by Leslie Anthony
When I first learned of the Mainstream Last First expedition—a foursome of Vancouverites who planned to row the Northwest Passage from west to east (Inuvik to Pond Inlet) in a single season to raise awareness of climate change—I was pretty stoked. What a great way to marry adventure to an issue, I thought; the very fact of their contemplating the feat accomplished part of the goal, since not so long ago, when ice strangled the Canadian Arctic’s island labyrinth for most of the summer, such a thing would not have been possible.
As climate change barrels us toward an ice-free summer Arctic at unprecedented rates, this seemed like a great idea. The fact that they had partnered with a large renewable power company and would blog almost daily along the way through satellite technology, only added to the consciousness-raising potential. So pretty much every day since July 5 when they began rowing out of the Mackenzie Delta, I pulled up their website to check their progress via SPOT beacon tracking, photos and posts. The boys were up against it with weather from the start, fighting strong winds, cold and ice conditions unseen in the Arctic for decades. Although the 2013 ice cover was still a sobering 1.41 million km2 less than the 1981-2010 average (by comparison, the combined area of B.C. and Alberta is 1.6 million km2), prevailing weather patterns had blown ice thickly into most of the eastern reaches and routes of the NWP by August. In the end, after a beyond-noble effort given prevailing conditions, I watched online as the guys made the decision to pull out at Cambridge Bay, 1,128 km short of their goal, when the ice and September weather window closed in on them after rowing an impressive 1,862 km in 55 days. They were not alone: unusual ice conditions were causing other groups attempting the passage this past summer to drop like flies as well, but reading further into that fact gives one pause for concern.
In addition to the Mainstream Last First lads, two other rowing expeditions and a tandem kayak attempt were underway. A group of American adventurers were also travelling the NWP on jet skis for the reality television show Dangerous Waters There were sailboats of every size, shape and description, a super yacht, hovercraft, research vessels and even cruise ships; enough nautical nuance that a third-party blog by a crusty but well-informed American yacht captain stationed in the Caribbean was dedicated to keeping track of it all. The scene, on the face of it, seemed somewhere between Mad Max and Waterworld set in an Arctic environment, except this circus was pre-apocalyptic, lacked bad guys, and involved serious goals.
Many groups were attempting the NWP by increasingly difficult first-time routes or with various imposed missions and constraints to claim bragging rights on something that had yet to be done. But it was getting crowded in a dangerous place and the strain was starting to show—and not just in the number expeditions giving up on their bids. Of the 185 successful NWP attempts since 1903 (when Raold Amundsen completed his three-year navigation), 109 have been accomplished since the year 2000, a telling statistic concerning the number of adventurers at risk in the Arctic in any given season. Although Canadian authorities were aware of about 25 vessels traversing the NWP this summer, other sources reported up to 35. The Americans eventually had to be rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard at great cost (estimated six figures) on Sept. 6—fittingly from Franklin Strait—and to emphasize the risks even for the experienced, a helicopter from the Canadian research vessel CCGS Amundsen crashed on a routine ice-scouting mission in September killing the pilot, the boat’s captain and two researchers.
In the end this conjures no madcap high-Arctic movie but simply the spectre of too many aspirants beating against fate in an environment they are ill-equipped to deal with—a warming Arctic notwithstanding (despite decreasing ice, climate change will also bring stronger and more unpredictable weather events to the Arctic). Others have taken notice and share my concern. “Mount Everest, another destination once reserved for major expeditions, is now inundated with climbers, many with more money than alpine experience. Fatal accidents keep rising with the crowds,” said Paul Watson, making the most obvious comparison in a recent Toronto Star article. It would be a shame if the newly opened Arctic fell victim to the same kind of hubris driving Everest crowds, but then, taking on and even inventing challenges seems to be in our nature, whether we are the first—or last—to attempt it.