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Adventure

Expedition Watch: Rowing the Northwest Passage

The Arctic is getting warmer and sea ice is covering less and less area every year. This is good news for at least one group of men, adventurers looking to put their names in the record books. Two weeks ago we profiled the start of the Arctic Row expedition, a roughly 30-day, 1,300-mile attempt by four men to complete the first non-stop unsupported row across the Arctic Ocean by journeying from Inuvik, Canada, to Providenya, Russia. Next summer, Kevin Vallely and his team will put off from the same location and head east in the first attempt to row the Northwest Passage in a single season. It's an expedition called The Last First. We checked in with him by email to find out a bit more. 

Dates:
We will start on July 1, 2013, Canada Day. The hope is that we complete the row in about 75 days but we’re grasping at straws when talking time on an expedition like this. There are just too many variables to nail anything down accurately. The biggest factors for us will be the ice and the wind and those are hard to predict. Regardless, we’ll need to get to the finish in Pond Inlet by the end of September or we’ll have serious issues with freeze-up. 

The Team:
Kevin Vallely: Experienced Canadian adventurer who has a number of cold weather expeditions under his belt including a record setting trek to the South Pole in 2009.

Paul Gleeson: Irish ocean rower who rode a bike across Australia in 2003 and rowed across the Atlantic in 2005.

Frank Wolf: Award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker who, with teammate Roman Rockcliffe, made the first and only single-season crossing of Canada by canoe.

Denis Barnett: Dublin born Barnett is the youngest member of the team on his first major expedition.

Ray Zahab: World-class ultrarunner, adventurer and founder of impossible2Possible who, with two other runners, ran the entire 7,500-kilometer width of the Sahara Desert in 111 days without a day off. 

This team from First Ascent has taken up a four-man Arctic Rowing mission this summer. Can you talk a bit about how your trip will be different?
We both start at the same spot in Tuktoyaktuk, but the Arctic Row expedition heads west while our expedition, The Last First, heads east. The Arctic Row team is attempting to row unsupported, non-stop to Russia from Tuk; we’re attempting to row east across the Northwest Passage over the historic route that Roald Amundsen traversed successfully for the first time between 1903 and 1906.

For us, the historic significance of the Northwest Passage is everything. Since Elizabethan times the Passage was considered the arctic grail, the gateway to the orient, an elusive puzzle that needed to be solved. It was this obsession to find the Northwest Passage that charted the Canadian arctic.

In 1846, Sir John Franklin and his crew, aboard the ships the Erebus and Terror, became encased in the ice off the northern tip of King William Island while looking for the Northwest Passage. The ships were crushed and destroyed; the entire crew would perish. This is about halfway across the passage and is a point we’ll row past. Countless expeditions—by land and by sea—would search for the lost expedition and in doing so opened up the Canadian arctic. The Northwest Passage is an important chapter in Canadian history—in world history—and revisiting it a century after its first successful crossing, in a manner never been done before, is very exciting.

How does the prep for this differ from some of the other trekking/skiing/running expeditions you've done?
This is a very different beast on some levels and very similar on others.

Where it differs is that it is truly a team effort in that we’re one boat with all members working together to get the job done. In all my previous expeditions I was joined by teammates who were incredible companions that shared in the duties of moving forward, but each one of us had to make every step to get the job done. On a boat it’s different; you’re inextricably linked with your teammates in a very unique way. Without them, you couldn’t go on. Working together is essential for success.

Where The Last First expedition is similar to previous adventures is that it’s a long, testing, arduous adventure into a truly wild part of this planet. It’ll be a different exertion, no doubt—rowing and not skiing or running or trekking or biking—but the actual mechanism of movement is not the critical component of the adventure, it’s the desire, determination and head-space to get the job done that will trump everything. You may climb a mountain, run a desert, ski to a pole, or row an ocean, but it will always boil down to that same mental game.

What will be the toughest part of your expedition?
There will be a host of challenges along the way, from stormy weather, to shifting ice, to hungry polar bears, but in all honesty I think the hardest thing, for me personally, will be to maintain focus knowing my wife and kids are spending a summer without daddy.

As a team, the toughest part will be to maintain a civility among a crew of overworked, underfed lads crammed into a space smaller than your average parking stall ... for almost three months ... you get the picture.

The most enjoyable part?
The most enjoyable part will be having the opportunity to try something that has never been done before in one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth with teammates that all share the same passion.

Why?
We intend to row the Northwest Passage in a single season to speak to the changes that are transforming our arctic regions. It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Passage was inaccessible even by steel-hulled ice-breakers, but now, in the early 21st century, we’re making plans to traverse it completely under human power in a row boat, without sail or motor, in a single season. Things are changing in the north. They’re changing dramatically. If we succeed—and after much research and discussion with the Canadian Ice Service we think we can—it will be a world first.

The beauty of this expedition is the fact there are so many layers to it. There’s such a rich history to the story of the Northwest Passage with iconic geographical names such as Baffin, Franklin, Ross, Hudson, Vancouver, Frobisher, etc. They are inextricably linked with the quest for the Northwest Passage. Mix into this backdrop the reality of climate change and the profound effects it’s having on the wildlife, culture and future of the arctic region and the pressing reality of arctic sovereignty that comes with this and we have a doozy of a story. And all this conveyed through a truly epic adventure, played out in one of the most incredible landscapes on earth. 

You can follow the expedition at thelastfirst.com.

—Joe Spring
@joespring
facebook.com/joespring.1



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