A 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.
“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.
“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.”
starlink for weather updates
utube channels skote outdoors