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Strength-sapping headwinds stopped Northwest Passage rowers well short of their goal

  • Author: Ned Rozell
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published September 21, 2013

Beavers and jet skis surprised four adventurers on their recent attempt to row across the Northwest Passage. Vancouver, B.C. residents Kevin Vallely, Paul Gleeson, Frank Wolf and Denis Barnett are now back home after the team stopped short of its goal of crossing the northern waterway on muscle power alone.

Ever-changing winds stalled their 25-foot rowing pod enough to put them weeks behind schedule. Consequently, the four men stopped rowing when they reached Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Their original goal was to transit the Northwest Passage from west to east, beginning at Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and finishing at Pond Inlet, Nunavut, on the east coast of Baffin Island. Cambridge Bay is about as far from Pond Inlet as Denver is from Washington, D.C.

"We were way behind schedule after the first month," Wolf said by phone from Vancouver just before biking downtown to be interviewed by a CBS News reporter. "Heavy winds didn't allow us to move very far."

The trip began July 5 as the men rowed the MacKenzie River toward the sea from Inuvik. They stopped when they reached Cambridge Bay on Aug. 28. Their completed trip length was like rowing from Fairbanks to Anchorage three times.

'Erratic wind from all directions'

Before the trip, the travelers heard about prevailing northwesterly winds that at times helped them move their bulbous 25-foot craft powered by two oarsmen at 8 kilometers per hour. But they experienced frequent wind changes that stopped their progress and often made them head for shore, where they would wrestle their 1-ton boat into the shallows.

"There was so much erratic wind from all directions," Wolf said. "The prevailing northwesterly did not exist. The Native hunters we met said it used to be consistent, but now there are two to three wind changes per day."

Wolf, a videographer who has recorded many expeditions, including a winter bike trip from Dawson City in the Yukon to Nome, on Alaska's west coast, interviewed locals along the path of this trip. He said climate change was a frequent theme of discussions.

"The deputy mayor in Tuktoyaktuk told us that even though there are no trees there, beavers have moved in and have been damming up local rivers (with driftwood)," Wolf said. "We saw one swimming in the ocean."

'Dangerous Waters'

Wolf also filmed a grizzly bear on Victoria Island. One day strange pinpoints of light approached. The lights belonged to four personal watercraft ridden by American men making an attempt to ride around the world. Their trip is part of a reality TV show, "Dangerous Waters."

On Sept. 6, less than a week after the rowers met the jet-skiers near Cambridge Bay, the crew of the Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker Sir Wilfred rescued the American jet-skiers and their support boat, trapped in thick ice between Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven. "Even those guys with all their power, speed and money couldn't conquer the ice," Wolf said.

The ice-clogged passage from Cambridge Bay northward was the result of a late continuation of the ice season and the vagaries of where wind blows ice, Wolf said.

"The people in Paulatuk didn't get freeze-up in their bay until last October," he said. "Winter was the same length for them, but it sort of started in March and got pushed into the summer season. There's this perception we were stopped by ice, but it was just a shift of the season rather than a return to the Ice Age."

"Ice wasn't the critical element slowing us down," team leader Kevin Vallely said from Vancouver. "It was the wind. Even though this year is going to be the sixth-lowest ice extent (in the satellite era), this year a lot of it got blown into the (Canadian) Archipelago."

As of Sept. 18, researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, had not yet announced the official end of the northern sea ice melt season, but did say that the Northwest Passage was more clogged with ice this year than any since 2007.

SS Manhattan voyage

In other Northwest Passage-related news, several readers contacted me regarding a column I wrote on the 1969 voyage of the SS Manhattan. The most passionate caller correctly pointed out that the voyage of the Manhattan from Pennsylvania to Alaska to New York 44 years ago did not prove the possibility of moving oil year-round through the Northwest Passage. While the giant Manhattan (which carried a supply of butter that weighed more than each of this year's rowers) was the first commercial ship to transit the passage, the ship made it through at the tail end of summer, when sea ice was thinnest.

When Humble Oil and Refining Company sponsored another Manhattan expedition beginning in April 1970, the ship, accompanied by the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent, turned back from northern Baffin Bay due to thick ice. Also, the Manhattan was underpowered in reverse, "which means it could get into trouble and have difficulty getting out of trouble," said 1969 Manhattan passenger Merritt Helfferich. The ship was dependent on Canadian and American icebreakers on both journeys.

Ned Rozell is a science writer with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.

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