With less than two weeks until the Arctic Cowboys depart Austin for Canada, where the trio of paddlers will launch an attempt to kayak the Northwest Passage, team leader West Hansen spent part of Friday night sorting gear, sipping wine, and eating tacos.
The tacos could be among his last for the next few months. Hansen, along with veteran Texas paddlers Jeff Wueste and Rebekah Feaster, will eat mainly dehydrated meals, instant oatmeal (not blueberry, thank you) and packets of tuna during their expedition. If they’re successful, they’ll become the first to kayak the entire 1,900-mile route in a single season.
Arctic Cowboys make final preparations to kayak the Northwest Passage
Such an attempt takes detailed planning – and mounds of gear. Yesterday, rows of vacuum-sealed meals, prepared by Hansen’s mother and sisters, covered the kitchen table at Hansen’s Austin home. Packages of noisy flare cartridges called bear bangers, designed to startle polar bears, along with dry bags, packets of tea, a hard-shell case for a shotgun, earplugs, coils of rope, duffle bags, and other essentials were heaped around the room.
“It’s almost all there, it’s just a matter of packing,” Hansen said. “I’ve got to install a pump in my kayak, test it, and put a seat pad in it.”
Hansen has been through these pre-trip preparations before. In 2012, he led an expedition with Wueste to paddle 4,100 miles down the Amazon River, becoming the first to kayak it from its then newly discovered source to the sea. Two years later, they paddled about 2,200 miles down the length of the Volga River in Russia.
The Arctic Cowboys plan to leave Austin July 15. They’ll spend three days driving to Ottawa, Canada, where they’ll catch a flight for Pond Inlet, the predominantly Inuit community on Baffin Island where they will launch their journey. Starting about July 20, they’ll begin paddling south and west, toward Tuktoyaktuk, a small hamlet in the Inuvik region of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
From polar bears to drift ice, a series of challenges
The team plans to cover about 37 miles a day. Along the way they’ll face a slew of challenges, likely to include ice, storms, frigid water, polar bears, and pizzlies, a hybrid of polar and grizzly bears. Along with the bear bangers, they’re bringing bear spray, a loud horn, and, as a last resort, a shotgun.
“It’s pretty rare to get a polar bear attack,” Hansen says. “We just have to keep an eye out for them.”
About two weeks into the roughly eight-week 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 chunks of drift ice that could turn into frozen, boat-wrecking torpedoes.
Hansen won’t be collecting any scientific data during this expedition, but he has other reasons for making the trip. The explorer, who works part-time as social worker at his family’s business in East Texas and part time as a carpenter and construction worker in Austin, says he plans to write a book about the experience and gather footage for a possible documentary.
It’s also about the adventure.
“It’s for me to go out and have fun, get away, maintain my sanity, do something exciting that no one else has ever done, and record one of the last pristine areas on the planet before it becomes a major industrial shipping route,” he says.
A new transportation corridor
He compares the change that’s about to transform the Northwest Passage to what happened in the remote jungles of South America a century ago. Europeans who saw the area in the sixteenth century predicted the potential of creating a transportation corridor. After 19 years of construction, the Panama Canal opened in 1914.
“Conquistadors had the same interest in the Northwest Passage, but no one could see the way through,” Hansen says. “Now, after hundreds of years of ocean transportation, it’s suddenly going to become a reality. It could be this year or next year, it’s that close.”
Hansen predicts that as global warming makes the passage easier to traverse, infrastructure will spring up, changing forever one of the planet’s final frontiers.
“There will be ports, fueling stations, all kinds of industry and support for that,” Hansen says. “We’re going to see it before it changes. At least there will be a record of what existed there before it becomes an industrial wasteland.”
Right now, Hansen says he’s feeling overwhelmed – not about the expedition itself, but about making enough money to keep the bills paid at home while he’s gone.
The trip will cost an estimated $45,000, and so far, the team has secured about $8,000 in cash donations.
“I’m looking forward to it so I can relax,” Hansen says. “After we get in the water. I’ll feel much better. It’ll feel good to get up there.”