A training facilitator from a company in Falmouth has completed a 1,600km kayak expedition, and helped to raise more than £140k for charity.
Neil Heritage, from Take Point Training, embarked on the epic 90-day challenge, paddling from Washington State to Alaska.
He was part of an eight-person team including six wounded ex-servicemen and two civilians, all of whom have faced personal challenges such as gunshot wounds, double amputations, paralysis and PTSD from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under the team name of Forces of Nature, the group carried out the once-in-a-lifetime unsupported expedition in aid of The Not Forgotten, a charity supporting veterans with disabilities. Originally planned for 2020, the trip faced several postponements due to the pandemic before finally departing this year on May 6, 2023, from Steilacoom near Seattle.
The team navigated north along the Inside Passage waterways, regarded as one of the most extreme kayak routes in the western US. Paddling for eight hours daily, the group camped on remote beaches each night, amid glaciers and wildlife.
Travelling unsupported, they carried all their gear in the kayaks, carefully planning two-week food supplies and relying on pre-placed resupply boxes. Heritage, a double amputee, lost a stone in weight during the expedition which affected the fit of his prosthetic legs and mobility. Despite the challenging conditions and remote location, he said he found the region stunning and was grateful for good weather.
“For me, the best section was northern British Columbia where we didn’t see anyone for weeks,” he said. “It’s complete remoteness, yet such a beautiful place with snow-covered mountains descending down into the sea. On some days, we landed on pristine white sandy beaches that reminded me of being in the Caribbean. We were incredibly fortunate with the weather too with unusually warm temperatures for that time of year.”
To prepare for the epic journey, the team travelled to Sweden to hone their kayaking, camping and navigational skills. Heritage said that the rigorous training regime paid off and allowed the team to endure the long hours of paddling. He was also moved by the kindness and hospitality of local people along the way, with support from veterans’ clubs and generous locals.
“It was amazing how helpful and welcoming people were from start to finish,” he said. “In some places they offered us their village hall to sleep in, and even lent us their cars so we could go off to buy kit and supplies. The local veterans’ clubs stayed in contact with us throughout the journey and informed the next town about our progress.
As we approached the finish line in Petersburg, we were invited to stay in a fire station for a few days with a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and shower. They took excellent care of us.”
Due to a delayed start and commitments back home, he and four other team members had to end their journey around 200 kilometers short of the finish line, after 72 days. However, three of the group pressed on, paddling north for a further 24 days until they reached their final destination at Skagway, Alaska.
A former soldier, Heritage spent 11 years in the British military, deploying to Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and two tours of Iraq working as an electronic specialist as part of a bomb disposal team. He was injured, losing both legs above the knee following a suicide bomb attack in November 2004.
He is no stranger to extreme challenges and has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, completing his traverse in 51 days. He was also the first double amputee to summit the Matterhorn in the Alps. He now works as a training facilitator at Take Point Training and runs a charity for injured veterans.