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How much ice is really out there this year?

On Friday September 6th the Canadian Coast Guard rescued a group of American adventurers who were travelling the Northwest Passage on jet ski as part of the reality television show Dangerous Waters. We met these guys a number of weeks back as they blew past us on the Amundsen Gulf. We were fighting a strong southerly wind at the time that was intent on pushing us offshore when a number of small lights appeared on the horizon. It was in the early hours of the morning and only an arctic twilight illuminated our way. The lights bore down on us fast and before long we were surrounded by a pod of growling jet skis and their support boat. A cameraman was filming everything. We chatted with the group, wished them luck and watched them disappear into the night.


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Hearing about their rescue just north of King William Island reinforces the certainty that our decision to stop in Cambridge Bay was the correct one. If motorized craft needed rescue then a human powered craft had no chance at all.

We’ve had the opportunity to decompress over the last week and reflect on our arctic experience. We communicated with Eric Solomon  - Vancouver Aquarium’s Director of Arctic Programs –  to share our experience and he made some interesting points in regard to the ice we experienced on the strangely cold year in the arctic:

“It’s about putting it all in context, really.” He states, “For example, this year’s sea ice extent is still 1.41 million square kilometers below the 1981-2010 average, and is the 6th lowest sea ice extent in the satellite record. The ice that (you) guys encountered says more about where the ice was over the last 2 months than how much ice there has been over-all. There is, for example, a big hole in the ice near the North Pole right now. Meanwhile, the winds have been blowing a lot of ice down into the Archipelago and into the region where (you) guys have been rowing.”

“Here’s a good example: Last year we saw the lowest amount of sea ice in the Arctic on record—by far. Yet, I was in two different Arctic communities (Iqaluit and Pangnirtung) that were blocked by ice much of the summer. They could not get their food shipments in, they could not get out to hunt and fish. It was a real mess. Elders in Iqaluit were saying it had been at least 50 years since they last saw this happen. How does that happen during the lowest ice extent on record? Wind. The wind blew the ice into the fiords and bays. It was stuck there until the wind changed direction and literally overnight, the bays were cleared. As long as there’s any ice it all, it will blow around. In fact, we can expect to see more winds blowing from different directions than they used to as the climate changes.”

“Many factors affect how much ice there is, where it is and how thick it is in any one place in the massive Arctic. The weather in the Arctic can be unpredictable and is getting more so. The mistake we sometimes make is thinking weather can tell us something about the climate. Weather happens locally over a short period of time. Sometimes it’s cold; sometimes it’s warm; sometimes it’s raining; sometimes it’s not. The guys experienced weather. Climate is something we measure over decades. This summer’s Arctic weather barely even impacted that long-term trend line at all.”

Mr. Solomon’s words echo what the elders told us and what we intuitively understood. The fact that this year’s summer ice will still be 1.41 million square kilometres less than the 1981-2010 average is sobering. To put in in perspective the area of British Columbia and Alberta combined is 1.6 million square kilometres. Climate change is happening and is being evidenced even during a cold year like we just experienced.


The Finish

Denis & Paul Rowing Finish

Last night I slept in my own bed in Vancouver. When I got up this morning I had a shower and some cereal with real milk. I walked to a nearby coffee shop and here I sit with a cappuccino in front of me as I attempt to carve some words around the past few days and the completion of our trip. These simple pleasures seem more like luxuries now. Nothing like 55 days on a rowing boat to add some perspective. I’m sure this will wear off somewhat over the coming weeks and months but I hope it doesn’t fade away completely. I hope I don’t forget how lucky I am to have the life that I have.

We arrived into Cambridge Bay on Wednesday afternoon. The last 24 hours of rowing was great, we covered about 70km, conditions were calm and the sun even showed up for most of the day on Wednesday. When we arrived, we met some people at the dock who are sailing through the passage and it was very interesting to hear about their trips. I found it somewhat hilarious how fast they can move relative to us. One of lads I was chatting to was telling me that more than 50% of the time, they are using their motor.

The initial 24 hours after arriving to Cambridge Bay were very chilled out. We spent our time eating some real food, cleaning ourselves and our clothes and quite simply just relaxing. The two Aussie lads (Mat and Cam) made it to Cambridge Bay on Wednesday a few hours after us and the Kayakers from Quebec (Oliver and Sebastian) who we met in Paulatuk nearly a month ago also arrived on Wednesday. They paddled in at exactly the same time as we rowed in (we met them out on the water) so it was fantastic to see everybody again.

We have had an amazing experience over the past 55 days, for me it’s probably too soon to try and articulate all that I have learned over this time. That will come naturally over the coming weeks and months.

We decided to end our trip in Cambridge Bay (this decision was made a few weeks ago when we knew that making it to Pond Inlet wasn’t going to happen). Of course we would love to have made it to Pond but travelling through the Arctic, it is absolutely essential that one considers facts and probabilities and not false hopes and wishes. The consequences of poor decision making up here is too serious. The reality is we would probably need another 2 months at least to make it to Pond Inlet which simply means we had no hope of making it this year. In making our decisions, we have also paid very close attention to what the locals have told us along the way as they are the people who know the most about the conditions up north.

We probably had another 3 to 4 weeks of open water at most before the freeze begins. This means we would be cutting it very close to even reach Gjoa Haven which was the next community from Cambridge Bay (about 500km away). If we got stuck by ice before making it to Gjoa Haven, then we would potentially be relying on a rescue to get us out and this was simply not an option for us. Could we make to Gjoa Haven within 4 weeks? Potentially yes but the experience we have accumulated over the past 2 months suggests that would be wishful thinking and very unlikely. As much as it wasn’t what we had originally wanted, I know we were 150% correct in our decision to finish in Cambridge Bay. I suppose in a way, this is the nature of adventure particularly when it comes to human powered trips where the forces of Mother Nature have the ability to stop you in your tracks. Sometimes you just cannot get to where you originally intended.

To be honest, I’m actually not that bothered by the fact that we didn’t make Pond Inlet as the experience we have had over the past 55 days has been incredible and I’m looking forward to sharing the stories with friends, family and clients over the coming months.

It’s only now having internet access once again that I have had the chance to see many of the notes and comments in relation to our trip and I would like to say a sincere thank you to everybody who has taken the time to add notes and comments of support for us over the past few months – I really do appreciate this. I have also seen the negative messages which in some cases seem quite angry in their tone. All I can say about that is we’re all entitled to our opinion so good on you for voicing yours. I think life is a very precious gift, it can be taken away from us in an instant so I just want to continue living my life, pursuing my own dreams and leave the criticizing to others. Personally I’d much prefer to be criticized for doing something I’m truly passionate about than to be spending my time criticizing others. In my opinion life’s too short for that.

It seems that our trip has stirred some debate around climate change which is great. Some people think it’s all nonsense and others believe the threat it presents is real and would like to see more done about it. I’m not a climate change expert but I do believe climate change is real and simply put I think we can do a better job at looking after our planet. The local people we have met up here have all spoken to us about the changes they have seen over the past 20 years and the facts are things have changed and are continuing to change up here.

As I mentioned above, this has been an absolutely incredible experience. I am genuinely humbled and also honoured to have had the opportunity to travel through this incredible part of the world and meet some amazing people. I would like to express a sincere thank you to all the people we met up North. You have been so genuine, so warm and so welcoming to us which absolutely enriched this experience for all of us. Personally I have found it really fascinating to simply listen to the local people, hear their stories and get their perspective on all sorts of things.

There are a lot of people I want to thank who have helped us make this expedition happen and I plan to thank most of them in person over the coming weeks. To Chris and Dave at Restore Physiotherapy thank you so much for putting me back together over the past year and a half. I would not have been on this boat if it weren’t for your expertise, patience and support.

To all our friends who helped out in so many ways, beers are on us now that we’re back. To my family, thank you once again for putting up with me and for your unconditional support. To everyone who gave so generously of your time especially in the early stages, thank you for believing in us. Maria LoScerbo at Epic PR, thank you for all your hard work over the past two months. You are a genius and have been an absolute rock star for us. To Tori Holmes thank you too for all the work you have done on this. To Niamh Cunningham, you were a huge and essential part of making this trip happen. The reality is this expedition would not have happened this year without you so thank you so much for everything you have done.

I would like to say a very special word of thanks to Dr Eddie O’Connor and the team at Mainstream Renewable Power. Thank you for believing in us and thank you Eddie for being so passionate about protecting our planet.

I’ve been asked already by friends and family what it’s like to be back. Obviously it’s great but I also sort of miss the North and I suppose the adventure of what we were doing. I know it’s only been a few months but it feels a little strange being back in a city again. So what’s next is another question I know will come over the coming weeks. When I think of the future, there’s so much I’m excited about, this blog would become a book if I tried to articulate all that. For now, the cappuccino has been finished, it’s a gorgeous day today so I think ill go for a run. Until the next time…….


Final Words From Kevin

We row into Cambridge Bay, Nunavut this afternoon – August 28th, 2013 to officially conclude the Mainstream Last First expedition. The snow squalls that dogged us earlier in the day have lifted and blue sky and sun greet us as we end our journey. It feels like a fitting end.

Over the past 54 days we traversed more than 1500-kms of the Northwest Passage from Inuvik, NWT to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and come away humbled and awed by the experience. We had hoped to make it to Pond Inlet, Nunavut by early September but this has proven impossible. Severe weather conditions hindered our early progress and now ice chokes the passage ahead.

Our ice router Victor has been very clear in what lies ahead. He writes, “Just to give you the danger of ice situation at the eastern Arctic, Eef Willems of “Tooluka” (NED) pulled out of the game and returning to Greenland. At many Eastern places of NWP locals have not seen this type ice conditions. Residents of Resolute say 20 years have not seen anything like. Its, ice, ice and more ice. Larsen, Peel, Bellot, Regent and Barrow Strait are all choked. That is the only route to East. Already West Lancaster received -2C temperature expecting -7C on Tuesday with the snow.”



Richard Weber, my teammate to the South Pole in 2009 and without doubt the most accomplished polar skier alive today, is owner and operator of Arctic Watch on Cunningham Inlet at the northern end of Somerset Island. Arctic Watch faces out onto our proposed eastern route. Richard dropped me a note the other day advising: “This has been the coldest season with the most ice since we started Arctic Watch in 2000. Almost no whales. The NWPassage is still blocked with ice. Some of the bays still have not melted!”

The days are getting significantly shorter now and the temperatures are dropping fast. Our intention all along was to make it to Pond Inlet by mid-September as the lack of light and colder temperatures would significantly curtail our movement and slow us down. Extrapolating from our current rate of movement, even if there was no ice in the passage ahead, we’d require at least another 50-60 days to make it to Pond Inlet. Throw in the issues of less light, colder temperatures, harsher fall storms and lots of ice blocking the route and our decision is easy. Moving forward at this point would be foolhardy and hubris won’t force our hand. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut is our final port of call.



We’re disappointed that we’re unable to reach our intended destination of Pond Inlet but this disappointment is tempered by the knowledge that we’ve done everything in our power to achieve our goal, a goal whose outcome wasn’t wholly under our control. Our message remains unaffected though, bringing awareness to the pressing issues of climate change in the arctic.

The expedition has opened our eyes to the issues like we never imagined. We’ve experienced the arctic in a truly unique way and have had the privilege to speak with the people that live here and to hear their stories on climate change. And they’ve told us lots.

Floyd Roland, the former premiere of the North West Territories and the current mayor of Inuvik speaks of winters that now begin a month later than when he was a kid, of strange and inconsistent weather patterns that were once far more predictable. Elders Billy and Eileen Jacobson of Tuktoyaktuk speak of winters shortened by a fortnight at either end, of grasshoppers in the arctic, of grizzly bears and wolverine further north than ever seen before. Daryl Nasagaluk of Tuktoyaktuk speaks of beavers now appearing in arctic waters, damming the rivers and destroying the run of white fish. Hank Wolki in Paulatuk speaks of the thinning sea ice that surrounds his community, of the dangers of winter travel within a warming arctic. Marlene Wolki of Paulatuk speaks of a shifting winter season, of picking blueberries in late September during a time when the land was once frozen, of an ice-free Darnely Bay in October, something unheard of when she was young. Brothers Joe and Steve Illisiak in Brown’s Camp tell us of grizzly and polar bears interacting now, of the new hybrid bear on the scene – the pizzly and the grolar, of rarely seen pods of killer whales prowling their waters. Joe Ohokannoak tells us of grizzly bears on Victoria Island now, of ravens being common place where once they never ventured. The arctic is changing and it’s changing dramatically. We know this because the people that live here tell us so.



The Inuit have a word ILIRA. It has no equivalence in the English language but it’s a word that defines our journey. Ilira is the sensation you feel when you glide down the waters of Franklin Bay under a setting sun with sulfurous plumes of smoke erupting from the hillsides beyond and a giant bow head whale surfaces just meters away. Ilira is the feeling you get when you go to sleep at night facing a mirror smooth ocean bay and awake to a cauldron of sea ice, churning and grinding in it’s place. Ilira is the sensation when a 9-ft barren lands grizzly stands on it’s hind legs, discovers you’re there and slowly walks towards you. Ilira is the sensation of rounding a precipitous rock walled cape in gentle seas knowing that bad weather is on it’s way and in seconds your world could be chaos.
Ilira is the gentle flush of fear that comes with awe. Ilira has defined our journey through the waters of the Northwest Passage.

The expedition challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined and we dodged a number bullets along the way. The bullets came in the form of a pan of multi-year ice intent on running us over in Franklin Bay, in the form of wind, storm and current wanting us to experience the grinding pack ice of Darnley Bay all close-up and personal, in the form of a southerly wind so strong we’re powerless as it pushes us out into the Amundsen Gulf.

But with the bullets also came the wonder: a beluga whale rising inquisitively from the surf mere meters away, stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient Thule site on secluded bay we never intended to visit, watching the horizon twist and bend and turn upon itself as the heat and cold from air and water played games with our mind.

We would like thank Eddie O’Connor and Mainstream Renewable Power who, through their generous support, allowed us to undertake this expedition and to speak to the pressing issue of climate change in the arctic. We want to thank our team of sponsors and supporters – a list far too long to list here – who have helped us throughout this journey. Without them we could have never got here. And, of course, we want to thank our family and friends who have had the confidence and patience to see us through this endeavour. Without them on side none of this could have ever happened. We fly home tomorrow, our heads still spinning with the experience. Thanks so much for following!!


Tough But Exhilarating – Getting Close

We’ve had mixed weather over the last few days. We made great progress from Sunday morning through to Monday evening. The temperatures dropped off a bit – probably a few degrees below freezing.

While rowing on Sunday morning, I had 4 layers of upper body clothing on inside my dry suit, 3 layers of leggings, 2 pairs of socks, a pair of gloves with an extra inside liner, 2 hats and a pair of wellington boots. Despite all this gear and the fact that I was rowing, it was still a bit nippy although it did warm up into the afternoon (so I took one of the hats off).

On Sunday night we got our first glimpse of the Northern Lights which were absolutely magical. This was something we all hoped we would see up here so to finally get to experience these while out on the boat was amazing. The lights were like a cross between mad shaped animals and green mime artists dashing about the clouds in random directions. My words just can’t do justice to what we saw but needless to say it was very cool and for me was something I’ve always wanted to see firsthand.

Our last major crossing was Wellington Bay, we completed this 35km crossing on Monday afternoon so we are now well and truly into the home stretch. We got hit by some stiff headwinds just as we finished the bay crossing so we spent all night Monday and most of Tuesday on anchor.

We’ve had some problems with our water maker over the past week or two and now it’s not working. Well it’s still running but producing top notch salt water so a very important piece of equipment is done. I think the bashing of the boat while anchored during the stormy weather has in some way damaged the actual desalination unit. We had a look at it today, the filter system is fine but the reverse osmosis unit (which is the part that takes the salt out of the water) is not working as it should. Having salt water with meals and drinking salty coffee isn’t much craic so we went ashore, found some fresh water and filled up both tanks on board which gives us 80 litres. That should be more than enough to get us over the line. If we need to, we can go ashore again to find more fresh water.

We also had a visit on Tuesday evening from two locals (who had stopped by on Monday as they were heading out to a hunting camp – namely Arctic Char and Caribou. They very kindly offered us some Arctic Char fillets and we happily accepted. Frank fried them up straight away with a little oil and some lemon pepper. It was absolutely delicious, possibly the nicest fish I have ever eaten. We could nearly feel the energy seeping back into our bodies. This was the first time we have eaten something fresh in a long time. Even Denis who doesn’t eat a lot of fish was beside himself with how good it tasted.

The wind eased off around 8pm on Tuesday evening so we got going again. It’s now 12.30am on Wednesday morning as I type this and we’re making really good progress. Cambridge Bay is getting very close and we’re all very excited……


Dealing With Arctic Wind

Frank and Kevin ready for night row small

Being pummelled by sustained 100-kmph winds that gust even higher is an unnerving and humbling experience. I’ve endured winds like this in a tent only twice before (while skiing to the South Pole in 2008/9 and when traversing frozen Siberia’s Lake Baikal in 2010) and each time I remained awake through the ordeal certain our tent would be destroyed. But the tents weren’t destroyed on those two times and our tent isn’t destroyed this time either. The tent is the 4-season Svalbard from Norwegian tentmaker Helsport. It may be a shameless plug but I can’t imagine a better quality product for keeping you alive. This past spring a skier attempting a traverse of Greenland’s icecap lost his tent is a windstorm and died from exposure. The value of a durable tent can’t be overstated in a harsh arctic environment.
River valley1 small
The Arctic joule takes a hammering too and by the end of the storm her deck is covered in a layer of fine gravel, her rearview mirror is smashed, her hull paint is partially removed from the constant abrasion from the beach and two of her sealed hatches are compromised and filled with sea water. Like a boxer in a difficult prize-fight, she’s taken a beating in a later round. She’s is in her corner now and she’ll be ready when the weather bell sounds.
River valley2 small
Being stormbound has given us the opportunity to explore the surrounding landscape and we’ve ventured out hoping to see more. Muskox dot the hillsides, their numbers abundant in what must be an arctic haven for them but only an arctic wasteland. We set out up a large river valley that creates a distinctive sinuous rift cutting sharply into the landscape as it meanders away from the sea. The valley walls are a mix of steep tundra and crumbling bluff that spill onto to a bed of river rock below. Only a trickle of water meanders through.

The landscape heightens as do the walls of our valley and after an hour of walking we slip down to the river and follow it back to the boat. Dwarf birch and willow tussle for space and cower from the wind. The splash of lingen berry bushes explode against the brown and green of the scrub and caribou bones are scattered everywhere. Bands of exposed rock reveal a greenish tinge as they disintegrate on their airy perch. Copper I surmise, a valley of resource for the south. The community of Coppermine (Kugluktuk) is just a short distance away. Does man’s hand really need to come here, to this truly wild place?

Escape finally comes after spending three nights and we begin rowing in earnest with a moderate northwester pushing us obliquely down the coast. We point the bow to shore and row to offset the vector of northward push while the vector of westward push moves us along at a comfortable 4.5-kmph. It works well if the wind isn’t too strong, too strong would mean pushing us out to sea.
Frank at river valley small
We row continuously for the nest 36 hours and elect to row through the night even though evening brings complete darkness now. Rowing in total darkness is best done on quieter seas and is an altogether different experience than daylight rowing. On this night we are entertained with a display of northern lights streaking green across the southern sky, like mist caught in the rays of a midnight sun.

By morning we’ve made it far enough the coast to start our traverse of Willingdon Bay. The 32km crossing is committing, as all big crossing are, and we move with a light southwesterly pushing us from behind. Fortunately it’s only in the final 7kms that the winds shift and intensify and has us struggling to shore.

We’re camped in the lee of Cape Enterprise and await calming winds to start moving East to Cambridge Bay.


Real Life Is On The Horizon…

The novelty has now officially worn off being wet and cold…. The misery I spoke about before is now just miserable! The good news is that we are within reach of the end point where a warm shower and a bed are on the cards. It’s a funny thing, I am trying so hard not to wish away the last few days. I know my bed will be there waiting for me in four days or fourteen but I may never be back in this harsh but wonderful place. Trying to stay in the moment is very difficult. We sent the best part of two years putting this expedition together and I spent every waking moment looking forward to it.  What the hell was I thinking! I suppose when I have time to reflect on the trip once it’s all done and dusted, I will forget the rough times.

When I’m on the oars, I’m constantly thinking about the pleasures of home, these guys are awesome and I have made friends for life (I’m not sure what the lads would say about that!!) but 70 days in total in the constant company of three hairy, and now very smelly men is just starting to get old. Myself and Paul were trying to work out how long it would take for friends to clock up the hours that we have all clocked up in each others’ company. There is not much about these guys I don’t know now. If I was to try and sum them up, Kevin is an academic trapped in an adventurer’s body, Frank would have been right at home driving a dog team in the late 1800′s, Paul is a record keeper constantly taking notes in his little diary, and I’m not sure what I am apart from bloody freezing, hungry and exhausted!

The funny thing is that every time we think we are making progress and start planning forward, something happens to stop us in our tracks, like literally as I type this I hear the lads talking about the fresh water supply… it’s basically become contaminated with sea water. So now the priority has changed from charging on to Cambridge Bay to looking for a creek on the shore to fill some water tanks from, talk about a curve ball… right that’s me off to find some water I suppose…… did I mention I’m cold?

P.S. I’m loving every minute still, bed can wait.