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Renewable energy

For me, an expedition like this really does illustrate how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things. I find these sort of trips very humbling as they always expose one’s natural vulnerability to the elements. Yesterday while struggling to push the boat through the water and then later trying to row her into stiff headwinds, my thoughts shifted to my own energy levels and the concept of renewable energy in general.

We have two 12V batteries on board our boat and these are recharged via solar panels on the roofs of both cabins. This is our only source of power on this trip and so far it has worked very well to power our navigational equipment, water maker, laptop and satellite phones.

I’m not an expert on renewable energy (and will never claim to be) but experiencing the raw power of Mother Nature over the past two weeks, I do wonder why we don’t harness renewable energy sources more than we do. Surely there’s a bigger place at our energy table for renewables. Our strategic corporate partner for this expedition is Mainstream Renewable Power, a company that builds wind and solar farms all over the world. The reason they chose their name is because they want to make renewable energy Mainstream.

I’m not just mentioning this to promote Mainstream as a company, I just think it makes sense to use natural resources as much as possible for our power needs. Given the nature of this expedition, my eyes have been opened up significantly over the past 18 months to how rapidly our climate is changing. Regardless of peoples’ opinions on this topic, hopefully our trip helps to promote more discussion on this very important issue, that not only affects all of us, but will impact future generations probably even more. Please do have a look at our climate change petition and add your signature to it. Also feel free to circulate it to any friends and family who you think would be interested.

I’ve just come off my last session on the oars so time to get some sleep and try to recharge my own batteries before my next shift in three hours…….

- Paul

Ups and Downs

Winds remain unabated through the overnight hours. Frank wakes up periodically and slips out of the cabin to see if there’s been any change. By 5:00am there’s a slight easing to our Easterly blow and we decide to make a move. We’re stuck far out on a small islet, fully exposed to wind and weather, with our options few.

Moving towards the mainland is essential for us to garner some lee protection for rowing or a for some beach surface to haul along. This is what it’s come to, clawing forward no matter how preposterous or slow.

Frank and I ferry from our island perch to a series of smaller islets that provide a semblance of protection from the ever present wind. The crossing is exhilarating and fast, dark rollers sweeping beneath our bow, their tips frothing, their valleys deep.

It’s a glorious morning with a wash of radiant ochre bathing everything in an animated glow. On a small islet we notice two large caribou staring intently at us, antlers soaring and provocative, their stance exuding an air of astonishment. We would see countless more caribou over the course of the day, often a forest of antlers being the only hint of the animals in repose.

Caribou small

Our Easterly shifts to a North Easterly and we begin to make some guarded process behind the oars. We make two larger crossings across heaving bays of marching rollers and pull back a little lost mileage. Movement buoys our spirit.

- Kevin

Controlling Our Performance

My last shift with Denis consisted of zero rowing. We started rowing but were making no progress due to the stiff headwinds so we spent three and half hours pushing the boat through the shallow water – we made 5.5 km in four hours. If we had calm conditions, we could row this in one hour with far less effort.

Over this time, my mind began to wander and realizing we can control so little up here, I began thinking about what we can control. My thoughts drifted to things we can do to give ourselves the best chance of moving forward. It’s probably stating the obvious but all we can control is our actions and nothing else. I suppose when you think about it, this is no different from life in general.

How I (or anybody else) performs in life is really down to focusing on what one can control. Whether it’s on this expedition, in my business or just life in general the only thing I can really control are my actions. There are so many things beyond my control so why bother worrying about them – like the actions of others, what anybody says or thinks of me, the economy…….the list is endless but yet it’s so easy to allow things like these occupy our head space.

I know from experience doing a lot of little things right on a consistent basis can yield significant results over time. So for now in my current environment, this means focusing on certain tasks at hand. Like trying to keep clothing as dry as possible, doing things in my “off shift” time to keep my spirits up. Making sure I keep myself well fed and hydrated. Maintain equipment as best we can so that it helps us as we intended.

A small example of this was when I noticed a hole in my dry suit today which was allowing water in. Frank has a repair kit with him for this so we patched that up – that was something we can control. As we are currently stuck on anchor, we all took the opportunity to hang some damp clothes out to dry – this is also something we can control. I know these might sound like little things and probably very obvious but its very important for us at the moment to focus on these things we can control and not allow things that we cannot (like the weather conditions) get the better of us mentally.

The bottom line for us right now is to simply do everything we can to give ourselves the best chance of positive outcomes, this is all we can do and the rest is out of our hands. It definitely adds a certain dimension to this trip, which is kind of cool. I suppose, in a way, the concept of control for us up here in the Arctic is no different than what it is back in Vancouver. Focus on how we as a team perform and results / outcomes will look after themselves…….

- Paul

The Inuit word Quinuituq means ‘deep patience’

We’ve all brought reading material for our journey and good thing too with the forced layovers we’ve been experiencing. Three books of most interest doing the rounds in the cabin are Pierre Berton’s Arctic tome: “The Arctic Grail: the quest for the North West passage and the North Pole 1818-1909″, Bruce Macdonald’s “North Star of Herschel Island” and Barry Lopez’s modern masterpiece of Arctic observation “Arctic Dreams”.

The one concept we’ve gleaned from these books, defined by the simple statement put forward by Lopez, is “to travel in the arctic is to wait”.

Arctic Joule 3

Historical expeditions through the Northwest Passage were always defined by long episodes of waiting, waiting for weather, waiting for ice, waiting for the passage to let them through. Our expedition is no different. And so we wait.

The limiting factor for us – so far anyhow – is not the ice choking the route ahead but rather the wind strafing it. For a vessel under sail or motor the winds hampering us now would be of little consequence. But for our human powered row boat strong easterlies and north easterlies stymy us, claw at our speed, gnaw at our souls.

If I think back to the toughest moments of my expeditions of past, they always seem to revolve around a forced holdup: tent bound just a stone throw from the South Pole, running out of food, running out of time; storm bound on the edge of Bering Sea ice, needing to cross it, it ready to break up; flooded out on a running expedition across South America, almost finished and no route through. All episodes frustrating, all episodes out of our control.

The Arctic takes the concept of the forced wait to an altogether different level, however. You know when a culture and a people have a specific word to describe a specific action, it bears heavily on their life. Southerners have no word like the Inuit word Quinuituq. ‘Deep patience’ is something the Inuit understand, is something they live and now we, as Arctic travellers, are coming to terms with too.  – Paul

Frank walking to shore
Photo:  Frank walking the shore line

Tough going in strong headwinds

With a boat the size of the Arctic Joule wind can be a terrible enemy. The prevailing winds through this section of the Northwest Passage are northwesterlies but to date have been nothing but easterlies and northeasterlies. It makes for tough going at the best of times and no going at the worst.

As we move to the end of the Tuktoyaktuk peninsula and Cape Dalhousie we begin to shift into a more easterly exposure. Our hope is that this will allow us to take advantage of the traditional Northwesterly helping us along somewhat.

Frank hauling 2

But we have a stiff easterly bearing down upon us at the moment and it’s really hampering our progress. On one occasion Frank and I elect to push out to deeper water hoping to find the elusive east moving current that’s supposed to be out there. We’re exposed to the full brunt of a 20km headwind and a negative tidal current as well and are literally pushed backwards, like tissue in the wind.

It’s a frustrating and humbling experience but one that reinforces the limitations of our craft. There’s no question that a smaller vessel like a kayak would fare far better in such wind with less weight and less windage hindering movement but with a smaller vessel comes the disadvantages of limited carrying capacity and sea worthiness. The Arctic Joule tips is close to 1200kgs fully loaded and for the power output – two rowers – exposes lots of surface to the wind. Into a strong blow she simply comes to a stop.

We struggled with this balance in her design and even contemplated building a smaller, non self-righting vessel but decided to build a robust boat up to the task in these waters. We could have made the hull out of a lighter, less robust material, we could have left our 135lb safety raft behind but we decided that to do this adventure right we needed to do it safely.

Approaching an expedition like this in a devil-may-care approach not only exposes the participants to undo risk but also to would-be rescuers who would invariably be called in if something went wrong. The participants have a choice, the rescuers don’t. We aren’t taking this approach.

The Arctic Joule is a strong, sea-worthy vessel that performs excellently under certain conditions and not so well under others. We’ve understood this all along and need to bear with it now when she’s under strain. Tough going now but we keep going.

- Kevin

McKinley Bay: A moment of calm waters, blue skies, beluga whale spotting

The head rose out of the surf with deliberateness and intent, spying on us. The porcelain white form easily breached the water, its bemused expression and bulbous forehead unmistakable: a beluga whale. Our surprise at seeing it was likely matched by its surprise at seeing us, two guys dragging a boat through surf on the Northwest Passage.

The landscape here bespeaks an altogether different world than I know but it’s in moments like this, when a beluga surfaces a mere 20 meters away, that this reality hits home to me.

McKinley Bay moorage small

It’s difficult to discern one day from the next on this journey as our schedule has us moving 24 hours per day when conditions permit. We row for four hours, rest for four hours and repeat until weather or ice interrupt the process. There’s no darkness here either, the sun never sets. Evenings are colder and darker than midday but the ambient daylight even in the middle of the night is adequate to read by. It all takes some getting used to but after living it for the past couple weeks now, it’s becoming a routine.

We move up the coast and for the first time begin to see ice flows appearing on the oceanic landscape. They first appear as oddly shaped profiles on the horizon, elongated and stretched, seeming far bigger than they actually are. This is an example of an interesting phenomenon in the arctic that sees objects on a horizon becoming stretched vertically as if manipulated by a lens to peer over the visual plane. Islands can appear much bigger than they are and at times seem to float above the horizon, dark blobs suspended in space.

The ice first comes in small pans no bigger then 10 meters square but over the course of the day become more frequent and varied in size. We run into one partially submerged chunk the size of a dinner table that gives us an eye-opening thump.

We traverse McKinley Bay in a rare moment of calm, the sea smooth and reflective as a mirror. It’s a magical moment of calm in such an unforgiving environment.

“Ah but cares of tomorrow can wait ’till this day is done’ “.