Over a century later, melting sea ice and warmer weather is opening up the possibility to row through an ice-free corridor for the first time. For the Inuit, however, who call the region home, life is changing due to climate change as profoundly as it is for the disappearing sea ice and dwindling polar bear.
World Rowing spoke with three members of the North West Passage, NWP, 2021 expedition about their plans to row through the passage next year during the northern summer and what they expect to encounter.
Polar bears and other dangers
“The North West Passage has its own unique challenges and offers a totally different environment,” says Great Britain’s Claire Hughes, who turned her sights on this upcoming expedition following a world record setting row across the Atlantic Ocean in 2018/19.
“Possibly the most famous danger which will immediately occur to people when considering the Northwest Passage is that it is the realm of the mighty polar bear which, incidentally, can swim considerably faster than we can row!”
Along with bears come other Arctic dangers like ice, wind and freezing temperatures.
“We are likely to be wet for the majority of the time,” she adds. “So we will need to be careful to protect against the risk of hypothermia and frostbite.”
The expedition hopes to adopt a safety-in-numbers approach to ensure that they can rescue themselves in the event of an emergency.
“There are supposed to be three boats with five people per boat,” explains Philip Als.
Als rowed across the Atlantic almost 20 years ago and currently serves as president of the Kayak Association of Barbados. He will be 66 years old when the expedition sets out in 2021. Als is excited at the chance to keep learning new things and push his limits in support of the team.
“There will be people with different skills, but we all have to be able to deal with everything like we all have to be able to do suturing if someone gets cut.
“Any time you go on an adventure that great, there are always things on your mind. It is uncharted territory. This is the first great last. You don’t know what is impossible if you haven’t tried it.”
“It is of course also an environment which is rapidly changing and diminishing due to climate change, which is the very reason that endeavours such as these are now even possible.” That fact is troubling, says team member Mark Agnew, Hong Kong based Production Editor for Adventure Sports at the South China Morning Post.
“This is something that I’ve wanted to do had as an ambition for a long time and I am very sad that it is even possible.
“The last attempt had a pretty hellish time with the wind and the ice – I don’t even think the ice cleared that year. Since then the ice has been disappearing at 12 percent a year. In 2021, we’ll have almost a decade of additional degradation to help us, which is upsetting. We shouldn’t even be there.”
Shining a light on the destructive work of climate change is central to the team’s mission.
“Making our trip about more than just adventure is important for us,” says Agnew. “All of the effects of climate change are felt at an extreme way. It impacts everything from eco system to water system and also the Inuit. It is horrendous.”
Telling an important story
Even with the projections of less ice in their way, the team have a limited window of good weather and relatively warmer conditions during the arctic summer to make it through and share their story with the world.
“It took Norwegian explorer Roald Amunsden three years to complete the passage from 1903 through 1906,” says Agnew of the first successful voyage of a ship through the Arctic waters that link the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. “For our expedition, we have between July and September when the whole passage is open.”
Footage of the expedition will be turned into a film by renowned cinematographer Michael Pitts, whose award-winning work includes the BBC’s “Private Life of Plants” and “Blue Planet”.
“We are seeking to engage with the local Inuit as a part of the production team for the documentary,” says Hughes. “As well as seeking their advice and input on locations, we will also be interviewing certain members of the community to learn of their experiences first hand as well as documenting this and spreading their message to a much wider audience.”
The Northwest Passage conjures up all sorts of images for people,” says Hughes. “For some it’s a dramatic and perilous sea route which so many famous explorers – Sir Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, Captain Cook and Sir John Franklin to name but a few – attempted and failed to complete due to the brutal conditions experienced.
“For others it’s that unique and ethereal environment – a dramatic landscape of snow, ice and vicious seas; endless winter darkness and cold so intense that human skin can freeze in seconds followed by 24 hours daylight of the Artic summer; the amazing flora and fauna that can thrive in that environment; the fascinating people that make it their home; the dancing aurora borealis.
“And then others feel passionate about the changing environment. We have all seen the iconic images of polar bears stranded on individual pieces of floating ice and the implications of this.
“It is rarely an area to which people have an indifferent response and therefore an expedition such as this continues to elicit excitement and interest, something which is very much needed in the current climate.”
Find out more about the expedition here https://nwp2021.com