West Hansen and Jimmy Harvey paddle Lady Bird Lake on a rare snowy day in Austin, Texas. Pam LeBlanc photo
West Hansen wriggled into a dry suit Monday, squeezing his head and wrists through tight gaskets designed to keep out water, then snapped a neoprene spray skirt into place before climbing into his torpedo-shaped kayak.
Hansen, who is gearing up to lead a kayaking expedition across the Northwest Passage later this year, wanted to test out his cold weather equipment. That meant loading an 18-foot Epic sea kayak covered with half a foot of snow onto his vehicle and heading to Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin, where he tugged on a knit hat and attached pogies – insulated mittens that look like oven mitts – to his double-blade paddle.
Everything went as planned, and Hansen and fellow Arctic Cowboy Jimmy Harvey logged a couple of hours of urban paddling on one of the coldest days in Austin history. Temperatures hovered in the 20s as the two slid their boats into the water near Austin High School, paddled up to Loop 1 (MoPac), blew down to Congress Avenue, then glided into Barton Creek, where steam rose off the water surface and snow clung to branches arched overhead.
Chances are, the temperatures they braved in Austin yesterday were colder than what they’ll face during their expedition, tentatively planned for summer 2021. High temperatures in Tuktoyaktuk, at the western edge of their 1,900-mile route, average about 61 in July. Temperatures in Pond Inlet, near the eastern edge of the route, are colder, about 52 degrees.
“Our faces were a little cold, but other than that it was nice and toasty,” Hansen said of yesterday’s shake out.
West Hansen pulls on the top of his dry suit. Pam LeBlanc photo
Jimmy Harvey prepares to paddle. The insulated mittens attached to his paddle are called “pogies.” Pam LeBlanc photo
There will be differences, though. The winds in the Arctic will probably be stronger, creating colder wind chills, and the wildlife more dangerous. The Cowboys will likely encounter polar bears, which can smell their prey a kilometer away and swim up to 6 mph, as they kayak across the passage. They could also face orcas, storms and cracking sea ice.
Hansen hasn’t determined yet which direction they’ll make the roughly two-month trip. That will depend on how quickly the ice breaks up as summer begins, and how soon the Canadian government allows access into Nunavut, populated by the native Inuit people. And that all depends on how well Covid vaccine rollout goes.
“We’re gearing up as if we’re going, communicating with the Canadian government, and reaching out to different scientific organizations that need testing done to link with them,” Hansen said. “We’re treating it as if we’re going, and hopefully in next few months things will change with Covid.”
West Hansen and Jimmy Harvey paddle Barton Creek in downtown Austin on Feb. 15, 2021. Pam LeBlanc photo
Hansen, who became the first person to paddle 4,200 miles from a newly discovered source of the Amazon River to the sea in 2012, doesn’t seem worried about the potential hazards. He endured colder conditions in Russia in 2014, when he and Jeff Wueste, the third member of the Arctic Cowboys team, paddled the entire Volga River. And river bandits, whitewater rapids and an injured shoulder didn’t stop his Amazon trip.
As for the nippy Austin run?
“It was nice,” he said. “And we saw a cross country skier.”
That skier was gliding along the Butler Trail around Lady Bird Lake as they pulled their boats out.
West Hansen and Jimmy Harvey launch their kayaks near Austin High School on Feb. 15, 2021. Pam LeBlanc photo