Click here for the latest on the Arctic Row expedition.
My photoblog, Rutilous, includes images from Arctic Tow.
Click here for the latest on the Arctic Row expedition.
My photoblog, Rutilous, includes images from Arctic Tow.
You heard it here first! The Arctic Row team has ended their row at Point Hope AK, where tonight they are being honored at a special celebration hosted by the residents of this predominately Inupiat village of 700. Their boat is now on land, awaiting shipment by barge back to the Lower 48, and the crew hopes to fly to Anchorage by tomorrow afternoon; from there they’ll scatter to their respective homes.
In the end, the crew wasn’t able to reach their intended destination of Provideniya, Russia (what locals are calling “the worst summer weather” they’ve ever seen kept the crew pinned down until their time and supplies finally ran out). Nonetheless, they managed to row approximately 1,000 miles on the Arctic Ocean, from Inuvik, Northwest Territories to Point Hope, through ice, fierce storms and heavy seas. They tell us they have some amazing stories to share (stories they didn’t want to tell until they were off the water, for fear of frightening us). So keep checking the Arctic Row website for their first-hand reports!
We hope to meet up with the boys tomorrow night in Anchorage. We can’t wait!
Thanks to all of you for following the row and for all your positive thoughts and prayers!
Nadine and I still have a lot of traveling yet to do (tonight we’re in a campground at Denali National Park), and now that the boys are safely on land, we hope to find the emotional energy to post photos and stories of our own again!
I admit it: I’m a terrible blogger. The last entry I posted described the Arctic Row launch in Inuvik, back on July 17; that was 2 1/2 weeks ago!
I can only say, in my defense, that being an ocean rower’s parent is hard work. Even though I’ve been through this before, during Paul’s Atlantic row, I’d forgotten all the emotional energy that gets expended as you wait for the next call or tweet or web posting. Nadine’s done a great job of posting updates about the two of us on her own blog, Nadine Images, and I refer you to her posts for the news about us. As for me, I’ve been spending my spare time plotting the boys’ position on Google Earth, checking weather and ice maps, and talking with our daughter Joy, the communications coordinator for the row. (Joy’s also been doing a great job writing blog posts for the Arctic Row website!)
In brief, Nadine and I lingered in Inuvik for three more days after the boys launched, then we headed back down the Dempster Highway. Unfortunately, the boys weren’t making the progress we had hoped for, so we stayed another three days in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, at the south end of the Dempster, just in case we had to make a run back up to Inuvik. Finally, when the team had crossed the 151st meridian into Alaskan waters, we felt it was safe to go on to Alaska. We dropped the empty boat trailer at a gas station in Tok, AK, and went on, unencumbered, to Fairbanks.
We spent the next 8 days in Fairbanks, sightseeing and following the team’s progress. The boys eventually passed Prudhoe Bay (the last spot on their route with road access) and then reached Point Barrow, at the most northerly part of Alaska — the psychological half-way point of the row (it’s all southward from there). At that point, we felt to was OK to move on to Anchorage and points south.
Right now, the boys seem to be trapped by a storm in the harbor at Barrow, just off shore from town. They may have to spend up to five days there, waiting out a serious storm — the only consolation being that they can pick up the town’s cell phone signal.
In the meantime, Nadine and I are trying to start a new phase in our trip, and we’ve planned a series of hikes along the Turnigan Arm (a fiord south of Anchorage) and the Kenai Peninsula. With the boys stuck but safe, I may even have enough energy to take some pictures!
As we noted yesterday, the Arctic Row team finally “splashed” around 1:40 PM on Tuesday, July 17. Here’s how it went down…
By Monday night, at last, all systems (GPS, radios, water-maker, etc.) had passed their final tests and the boat had been fully loaded, except for the crew’s personal items. Importantly, a representative from the Canadian Coast Guard office had stopped by the boat (at our campsite) to discuss navigational charts and route options with the crew.
At about 8:00 Monday evening, Nadine and I shared a pre-launch supper with the crew at the Mackenzie Hotel. Everyone was in a mellow, almost reflective mood. The delays leading up to this point had caused any lingering anxiety about the row to give way to a genuine eagerness to get the expedition under way. We’ve enjoyed getting to know the members of the crew, and we have lots of confidence in their ability to face the challenges ahead!
On Tuesday morning we picked up the crew at their hotel at about 10 AM; they were freshly showered and ready to row. Nadine and I dropped them off at the Coast Guard office for a final review of their route through the Delta, while the two of us went to the campsite and hooked up the boat trailer. When the crew rejoined us, we took the boat to the truck wash to give the deck a final wash-down. Then we headed for the Town Dock to launch the boat.
Crew members still had to stow some of their personal items, and several trips to the nearby hardware store had to be made, for last-minute items (including, at the suggestion of the Coast Guard, a fish net for scooping up Arctic Char).
A small group of locals and tourists gathered to watch the launch, and a reporter from the Canadian Broadcast Corp. took some pictures. One local man bought sandwiches for us and the crew. An Inuit man who was watching, along with his elderly father, commented that the crew was retracing the steps that his people had trod centuries before, when they migrated from the Russian mainland, across Alaska, and into northern Canada.
Once the boat was floated off the trailer and tied to the floating dock, the crew paused for one last photo, with their Explorer’s Club flag prominently displayed. Then they pushed off into the current, and Arctic Row had begun!
Nadine and I stood at the dock and watched until the rowboat disappeared around a bend in the river. We could have driven up the road several miles to the point where the ice roads enter the Mackenzie (in winter, of course), to watch them row by. But we felt that would have been anti-climactic for all of us.
Since the launch, we’ve been watching the crew’s progress on the map on their website (www.arcticrow.com). [The display shows their current position every 10 minutes, and archives the last 49 position reports, covering the previous 8 hours and twenty minutes.] They’ve been making excellent progress through the Delta and have gone over 70 miles, as the crow flies (actually rowing much farther than that, given the winding character of the waterway).
At around 8 PM tonight (Wednesday) we received a satellite call from Paul, reporting that their batteries and their stomachs were full and all was well. He said that during their next shift (they’re experimenting with three-hour shifts now) they will probably leave the Delta behind and enter the Beaufort Sea. We’ll be up early tomorrow morning to check the website!
The crew is doing so well that we’re considering leaving Inuvik tomorrow and heading back down the Dempster with the empty boat trailer. We’ll be heading toward Alaska, where there’s one more road that leads north to the Arctic coast, just in case the trailer should be needed.
Arctic Row 2012 is under way!
At 1:39 PM (MDT) the Arctic Row team rowed out into the waters of the Mackenzie River from the Town Boat Launch in Inuvik NWT, with Paul Ridley and Neal Mueller at the oars.
Before their launch the crew, including rowers Collin West and Scott Mortensen, received a thorough update from Canadian Coast Guard officials regarding their route through the Mackenzie Delta to the Beaufort Sea; two members of the Canadian Search and Rescue Service also stopped by to wish the crew well as they began their 2,000 km journey. A small crowd of townspeople also gathered to watch the launch.
The weather is promising, and all were in good spirits as they surmounted several days of logistical delays and began their history-making attempt to become the first to row, non-stop and unsupported, across the Arctic Ocean from one continent to another.
Follow the progress of Arctic Row 2012 at www.ArcticRow.com.
Photos of the launch will follow…
Water-maker problems — the bane of all ocean rowers — ate through most of the day. But everything looks good for a morning launch tomorrow (Tuesday).
The entire Arctic Row team has now arrived here in Inuvik. Paul arrived on Wednesday; rowers Collin West and Neal Mueller arrived on Friday, and Scott Mortenson (rower and videographer) arrived yesterday (Saturday).
Collin and Neal brought with them a flag of the Explorer’s Club, which will go with them on their row; the flag has previously been on a number of adventures, including summiting Mt. Everest!
On Friday night, we went to the opening ceremonies of the Great Northern Arts Festival, an annual Inuvik event which draws scores of artists from around the North. The highlight of the ceremonies was a performance by the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers, featuring their native music and dance. Collin responded to their invitation, and joined them in one of the dances. He’s a natural!
The mayor of Inuvik has instructed all town employees to give the team every assistance, and dropping the mayor’s name seems to work wonders. The Dempster Highway has been closed since last Monday, due to heavy rains that washed out parts of the roadway, flooded one of the campgrounds and broke the cable that guides the little ferry across the Peel River. What’s more, the town has been under a boil-water advisory since Wednesday. So the team was concerned about getting the 200 liters of water they need to carry as ballast (and as emergency water rations). But, with help from the mayor, they were not only able to get the water at cost; the store owner even delivered it right to the boat!
Although the boat is largely ready to go (much of yesterday was spent washing the boat and putting on the last sponsor decals, so it now looks like a NASCAR race car), the team is still doing the final sorting and packing of personal items. And two major questions still haven’t been resolved: (1) how do we get the boat in the water (i.e., do we back the trailer into the river at the town boat launch, or do we find a boat lift that can lift the boat from the trailer and deposit it in the water?), and (2) which route should the team take to the Beaufort Sea (the longer route up the broad East Channel of the Mackenzie past Tuk, or the shorter, more meandering and potentially confusing westerly route toward Aklavik?).
It may take until Monday before these questions are settled and Arctic Row begins for real. Stay tuned!
A week ago today Nadine and I took a 60-mile excursion to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk for short), an Inuvialuit village on the shores of the Beaufort Sea (an arm of the Arctic Ocean). The trip involved a 5-hour boat trip up the Mackenzie Delta, cruising through narrow channels and wide stretches of river at about 25 mph (about 5 times faster than the Arctic Row team will be able to do). En route, we spotted a lynx swimming across the channel (too fast for my camera). We also stopped several times (to pick up a camper, to cache some gasoline, etc.), but each time we were overwhelmed with insects, so we didn’t stay long enough to explore.
As we drew near to Tuk, we passed several whale camps (seasonal camps where families stay during the hunting season for beluga whales). Our guide showed us his family’s camp, and said that about 40 family members gather there each summer for a few weeks of hunting. The four whales they typically kill provide enough food for their extended family of about 140 for the year. (They don’t eat it every day.)
Tuk itself is about as forlorn a town as you’ll ever find. Built on pilings above the gravel (to keep the permafrost from thawing), most of the structures are weather-beaten and neglected. We received a warm welcome, though, and our in-town guide took us to his home for a traditional lunch (mukluk [whale blubber], goose, dried whitefish). Then we walked a bit, passing the little log Anglican church on our way to a gravel beach, where some in our party of 10 dipped a toe in the Arctic Ocean.
We’ve now been in Inuvik for almost a week. Last Sunday we took a boat trip north, through the Mackenzie Delta, to Tuktoyaktuk, an Inuvialuit village on the Arctic Coast. But the reality of the upcoming row didn’t really begin to set in until Paul arrived on Wednesday.
We picked him up at the airport and then took him to our campsite, where we’ve relocated the boat. (Here we’ve got access to electricity and water, and it’s far less muddy than the lot at Matco.) He’s spent most of his time in the aft cabin, working on electronics and the water maker. Last night we installed the wind generator, which (along with the solar panels) will provide power for the boat’s electronics.
This afternoon the rest of the crew will arrive, which should add a new layer of excitement to the scene. The opening ceremonies of the Great Northern Arts Festival also take place tonight; we’re hoping we can all attend.The launch of Arctic Row is still set for Sunday, though I think there’s a good possibility it could slip to Monday. We’ll keep you posted!
Getting to Inuvik, Northwest Territory, entails three distinct phases. First, you take the Alaska Highway, from its beginning in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory — a run of about 875 miles. Then from Whitehorse you take the Klondike Highway almost all the way to Dawson City, Yukon, about another 345 miles. Along the way you’ll have 8% grades, long sections of construction, unbelievable scenery and lots of wildlife sightings. And, except for the construction zones, you’ll have pavement to drive on.
Then there’s the Dempster Highway. It runs for 460 miles through some of the wildest and most beautiful country in North America. Except for couple of kilometers at both ends, it’s completely unpaved, with a road surface that varies from ordinary gravel, to mud the consistency of peanut butter, to shale fragments as sharp as arrowheads. The ground beneath the highway is permafrost, which seems stable enough at first but which turns to pudding if it melts. So the highway has been built on a berm (a high gravel strip, like you sometimes see for railroad tracks), in some places as much as 12 feet above the surrounding countryside. The road is so narrow that north- and south-bound vehicles share the same center track for their wheels, moving onto the shoulder when meeting oncoming traffic. There are almost no guardrails. Passing vehicles often throw up a spray of gravel, denting cars and shattering windshields. Two rivers (the Peel and the Mackenzie) have to be crossed on small ferries; the ferries have no docks; you just drive out onto gravel spits jutting out into the river, constantly reshaped and smoothed by bulldozer crews.
Needless to say, the Dempster is one of the most challenging drives in North America. But it’s also one of the most rewarding. Campers in the small territorial campgrounds along the way will hear wolves howling as they go to sleep. Motorists will see a kaleidoscope of scenery that can’t be driven through anywhere else on earth.
As Nadine and I set out on the Dempster at about 7 AM on Thursday, July 5, we were met with a sign that read, “No Services Next 370 KM” (230 miles). The first facility for gas, food and lodging, the Eagle Plains Lodge, is almost exactly at the midpoint of the Dempster.
We had a beautiful drive for the first 50 miles or so, stopping briefly at the new Visitor’s Centre at Tombstone Territorial Park (named for the Tombstone Mountains through which the road passes). We admired the view through North Fork Pass, but we continued on, remembering that we had a mission to complete.
A couple of hours later, about exactly halfway to Eagle Plains (where we planned to spend Thursday night), I looked in my side mirror and saw that the fender on my side of the boat trailer had become shaken loose and was dragging on the highway. Not too surprising.
When we stopped and got out to survey the situation, though, we both said to each other, “What’s that hissing noise? Is it the brakes?” It took a while to dawn on us that the left rear trailer tire (the trailer has two axles, one in front of the other) was losing air. As we watched, it went completely flat.
Ironically, while we were in Whitehorse, Nadine had noticed that one of the original trailer tires was looking worn, so we switched the worn tire for the new spare we had bought in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It was the new tire that had gone flat.
There was nothing to do but to get to work. We removed the half-disconnected fender and threw it in the boat, then we jacked up the trailer and changed the tire, putting the old, suspect tire back in its original place. Then we drove on, without a working spare, hoping that another flat wouldn’t leave us stranded along the highway.
When we finally rolled into Eagle Plains at about 5 PM, we went straight to the garage to see if they could repair our tire. As soon as we got out, we heard that same familiar hissing sound, this time from both sides of the trailer. incredibly, the rear tires on both sides of the trailer were going flat. (We had passed through a section of shale just a few miles earlier.)
The garage staff got to work on our three tires, fixing the Minneapolis tire first and putting it back where we had put it in Whitehorse, then repairing the other two tires and putting one of them on the passenger side and the other in the boat as our new spare. (They told us that all three tires had been punctured by stones.)
We camped on a little hill near the Eagle Plains Lodge. The camping area has one of the most impressive views of any campground in the world, with a near-270 degree view of mountains and tundra. Unfortunately, we were a little too tired and tense to fully appreciate it.
On Friday morning we were on the road again by 6:05. We drove along, drinking in the fantastic scenery, and crossed the Arctic Circle less than 25 miles beyond Eagle Plains (stopping to get a photo, of course).
Then, a couple of hours out of Eagle Plains, as we were climbing across the Richardson Mountains, we spotted a herd of caribou to the left side of the highway — hundreds and hundreds of them, stretching out at least a mile. At first those closest to the road ran when we stopped, but they soon slowed and resumed grazing as they drifted onward.
High on the hillside, a hunter was by his pickup truck, dressing a caribou he had killed. The Richardson Mountains are a traditional hunting ground for the Gwich’in First Nations people, who in ancient times used fences to funnel the migrating caribou into snares where they could be killed with spears. (Now they just use rifles.) Hunting by non-First-Nations people is highly regulated, and limited by season.
Watching the slowly moving caribou, from the hills above us to the valley below, and hearing them snort and chew as they grazed, was an amazing experience. It was also a rare one, since this area is part of the Porcupine Caribou’s winter range, and they are usually seen here only from September to late May. First Nations people we talked with later expressed puzzlement about this late migration, wondering if it might somehow be related to global climate change.
These are barren ground caribou — not woodland or mountain caribou, like those we had seen along the Alaska Highway. In the spring, they migrate to their calving grounds along the Beaufort Sea, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) in Alaska to the coastline of the Northwest Territory.
We spent more than an hour watching and photographing the caribou. Back on the road, we crossed from the Yukon to the Northwest Territory. A bit later (about 75 miles from Eagle Plains), I decided to check our tires, which had been fine when we stopped to view the caribou herd. Ugh! The same fateful (Minneapolis) tire was again losing air. We managed to change it in sixteen minutes and continue on our way. But once again we were without a working spare, with over 150 miles to go before reaching Inuvik.
Some time later, we crossed the Peel River on a tiny ferry, and we were treated to a visit to the wheelhouse by the captain, who was very interested in our boat. Just outside Fort McPherson we had our flat tire repaired once again, this time mounting the new tire from Eagle Plains as our working spare.
We covered the remaining distance in about two breathless hours. Once in the town of Inuvik, it took us a little while to locate Matco (the transport company where the boat is to be stored and worked on), but we finally pulled into the yard a little after 4:00 PM.
A man from the office helped us back the boat into a spot near the river. Then two crew members from a tugboat moored nearby came over to look at the boat. Keith and Sam were very impressed with the boat (“Really yar; a neat little scupper!” or some such nautical jargon) and told us to tell the Arctic Row crew to stop by their boat to look at charts and get the benefit of their experience. They could not have been friendlier.
Leaving the boat in the yard at Matco, we breathed a long sigh of relief and went to find a truck wash where we could clean the dust and mud off our RV. Then we went to our campground, near the center of town, and quietly celebrated the completion of our Arctic Tow mission. Whew!