Eight-person team rowing the Northwest Passage calls it quits

Eight-person team rowing the Northwest Passage calls it quits

Northwest Passage

A team led by Leven Brown attempting to row through the Northwest Passage called it quits this week. Photo by Shawn Marriott

An eight-person team trying to row through the Northwest Passage in a single season has called it quits in Cambridge Bay, roughly the midway point of the 2,000-mile expedition.

The team, led by Leven Brown, started rowing at Pond Inlet, on the eastern edge of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, on Aug. 17, after a month-long motor-assisted transit from Scotland. This weekend, they rowed into Cambridge Bay under their own power, with an escort from Canadian Coast Guard officials. Locals there advised them to stop and come back next year to finish their attempt.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Brown said by phone Monday. “We’ve decided to call it a day. Some may say it’s a bit cautious, but we’ll be back next summer.”

Brown, 51, heads home this week 60 pounds lighter than when he started, and with plenty of adventure stories to share.

Northwest Passage

Leven Brown, leader of an eight-person team trying to row the Northwest Passage, ended the expedition this week. Photo courtesy Leven Brown

Just getting to the starting point proved challenging. The ice around Pond Inlet broke up late this season, and big winds threatened to drive the team’s 44-foot boat onto the floes.

“The expedition almost ended before it started,” Brown said.

Read more:Yippeekiyay! Arctic Cowboys at it again for second attempt at kayaking Northwest Passage

One of three teams looking for a record

The team was trying to become the first to row the passage in a single season. Two other teams made similar attempts this year – the Texas-based Arctic Cowboys have kayaked more than half the passage so far and are still paddling, and solo rower Matty Clarke ended his expedition after mechanical failures a few days ago, 150 miles from Gjoa Haven

“We knew because of our late start we were up against it from the start,” Brown said of his team’s attempt. “And once we got rowing, the winds were extremely vicious.”

The operational window of the team’s rowboat, named Hermione, is between 0 and 25 knots. “Anything above that we start going sideways and it’s hard to navigate,” Brown said.

Read more: Solo rower reaches midway point of Northwest Passage expedition

The team used an electric motor several times to reposition the boat when it slipped off its anchorage in the middle of the night.

“We’re not hiding the fact that we switched the motor on, but it certainly didn’t help us move forward,” Brown said.

Adventures along the way

Brown’s team was made up of seven men and one woman. They rowed in shifts, two hours on and two off, whenever conditions allowed. They rarely went ashore, except to occasionally set an anchor line.

They did stop at Fort Ross, site of the last trading post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company, for a break. “You could almost feel ghosts of previous explorers surrounding you in the cabin there,” Brown said. “It was intimidating and inspiring at the same time.”

It’s also where one of the more frightening moments of the expedition unfolded.

“A skinny, hungry-looking polar bear looked at us as if we were chicken nuggets,” Brown said. “We’re certainly not used to these in Scotland. We ended up having to scare it off.”

The bear stood its ground as the rowers clanked rocks. The bear flattened its body against the ground and hid behind rocks, occasionally popping its head up to check out the humans. Finally, the rowers shot a firearm to spook the bear away. Even so, it moved slowly, Brown said.

Brown’s team members – seven men and one woman – ranged in age from 26 to 68. They came from Barbados, the Faroe Islands, South Africa, Scotland, and England. Despite the long time spent in a small craft with two cramped cabins, the rowers generally got along, Brown said.

“Everybody has a funny five minutes because you’re cold, you’re wet, you’re tired, the food’s miserable and you’re missing home,” Brown said. “But I’m so proud of the team. They rowed like heroes.”

Brown says he’s still unsure who called the Coast Guard to check on them but says he’s grateful for the assist.

“It’s still a little bit of a mystery as to who called them,” Brown said. “It wasn’t us, but it might have been concerned family or friends.”

Hat tip to the Arctic Cowboys

As for the Arctic Cowboys, the Texas-based team of four kayakers still paddling, Brown says he wishes them well. No matter who makes it through the passage under human power first, he says, the message is the same.

“The ice is disappearing, and the environment is different up here,” Brown said. “If someone can get through in single season, it speaks volumes about what’s going on.”


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Celebration of Life planned for Flo, the leaning tree at Barton Springs

Celebration of Life planned for Flo, the leaning tree at Barton Springs


Flo, the famous Barton Springs tree, has a fungus and must be removed. Photo courtesy City of Austin

Flo leans like graceful dancer, a leafy cascade of branches bent low over the edge of Barton Springs Pool.

The old Texas pecan tree has been dipping down the hillside since at least 1928, providing shade to bathers and gnarled beauty to the grounds of Austin’s favorite spring-fed pool.

But she’s sick, and on Sept. 14, crews will remove the long-leaning tree from the park. Before she goes, though, Flo is getting a grand send-off from the people – and city – who love her most.

A Celebration of Life for the beloved Barton Springs tree is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13. A water blessing is planned, along with time for her friends to say their farewells.

History of the beloved Barton Springs tree

Barton Springs Pool

Barton Springs makes a fine place to cool off on a hot summer day. You can see Flo at the center of this photo. Pam LeBlanc photo

Over the years, Flo has drawn a lot of attention. Photos from the 1920s show a nimble young Flo, her branches stretching toward the sky, in front of the original wooden bathhouse. By the late 1940s, after a limestone building had replaced the wooden bathhouse, part of Flo’s trunk was hollowing out. At some point, bricks were place in that cavity.

In the 1970s, crews replaced the bricks with a cement mixture, a practice now known to speed internal decay, according to the city’s website. At the time, crews also planted another pecan uphill of Flo to replace the canopy that eventually would be lost.

Through the years steel posts have been added to hold Flo steady. Cables also provide support. A fence was put up around the tree’s roots to reduce soil compaction from foot traffic.

A grim diagnosis for the Barton Springs tree

But this July, Austin Parks and Recreation Department staff noticed fungus at the base of the tree. They took a sample and sent it to a diagnostic lab at Texas A&M University for analysis. In August, the lab confirmed that the tree had Kretzschmaria deusta, or brittle cinder fungus.

There is no effective treatment for brittle cinder fungus, which feeds on live tissue. Healthy-looking trees can collapse under their own weight.

The city contracted with independent certified arborists for follow-up inspections and independent opinions. All four arborists recommended removing the tree due to safety concerns. A removal permit was issued.

If the tree came down naturally, it probably would damage the deck, parks officials say. And a roped off area around Flo prevents ADA access to the bathroom. The barriers extend into the pool, causing a sort of water traffic jam as lap swimmers try to get around the danger zone.

The city is collecting stories, memories, and photos of Flo. Share your remembrances at treestroies@austintexas.gov.


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Rockstar treatment at W Austin’s Away Spa

Rockstar treatment at W Austin’s Away Spa

Away Spa

Guests can relax in a waiting room at the Away Spa. Pam LeBlanc photo

​You’d probably sooner find a rock star at the Away Spa than me, but when the downtown spot, tucked inside at the W Austin hotel, asked if I wanted to drop by for a treatment, I packed my swim suit and headed downtown.

The hotel is located next to the Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater. I valet parked my vehicle and bee-lined it to the fourth floor, where I slipped through the glass doors into the soothingly lit spa.

I was registered for a “signature massage,” but first I got a tour of the place. An attendant showed me the cozy locker room and sitting area (nice touch with a bowl of crisp green apples) and we peeked into the steam shower. Then she handed me a robe and a pair of plastic slides. A few minutes later, a massage therapist led me to a darkened treatment room.

Away Spa

A bowl of green apples for snacking at the Away Spa. Pam LeBlanc photo

The Away Spa’s signature treatment

The signature massage is a basic, all-over massage. My therapist asked if I was OK with CBD-infused oil (bring it on!) and gave me a minute to strip down and position myself under a sheet on the heated massage table. Some eclectic music played in the background.

Read more: On your way to Big Bend, stop by Ferguson Motors in Sanderson

The next 60 minutes passed as quickly as a Texan driving on a two-lane highway in a remote corner of West Texas. (Too quickly!)

She worked my back, shoulder, legs, and arms, rubbing out muscle kinks and stretching every finger individually. She placed a steamy hot cloth on my back and later wrapped my feet in warm, wet towels. And she rubbed my skin with CBD oil, which smelled vaguely like cloves.

It took some effort not to drool as I lay face down on the table. I drifted away.

When the 60 minutes ended, I felt like a noodle.

More than a spa

I wobbled back to the dressing room, where I stepped into the steam shower and sprayed some eucalyptus-scented potion near the vent, per the instructions posted on the wall. I felt like a koala bear (they love eucalyptus.)

A 60-minute signature massage at the Away Spa will set you back $195. I can’t afford that on a regular basis, but I wish I could.

W Hotel Austin

The Wet Deck at the W Austin features a long skinny pool and cabanas you can rent. Pam LeBlanc photo

A spa treatment includes access to the hotel’s fitness center and long, skinny pool, which I spent a few minutes checking out. It’s got alcoves with cushy couches and the whole place feels like the center of a hip, urban canyon.

W Hotel

A bartender serves guests on the Wet Deck at the W Austin. Pam LeBlanc photo

Anyone can purchase a day pass to access the so-called Wet Deck, where you can pay an additional fee to rent a cabana. A DJ spins music on Sundays and a bartender mixes drinks.

I can’t carry a tune or pluck and instrument, but a couple of hours at the Away Spa left me feeling like a rock star.



About Pam

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At Meow Wolf Denver, step into an alternate reality

At Meow Wolf Denver, step into an alternate reality

Meow Wolf Denver

Visitors at Meow Wolf Denver soak in the neon lights. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’d already stared at spinning wheels and leering clowns in one psychedelic room at Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station in Denver, then teetered through a twisted staircase to get to another. Now I found myself crawling into a subterranean space, gazing through a peep hole at a herd of mechanized buffalo that swayed their heads every time a prairie dog popped into view.

Whoa, I needed a respite.

Meow Wolf Denver

A fantastical fish swims in a globe on a wall at Meow Wolf Denver. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

I found one when I slid into a cubby hole that held what looked like a bottomless pond, where blue and black lights cast rippling reflections on my ankles.

“This is where you can come and sit when you’re having a little LSD freakout,” someone seated next to me said.

I don’t do LSD, but I can tell you that two or three hours spent wandering through the creative explosion of this four-story immersive art exhibit will, as the saying goes, blow your mind.

Meow Wolf

Visitors at Meow Wolf sit on a sofa of books. Pam LeBlanc photo

In a good way, of course.

The place is best visited on an off day in an off season, to avoid crowds. Once there, wander without purpose. You’ll get lost – and that’s the point. Meow Wolf is all about discovering mysterious things, which lurk behind unmarked doors, through mirror-lined passages and beneath the surface of a prairie dog village.

I watched a washing machine filled with bricks spin in an area that resembled a 1970s laundromat. I sat on a couch made of books in a cozy library. I played video games in what looked like a deranged version of a kid-themed pizza joints. The cavernous space is filled with vehicles (this is a transportation station to an alternate reality, after all) like land-locked barges and trucks straight out of Mad Max.

But the best came at the end, when I discovered the Perplexiplex, where ever-changing projections of a fantastical forest swirled across the walls and streaks of light chased me as I walked across the floor.

Meow Wolf Denver

Meow Wolf Convergence Station in Denver will transport you to an alternate reality. Pam LeBlanc photo

I still don’t know how it worked. But that’s OK. At Meow Wolf, you can let your mind go, and see where it takes you.

Meow Wolf operates locations in Santa Fe, Denver, Las Vegas, and, closer to home, in Grapevine, Texas.

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.

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