, founded in 1920, which has been supporting ex-service personnel with disabilities through the provision of leisure and recreational activities, travel, holidays and outings. Members of the team benefited personally from the services of The Not Forgotten in their early stages of rehabilitation, progressing to volunteering for them to encourage those in a different stage of their recovery. 

The team has a fund-raising target of £250,000 (about $420,000 and as of June 6, they had raised £126,766 (about $211,000).

Team members are no stranger to extreme adventures, Armstrong who lost both legs above the knee, following a suicide bomb attack, has climbed Mount Matterhorn – becoming the first ever double amputee man to do so, and rowed across the Atlantic in 51 days.

Royce, who lost both of his legs after stepping on an IED, has rowed across the Atlantic twice.

Bosun Marty Wilson who suffered severe injuries after being shot in the head has summited Mount Kilimanjaro and run the New York Marathon.

To learn more and follow the team’s progress visit Kayak-insidepassage.com

Paul Grey

Paul has been a kayaker for over twenty years and has paddled a number of locations around Vancouver Island, Thailand and Hawaii. He has his Paddle Canada I and II and level 1 kayak guide training and certification. He has worked for the BC Marine Trails as a volunteer for approximately ten years in a number of capacities including being the president of the association. He is also the co-author of Easykayaker: A guide to laid-back paddling and Kayaking Vancouver Island. Paul is a fourth generation islander with his roots in the Nanaimo-Extension area. He also enjoys hiking, traveling and reading. He has received awards in 1993 and 1996 from the Prime Minister of Canada for his work in education; Paul is a recipient of a Royal Bank of Canada fellowship to Queen's University.