After four days of waiting out gale force winds, the Texas-based trio of paddlers known as the Arctic Cowboys are poised to launch their attempt to kayak the entire Northwest Passage.
“Winds have died down. Water is clear of ice and all lights are green for us,” expedition leader West Hansen said this morning from the small Inuit community of Pond Inlet on the western side of Baffin Bay, where the team arrived last week.
If all goes as planned, they’ll head out on their roughly 2,100-mile expedition tonight. At about 9 p.m. EDT, a local resident will shuttle the paddlers – Hansen, 60, along with teammates Jeff Wueste, 62, and Rebekah Feaster, 31 – and their gear two-and-a-half hours by boat to Button Point, a small outcropping on Bylot Island at the western edge of Baffin Bay. They’ll either start paddling at about midnight, or overnight in a small cabin at the point and officially launch Tuesday morning.
Darkness won’t deter them. The sun doesn’t set this time of year in the Arctic, and as they make their way south and west, they’ll paddle based on how they feel and how many miles they’ve covered, instead of just by daylight. (See their route here.)
Along the way, they’ll face a slew of challenges, including drifting chunks of ice, storms, frigid water, and, potentially, polar bears. The team is carrying bear spray, a bear horn, flares, an electric fence to set up around camp, and a 12-gage shotgun for protection.
Northwest Passage kayaking expedition details
Hansen expects the expedition – his third after a 2012 expedition down the entire Amazon River and a 2014 trek down the entire Volga River, both with Wueste – to take about two months.
The kayakers plan to cover about 40 miles a day this time out. If all goes well, they’ll reach Tuktoyaktuk, a small hamlet in the Inuvik region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, by late September. (Track them here.) If the expedition pushes into October, Hansen says the team has the cold weather paddling experience needed to handle it.
“As we’ve shown in Russia, we can paddle in snow and ice conditions,” he says. “We don’t see that happening, but if it does, we’re good for the last couple hundred miles.”
About two weeks into the 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 drift ice that could act as kayak-wrecking torpedoes. Somewhere in that area, they should encounter fellow Austin adventurer Robert Youens, who is attempting to cross the Northwest Passage – heading the opposite direction – in a jon boat. He’ll provide any needed support to the Cowboys, who have also shipped boxes of resupply goods to a point farther along their route.
Other attempts have failed
Unlike other paddlers who have attempted to traverse the Northwest Passage in a single season, the Arctic Cowboys are starting in the northeast and heading southwest, so they cover the coldest, iciest, and most difficult sections of the journey first. If they’d gone the other direction, they could have been turned back by ice-clogged passages just as they neared the finish, Hansen says.
His theory will be tested this season. Another adventurer, 50-year-old Karl Kruger, of Orcas Island, Washington, who hopes to become the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage by standup paddleboard, is traveling the opposite direction. He launched on July 24 and said this week that the navigation is difficult with so few landmarks and constant daylight.
Unplanned delays and exploring the culture
The Arctic Cowboys’ launch this week can’t come soon enough for Hansen, Wueste and Feaster, who left Austin to drive to Canada on July 15, then got delayed in Ottawa for a week due to complications shipping their gear farther north. That pause tacked $10,000 in unexpected hotel, meal, shipping, and flight expenses onto the expedition tab, which Hansen initially estimated at about $45,000. (To donate, go here.)
After arriving in Pond Inlet on July 25, the team spent a few days finalizing permits and fine-tuning gear. Then the bad weather set in. They’ve been pinned down in an apartment provided by locals while they wait out the winds, which are predicted to ease tonight.
That lag time gave the paddlers a chance to experience some of the local culture. The landscape is desolate but beautiful, they say, with no trees and lots of dirt, rocks, and fields of stubby grass and small flowers. Chunks of ice are floating in Eclipse Sound, just offshore. The town itself, whose population is about 1,500, consists of a scattered collection of ramshackle but sturdy buildings.
“(The ice) is kind of cool to look at,” Hansen says. “The water is very placid and there are big snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the distance.”
They’ve also been tuning into a Canadian comedy called Letterkenny, and sampling local fare like caribou, narwhal, Arctic char, and a type of traditional flatbread called bannock. “Narwhal is a bit chewy,” Hansen says. “We ate it raw, and it tasted good, but after chewing a while you just have to swallow gristle. The caribou – I loved it. It’s like venison but less gamey, and very rich.”
Temperatures have hovered in the mid- to upper 40s – more comfortable than the sizzling heat the team left behind in Texas, and, according to Hansen, perfect for kayaking. Forecasts call for a continued warming trend into the month of August, too, which should work in the team’s favor. Already, leads – or narrow gaps in the ice through which the kayakers can squeeze – are opening along their route.
“We feel really good,” Hansen says. “There’s less ice along our pathway now than there was a week ago.”
Once they pass Bylot Island in the next few days, the islands that make up the Canadian Arctic Archipelago will provide more protection from storms blowing in off Greenland and Baffin Bay, reducing the likelihood of more weather delays.
“If we get through the first month, we’re home free, pretty much,” Hansen says.
Ready to start the Northwest Passage kayaking expedition
As for now, the paddlers are antsy, and eager to get moving.
“I’m worn out. Honestly, I need to get out there and start camping to charge my batteries,” Hansen says.
Feaster and Wueste second that notion.
“We’ve kind of been going stir crazy over the last week, and I’m just ready to get on the water and do it,” Feaster says, adding that she’s looking forward to seeing things most people will never see, like narwhals, seals, beluga whales, and orca in the wild.
“This is so beautiful and so different than anything I’ve paddled in before,” Wueste says. “This ice paddling is going to be new to all of us … but I say we have the best watercraft for this kind of travel in these conditions.”
With the permits secured, the paperwork finished, the boats rigged, and the duffels loaded, the Arctic Cowboys are inches away from doing what they came here to do – dip their paddles into the chilly Arctic water for hours at a time.
“We’ve made amazing progress starting in Austin, Texas, and now we’re staring at the Northwest Passage,” Hansen says.