West Hansen, leader of the Arctic Cowboys expedition, paddles into the surf at Padre Island National Seashore on Aug. 23, 2019. Pam LeBlanc photo

The Arctic Cowboys, a trio of Austin-based paddlers, still hope to kayak the Northwest Passage this summer – if the Canadian government re-opens access to the remote region.

Expedition leader West Hansen, who paddled the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River in Russia two years later, will lead fellow paddlers Jimmy Harvey and Jeff Wueste through the 1,900-mile passage, which Is fraught with dangers like polar bears, shifting sea ice and storms.

For now, though, the pandemic tops his list of concerns.

“I’m not so worried about ice and weather – we’re worried about vaccination rollout,” Hansen said recently. He was held at gunpoint multiple times in the Amazon and didn’t let nuisances like injuries, narcotraffickers, refrigerator-sized boulders that rained over a cliff top, or jungle rot deter him.

Because Hansen works with elderly patients as a social worker, he has already been vaccinated against the virus. But the land border between the United States and Canada remains closed to Americans for non-essential travel, and Canadian officials recently extended a ban on foreign pleasure craft and cruise ships in all Canadian Arctic waters until February 2022, due to concerns about the spread of Covid-19. (You can read all the details at https://travel.gc.ca/travel-covid/travel-restrictions/border).

“Everything is kind of tenuous since we’re not allowed in Canada yet,” Hansen said. “The restrictions were extended in February until February 2022, but we know Canada is taking a lot of steps toward vaccinating the (native people in the Arctic region) and we’re making big changes here, so every few weeks the situation changes. We’re hoping that Canada, by summer, will loosen restrictions.”

Jimmy Harvey, West Hansen and Jeff Wueste, shown here after paddling the Colorado River in early 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo

Hansen hasn’t determined yet which direction the team will make the roughly two-month trip, which the paddlers are funding themselves. That will depend on how quickly the ice breaks up as summer begins, and how soon the Canadian government allows foreigners into the sparsely populated Nunavut region in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Hansen is also considering adding a fourth paddler to the kayak team. “If one person drops out before or during the expedition, it gives us more of a buffer,” Hansen said. “It’s such a desolate area that two people is not the safest way to go. To hedge our bets, we thought we’d aim for four.”

The team plans to launch the kayaks in late June or early July. That timing will determine whether they paddle east to west or west to east.

“It’ll depend on sea ice breakup and when we’re allowed to go up there,” Hansen said. “We can begin the expedition launch as late as mid- to late July.”

High temperatures in Tuktoyaktuk, at the western edge of the route Hansen plans to follow, average about 61 degrees in July. In Pond Inlet, to the east, they hover at about 52 degrees. But temperatures start dropping quickly in September and October, so if the team launches later in the summer, they’ll go from east to west, knocking out the colder stretches of the route first, before they freeze up.

Stay tuned to follow my live and independent coverage of the expedition as it unfolds.


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