Solo rower reaches midway point of Northwest Passage expedition

Solo rower reaches midway point of Northwest Passage expedition

Matty Clarke has reached the halfway point of his expedition through the Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy Matty ClarkeA race is shaping up in the Arctic this season, where three separate expeditions are making their way through the Northwest Passage.

I talked this morning with Matty Clarke, who is holed up in Cambridge Bay, roughly the midway point of the 2,100-mile journey.

Clarke, 32, started in Tuktoyaktuk, on the western side of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, on June 28 with partner Adam Riley. A month into the journey, Riley tore his labrum and had to quit.

Clarke has continued, rowing a 19-foot rowing cruiser he built himself that is equipped with a solar panel and batteries. He sleeps inside the boat’s small cabin most nights but carries a tent for bad weather. He’s gathering footage for a documentary film about his expedition.

Two other teams are vying this year to become the first ever to navigate the passage under human power in a single season. It’s a feat made possible by the warming climate – passages once choked with ice open earlier and stay ice-free longer.

The Austin-based Arctic Cowboys, a team of four paddling in two tandem kayaks, has also reached Cambridge Bay, but are heading in the opposite direction, and a team of eight rowers is positioned at the eastern edge of Bellot Strait, east of Cambridge Bay and heading west.

Matty Clarke is rowing a hand-built boat through the Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy Matty Clarke“When Adam and I decided to do it a year ago, we had no idea no one had done it before,” Clarke says. “I’m doing it for the love of the outdoors. I’d love to be first, but at the end of the day I’m doing it for myself. I’m not up here racing.”

With the warmest part of the Arctic summer now behind, the biggest race isn’t against other paddlers and rowers, it’s against the ice, which will begin to form again as temperatures drop and storms roll in.

“The others seem to think this is a big adventure race. To me I don’t give a (expletive deleted),” Clarke says. “I’m here for myself. Just by chance I’m thrown into this Arctic race now.”

Clarke, who posts videos on YouTube under the name Skote Outdoors, arrived in Cambridge Bay on Monday. He’s making boat and dry suit repairs and waiting out weather, but hopes to get on his way again soon. (Clarke, by the way, was forced last year to dismantle and evacuate an unauthorized off-grid log cabin he built in the Yukon.)

“The next 500 miles will be the most difficult I’ve ever done,” Clarke says. “The weather window gets shorter and shorter, and I’ve got three big crossings left.”

Clarke’s is the only solo expedition, and the rower says he needs to focus on himself and staying strong. Until getting to Cambridge Bay, he hadn’t seen another human for 29 days – although he did spot a few grizzly bears. So far, he hasn’t seen any polar bears.

“I’m not concerned about bears,” he says. “My biggest fear is the ocean itself. It’s pretty ominous making some of these crossings with no one there to bounce ideas off. I’m never sure if the decision is right or wrong. I wake up every day alone, go to bed alone, and have no one to talk to. It’s tough.”

Clarke says he has dreamed of navigating the Northwest Passage since he was a little boy, but back then he imagined doing it in a canoe.

The biggest challenge he’s faced so far? “Learning how to row. Before I built this boat I had never rowed before. We did a three-week training run on the inside passage of Vancouver.”

While that might sound risky, Clarke says his experience growing up in Newfoundland has prepared him for the adventure.

And while he’s new to rowing, he says he’s not new to the elements.

Matty Clarke hopes to reach Pond Inlet in October. Photo courtesy Matty Clarke“I’ve spent my life on the ocean and in the woods,” he says.

“The others are paddlers. I’m a woodsman. Dealing with isolation is my super power. As weather gets worse and worse going to start wearing other people down.”

Clarke says he’s ready to get on the water again. “I slept indoors for the first time in two months last night and it didn’t do me well – too warm and stuffy. I miss sleeping on the boat. I need to get out of here quick because I’m going soft.”

He’s hoping to wrap up his trip by early to mid-October.

“I think I have a shot,” he says. “It’s all going to come down to Mother Nature. She’s going to decide if I finish or not.”





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How’s HEB’s new series of wildlife films? Beary, beary good

How’s HEB’s new series of wildlife films? Beary, beary good

HEB wildlife films

A crew led by Ben Masters sets up wildkife cameras in South Texas. Masters has unveiled a new series of HEB wildlife films. Pam LeBlanc photo

A few years ago, I tugged on my boots and dove into the brush of a South Country ranch to look for ocelots with documentary wildlife filmmaker Ben Masters.

We didn’t see any of the elusive, spotted cats that day, but Masters captured a ton of video of the slinky animals. He used some of that footage for his feature-length film “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” More of it appears in his latest project, a series of five short wildlife documentaries created in collaboration with grocery chain HEB.

“(Before this project,” my relationship with HEB was like a love affair with butter tortillas and guacamole,” Masters told the audience gathered in a cool and dark Alamo Drafhouse to watch the films last week. He couldn’t understand at first why a grocery store would want to make wildlife movies. The answer? To promote the idea it cares about the environment.

Ben Masters HEB wildlife films

Documentary filmmaker Ben Masters crawls through the underbrush where ocelots have been seen in South Texas. Pam LeBlanc photo

The films detail the creation of the Texas State Parks system and tell the story of Texans working to preserve habitat for bats, black bears, ocelots, and redfish in our state.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’m partial to the one about black bears. The film explains the revival of bear populations in the Big Bend region and other places around Texas. It also chronicles how the Borderlands Institute at Sul Ross State University is working to collar bears and learn more about them.

(By the way, if you’re a bear fan like me, I recommend following @bigbendcountry on Instagram. The account shares clips of video taken from a wildlife camera set up on land near Sanderson and bears frequently steal the show.)

Where to watch the HEB wildlife films

You can watch HEB’s five films, created by independent filmmakers working with Masters, for free online at They’ll also be shown on the big screen at select Alamo Drafthouse locations Monday, Aug. 28.

HEB wildlife films

Ben Masters checks his camera on an East Foundation ranch in South Texas. Pam LeBlanc photo

“Batsies,” tells the story of two female biologists working to save bats that are inexplicably drawn to wind turbines. Acoustic deterrents work for some species but not others.

Read more: Watch Alaska’s grizzlies fatten up during Fat Bear Week

“If we can understand why, maybe we can do a better job of getting them out of that airspace,” says one of the biologists in the film.

“Redfish Revival” explains how a small group of anglers helped bring back the state’s population of redfish, which had dropped precipitously in the 1970s.

View the series trailer here.  




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After 600 miles of Arctic paddling, Austin paddler Jimmy Harvey to head home

After 600 miles of Arctic paddling, Austin paddler Jimmy Harvey to head home

Jimmy Harvey

A double rainbow formed one day while Jimmy Harvey was paddling in the Arctic. Jimmy Harvey photo

Veteran Austin paddler Jimmy Harvey is heading home, leaving German endurance paddler Freya Hoffmeister to finish her roughly 1,000-mile kayak trek through the western Arctic on her own.

Hoffmeister had invited Harvey to join her on the expedition, one segment in her quest to paddle around all of North America, a section at a time. If Hoffmeister completes the circumnavigation, which she started in 2017 and paused during the pandemic, she’ll add it to a list of accomplishments that includes paddling around Iceland, the South Island of New Zealand, Australia, and South America.

The paddlers had not met in person before the trek began. They flew into Vancouver and departed Tuktoyaktuk, on the western edge of the Northwest Passage, in mid-July.

Jimmy and Freya

Freya Hoffmeister and Jimmy Harvey have paddled more than 600 miles in the Arctic this summer. Photo by Jimmy Harvey

As they paddled along remote coastlines, bowhead whales arched out of the sea and caribou picked their way along grassy stretches of shore. Polar bears never made an appearance, but the paddlers saw two dead grizzlies. They also encountered mostly smooth water and no ice, although they hit some chop during one 14-hour bay crossing.

It took them 18 days to cover the first 310 miles to the community of Paulatuk. There, they picked up gear and spent two nights before launching again Aug. 2.

The two paddlers didn’t face any big crossings as they paddled the next 300-plus miles toward Kugluktuk, but stiff winds pinned them down for five days at one point. They stayed inside their tent and read, unable to paddle.

“She has a really good system, but it’s not exactly the way I’d do it in bear country,” Harvey said by phone from Kugluktuk today.

The two covered about 25 miles a day when they could paddle and reached Kugluktuk on Aug. 23. They originally planned to push on to Cambridge Bay together, but Harvey opted out. The beauty of the Arctic, he said, comes from its vast size, variation in water color, and solitude. But in the end, the paddlers’ personality conflicts became too much.

“That’s the whole thing. The fun wore off really, really fast and that’s the biggest reason I’m leaving,” Harvey said. “Why go on? It’s just drudgery through beauty.”

Hoffmeister departed for Cambridge Bay today. If all goes well, she should reach Cambridge Bay by mid- to late September. Temperatures already are beginning to drop in the Arctic, and ice will form again soon.

Jimmy Harvey

A ship rusts on the shoreline in the Arctic. Photo by Jimmy Harvey

Harvey hopes to spend a few more days in the region, fishing for Arctic char. Afterward he’ll go to Vancouver to visit friends before returning to Austin.

He’ll be coming back lighter than when he left, thanks to so many days of non-stop paddling.

“I can probably put on my high school blue jeans,” he says.



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At the Root Beer Barrel, get hotdogs and soda from a giant barrel-shaped stand

At the Root Beer Barrel, get hotdogs and soda from a giant barrel-shaped stand

Root Beer Barrel Michigan

The Root Beer Barrel in Douglas, Michigan, opened in 1952 but sat empty for 25 years. Pam LeBlanc photo

​Hotdogs taste better when you order them from a roadside stand shaped like a giant barrel, as I learned when I stopped at the Root Beer Barrel in Douglas, Michigan.

The stand, built in the 1950s, closed in the mid-1970s. It stood vacant for 25 years, its wooden staves rotting and weeds growing at its feet.

The owner planned demolish it, but the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society stepped in. The organization purchased the oversized barrel for $1.

Chris LeBlanc Michigan

Chris LeBlanc ordered a hotdog at the Root Beer Barrel. Pam LeBlanc

Rebuilding the Barrel

A Save the Barrel campaign ensued, and fans of the former root beer and hotdog stand pitched in more than $11,000 to refurbish the roadside attraction.

Read more: Taste fireweed and spruce tips at this awesome ice cream shop in Alaska

Restoration began in 2011. Volunteers removed lead paint, dismantled the pieces, and moved it to a workshop. There, the long wooden strips that form the barrel’s walls were repaired, sanded, and sealed. A new steel base ring was crafted, too.

The stand reopened in 2016 and today caters to beachgoers on their way to nearby Oval Beach.

I ordered a root beer float and a chili cheese dog, and ate them at a wooden picnic table in the shadow of the towering barrel.

When the concession stand first opened, customers could buy a regular hotdog for a quarter, a hamburger for 35 cents, a foot-long hotdog for 40 cents, a root beer for a dime, or a float for 20 cents.

You’ll pay more today, but it’s still worth it for the smile.

The Root Beer Barrel is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Douglas Michigan

The Root Beer Barrel in Douglas, Michigan, serves root beer and hotdogs. Pam LeBlanc photo

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Watch Alaska’s bears fatten up and vote on your favorite during Fat Bear Week

Watch Alaska’s bears fatten up and vote on your favorite during Fat Bear Week

Fat Bear Week

Grizzly bears congregate at Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park to fish for salmon in July 2023, in preparation for Fat Bear Week. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’ve long dreamed about watching grizzly bears snatch salmon swimming upstream to spawn, so my recent visit to Katmai National Park in Alaska ranks as one of the best days of my life.

After taking a 30-minute bear education class at the park (“Do not cheer when a bear catches a salmon”), I got to ogle real-live grizzlies, in the wild, gorge themselves on the foot-long fish.

Fat Bear Week

Bears fish for salmon at Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park in Alaska in July 2023. Pam LeBlanc photo

Two big bears perched on the falls, using their thumb-sized toenails to snag leaping fish. A third sat in the churning water below, waving its furry, anvil-shaped head back and forth looking for salmon. All around, bears stuck their heads underwater, looking for dinner, then belly flopped on top of them to stun them. The captured fish were quickly shucked, like corn on the cob, and eaten with glee.

Roughly 2,200 bears live at Katmai National Park, about 170 miles west of Anchorage. Starting in June, many of those bears congregate at Brooks Falls, where they eat dozens of fish a day and pack on weight for their upcoming hibernation.

If you can’t make it to Alaska, you can still watch the action via live stream cameras at And in a few months, you’ll be able to help pick the champion of the annual Fat Bear Week competition.
The bears I saw two weeks ago are relatively slim compared to what they look like by the time the single elimination bracket contest kicks off in October.

Fat Bear Week

A bear eats a salmon at Katmai National Park, which hosts a Fat Bear Week competition in October. Pam LeBlanc photo

Tune in for Fat Bear Week

Over the course of seven days, and concluding on Fat Bear Tuesday, people around the world can pick which bear should get the Fat Bear crown.

Read more: I tasted spruce tip and fireweed icecream at this Anchorage icecream shop

The online contest started in 2014 but has boomed in popularity since then. In 2021, nearly 800,000 votes were cast, according to park officials, who say the contest celebrates fat bears and Katmai’s healthy ecosystem.

That fat is important. The bears spend all winter in a den, where they don’t eat or drink and shed up to a third of their body weight. To survive, they have to eat a year’s worth of food in six months, according to the park’s website.

Katmai National Park

A bear jumps on a salmon at Katmai National Park. Pam LeBlanc photo

At Katmai they can do just that.

Dates of this year’s tournament style bracket have not yet been announced. Check for updates at

Besides the main Fat Bear contest, rangers have added a Fat Bear Junior bracket for what they call “chubby cubbies.” Online chats and events are also part of Fat Bear Week.

One of the contest’s perennial favorite, Otis, who has won the competition four times, showed up late this year, sparking worry among fans, who are quick to comment on a text thread beneath the livestream of bears feeding at the falls. He finally made an appearance in late July, to the relief of observers.

Last year’s winner, Bear 747, aka Bear Force One, weighed an estimated 1,400 pounds as voting wrapped up.

According to rangers, males weigh 700 to 900 pounds in mid-summer. During the peak salmon run, they’ll eat 30 or more fish a day, adding more several hundred pounds to their frames. By fall they’ll tip the scales at 1,200 pounds or more.



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