“Arctic Cowboys” Team Completes First-ever Sea Kayak Navigation of Northwest Passage

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It’s a big, big first. An expedition team dubbed “The Arctic Cowboys,” led by Explorer’s Club member West Hansen, completed the first kayak navigation of the entire, infamous Northwest Passage (NWP) on October 8, 2023 at 3:12 pm Mountain Time.

Crossing over Cape Bathurst, the four explorers, also including Jeff Wueste, Mark Agnew, and Eileen Visser, ended their arduous journey where the Northwest Passage opens into the Beaufort Sea, the internationally recognized western boundary of the Northwest Passage. The team began their expedition officially when they crossed from Baffin Bay into Lancaster Strait, the internationally recognized eastern boundary. Paddling Seaward Passat G3 tandem kayaks, the team kayaked over over 83 days, beginning July 18, without assistance from sails or any propulsion other than their own paddles, making them the first to navigate the Northwest Passage under their own power—completing the route in a single season.

Paddling Life caught up with ringleader Hansen for his take on the expedition, which the team attempted unsuccessfully last year. (Read more at: https://thearcticcowboys.com)

PL: How hard was it? Harder than you expected?

Hansen: It was harder in some ways than I expected, specifically working with team members I didn’t know ahead of time and their different personality traits. I’ve grown accustomed to expeditions with Jeff Wueste and other people I know well that it took little effort to communicate and work out differences; whereas a new set of teammates created challenges I naively didn’t anticipate.

As for the actual kayaking, the final three weeks were particularly difficult, due to the onset of winter, the “down days” in the tent awaiting decent weather windows and the rough wind/wave conditions that pushed the envelope for some team members’ skill levels. Fortunately, we were patient and made it through successfully, but the waiting time was trying on all of us.

PL: Sounds like better weather and logistics than the 2022 attempt.

Hansen: We had less storms during the first portion of the expedition than we had in 2022, mostly because we departed a month earlier; however, the weather at the end of this year’s expedition was extremely cold and rough.

PL: How hard was it overall compared to the Volga and Amazon expeditions? 

Hansen: Different, but overall harder. The Volga was by far the easiest, since we hit a major city every few days and the weather was very nice. The first 500-miles of the Amazon was uncharted Class V+ whitewater and I had some experts around keeping me alive, so that was harder in some ways, plus I was a mere child of 50 at the time. The final few hours of the Amazon were harrowing, whereas, we had a lot of freezing cold, harrowing wave action the last few weeks of the NWP. So, overall, I’d say the Passage takes the cake for hardest of the three.

PL: What was the hardest/most trying moment? 

Hansen: Several, but the most trying for me came right near the end, when we were a few hundred yards from crossing Cape Bathurst into the Beaufort Sea. While Jeff and I stayed just outside 24-foot breakers built up by winds coming from the northeast towards a long shoal, Mark and Eileen made a beeline for the calm waters between these massive breakers and the shoal. There was a calmer space of about 100 yards in there that looked appealing to them. Unfortunately, such a condition when huge waves break that far from a shoreline or shoal means the depth of the water in that calm area could be anywhere from a few inches to a few short feet. The danger comes when one of these huge breakers, or a set of them, propels the kayak towards the beach or shoal and the bow or edge of the kayak digs into the shallow seabed and the kayak pitch-poles against the wave. This could be deadly dangerous, so when we realized Mark and Eileen where heading in that direction, I yelled at them to turn towards us as quickly as they could. They reacted slower than I hoped and gradually turned back out to sea, where Jeff and I waited beyond the breakers, but not before encountering some big breakers which launched their kayak halfway into the air before slamming down the backside of the mountainous waves. Jeff and I held our breaths, wondering if they would flip in the air and land upside down or roll in a breaker. We don’t know how we could have rescued them and, truthfully, we may not have been able to do so. Of all the trying moments, I’d say this was probably the worst.

We were also given wrong information on when to enter the treacherous tides of Bellot Strait and instead of having a nice fast 7-knot flow to propel us through in our direction, we were met with icebergs the sizes of houses and cars moving towards us at 7 knots and whirlpools that formed in seconds, big enough to swallow our 23-foot kayaks. We had to hide in the eddy of a large rock feature, then sprint between swiftly moving icebergs to the safety of shore at the risk of being crushed. One minute we were paddling calmly along and, quite literally, within three minutes our lives were threatened by the wave of water being forced through the strait, carrying huge chunks of ice.

PL: Was that your closest call?

Hansen: Yes, but another came while we negotiated our way through a fast-moving ice flow coming from Lancaster Strait south into Prince Regent Inlet and both of our kayaks were almost crushed. A lead would open, then quickly close and what appeared to be a benign route would instantly become a dynamic threatening situation. We saved ourselves by crawling upon the large ice sheets and dragging the kayaks from one chunk of fast-moving ice to another, until we gained the edge of the flow and quickly launched, then sprinted to the safety of land a mile away.

PL: Best moment of the trip? 

Hansen: Hearing a storm end in the middle of the night and knowing we could make progress the next day.

PL: How important was it to you to do it in a single season?

Hansen: Very important, for several reasons. I put most of my portion of the expedition on credit and I simply can’t afford to come again. I’ll be working a long time to pay this off. I’ve always believed the NWP could be accomplished in a single season and really wanted to prove this point, primarily to emphasize the extent of the change the warming effects are having upon the arctic.

PL: And then what’s your take on how climate change is affecting the Passage?

Hansen: Due to the diminishing sea ice, drift ice and fast ice, the NWP will soon become the go-to for shipping between Europe and Asia. The route is much shorter, doesn’t have cyclones or hurricanes and there will be no waiting lines or fees, as there are for the Panama Canal. The NWP will quickly become industrialized and I’m glad I got to see it before it is changed by the onset of industry.

PL: How hard was it to deal with the ice that was still there?

Hansen: It wasn’t technically difficult, so long as we respected the danger the drift ice posed if we made mistakes. It was most frustrating at times dealing with fast ice (ice adhering to the shore) because we couldn’t get to shore to make camp.

PL: Does it reaffirm your appreciation of all other attempts at the Passage?

Hansen: I’m a history buff and have read most of the accounts of other expeditions to and through the Passage. It was an honor to be in the same places I read about and experience the grandeur, solitude and unique aspects of the Passage described by these early explorers. I also appreciate the kayakers and rowers who attempted the Passage, and from whose attempts I learned a great deal, and which contributed directly to our success.

PL: What’s next?

Hansen: I’m not sure, but I can assure you there are many expeditions on the horizon for me. Right now, I want to spend some time with my bride of 33 years. Tomorrow is our anniversary and I’m looking forward to making up some lost time with her.

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