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French rower finishes first 400 miles in bid to cross the Northwest Passage

Sean Doogan
French adventurer Charles Hedrich near the beginning of his effort to becoming the first to row the Northwest Passage from Alaska to Canada. Courtesy Charles Hedrich

Arctic weather may be turning for Charles Hedrich. The French adventurer is attempting to become the first person to row a boat 4,400 miles through the Northwest Passage, from Alaska's Bering Sea coast, across far northern Canada and into the Atlantic Ocean. 

America’s northernmost coastline has thrown up some challenges. Hedrich had to wait for two weeks for weather to clear before finally starting his journey, July 1, in the Seward Peninsula village of Wales, Alaska. When a favorable weather window did emerge, Hedrich battled fierce currents and strong headwinds, which slowed his progress.

“The weather was extremely trying; I did not make much progress on my way to Point Lay,” Hedrich said, Thursday, as he continued to row his 20-foot specially designed boat northeast. Point Lay is on Alaska’s extreme Northwest coast, some 350 miles northeast of Nome, finishing line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Hedrich shared his journey via satellite phone, powered by solar panels, on his boat. After a trying start, a change in the ocean currents and wind had lifted his mood. And his prospects for success: Hedrich is eating and even sleeping on his boat as he tries to complete his journey before mid-September, when sea ice has historically closed in and closed off the storied Atlantic connection.

He encountered floating sea ice even before reaching the Beaufort Sea but said "a calm lagoon to row, and even a bit of a tail wind" had helped him make up some of the time lost earlier as he rowed toward the northern Canadian coastline.

Several different routes across the top of Alaska and Canada are labeled the "Northwest Passage," which has long captivated (and frustrated) European mariners. The route can be clogged with ice even during the high summer months but 185 voyages have successfully traversed it, according to the University of Cambridge. A steamship with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen aboard made the first known crossing in 1903. So far, no one has done it alone in a row boat, but a thawing Arctic has sparked new interest. 

For Hedrich, though, the draw is the adventure. The 55-year-old has completed a two-month solo voyage across Antarctica, and set a record for the fastest rowboat voyage from Africa to South America. The Ocean Rowing Society is tracking his Northwest Passage progress for record purposes.

He packed about two weeks of food, stopping in villages and towns along the way to resupply.

“The people of Kivalina were especially outgoing and even gave me some seal meat to eat,” Hedrich said.

He has rowed about 500 miles so far, and has more than 3,900 ahead to reach Pond Inlet, Canada, his final destination. His chances? Despite recent setbacks, Hedrich says he remains optimistic he will cross the Northwest Passage before the ice freezes him out.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com