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.
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.
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.