A few days ago, a whale as big as a Suburban rose out of the water next to Robert Youens, gazing at him with a softball-sized eye for a moment before sliding out of sight.
The whale, probably a bowhead, didn’t flip Youens’ 16-foot aluminum boat, and after the 68-year-old Austin man recovered from the surprise, he kept motoring through the chilly waters of the Northwest Passage.
Youens, 68, a retired outdoor power equipment sales manager, is 700 miles into a roughly 4,200-mile solo out-and-back trip through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago this summer. So far, he says he’s having “the full Arctic experience.”
He called me last night from a hotel in Kuglugtuk, a small hamlet where he’s spending a few days waiting out windy weather. (I first met him in 2008, when he paddled a canoe 2,000 miles down the Mississippi River.) The connection broke up, but even without seeing him I could picture the grin spread across his face.
“You can’t explain the beauty, the colors,” he told me. “There are rainbows everywhere and fog all around.”
From Austin to the Arctic
Youens left Austin in late July, taking a week to drive from Texas to Tuktoyaktuk, on the western side of Canada’s Northwest Territories. He launched his boat Aug. 3 and began motoring eastward, covering between 100 and 150 miles a day on his way toward Baffin Bay. Along the way, he’s stopping to explore communities and meet locals.
“The thing I love is seeing the kids out fishing, visiting with families, and being invited for dinner,” Youens says. “These people are the sweetest, nicest people.”
One family gave him five pounds of dried white fish meat, which he ate for breakfast with coffee the next day. Yesterday he attended several court hearings at the regional courthouse and stopped by the healthcare center to get to know the community.
The daily routine
When he’s underway, he sleeps on his boat at night, snapping a tent over the deck. Temperatures so far have hovered in the 50s during the day and 40s at night, although they’ll likely drop as summer winds down and he gets farther north and east.
He eats dehydrated meals, potted meat, cheese, oatmeal, and bread, stopping where he can for supplies, which aren’t cheap. Soda was selling for $40 a 12-pack in one town (he went without), and gas – which he had to buy – cost $2.56 a liter, or more than $9.50 per gallon. His fuel consumption varies between 5 and 11 miles per gallon, depending on sea conditions.
Youens has navigated past 30-foot icebergs and spent three hours one day picking his way through sea ice and thick fog.
“I was laughing out loud as I was going through that ice, thinking how blessed I was having this opportunity,” he said.
He hasn’t spotted any polar bears yet (they are more common farther east,) but he has seen seals, which get up as high as they can to observe him.
He’s had waves break over side of his boat, which is equipped with two large bilge pumps, too. He tries to avoid traveling if seas are higher than 2 feet but got caught in rough conditions one day.
“For 14 hours I had my hand on the tiller,” he says.
Connecting with the Arctic Cowboys
At some point, Youens hopes to intercept a group of fellow Texans out adventuring. The Arctic Cowboys – expedition leader West Hansen and long-time paddling partner Jeff Wueste, who know Youens – hope to become the first to kayak the entire Northwest Passage in one season. They’re paddling the opposite direction as Youens and moving only under their own power. They’ve paddled 162 miles so far, but are pinned down due to bad weather and don’t expect to move again until Sunday or Monday.
Youens hopes to check on the Cowboys, continue to Baffin Bay, then turn around and retrace his route. He’ll provide any support the Cowboys need, then drive their kayaks back to Texas when they finish, presumably in late September or early October.
“It’ll all change,” he says. “It’s an expedition.”