The effects of climate change on the Arctic come into focus on the first human-powered attempt to transit the Northwest Passage.

A peculiar rapping sound against the hull wakes me. All four of us are asleep, our boat, The Arctic Joule, held fast on ground anchor amidst a heavy windstorm. Bolting upright to survey the expected churning sea through the cabin door, I instead see something far worse.

“Holy shit!” I shout, “Ice!” In seconds we’re all on deck.

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Pushed hard by the storming wind, a 30-by-30-metre floe some 10 – 12 metres thick is wedged against our bow and moving directly over us, the anchor stuck under this multi-ton piece of ice. We push the bow away in an attempt to gain a few metres of slack but it’s no use; with the ice pressing against us the line grows piano-wire taut and the boat moans under the strain. The bow drops, pulled down by the weight of the ice on the anchor line. If we don’t do something fast we’ll be dragged under.

On Friday, July 5th 2013 we’d set out to row the fabled Northwest Passage, a planned 75-day, 3,000-kilometre expedition from the western side of Canada’s Arctic archipelago to its eastern gateway at Lancaster Sound. Emotions swam in my head as we left Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and began rowing down the mighty Mackenzie River toward the Arctic Ocean and our ultimate destination of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. The journey had never been made under human power. Attempting it in only a single season further ramped up the commitment.

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Our elation in realizing a dream was tempered by anticipation of the hardship and effort that would be required of our team: myself, fellow Canadian adventurer and documentarian Frank Wolf, and Irishmen Paul Gleeson and Denis Barnett. The fact that it had been abnormally cold in comparison to recent years weighed heavily as well; if we succeeded under such circumstance our expedition would speak even more loudly to the realities of climate change. We’d immediately fallen into two-man, four-hour rowing shifts, Paul and I starting off.

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Aussies Matt McFadgyn and Cameron Webb at Cape Lady Franklin.
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Human-powered sea transit is not for the faint of heart.

It was in a coffee shop in November 2011 that I’d first pitched the idea to Paul—who’d rowed the Atlantic in 2006—and it had seemed a flurry of preparation ever since [see sidebar “Building an Expedition”], but here we were, 18 months later, beginning our adventure. By the end of the first shift my body screamed, loudly proclaiming that I’d been spending far more time planning than training: my hands were blistered and my backside sore. Before long, however, discomfort gave way to the majesty of the environment as we snaked our way down the mud-brown Mackenzie hemmed by impenetrable green walls.

By noon next day we’d rowed continuously for 24 hours, each team posting three shifts. Tiring though the effort was, it succeeded in delivering us to the river’s mouth at Kugmallit Bay on the Beaufort Sea. The Mackenzie deposits much of its prodigious silt-load here, making navigation in the murky waters tricky: invisible sandbars lurk throughout the hundreds-of-square-kilometres delta, much of which is just over a metre deep. Our magic number was 60 centimetres—anything less would ground us. And grounded we were, countless times, on one occasion having to debark and haul The Arctic Joule across a seemingly endless sandbar.

It took many long hours to negotiate the delta but by 1:00 a.m. on July 7th, the sun shone brightly on a calm sea as we finally began moving up the coast toward Tuktoyaktuk, 60 kilometres to the northeast. Listening to my iPod, randomly pulling from 2,000+ songs, “Northwest Passage” by the late Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers popped up. I rowed in calm disbelief as the haunting a cappella anthem unfolded:

For just one time I would take the Northwest Passage

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea

Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the Sea

Just as Paul and I finished our midnight shift the winds had begun to change. Several hours later I glanced through the cabin door to see a stern-faced Frank and Denis rowing at a high tempo. The sea was steep and choppy, the wind bearing down with intent—far cry from the calm we’d been experiencing. By the time Paul and I next took to the oars, forward movement was all but halted. After 90 minutes rowing in position we realized our efforts were fruitless, taking refuge in a small bay to wait it out.

Tuktoyaktuk was a tantalizingly close 7.5 kilometres away, its roofs taunting us on the horizon. Both our detailed navigation maps and GPS indicated a potential back route through semi-protected channels in the lee of a series of sand beaches to the northeast. But after five hours of hauling, lining and rowing we dead-ended: blocked by driftwood, the channel was impassable, forcing retreat.

Man-hauling a 1,100-kilogram rowboat is a sight to behold. At times fluid, occasionally graceful, it’s mostly an unwieldy chore of grunting, dragging and pushing through frigid, waist-deep water, all the while trying to rein in a ton of fibreglass that wants to go where a 35-knot wind tells it to.

Man-hauling a 1,100-kilogram rowboat is a sight to behold. At times fluid, occasionally graceful, it’s mostly an unwieldy chore of grunting, dragging and pushing through frigid, waist-deep water, all the while trying to rein in a ton of fibreglass that wants to go where a 35-knot wind tells it to. If nothing else it offered insight to a 150-year-old mystery. In 1858 a grisly discovery was made on the beaches of King William Island, some 2,000 kilometres east of here, when a rowboat from the doomed Franklin expedition was found lashed to a sled, men dead in their tracks strewn about, clearly in the process of dragging her somewhere. One corpse sat perched in the bow like some frozen protector, a shotgun in each hand and 70 kilos of chocolate stacked at his feet. And here we were, hauling our own oversized rowboat, loaded to the gunnels with gear and 22 kilos of chocolate… plus two shotguns. I now understood the scenario that likely played out on King William Island over a century and a half ago: desperation.

Taking shelter in the lee of a pingo—the ice-cored soil domes common in areas of continuous permafrost—it was three days before the wind eased enough to make a move. It was still blowing 15 knots, but we’d hoped that would be a reasonable test of The Arctic Joule. Leaving safe haven, however, the seas immediately pushed us back to shore. Struggling to keep the boat 45˚ to the wind, we ferried sideways for an hour and a half. It was brutal going with little headway made, so we returned to shore to haul along the beach. With waves crashing across her beam, it took all of us to manhandle The Arctic Joule through breaking surf and around a point where the seas diminished enough to row again. Eventually, the houses we’d been eyeing in the distance for days took over the foreground.

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Unable to move as freely, caribou may be threatened by an ice-free Arctic.

From arrival in Tuktoyaktuk to our departure was less than 24 hours. We re-jigged The Arctic Joule to work better with our daily routine and resupplied on essentials (Hazelnut Coffee-Mate topping the list). As with all expeditions, it takes time to get things right and the unexpected delays en route from Inuvik had proved fortuitous in flushing out organizational shortcomings.

The temperature in Tuk was -1˚C with a strong northeasterly wind. Locals told us it should be anywhere from 15 – 20˚C this time of year. “Bugs should be bouncing off your head” explained Eilleen, lamenting the strange weather when she visited us on the beach; it had been colder than usual, and the sea ice slow to go out.

Global-warming naysayers seize upon such “anomalies” as damning arguments in their favour, but climate change is reflected in overall trends and not individual events. What Tuk locals described was an Arctic undergoing rapid and measurable change, with summers longer on both ends by at least two weeks, and animal species expanding their ranges northward.

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A musk ox stands its ground.

“They shot a grizzly at the north end of Banks Island,” explained Inuvialuit elder Billy. “They saw a wolverine, too.” His words cut through the rhetoric of climate skeptics like an ulu through sealskin.

After leaving Tuk, it became difficult to discern one day from the next as we remained underway 24 hours a day when conditions permitted. Each team rowed four hours then rested four hours, repeating until weather or ice interrupted. Equally confounding to our Vancouver biorhythms, the sun never set: though midnight was colder and darker than midday, the ambient light was still adequate to read by. It took getting used to, but soon became routine. We moved steadily up the coast until ice floes began to litter the oceanic landscape. Appearing first as elongated, odd-shaped profiles on the horizon, they seemed far bigger than they actually were. But even small ones would soon prove large enough.

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There was no ice around when we’d retired to the cabin an hour ago. In any case, we imagine ourselves a tiny bulls-eye on such a massive target that the chances of a piece actually hitting us seemed remote. Exhausted after days of rowing, with a storm too powerful to move through raging, we’d set anchor and hit the sack.

Somehow, the chunk of ice that opens this tale found us. The groaning of the boat and dipping bow leave us no choice. Like having your coattails caught under a steamroller, there’s only one outcome: I pull a serrated knife from my PFD and crawl to the bow to cut away the anchor. Tight as a bowstring, the line explodes at the blade’s touch. Ping! We spring free.

We’d been anchored a couple kilometres from shore, and the wind immediately begins to push us in, swapping one dilemma for another as we barrel headlong towards a rocky beach with no anchor to keep us off. Closing fast, we do everything in our power to remain offshore but with the wind unabated it’s only a matter of time—we’re forced to find as smooth a section of beach as possible and head in. The moment the bow touches gravel we leap out to prevent the stern from swinging broadside to the waves, taking turns standing in icy water to keep our bucking bronco from breaking free. Just when all seems hopeless, another floe appears, heading in our direction. Smaller than the behemoth we just tangled with, its nevertheless imposing girth will soon be on top of us. This, however, we see as opportunity.

 

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With a sharp effort, we push off and swing clear of the incoming ice. As hoped, it grounds itself on the seabed. Clambering atop the slab we place two ice screws and rig a satisfactory anchor—albeit ice-climbing style—in the lee of the ice a short distance from shore and safely out of the wind. Denis, a secret fan of ’80s pop-rocker Chris de Burgh, is so happy with our mobile ice moorage he names it Chris de Berg. Taking a breath after our ordeal, no sooner are we out of our drysuits than there’s a thundering crash and a thump against The Arctic Joule. Chris is breaking up, pounded apart by the waves; he could twist or somersault while we’re still attached. It’s another frenzy of donning drysuits, then leaping onto the disintegrating berg to free ourselves and cast off again into surf and wind. We’re at wits end. Rowing intensely on 20-minute shifts mere metres from shore, our efforts are redlining. Over several hours we creep along until a tiny bay partly choked in ice offers safe harbour and a much-needed rest.

Days turn to weeks and the routine remains the same: a few good days of rowing followed by several more of tempestuous seas. It’s remote out here but we’re not alone in waiting out the storms: in Franklin Bay we meet a woman from Yellowknife hoping to kayak the Northwest Passage over several seasons; in Paulatuk it’s a pair of Quebec kayakers attempting much the same thing we are; we encounter Australians looking to sail and row a five-metre skiff across; and a team of American jet skiers roaring through the passage for the reality TV show Dangerous Waters. The Passage holds allure for each of these adventurers, but with only a handful of us sprinkled over thousands of kilometres of frigid water, it still feels far from crowded or a “next Everest” as alluded to in the press.

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As time passes, days shorten, temperatures plummet, and our travel window inches shut. By mid-August we’re behind schedule navigating the southern shores of Victoria Island when we’re hit by the biggest storm yet. Knowing it was coming we’d sheltered onshore, but haven’t anticipated sustained 100-kph winds that are gusting even higher. Our tent walls shake and shudder violently; the strongest gusts push the fabric down on us, bending tent poles under their extreme force. Guy-wires stretched as taught as cables prevent the poles from breaking, while large stones holding down the fly help keep us stuck to the ground. I’ve endured such winds before—skiing to the South Pole in 2008-2009, and traversing Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal in 2010—and each time, like now, I’ve remained awake throughout the ordeal, certain the tent will be destroyed. It’s unnerving and humbling.

The storm makes it obvious that we won’t reach Pond Inlet. We’ve travelled nearly 1,900 kilometres of the Northwest Passage in 54 days. But we’ve come as far as we can go: ice and weather forecasts in the eastern Arctic mean moving forward will be foolhardy and pose a huge risk to both ourselves and anyone required for rescue (which we would likely need). We make the hard decision to finish our expedition in Cambridge Bay. Though we haven’t won the Passage, we’ve been rewarded in other ways.

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The Smoking Hills of Franklin Bay.

The Inuit have a word: ilira. It has no equivalent in English but nevertheless defines our journey through the Northwest Passage. Ilira is the sensation felt as you glide down the waters of Franklin Bay under a low sun, sulfurous plumes erupting from the hillsides behind and a bowhead whale surfacing only metres away. Ilira is the feeling you get when you go to sleep at night facing a mirror-smooth ocean and wake to a cauldron of churning sea ice. Ilira is the sensation engendered by a three-metre Barren Lands grizzly standing on its hind legs, discovering you’re there and slowly walking towards you. Ilira is the sensation of rounding a precipitous, rock-walled cape in gentle seas knowing bad weather is on its way and that in seconds your world could be chaos. Ilira is the gentle flush of fear that comes with awe.

We undertook this project to bring awareness to the effect climate change is having on the Arctic. Irish renewable energy company Mainstream, which installs wind and solar arrays around the world, was title sponsor for a reason. CEO Eddie O’Connor liked what we were doing and why, and was integral in garnering us support in a day and age when such money is rarely anteed up for such a cause. On the other side of the coin, climate-change critics seized on our truncated journey as speaking to an Arctic unaffected by climate change, but nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the anomalous cold of 2013, maximum ice extent remained the sixth-lowest ever recorded, and yet, somehow, we were in the crosshairs of the well-funded anti-climate-change lobby from the get-go, with both individuals and groups—including a dedicated website—expending much time and energy on discrediting and dismissing our effort. It all seems so wildly out of proportion, such manic fervor aimed at contradicting incontrovertible fact: climate change is real and profoundly affecting the Arctic.

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The expedition opened our eyes to these issues like we never imagined. Experiencing the Arctic in a truly unique way, we were also privileged to speak with those who live there. Floyd Roland, former Premier of the Northwest Territories and current mayor of Inuvik related how winter now begins a month later than when he was a kid, and features less-predictable weather patterns. In Paulatuk, Hank Wolki pointed to thinning sea ice near his community and the newfound dangers of winter travel; Marlene Wolki also spoke of a shifting winter season, of picking blueberries in late September, a time when the land was once frozen, and of an ice-free Darnley Bay in October. Brothers Joe and Steve Illisiak in Brown’s Camp told of grizzly and polar bears interacting, of the new hybrids on the scene—the pizzly and grolar—of rarely seen pods of killer whales prowling their waters; Joe Ohokannoak noted that grizzly bears had reached Victoria Island, how ravens were now commonplace where they once never ventured.

The Arctic is changing and it’s changing dramatically. We know this not because we rowed a boat through an area where it wouldn’t have been possible in the very recent past, but because the people whose lives are most affected tell us so.

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There isn’t much time to relax when you’re under the gun—literally and figuratively.

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