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Rowing the Northwest Passage

by Kurt Hoehne

It seems adventure rowing is deeply engrained in the Pacific Northwest. Captain Vancouver would be proud. In addition to the the OAR Northwest crew, which recently fell just short of an Atlantic crossing, we now have a crew ready to tackle the Northwest Passage, or at least the part formerly packed with ice most of the time. We wish them luck! –KH

Adventure in the melting Arctic: Vancouver-based team to row the Northwest Passage

By Carrie Saxifrage, the Vancouver Observer.

No one has ever attempted to row the Northwest Passage in one season before, because no one could. It has always been blocked by summer sea ice. But the radical warming of the Arctic has changed that. This summer four adventurers hope to draw attention to the profound changes of the Canadian north by rowing the heart of the Northwest Passage, from the Inuvik on the Pacific Ocean to Pond Inlet on the Atlantic. The 3,000 km journey will take 70 to 80 days if all goes well. They have about a 90 day window until ice returns to the shallow waters at the northern edge of North America.

MainStream Renewable Power is sponsoring the seasoned adventurers.Kevin Vallely set a South Pole speed record. Paul Gleeson rowed the Atlantic. Frank Wolf biked, paddled and walked the route of the Enbridge pipeline. Denis Barnett is new to major expeditions, but this is the exact kind of world class opportunity that he’s been seeking for years.VO Arctic Joule dock_0 2

Vallely takes satisfaction in the fit between the rowing expedition and the issue they hope to publicize. “There’s something beautiful about the way we can talk to climate change directly by the actions we’re doing. Very few expeditions can do that,” he said.

He described the publicity launch of the “Last First” at a summit on the Arctic sponsored by the Economist Magazine. The summit’s scientific panel noted that the rapid melting of Arctic ice has surprised and shocked the scientific community. Last years’ low ice conditions weren’t predicted for another thirty years. Three of the panelists said the Arctic would be ice free in summer within ten to 20 years. One panelist said it would occur in the next three years.

“That’s scary,” Vallely said, “because if that’s the case, it’s pretty profound stuff.”

Scientists report that an ice free Arctic Ocean triggers numerous feedback loops that will put climate change beyond human control:

  • The Albedo Flip: white ice reflects heat and dark water absorbs it. Loss of summer sea ice will reduce the Albedo effect from 60% reflection of heat off the Earth’s surface to 10%.
  • From Permafrost to Permamelt: as permanently frozen Arctic land melts, it releases massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, both potent green house gases.
  • Melting methane hydrates: as the ocean warms, tremendous amounts of methane that are frozen at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean will bubble out of the ocean and into the atmosphere, a trigger for major extinction events in the past.
  • Dying forests: as the north warms, the entire western boreal forest dies faster than it can grow back. It has already shifted from a CO2 absorber to a CO2 emitter in recent years.

An ice free Arctic also provides access to more fossil fuels: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic contains about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas and 20 percent of its undiscovered natural gas liquids. John Higginbotham at Canada’s Centre for International Governance is calling for investment in icebreakers, deepwater ports, oil spill remediation facilities and other infrastructure along the Northwest Passage.


Vallely expects the adventure will provide “Iliyra” – an Inuit word that means awe combined with fear. “Like when you see a polar bear, and there is nothing between you,” Vallely explained.

Mental challenges: pain and tedium

The team will row 24/7, probably in four hour shifts, for close to three months. Physical pain and tedium are the stuff of grand adventure, and they all have different ways of coping with it.

Wolf finds that it helps to stay in the moment. “If you are looking ahead, then you’re probably not enjoying everything as you pass by it.” Filming will keep him busy.

Vallely coped with the mental challenge of his previous expeditions with sheer perseverance. “You suffer a lot,” he said. “You kind of curse yourself. You’re out there in the middle of nowhere. So you just tell yourself to get through the day. Inevitably, you feel better — you always do. You go to these really low places but the ups are so high they get you through the lows.”

While rowing the Atlantic, Gleeson and his rowing partner gave each other letters they had received from family and friends for this purpose. When one of them hit a low point, the other would pull out a letter that would cheer them up. “Mental preparation comes through the training and the struggles we’ve gone through to put the whole thing together,” Gleeson said.

Logistics: boat transport, food, water, storms, electricity, ice,

The adventure starts by towing the boat, named The Arctic Joule, from Vancouver to Inuvut, a 4,000 km journey mostly on bare roads. “That trip will be epic in itself,” Gleeson commented.

They will eat high calorie freeze dried food, hopefully supplemented by fresh fish and a resupply at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, an Inukititut hamlet of 1,500 people.

They will carry two desalinizing systems. The silty Arctic waters are hard on such systems, so they are prepared to use river water if need be. Their water storage capacity is 80 litres, enough for about four days.

The team will have iPods, laptops and two satellite phones. Solar panels on the roofs of the two small cabins will charge two car batteries to service their electrical needs.

The rowing team will need cooperative weather to achieve their goal. “Mother Nature will call the shots,” Gleeson commented. He expects the worst storm action in the western Arctic at the start of the journey because that area is most exposed to the open sea. In the Atlantic, Gleeson rowed through 45 foot rolling waves. He expects storm waves in the Arctic to be steeper and choppier. The cabins will have rails to hang on to. The boat will self-right if it rolls. The team will carry survival suits and a life raft.

“We could batten down the hatches if we had to,” Gleeson said, “Or we could beach it. We’ll always be close to land. If we’re in rough weather and we’re still making forward progress, that’ll work too.”

The boat was designed with a fatter hull to pop up on ice. If the Northwest Passage ices over before they complete their journey, the slightly rounded keel would allow them to drag it across the ice using pulleys. “That would not be the ideal scenario,” Gleeson said.

Orignal post here.

Other links:

Expedition Website

The Globe and Mail article

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Douglas Pohl June 8, 2013 - 13:10

What a bunch of rhetoric… a bunch of slick willies to say the least.
The Northwest Passage is a sea route between the Davis Strait and the Bering Strait of some 3500 miles depending on which of the 7 routes you choose while TheLastFirst.com rowing crew is only rowing 1500 miles between Inuvik and Pond Inlet. Not even half the distance. As for being first the reward goes to Mathieu Bonnier and his dog Tico in 2010-2011 rowing solo between Greenland and Nome Alaska – more than twice the distance of Kevin Vallely’s four man crew. SEE THE WEBSITE: http://WWW.EXPEDITIONTICO.COM FOR DETAILS.

So lets not remember the experts saying the Arctic ice cover has expanded by 296,000,000 square kilometers over the same period from 1995. So please don’t spew the rhetoric about CO2, Warming, Melting etc… just accept the earth’s oscillation unless you would like to tell us your detailed hypothesis and how you plan to collect scientific data to back up your unique theory. So far its just the same old media bias with hockey-stick revised data points making claims which are not valid – they got caught cheating when changing the data points – bad boys.
If you think your expedition is record breaking I challenge you to have GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS certify it with a record… “Four Men Row 1500 Miles in the Arctic Navigation Season of 2013”?
Undoubtedly someone hoodwinked MRP into being the primary sponsoring… now lets see if four men can live up to the slick rhetoric statements, survive in an experimental boat not certified for Arctic sea conditions and will make the world a better environment from rowing 1500 miles. Makes me want to spit the bad taste out!

Geir Ashman June 18, 2013 - 23:58

Yep Agree with Douglas on this one. I have lived on the passage for many years. Cambridge Bay, this is nothing to brag about. Locals do this in a hunting season in a Canoe.lolololol You are also way out on your timing since the passage is NOT OPEN for 3 months. Sorry to say but I’ll bet you will be picked up in a rescue boat by the Danish Coast Guard. Yep the Danes. Or you might be lucky enough to find a Canadian Coast Guard if you call them before Sept After that they tail out.lololo

bmatkin July 24, 2013 - 00:59

Update: Progress blocked by ice, ice blamed on global warming. You’ve got to be kidding right?
Al Gore effect noted.


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