Smashing waves, gale-force winds and logistical complications have cut short the Arctic Cowboys attempt to kayak the entire Northwest Passage in a single season.
The team made it 260 miles in 17 days before making the call to stop in Arctic Bay, where they had gone to get more fuel for their camp stove and charge electronics.
Forecasts call for several upcoming rounds of bad weather that would have forced delays in an expedition already pushed back by storms and other issues. That, coupled with a slower paddling pace than anticipated and difficulty arranging a food drop, prompted them to cut their losses.
“The prudent thing was to bow out now and come back another time,” expedition leader West Hansen said this morning by phone from the small hamlet in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. “It’s still quite doable, but we have to adjust for more down days for the next attempt.”
Disappointed but pragmatic, Hansen and veteran paddler Jeff Wueste spent the morning enjoying steak and egg breakfast tacos made by the owner of a local guiding company and plotting their departure late next week.
Rough conditions in the Northwest Passage
Going into the expedition, Hansen had predicted the team would cover an average of 37 miles a day over their roughly 2,100-mile route, beginning at Button Point at the edge of Baffin Bay and paddling southwest to the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. But because wind and waves made forward progress difficult, and weather pinned them down for multiple days, they averaged less than 20 miles per day. Their goal of finishing in late September or early October, before freezing weather set in, began to evaporate.
“I’m going to consider this a little training run,” Wueste said.
Instead of one day “weathered out” for every two days of forward progress, they should have planned on two days down for every two days forward, he said. “Rather than 60 days, it’s really more like a 90-day trip.”
Because some ice-clogged passageways along the route don’t typically break up until August, the window for making the trip is narrow.
Challenges along the route
The two said they were prepared for the cold temperatures, but the rough seas made paddling slower than they had expected. This weekend’s forecast convinced them that now was the time to stop – otherwise they’d have more than a month of paddling before the next bail-out point.
“Having to sit in a tent or cabin and wait out 50 mph winds is not that big of a problem, but the bigger issue was losing days we could be paddling,” Hansen said.
The team faced challenges from the beginning. They were delayed for a week in Ottawa after crossing the border, and then spent a week in Pond Inlet finalizing permits and waiting out bad weather. Two days after they launched on Aug. 2, teammate Rebekah Feaster dropped out due to extreme motion sickness caused by the waves.
“Being without a third you have a lower safety factor,” Hansen said. “It’s easier for two people to rescue one person than one to rescue one.”
They had other setbacks – the type of fuel they needed for their stove wasn’t available in Arctic towns, so they had to switch to a different cook system. One day they left some gear behind and had to circle back to retrieve it. Landings were scarce along the cliff-lined shore, so they had to decide each day if they should camp at an available spot, or push on, not knowing how many miles before the next potential stopping point.
Despite the rough conditions, Hansen says he never felt that they were in danger of flipping their boats. “The kayaks were solid as a rock, but forward progress was hampered by strong headwinds and waves,” he said.
The low point came on days they couldn’t make their mileage. “You could see the timeline goal just backing up, backing up, backing up,” Wueste said. “But there’s nothing you can do, because Mother Nature is the tour guide.”
The beauty of the Northwest Passage
But Mother Nature also shared some incredible sites. The paddlers will take home memories of windswept hills, sea caves, and rocky shorelines, plus expanses of soft, green grass dotted with tiny flowers that smell vaguely of jasmine.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous up here,” Hansen said. “And the water isn’t just aquamarine, it’s labradorite. It’s a beautiful blue-green and you can see clear down to the bottom, when the waves aren’t kicking. And the ice is all these shades of light and dark blue.”
They saw a polar bear high-tail it away from them in the water one day. Pods of beluga whales splashed past, seals popped up their heads, and a curious fox hovered on the outskirts of camp. Waterfalls spilled over 500-foot cliffs. They saw towering rock formations and, one foggy morning, inadvertently glided within 50 yards of a glacier.
For now, they’ll store their kayaks in Arctic Bay in anticipation of another attempt.
“The money spent here was the price of the education,” Wueste said. “You’re not successful if you’re dead, so we’ll come back and fight another day.”
In the week they have before they head home, they plan to learn more about the local culture.
“It’s been really wonderful meeting and getting to know some of the Inuit folks, seeing the area and learning their traditions,” Hansen said.