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Change in the wind

Things change quickly in the arctic. Paul and I finished our midnight shift with Stan’s Northwest Passage still in our minds and handed the oars to Frank and Denis. Time for a little shut-eye after cooking, eating, writing and fixing essentials. Busy times on the boat.

We’re not asleep for long when the heaving and slamming of the boat rouses us from our slumber. I glance through the cabin door to see Frank and Denis rowing intently, faces stern, tempo high. The sea is steep and choppy and the wind is bearing down on us with intent. It’s a far cry than the calm we were experiencing just a few hours ago.

Cabin bound small

When Paul and I take our turn again at the oars forward movement is all but halted. It takes us 90 minutes of rowing in position to realize that our efforts are fruitless. We take refuge in a small bay on the coast and wait for things to change. We’re in the game now.

It begins!

It’s noon on Friday July 5th and we do what we’ve been planning to do for the last year and a half: we start our journey across the Northwest Passage.

Emotions swim in my head as we begin rowing down the mighty Mackenzie River. The obvious elation in realizing a dream is tempered by the reality that this dream will entail lots of hardship and effort. The fact that it’s been an abnormally robust ice year – in recent years – weighs heavily as well. We know if we succeed under such  circumstance our expedition will speak to the reality of climate change even louder still.

Arctic ocean

But before long heavy thoughts give way to the majesty of the environment as we snake our way down the murky brown waters of the Mackenzie, its green walls seemingly impenetrable in their thickness.

We’ve immediately fallen into rowing shifts of 4 hours on and off with Paul and I starting things out. By the end of the first 4 hour effort my body screams to the fact that I’ve been spending far too much time planning for this expedition than training for it. My hands are blistered and my backside sore.
By noon on the 6th we’ve rowed continuously for the past 24 hours with each team of two having rowed 12 hours each. It’s been tiring work but the effort has brought us to the mouth of the Mackenzie opening onto Kugmallit Bay and the Beaufort Sea.

The Mackenzie carries mountains of silt in its waters and deposits much of its load in the delta. Navigation can be very tricky through these murky waters as sand bars lurk everywhere – much of the delta, hundreds of square kilometres in area, is less than 4 feet deep. Our magic number is roughly 2 feet – anything less we’re grounded. And grounded we were, countless times. It got so bad on one occasion that we had to get out and haul The Arctic Joule across a seemingly endless sandbar.

It would take us hours to negotiate the delta but by 1:00 am Sunday morning the sun shined brightly over a calm sea and we were moving up the coast to Tuktoyaktuk, some 60kms to the Northeast.

Listening to my iPod, randomly pulling songs from a 3000+ shuffle mix, Stan Roger’s Northwest Passage comes up to play. I row in calm disbelief as Stan’s anthem unfolds:

“For just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the Sea”

The Drive

The drive from Vancouver to Inuvik is just shy of the distance from Vancouver to Toronto. It’s a 4000km straight shot north – exactly 4000km in fact as we drove one lap around Inuvik on our arrival to ensure we reached the magic number – and is a journey I’d encourage any adventure seeking soul to do once in their lives. The shear length of the trip is a sobering reminder of the vastness of our country and makes one realize that there’s a lot more to Canada that what’s strung along the 49th parallel.Dempster Highway

Our route travels from Vancouver up Highway 1 through mountains and forest to the city of Prince George, right smack in the centre of British Columbia. From here it’s northwards on the Alaskan Highway to Fort Nelson – a remote, wild section of road affording large critter sightings from bear to buffalo to moose seemingly around every bend – and onto Whitehorse, Yukon the ‘big city’ gateway to the mighty Yukon River.

Pushing ever northwards our route takes us into gold rush history as we pay a visit Dawson City, YK and the terminus of our blacktop. Just a few kilometres shy of the tiny Klondike community is the start of the infamous Dempster Highway, a 750 km tire eating, vehicle destroying gravel and slate road road that boldly pushes northwards through the the mountains and wilderness of the Canadian north. It’s just after halfway that our location final hits home as we pass a sign stating you’ve now crossed the arctic circle. The Dempster is long, remote and can be downright nasty when it wants. We’re told our single flat tire and punctured power steering column was the road letting us off easy.

Inuvik is cool and windy making us keenly aware that we’ve arrived, that we’ve arrived in the arctic.

And so it begins…

Recently a lot of friends and family have asked us if we’re looking forward to starting the expedition. We haven’t really had time to think about it – there’s simply been too much to do. The perception some might have is that we are four madmen heading off on a wild adventure. The reality is actually quite different, yes there is obviously an element of adventure but for all four of us, there is an enormous amount of meticulous planning that has to be done to just get to the start line.

The past 6 weeks have been very busy on this front. I was in London and Jersey for some speaking engagements in early June, then back to Ireland to see my family, attend a friend’s wedding and do some work with our expedition sponsor Mainstream Renewable Power. All the while trying to get a million things done back in Canada before our departure. I feel so fortunate to be part of such an amazing team of people doing this expedition.

Kevin has been brilliant in getting all of our communication systems set up and liaising with various people and organizations who are helping us with our weather planning. Our communication system is very important as it will enable us to receive forecasts from the Canadian Ice Service. Our system which includes 2 Satellite phones, 1 laptop and an i pad as back up will also allow us to share all aspects of this trip with the outside world over the next 2 to 3 months.

Denis has played an absolute blinder in getting all the finishing touches done on the boat. The final 10% here is so critical as it really does involve a tremendous amount of fine tuning. We have spent a number of weeks altering our rowing set up to try and make it as efficient and as ergonomic as possible. We’ve also added in a back up steering system as well as another solar panel to power our batteries on board. We decided to bring two batteries instead of one which gives us the ability to run our charging system off either battery. Although this means a little extra weight, we felt it more important to prioritize safety over weight. This is a balancing act with everything we have on board, the more weight we have, the heavier the boat is to pull. For example our life raft weighs 135 lbs, that’s a huge amount of additional weight for something we hope to never use but going without one wasn’t an option……better to be looking at it then looking for it!!

Frank has been looking after all the food supplies, equipment, clothing and as an experienced film maker has taken care of everything on that side of things as we’re making a documentary so he has been fantastic too. Amongst our food supply is 960 freeze dried meals, 700 power and chocolate bars, 600 tea bags and a few bottles of good single malt.

So the lads have been very busy over the past few weeks, come to think of it I’m not entirely sure what I’ve been doing but whatever it is time as flown. Training has taken a back seat for the past 2 weeks, we’re not too fused about this as we’ll each be rowing 12 hours a day for the next 2 to 3 months so having a break from training right now is not exactly a bad thing.

The first leg of this journey has now begun, we’re driving our boat 3,700km from Vancouver to our starting point at Inuvik. We shrink wrapped the boat to protect it as 750km of the drive is on the Dempster Highway which isn’t a paved road. We’ve packed multiple spare wheels for both the truck and the boat trailer as we expect to blow a few along the way.

I’m writing this from the back seat of our truck, we’ve just crossed into the Yukon Teritory so we’ve done about 2,000km so far. The landscape up here is incredible and already today we’ve been greeted on our way by Black Bears, Moose and Buffalo. It’s 26 degrees out, CCR are banging out the tunes, Frank is driving, Denis is sleeping and Kevin is taking some photos.

So the scene is set for what will be one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. It’s not necessarily the physical challenge that makes this so difficult but more the cloud of uncertainty that Mother Nature will cast over us on this expedition. We can prepare and train all we like but ultimately she will decide if we make it across the North West Passage or not. How this all plays out we don’t know but I suppose there in lies part of the attraction in attempting something like this. There’s an expression I read many years ago that comes to mind at this moment – “If you wait till your sure, you’ll never do anything……are we sure we’ll pull this off, absolutely not but there’s only one way to find out.

- Paul

Early beginnings and driving north

“Baffin or bust!” The words are scribbled on the white shrink wrap enveloping our boat the Arctic Joule and they ring out to us like a war cry. It’s been such a crazy journey to get where we are now, such a tumultuous roller coaster ride of effort and emotion, that we’re all a little stunned that we’re on our way.

It was over 18 months ago that Paul Gleeson and I sat in a small coffee shop on Commercial Drive in Vancouver tossing around ideas for future expeditions. We’d met a few weeks earlier at an outdoor festival in North Vancouver where we were both presenters. I had learned that Paul was from Limerick, Ireland, the hometown of my parents, and we got chatting about our past adventures. We enjoyed the banter and continued our conversation over coffee a few days later.

Paul had rowed the Atlantic in 2006 in a uniquely designed ocean rowing vessel that allowed him and his partner Tori Holmes to journey for almost three months, totally unsupported, from the Canary Islands to Antigua. The possibilities of his voyage intrigued me for a project I had been musing over for the last decade and a half and I wanted to learn more. Paul himself was fascinated by Antarctica and the South Pole and was equally keen to learn about my journey across that icy wasteland.

It was only at the end of our meeting that I mentioned to him my idea of traversing the Northwest Passage solely under human power in a single season, possibly now in an ocean rowing boat. “Just tossing the idea out there” I remember saying with feigned enthusiasm. “Maybe you’d like to team up?”

At the time I was in the midst of prepping for another adventure (a 1400km ultra-running expedition across the belly of South America called Expreso de los Andes) and didn’t think much of it until I received a call from Paul a week later. “I’ve thought of anything else” he exclaimed, “Let’s do this!. Let’s row the Northwest Passage!”

Commitment was immediate and we decided a team of four would be the ideal size for the effort. We would each chose a teammate to join us, me asking friend, adventurer and documentarian Frank Wolf to join our team and Paul choosing friend and fellow Irishman Denis Barnett to round out our four. Truth be told, Denis would choose Paul as he’d heard about the trip before the call and would text Paul with a simple note “I need this!”

With our team formed we set about the more challenging part of expedition planning: sponsorship acquisition. We’d do this while balancing time with our real life responsibilities of working a full-time job, taking care of a family and following a rigorous exercise program geared to the trip ahead. Life became very busy all of a sudden.

Over the following months we’d spend countless hours targeting appropriate potential partners and crafting proposals that might entice them. Our hopes would build when our proposals were entertained and quashed when they were dismissed. Our fervour in the face of perpetual rejection seemed obsessive if not mildly masochistic but we marched on to the beat that we were going to do this thing, “hell or high water”.

By November 2012 we realized that if we had any hope of having our boat ready for the summer of 2013 we’d need to start construction immediately. “Exposing a little of our own skin” as Paul put it, “demonstrates our commitment.” We invested our own money to get the boat started.

By mid-February we were out of funds, deeply in debt and seemingly out of luck. For the first time in our planning the prospect of postponing the expedition to 2014 started to creep into our conversations. Our boat builder had halted construction awaiting another instalment (the boat a mere shell of a hull at this point) and a malaise fell over the team for the first time since the start.

Our rescue flare came in the form of a casual comment from Denis Barnett’s girlfriend Niamh Cunningham when she suggested she could introduce us to the CEO of a renewable energy company in Ireland that she’s known since childhood. “Mainstream Renewable Power would be a perfect fit for you lads” she said, her words erupting brightly in our consciousness but fading just as quickly, smothered by the blanket of previous rejections. But the flame refused to extinguish and within a week we had spoken with Eddie O’Conner, the CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, and learned of his passion to combat climate change.

Within another week O’Connor had made the decision to fund our effort. The turn around was so fast we were left bewildered. Eddie O’Connor was now “Fast Eddie” to us. Through a naive obstinance we always believed the expedition would happen and now it would.

The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity from making final tweaks to The Arctic Joule to acquiring food, equipment and clothing, to testing everything to make sure it all works. Invariably you feel like you’re forgetting something but at a certain point you need to accept you’ve done everything you can and get on with the job. We’ve reached that point.

We’re on the road now as I write this, travelling between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse on the Alaskan Highway. In coming weeks and months we’ll be blogging to the Vancouver Sun, sharing our stories from the expedition as we row across the Northwest Passage from Inuvik, NWT to Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Our voyage is a trip into the unknown as no one has done what we’re planning to do. I hope you can follow along.
- Kevin

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