Whales, icebergs and fog: Austin’s Robert Youens is driving a jon boat through the Northwest Passage

Whales, icebergs and fog: Austin’s Robert Youens is driving a jon boat through the Northwest Passage

Robert Youens

Robert Youens of Austin spent three hours one day picking his way through sea ice during his trip through the Northwest Passage in a jon boat. Photo courtesy Robert Youens

A few days ago, a whale as big as a Suburban rose out of the water next to Robert Youens, gazing at him with a softball-sized eye for a moment before sliding out of sight.

The whale, probably a bowhead, didn’t flip Youens’ 16-foot aluminum boat, and after the 68-year-old Austin man recovered from the surprise, he kept motoring through the chilly waters of the Northwest Passage.

Youens, 68, a retired outdoor power equipment sales manager, is 700 miles into a roughly 4,200-mile solo out-and-back trip through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago this summer. So far, he says he’s having “the full Arctic experience.”

He called me last night from a hotel in Kuglugtuk, a small hamlet where he’s spending a few days waiting out windy weather. (I first met him in 2008, when he paddled a canoe 2,000 miles down the Mississippi River.) The connection broke up, but even without seeing him I could picture the grin spread across his face.

“You can’t explain the beauty, the colors,” he told me. “There are rainbows everywhere and fog all around.”

From Austin to the Arctic

Youens left Austin in late July, taking a week to drive from Texas to Tuktoyaktuk, on the western side of Canada’s Northwest Territories. He launched his boat Aug. 3 and began motoring eastward, covering between 100 and 150 miles a day on his way toward Baffin Bay. Along the way, he’s stopping to explore communities and meet locals.

“The thing I love is seeing the kids out fishing, visiting with families, and being invited for dinner,” Youens says. “These people are the sweetest, nicest people.”

One family gave him five pounds of dried white fish meat, which he ate for breakfast with coffee the next day. Yesterday he attended several court hearings at the regional courthouse and stopped by the healthcare center to get to know the community.

Robert Youens

Robert Youens sets up a tent on the deck of his jon boat each night. Photo courtesy Robert Youens

The daily routine

When he’s underway, he sleeps on his boat at night, snapping a tent over the deck. Temperatures so far have hovered in the 50s during the day and 40s at night, although they’ll likely drop as summer winds down and he gets farther north and east.

He eats dehydrated meals, potted meat, cheese, oatmeal, and bread, stopping where he can for supplies, which aren’t cheap. Soda was selling for $40 a 12-pack in one town (he went without), and gas – which he had to buy – cost $2.56 a liter, or more than $9.50 per gallon. His fuel consumption varies between 5 and 11 miles per gallon, depending on sea conditions.

Youens has navigated past 30-foot icebergs and spent three hours one day picking his way through sea ice and thick fog.

“I was laughing out loud as I was going through that ice, thinking how blessed I was having this opportunity,” he said.

He hasn’t spotted any polar bears yet (they are more common farther east,) but he has seen seals, which get up as high as they can to observe him.

Robert Youens

Robert Youens is motoring through the Northwest Passage by himself in this 16-foot jon boat. Photo courtesy Robert Youens

He’s had waves break over side of his boat, which is equipped with two large bilge pumps, too. He tries to avoid traveling if seas are higher than 2 feet but got caught in rough conditions one day.

“For 14 hours I had my hand on the tiller,” he says.

RELATED: Arctic Cowboys set to launch Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

Connecting with the Arctic Cowboys

At some point, Youens hopes to intercept a group of fellow Texans out adventuring. The Arctic Cowboys – expedition leader West Hansen and long-time paddling partner Jeff Wueste, who know Youens – hope to become the first to kayak the entire Northwest Passage in one season. They’re paddling the opposite direction as Youens and moving only under their own power. They’ve paddled 162 miles so far, but are pinned down due to bad weather and don’t expect to move again until Sunday or Monday.

Youens hopes to check on the Cowboys, continue to Baffin Bay, then turn around and retrace his route. He’ll provide any support the Cowboys need, then drive their kayaks back to Texas when they finish, presumably in late September or early October.

“It’ll all change,” he says. “It’s an expedition.”

To follow Youens’ progress, go here, or check his Ageless Wanderer channel on YouTube.

About Pam

I’m Pam LeBlanc. Follow my blog to keep up with the best in outdoor travel and adventure. Thanks for visiting my site.

Where is Pam?

Click to open a larger map

Follow Pam

Rebekah Feaster leaves Arctic Cowboys expedition, citing nausea

Rebekah Feaster leaves Arctic Cowboys expedition, citing nausea

Rebekah Feaster, shown here during the 2021 Texas Water Safari, dropped out of the Arctic Cowboys expedition on Aug. 5, 2022. Photo by Ashley Landis/Texas Water Safari

The youngest member of the Arctic Cowboys, a team of three Texas paddlers trying to become the first to kayak through the Northwest Passage in a single season, bowed out of the expedition today.

Rebekah Feaster, 31, who signed on to the adventure in late March, left the team Friday, and was transported back to Pond Inlet where she will recover, then return home.

RELATED: Arctic Cowboys set to launch expedition

“It is with a heavy heart that I write this update,” she wrote in a statement released by expedition manager Barbara Hansen Friday afternoon. “Due to some pretty intense nausea caused by sea sickness and anxiety, I decided to bow out of the expedition. I was not able to intake enough nutrition to keep up with the demands being placed on my body and I realized we needed to start making the kind of mileage I couldn’t manage.”

Arctic Cowboys

Jeff Wueste, West Hansen and Rebekah Feaster, the Arctic Cowboys, pose with their Epic sea kayaks this week before launching their expedition to kayak the Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy Rebekah Feaster

The Arctic Cowboys – Feaster, along with expedition leader West Hansen, 60, and longtime paddling partner Jeff Wueste, 62 – launched their roughly 2,100-mile attempt Tuesday morning, after being pinned down for a week securing paperwork and waiting out gale force winds in Pond Inlet.

They made slow progress their first three days on the water, battling gusty winds and high seas to cover a total of just 34 miles.

RELATED: Arctic Cowboys add female paddler to Northwest Passage team

“Wind and waves have been much more than they expected,” expedition manager Barbara Hansen said earlier Friday. “The placement of cliffs versus the wind direction versus waves made for a bad combination.”

The Cowboys hope to reach Tuktoyaktuk, a small Inuit community on the southwestern side of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, by late September or early October.

Rebekah Feaster left team Friday

A Pond Inlet resident who has assisted the team with logistics picked Feaster up by boat Friday morning. Hansen and Wueste continued paddling today.

Feaster, a proven endurance athlete who has finished the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile non-stop paddling race from San Marcos to the Texas coast, eight times, and holds the record for the youngest female to complete it solo, described her decision to drop out as gut wrenching.

“Jeff and West were incredibly kind and understanding of my situation and did everything they could to make it possible for me to stay out there,” she said. “My teammates are some of the best people I’ve come to know and I miss the conversations, story telling, and jokes already.”

Hansen has already led two other major expeditions. In 2012, he became the first to paddle the entire Amazon River, from its newly discovered source to the sea. Wueste paddled most of that expedition, and all of Hansen’s follow-up trip down the entire Volga River in Russia two years later.

The challenges this time are different. They’re likely to face polar bears, sea ice, storms, and frigid water.

“I’m cheering for them so hard from land now and if anybody can tackle this challenge, it’s these two! “ Feaster says.

About Pam

I’m Pam LeBlanc. Follow my blog to keep up with the best in outdoor travel and adventure. Thanks for visiting my site.

Where is Pam?

Click to open a larger map

Follow Pam

Arctic Cowboys set to launch Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

Arctic Cowboys set to launch Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

Jeff Wueste, West Hansen and Rebekah Feaster, the Arctic Cowboys, pose with their Epic sea kayaks this week before launching their Northwest Passage kayaking expedition. Photo courtesy Rebekah Feaster

After four days of waiting out gale force winds, the Texas-based trio of paddlers known as the Arctic Cowboys are poised to launch their attempt to kayak the entire Northwest Passage.

“Winds have died down. Water is clear of ice and all lights are green for us,” expedition leader West Hansen said this morning from the small Inuit community of Pond Inlet on the western side of Baffin Bay, where the team arrived last week.

If all goes as planned, they’ll head out on their roughly 2,100-mile expedition tonight. At about 9 p.m. EDT, a local resident will shuttle the paddlers – Hansen, 60, along with teammates Jeff Wueste, 62, and Rebekah Feaster, 31 – and their gear two-and-a-half hours by boat to Button Point, a small outcropping on Bylot Island at the western edge of Baffin Bay. They’ll either start paddling at about midnight, or overnight in a small cabin at the point and officially launch Tuesday morning.

Darkness won’t deter them. The sun doesn’t set this time of year in the Arctic, and as they make their way south and west, they’ll paddle based on how they feel and how many miles they’ve covered, instead of just by daylight. (See their route here.)

Along the way, they’ll face a slew of challenges, including drifting chunks of ice, storms, frigid water, and, potentially, polar bears. The team is carrying bear spray, a bear horn, flares, an electric fence to set up around camp, and a 12-gage shotgun for protection.

Northwest Passage kayaking expedition details

Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

Snowcapped mountains and glaciers are visible across Eclipse Sound from Pond Inlet, where the Arctic Cowboys are preparing to launch their Northwest Passage kayaking expedition. Photo by Rebekah Feaster

Hansen expects the expedition – his third after a 2012 expedition down the entire Amazon River and a 2014 trek down the entire Volga River, both with Wueste – to take about two months.

The kayakers plan to cover about 40 miles a day this time out. If all goes well, they’ll reach Tuktoyaktuk, a small hamlet in the Inuvik region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, by late September. (Track them here.) If the expedition pushes into October, Hansen says the team has the cold weather paddling experience needed to handle it.

“As we’ve shown in Russia, we can paddle in snow and ice conditions,” he says. “We don’t see that happening, but if it does, we’re good for the last couple hundred miles.”

About two weeks into the adventure, they’ll reach the Bellot Strait, a treacherous, 16-mile, steep-walled channel known for swift currents, a dense population of polar bears, and drift ice that could act as kayak-wrecking torpedoes. Somewhere in that area, they should encounter fellow Austin adventurer Robert Youens, who is attempting to cross the Northwest Passage – heading the opposite direction – in a jon boat. He’ll provide any needed support to the Cowboys, who have also shipped boxes of resupply goods to a point farther along their route.

Other attempts have failed

Arctic Cowboys

Jeff Wueste and Rebekah Feaster check their kayaks after they arrived in Pond Inlet last week. Photo courtesy West Hansen

Unlike other paddlers who have attempted to traverse the Northwest Passage in a single season, the Arctic Cowboys are starting in the northeast and heading southwest, so they cover the coldest, iciest, and most difficult sections of the journey first. If they’d gone the other direction, they could have been turned back by ice-clogged passages just as they neared the finish, Hansen says.

His theory will be tested this season. Another adventurer, 50-year-old Karl Kruger, of Orcas Island, Washington, who hopes to become the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage by standup paddleboard, is traveling the opposite direction. He launched on July 24 and said this week that the navigation is difficult with so few landmarks and constant daylight.

Related: Texas’ craziest endurance paddler is taking on his biggest challenge yet

Unplanned delays and exploring the culture

The Arctic Cowboys’ launch this week can’t come soon enough for Hansen, Wueste and Feaster, who left Austin to drive to Canada on July 15, then got delayed in Ottawa for a week due to complications shipping their gear farther north. That pause tacked $10,000 in unexpected hotel, meal, shipping, and flight expenses onto the expedition tab, which Hansen initially estimated at about $45,000. (To donate, go here.)

After arriving in Pond Inlet on July 25, the team spent a few days finalizing permits and fine-tuning gear. Then the bad weather set in. They’ve been pinned down in an apartment provided by locals while they wait out the winds, which are predicted to ease tonight.

Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

The population of Pond Inlet is about 1,500. Photo by Rebekah Feaster

That lag time gave the paddlers a chance to experience some of the local culture. The landscape is desolate but beautiful, they say, with no trees and lots of dirt, rocks, and fields of stubby grass and small flowers. Chunks of ice are floating in Eclipse Sound, just offshore. The town itself, whose population is about 1,500, consists of a scattered collection of ramshackle but sturdy buildings.

Related: In two weeks, the Arctic Cowboys will leave Austin to kayak the Northwest Passage

“(The ice) is kind of cool to look at,” Hansen says. “The water is very placid and there are big snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the distance.”

They’ve also been tuning into a Canadian comedy called Letterkenny, and sampling local fare like caribou, narwhal, Arctic char, and a type of traditional flatbread called bannock. “Narwhal is a bit chewy,” Hansen says. “We ate it raw, and it tasted good, but after chewing a while you just have to swallow gristle. The caribou – I loved it. It’s like venison but less gamey, and very rich.”

Temperatures have hovered in the mid- to upper 40s – more comfortable than the sizzling heat the team left behind in Texas, and, according to Hansen, perfect for kayaking.  Forecasts call for a continued warming trend into the month of August, too, which should work in the team’s favor. Already, leads – or narrow gaps in the ice through which the kayakers can squeeze – are opening along their route.

“We feel really good,” Hansen says. “There’s less ice along our pathway now than there was a week ago.”

Related: Arctic Cowboys add female paddler to 2022 Northwest Passage expedition

Once they pass Bylot Island in the next few days, the islands that make up the Canadian Arctic Archipelago will provide more protection from storms blowing in off Greenland and Baffin Bay, reducing the likelihood of more weather delays.

“If we get through the first month, we’re home free, pretty much,” Hansen says.

Ready to start the Northwest Passage kayaking expedition

pond inlet arctic cowboys

The Arctic Cowboys have been pinned down in Pond Inlet for the last week, securing permits and waiting out gale force winds before they launch their Northwest Passage kayaking expedition. Photo by Rebekah Feaster

As for now, the paddlers are antsy, and eager to get moving.

“I’m worn out. Honestly, I need to get out there and start camping to charge my batteries,” Hansen says.

Feaster and Wueste second that notion.

“We’ve kind of been going stir crazy over the last week, and I’m just ready to get on the water and do it,” Feaster says, adding that she’s looking forward to seeing things most people will never see, like narwhals, seals, beluga whales, and orca in the wild.

“This is so beautiful and so different than anything I’ve paddled in before,” Wueste says. “This ice paddling is going to be new to all of us … but I say we have the best watercraft for this kind of travel in these conditions.”

With the permits secured, the paperwork finished, the boats rigged, and the duffels loaded, the Arctic Cowboys are inches away from doing what they came here to do – dip their paddles into the chilly Arctic water for hours at a time.

“We’ve made amazing progress starting in Austin, Texas, and now we’re staring at the Northwest Passage,” Hansen says.

About Pam

I’m Pam LeBlanc. Follow my blog to keep up with the best in outdoor travel and adventure. Thanks for visiting my site.

Where is Pam?

Click to open a larger map

Follow Pam