Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, fear, and awe in a rising sea
By Kevin Vallely, Greystone Books, 2017. 232 pages, $18.95
The Northwest Passage was once practically a thing of myth. The dream of traversing the seas north of Canada from Europe to Asia occupied and obsessed Europeans for centuries. Countless lives were lost trying to navigate it, and when the Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally made it through the ice-bound waters some eleven decades ago, it took him three years.
Today it's much different. With climate change melting ever more sea ice, the route is open most summers, and complete crossings, while still few, are no longer uncommon. For residents and visitors alike, the Western Arctic of the 21st century would be almost unrecognizable to those who encountered it just a century-and-a-half ago.
Kevin Vallely is a Canadian adventurer who decided to organize a rowboat expedition across the Passage in 2013. A veteran of numerous extreme wilderness crossings, he decided that a purely human-powered, single season journey through a route that was all but impenetrable through most of its known history would be the most effective way to bring attention to the rapid changes transpiring in the Arctic. It was also a challenge, part of the ever-shrinking list of adventures that no one has yet accomplished.
"Rowing the Northwest Passage" is his account of the attempt, and at risk of spoiling the ending, it should be said that they didn't make it. But not for lack of trying. One of the complicating factors was that after several years of rapid warming, 2013 brought colder temperatures and essential sections of the route that had been clear during previous summers failed to melt. The larger obstacle, however, was the magnitude of the goal in the face of often hostile weather, brutal headwinds, and rough seas. What's apparent from reading this book is that a trek such as Vallely envisioned will likely remain unattainable for now. It's not ice making it impossible, it's the limits of human strength.
But what a journey Vallely and his three crew mates had. The team of two Canucks and two Irishmen traveled in a custom built, one-ton, ocean-worthy row boat dubbed the Arctic Joule. They launched into Canada's massive Mackenzie River, which flows through the Northwest Territories and discharges into the Beaufort Sea, where they headed east. Equipped with cabins for sleeping and storage, a desalinator, hulls with built-in redundancy to prevent leakage, solar powered batteries to keep electronics charged, and much more, they headed into the Arctic Ocean as prepared as could be expected for such a challenge. (Vallely does have a typical adventurer's obliviousness, however, noting his regret at leaving his young daughters at home, but overlooking his wife, tasked with taking care of them.)
Vallely is a good storyteller who provides a day-to-day sense of what life was like for the four men onboard. Rowing took place in three hour shifts, with two of them pulling the oars while the other two slept. Food was mostly dehydrated meals. Whiskey and clove cigarettes were the main luxuries.
The men encountered an Arctic in transition. They stopped at the few villages along the way and met with local Inuit who discussed matter-of-factly how their traditional subsistence activities are being reshaped, while the ground beneath them and the sea beyond shift before their eyes. In Tuktoyaktuk they find a village eroding into the ocean as the permafrost beneath it melts and the shoreline is eaten away by tides growing stronger in the increasing absence of ice. Residents of Paulatuk explain newfound dangers traveling the ice, which forms later and melts sooner than it did even 20 years ago, and is no longer dependably stable for traveling atop and hunting.
On those rare occasions when they arrived in a community the men checked social media sites where their trip was being tracked, and where climate science deniers attacked them ruthlessly from behind the safety of computer monitors and screen names, leading Vallely to ponder the disconnect between what he was seeing and the misguided beliefs of his critics,
"I'm struck by the disconnect between the rhetoric being spat at us and the experiences of people who actually live in the Arctic. Everyone we've spoken to so far talks of huge change here, of a fundamental shift in climatic conditions, yet their voices are being ignored."
This gets to the crux of his concern. The Arctic remains remote to most people on Earth, yet what happens there impacts them in ways they do not recognize. Vallely presents a highly accessible and well sourced summary of jet streams, ocean currents, warming surface air, and other factors that are wreaking havoc on weather patters thousands of miles away. As climate stability vanishes in the Arctic, it takes the rest of the planet with it.
Of course it's not all doom and gloom. Wildlife sightings abound for the men, and at one point they get charged by a grizzly bear. Vallely reminds readers that bowhead whales — a creature they encounter near their comparatively tiny vessel — weigh roughly the same as the space shuttle. Musk oxen and caribou wander through. People in sailboats, on jet skis, and a lone kayaker attempting the same route cross their path. More numerous than human habitations are Distant Early Warning Line stations spread across the continental cusp to their south. They stand as relics of the Cold War, and though they are now operated remotely, the men are detected by camera while nosing around one site and ordered by loudspeaker to leave. And the ghosts of the Franklin Expedition haunt these pages more than once.
Vallely's decision to recount the voyage in present tense helps readers feel like they're along for the ride. His account of the modern Arctic is gripping. We have plenty of stories about the region from the golden age of exploration, but modern tales are fewer. More are sure to come, but in the meantime, "Rowing the Northwest Passage" will provide the curious with a place to start.