Welsh teenager Finn Burnham was shocked when his friend, Callum Wylie, took his own life. Wylie, a gifted adventure athlete and musician, lived with Asperger's Syndrome. In his grieving process, Burnham decided to challenge himself to raise awareness for the upstart Callum Wylie Foundation, a non-profit supporting youth with Asperger's Syndrome. Burnham admits that sea kayaking terrifies him, yet last summer he accepted the challenge of paddling 400 nautical miles around the ‘island’ of Wales—a 43-day expedition, on which he celebrated his 19th birthday.
We caught up with Burnham to learn more about his friend Callum and his fall 2018 kayaking journey, which started on the northern end of the small country nestled on southwestern side of Great Britain, and took him in a clockwise direction, south through rivers and canals, then back around and up the rugged western coast of Wales.
CanoeKayak.com: Tell us about your friend Callum. When did the two of you meet? What did you find most inspiring about him?
Finn Burnham: Me and Callum have known each other from the beginning; our parents were friends since before we were born. Callum was inspirational in many different ways, but I always thought it was awesome how he could just turn up anywhere unprepared but ready to go. I remember planning a relatively serious hill day with Callum. I had a 40-liter rucksack full of kit for the day and he turned up in jeans, a hoodie and trainers. Almost annoyingly, the weather was great and he was of course fine and we had a great day. Callum never took anything too seriously; that always helped me because I was usually the opposite.
When did you decide to embark on a journey in his memory?
The expedition had been on my bucket list for a while but I had very little motivation to get started. Then, a few weeks after the funeral, I had a little more inspiration. I wanted to be productive and give myself a goal.
Why did you decide to sea kayak around Wales? In the video you mention that kayaking made you nervous. What was it about paddling that scared you?
I decided Wales because it's home to me and it's something I've wanted to do for a while. My fear of paddling stems back quite a way, from when I was younger and I went on a few whitewater kayak trips with my family in the Massif Central, France. A remember descending a river with my parents, with my brother and I taking turns going first down the rapids. It was my turn on a particularly spicy Class III chute that curled past a rock wall. I piled around the corner, slid up the wall and flipped over. This was my first time with a proper spraydeck and I didn't know how to roll yet, so I struggled and twisted trying to escape my boat for what felt like an eternity. Luckily my brother was a bit overexcited and had followed me down before I gave a signal. He had no idea how to do a rescue so he just pulled the side of my kayak, and it was enough for me to get some air and time to think—to remember how a spraydeck works. I went back underwater and tried again, and I released the deck. I then spent a long five minutes on the riverbank. Since then I haven't liked kayaking or even water, really.
That's an intense memory. How did you overcome that fear? Was there a singular moment on the journey where your fear dissolved or did it linger? How do you feel about sea kayaking now?
Every time I pulled my deck over the cockpit of my kayak I had a feeling in the pit in my stomach, but as soon as I was paddling the fear would fade and I became comfortable. This happened every day from beginning to end, so my fear has by no means gone but it takes more to make me scared now. Initially, the idea of kayaking in bumpy sea was enough to scare me but now I would feel far more comfortable out there. Towards the end I started enjoy kayaking; in particular, it was the days I spent with others that I enjoyed. I always felt more confident with someone else on the water.
What was the biggest highlight of the trip? How about the hardest part?
There are so many highlights! The people I met along the way all helped me so much—everything from donations to the cause to taking me out in speedboats and buying me lunch. Kayaking with other people was always fun. Also the surprising days—I was battling headwinds along the black sand beaches at the top of west Wales when the wind suddenly stopped and the sea flattened completely. The hardest part was probably southeast Wales, because home seemed so far away and I wasn't really comfortable in my boat yet. The sea was super bumpy and I kept getting seasick.
What do you hope people take away from your trip for Callum?
The support has been unbelievable! Everyone I spoke to helped me in some way or another. The rescue teams and Coast Guard were invaluable helping me avoid the worst storms and make the most of the good days.
One thing I learned from my trip was that you don't need to be anything special to push yourself. Everyone can push themselves—and sometimes in massive ways. You don't need to have a lifetime of training and knowledge. I'm not saying you should try and walk up Mount Everest in your trainers, but I think people who do enough research and have a good support group can achieve success and learn on the job.
I also think it's important to think about the reason I sat in a kayak for 25 days. That's because of my best friend didn't feel this world was a place worth living. I don't know the reason he felt like this and I never will; he might not have known the reason either, but he never spoke to anyone about it. If you ever feel not okay in any way you should talk to someone. We are all human; we are all family. If anyone confides in you embrace it—and help them.
I'm not sure. I know I am not done with the sea yet, but I would like to spend some time in the mountains. Hopefully you will be hearing more from me.
Learn more about the Callum Wylie Foundation
More at CanoeKayak.com:
— Inside a youth’s journey to raise awareness of water quality on Canada’s Lake Winnipeg
— The Piece Prize: A sea kayaking humanitarian
— Overcoming fear with fun: A parent’s guide to paddlesports
— Check out the Paddling with Purpose award at the Canoe & Kayak Awards