Expedition Watch: Arctic Row

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The Arctic Row Team. Photo: Arctic Row

On July 15, a team of four men will attempt to complete the first non-stop unsupported row across the Arctic Ocean by journeying from Inuvik, Canada, to Providenya, Russia. The men will row their 29-foot-long, 6-foot-wide boat in shifts of two at a time so that they can move forward for 24 hours straight over a period of roughly 30 days and a distance of 1,300 miles. I emailed the team a week before they left for a bit more on their expedition.

Paul Ridley is the captain of the Arctic Row team. In 2009, he set records as the youngest American to row across the Atlantic Ocean solo and unsupported.

Neal Mueller has swum the English Channel, rowed from San Francisco to Sacramento and San Francisco to Petaluma, and was the 120th person in the world to climb all of the seven summits, including Mount Everest without a guide. 

Collin West is a CrossFit games competitor and national champion adventure racer.

Paul: We expect the trip to take 30-40 days, but then again it’s never been done before, so we could be surprised. We’re bringing 45 days of food that we can stretch to 50+ if necessary. Our departure date is July 15th, assuming that the weather cooperates.

Paul: It was the spring of 2010 when I got the expedition itch for the first time since finishing my trans-Atlantic row the year before. I was looking over the speed records for various rows across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. There weren’t any records for the Arctic Ocean, and that got me thinking. I did some initial research and found that no one had rowed the Arctic in the modern sense—non-stop, unsupported, and from one continent to another. The idea was born but I put it on the shelf where it collected dust for a few months.

Collin and I met as graduate students in the MBA program at the Kellogg School of Management (at Northwestern University) a few months later. When I got to business school, I was prepared to make new friends with fancy resumes and dreams of occupying a corner office. Instead, in the first week of school I met Collin at a group dinner. We went around the table and shared our backgrounds. Collin’s athletic accomplishments were impressive and I could tell by his enormous biceps that he wasn’t lazy.

By the time dinner ended Collin was trying to convince me that he was fit enough to row an ocean. I told him that fitness was the last thing he should worry about for an ocean row. He’d need a boat, sponsors, help with logistics, a route, a team, a big chunk of free time, etc. Collin just wouldn’t let the idea rest. I sent him the research I had done, he built it out even more, and the ball was rolling.

Neal joined the team soon after. We had been introduced through a mutual friend because he wanted to row an ocean and I wanted to learn from his mountaineering experience. Before long it was clear that we should join forces to row the Arctic. We launched an all-out search for a filmmaker/rower to complete the team. It turned out that Neal and Scott had a mutual friend who made an introduction. Things started happening pretty quickly after that. Neal and I flew out to L.A. to meet Scott and grilled him for a while. He’s the coolest dude on earth and had everything we were looking for and more. We locked Scott down the same day and the team was complete. 

Scott: The toughest part about an expedition like this is twofold: the physical adversity and the overarching mission. First, you never know what the sea is going to throw at you. When you mix freezing cold with wet winds, waves, and capricious currents—it’s just not a place human beings were meant to hang out in a rowboat for long. We’ve trained for scenarios involving a man overboard, capsized vessel, busted watermaker, faulty wiring, navigation difficulties, oncoming freighters, even a hungry polar bear or two. But really it’s the unexpected, the adversity that we did not prepare for, that will be most challenging.

That said, I think the row is going to be the easy part. Our Arctic row documentary, called Into Thin Ice, will tell a story of exploration with a purpose. It needs to inspire people toward positive action. We are only able to undertake this historic first because of the effects of climate change. Our big picture message is that we can be politically divided but still agree that all this smog in the air and plastic in the ocean isn’t a good thing. That’s not naiveté, it’s common sense. But common sense isn’t so common anymore. So for me, that’s going to be the toughest part of the expedition. Getting our message out in a way that matters and that people will listen to. 

Scott: Unplugging from the computer and having to focus on only one thing—rowing. Letting nature soak back into our core. Connecting with our environment in the most primitive way possible. Sleeping in sync with the sun and moon, not the blare of an alarm clock. Seeing if we’re made of as strong mental and physical fiber as we think we are. Making lifelong friends. Bringing joy, wonder, and possibility back into people’s lives. 

Neal: The elements of science in Arctic Row were brought to us by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. They introduced us to our two scientists. It provides us a rare opportunity to gather data at a fraction of the cost that it would take scientific vessels to collect it. This citizen science puts us in collaboration with scientists who need data from remote locations. This lets us engage the academic community in a way never before possible, but we can gather data that will potentially shed light on whale migration, plankton, and an ecosystem that will be unrecognizable in just a few decades.

Our first scientific project is to collect data on plankton content to understand this whale food source in the recently unfrozen Arctic Ocean, this is with Dr. Russ Hopcroft at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. Our second scientific project is to collect up-wind swimming habits of baleen whales, to learn if whales have olfactory sensation (sense of smell). If the second study data indicates that baleen whales have a sense of smell, we will be able to use this knowledge to potentially release the scent of dying plankton into the air and ward whales from an oil spill, and other dangers. More information on the science of the expedition is available here.

Scott: Our exploration is about human-powered imagination. If we work together, we can accomplish anything.

The thawing of the Arctic is a modern day gold rush. New oil exploration, shipping routes, fishing industries and international alliances will influence environmental, economic and cultural landscapes. Do you want to have a say in what this future looks like? We do.

In the next hundred years, global energy consumption will increase threefold. As developing nations progress, two billion people who are still cooking food over wood, dung, and crop waste will want electricity. They will want their children to have health care, education, and a better future. That’s an honorable dream for anyone, but it’s a dream that requires fuel, specifically oil. So our question is, How do we implement solutions that empower people without being such a burden on the environment? Is it even possible? The Arctic Ocean is the canary and we’re about to take its pulse.

At the end of the day, we’re just four explorers with day jobs. None of us are likely to invent a car that runs on saltwater and fix all the world’s problems in one fell swoop. But there are things we can do to play our part.

As explorers, we’re entrepreneurial and innovative by trade. Overcoming adversity under extreme duress is part of our daily routine. So when we apply our mindset to global issues, it’s exciting because the prospect to spark change is real.

From my experience, getting people to care in a significant way is always a struggle. But all it takes is one step forward. That’s how you get to the top of a mountain or across an ocean. That’s also how you endure hardship and evolve as a human being. Some day we will all figure out a way to live more harmoniously on this planet. And then a big asteroid will probably take us out. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t persevere.

The team at

Eddie Bauer First Ascent.

—Joe Spring

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