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Rowboat Expedition to Arctic to Highlight Climate Change

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian

The Irish-Canadian team setting out next week to cross the Northwest Passage by row boat knows full well the hazards of the fabled journey through the Arctic: the unpredictable storms, the ice jams, the prospect of becoming prey for a polar bear.

"They are the only animal out there that will actively hunt down a human being," said Kevin Vallely, a veteran adventurer who is part of the expedition.

The four-man crew is due to set off in their 8-meter rowboat from Inuvik on July 1, on a journey meant to showcase the extreme effects of climate change on the Arctic.

The Irish-Canadian team will set out on July 1 across the Northwest Passage on a journey to showcase the extreme effects of climate change on the Arctic.
Credit: Mainstream Last First

The journey itself is one of those consequences. The team hopes to be the first expedition to complete the route in a single season – an ambition only made possible because of the dramatic melting of summer sea ice in recent years.

"This expedition has never been done before, and could not be done before," said Vallely, a Vancouver-based architect and adventurer. "It is being brought about because of climate change. There just is less and less ice."

Such changes are all too real to the small communities along the 3,000-kilometer route who have reported changes in the migration patterns of the animals they depend on for survival, such as muskox and Arctic char [fish].

After departing Inuvik, in Canada's Northwest Territories, the team will row their way through Tuktoyaktuk, to Pond Inlet, Nunavut. They hope to break their journey for a few days at the hunting camp of Cambridge Bay.

"The way of life for people who live up there is already changing very, very fast," said Paul Gleeson, an Irish rower and cyclist. "This gives us an opportunity to make a wider audience aware of how it will actively affect them."

The journey in the customized rowboat, the Arctic Joule, will take about 80 days – a fraction of the time it took the first European explorers who tried for years to find a route through the ice-locked waters of the Arctic to the fabled richest of the Orient.

The four-man crew will complete the crossing in shifts, with each pair taking a four-hour turn at the oars. The non-rowing pair will blog, take videos, or gather data on Arctic char under climate change for a study for the Canadian fisheries department.
Credit: Mainstream Last First

Those early journeys in the days before steel-hulled ice breakers left behind a trail of shipwrecks and horrifying records of suffering, including slow starvation, frostbite, food poisoning, and mass cannibalism when the explorers became trapped by the Arctic winters.

The first successful crossing from east to west was completed in 1906, only after Roald Amundsen anchored his boat and skied the last 800 kilometer to a telegraph office in Alaska.

Even those crossings in the modern era – including a number over the past few years by kayak – have occurred over multiple seasons.

But with the rapid melting of the Arctic under climate change, and the prospect of new shipping routes across the region, Vallely said his crew hoped to make the crossing entirely under human power, without resort to sails or engines.

The boat, which was more than a year in the making, was built for self-sufficiency. It was designed so that all four men could live and sleep on board, and that it could be hauled up on land quickly, in the event of a sudden storm.

The four-man crew will complete the crossing in shifts, with each pair taking a four-hour turn at the oars. The non-rowing pair will blog, take videos, or gather data on Arctic char under climate change for a study for the Canadian fisheries department. Their trip is sponsored by clean energy firm Mainstream Renewable Power.

Unlike the earliest explorers, Vallely and his crew had the relative luxury of studying those first attempts to find a way through the ice-locked Arctic. Between the four of them they have a half-century of expedition experience.

Map showing the route of Irish-Canadian team that will set out on the July 1 expedition.

The crew can also rely on modern technology, including weather forecasts from Environment Canada.

But there will still be plenty of hazards en route. Without engine or sail power, the crew have little chance of rowing their way out of an ice jam, and those great violent swirls of ice could easily wreck their boat. "We have to make sure we don't get caught in a soup of ice, which could be catastrophic and really dangerous."

If the boat were to capsize, survival time in the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic would be in the order of minutes, not hours. Then there are the polar bears.

On a route so laden down by its history of loss and heroic endeavors, the team is clear they will not attempt any extraordinary interventions – should their journey take them into close proximity to a polar bear.

The crew will carry sound as well as rubber bullets to try to scare the bears off – with a shotgun as the last order of defense – in the event they are forced to beach and encounter an animal on land. But said Gleeson: "Obviously our main strategy is going to be to avoid the polar bear."

Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.


By Douglas Pohl (Astoria, OR)
on June 30th, 2013

I think this is a $250,000 Mainstream Renewable Power funded vacation for four lads who have been siting on a park bench wishing and hoping for someone to pay their way to attempt another dare devil stunt - rowing in the Arctic.  They say Northwest Passage but are only rowing between hamlets of Inuvik and Pond Inlet - just 1,500 miles while the NWP is over 3,500 miles long depending on which of the seven routes navigated between Atlantic Arctic Circle and the Pacific Arctic Circle. Do you say you are climbing Mount Everest by hiking to base camp? Or must you summit to the top of Mount Everest? There are starting and finish lines - lie about the route means breaking the rules - no cigar! More lies say they are the first to row in the Arctic which is wrong - Mathieu Bonnier in 2010-2011 rowed SOLO from Greenland to Cambridge Bay and there have been other rowers. Today in Wales Alaska Charles Hedrich is preparing to start at the Pacific Arctic Circle and row with his son to the Atlantic Arctic Circle - my hat goes off to him for challenging a full Northwest Passage route. Bottom line - TheLastFirst says it is all about making people aware of climate change - I think we all know about what the Media is reporting - but does a $250,000 dare devil stunt make anyone more aware? Are you going to change your lifestyle? I’d suggest MRV offer $250,000 in incentives to sell solar systems which provide 10-20 years of renewable power rather than a one shot dare devil promotion. I find it strange that MRP is actually funding TheLastFirst expedition… but do know how a dare devil stunt reflects on the sponsor.

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By Patrick Carroll (retired meteorologist) (Red Deer, Alberta, Canada T4R 0L2)
on July 2nd, 2013

There were three other amateur expeditions in recent years that tried to reach the North Pole by sled/ski that barely got going before the crews had to be rescued after suffering severe frostbite. All could not believe how cold the Arctic was even in the late summer/early fall period.

This latest group of intrepid adventurers will likely discover that their vision of vast stretches of ice free water will be dashed against the reality of having to face hauling their boat over long stretches of mostly solid ice.

All these people fell under the delusion that the Arctic was rapidly warming despite the fact that yearly ice extent fell within the bounds of normal variability despite reports of “record” low ice extent that was based on satellite data going back only to 1979. What they weren’t told was that similar periods of ice melt has occurred numerous times in the past, the most recent being in the 1930s (the warmest decade of the last century). Even in the 1950s the Pole was visited by nuclear submarines that found open water.

The global climate cycled through its latest warming from roughly 1977 to 2007. Since then, the climate has begun moving into the next typical 30-35 year cool phase that is being intensified by diminishing solar outputs and a cooling of the Pacific Ocean. We have already seen five years of much colder and snowier winters across Eurasia and North America since 2008 and more recently some cold and rainy spring weather.

In 2007 and again in 2012 the late summer Arctic ice extent was reduced through strong winds that broke up much of the ice pack to give the illusion of unusual melting. Now the ice extent and temperatures are closer to normal and perhaps a bit colder than the average for the past 10 years, especially over the eastern Arctic. See

Those adventurers may believe they will draw closer attention to the climate change in the Arctic, but that change was due to a warming cycle that ended at least 5 years ago. They might get lucky and complete their trip, but the odds are they will discover that they would have been better off using a sled and skis than trying to row a boat through the Northwest Passage.

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By Camburn (North Dakota)
on July 2nd, 2013

Is interesting that the author forgot about the St. Roch.  This little ship sailed the NW passage, the northern route to boot in 1944.

“In 1944 became first vessel to make a return trip through the Northwest Passage, through the more northerly route considered the true Northwest Passage, and was also the first to navigate the passage in a single season.”

The log book of the 1944 passage is well worth the money.  In it Capt Larsen documents going days without seeing an ice floe.

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By mike (Vancouver BC)
on July 2nd, 2013

They will be finishing this in a helicopter - if they are lucky.

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