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.
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.
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.
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.”