In Franklin's wake
Lead rower Kevin Vallely and filmmaker Frank Wolf, both of North Vancouver, Irish adventurer Paul Gleeson and compatriot Denis Barnett hope to complete their journey in 75 days. In doing so, the adventurers hope to focus the world's attention on climate change.
"It's never been done before because it could never have been done before," said Vallely in the days leading up to the expedition's launch. Their maritime adventure is possible only now because of seasonal sea ice melt and deterioration due to climate change.
Research shows the Arctic is warming at a rate of almost twice the global average - creating mixed emotions in Vallely.
"I'd prefer not to be able to do it, frankly," said the elite adventurer, residential designer and father of two.
"Fifteen or 20 years ago you'd need a steel-hulled icebreaker to get across. And now we're going to traverse it in a rowboat," Vallely said of his team's planned route through the ice-strewn passage. "I mean, Jesus, what's happening? We are hoping in a very poignant way to articulate what's happening just through this adventure."
The adventurers were in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories Wednesday, fine-tuning their specially designed craft, The Arctic Joule, with the goal of reaching their destination in Pond Inlet, Nunavut on the east side of Baffin Island, in early fall.
The team is calling their adventure the Mainstream Last First expedition because the journey is one of the Earth's last great firsts for elite adventurers.
Vallely had the idea for the expedition 15 years ago in conversation with friend and fellow adventurer Jerome Truran, the Victoria kayaker who in June was attempting to break the world record for fastest circumnavigation of Vancouver Island by sea kayak.
"We were chatting about various adventures. One of the 'last firsts' still left undone was traversing the northwest passage under human power in a season. No one had come close. People had tried by kayak but it had taken many, many seasons to get across," said the 48-year-old Lynn Valley resident. "At the time it was impossible. It was just this idea. Fifteen years ahead, move forward and things have changed enough that it's doable."
Vallely said that following his record-breaking trek to the South Pole in 2009 he had a different Arctic adventure in mind.
"Interestingly, a real passion of mine was to ski to the North Pole. And I'd been trying to figure out a way to do that. We pretty well abandoned the idea because it's impossible. The season is too short, the ice is too bad."
The four men plan to row in continuous shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Title sponsor Mainstream Renewable Power, which operates wind and solar farms on four continents, picked up the tab for the Arctic Joule, which was constructed and outfitted at a cost of about $100,000.
(WOULDN'T IT BE INTERESTING TO AUDIT THE EXPEDITION BOOKS? WORD ON THE STREET IS THAT IT RAN WAY OVER BUDGET AND MRP DONATED $250,000. WHO CARES, BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT IF "FAST EDDIE" WAS A BETTER BUSINESS MAN HE WOULD BE OFFERING MRP PRODUCTS WHICH COULD MAKE A 20 YEAR CONTRIBUTION TO RENEWABLE ENERGY RATHER THAN A ONE SHOT DARE DEVIL STUNT... BUT MIGHT EDDIE BE ROLLING THE DICE KNOWING THAT IF AN EMERGENCY OCCURS - CAPSIZE - BEAR ATTACK - ETC THAT THE PRESS COVERAGE WOULD BE PRICELESS....LOL)
The vessel was built specifically for this expedition by Vancouver Island boat builder Robin Thacker and designed to withstand the harsh elements of the Canadian Arctic. It's constructed from marine plywood with layers of foam and fiberglass reinforced with Kevlar to potentially withstand encounters with ice.
(A KAYAK DESIGNER BUILDS HIS FIRST OCEAN ROWBOAT WHICH FAILS A SIMPLE CAPSIZE TEST... MAKES ABOUT AS MUCH SENSE AS MELTING ICE MAKES ROWING IN THE ARCTIC POSSIBLE... BOYS AND THEIR TOYS. DENIAL!)
The eight-metre vessel has two small cabins where the team will rest when not rowing.
Fully loaded, it weighs about a metric tonne, or 2,000 pounds. "It's a beast of a boat," said Vallely.
The men will be rowing in dry suits, with neoprene coldwater immersion suits on deck in case of emergency. Also on deck is a four-person emergency raft and emergency beacon. The team plan to connect daily to home base by satellite phone.
Even with such precautions, the expedition is not without risk.
"There's lots of ice floating around and all sorts of nastiness that could crush a boat," Vallely said. "We have to be very cautious about ice moving around us, as well as polar bears and you name it."
One catastrophe the team does not want to face is that which scuttled Canadian Olympian Adam Kreek and his team, who were attempting to row across the Atlantic in April when a rogue wave capsized their boat north of Puerto Rico.
"They rolled and they stayed upside down, which would be really, really, really dangerous in Arctic waters, and so we don't have any interest in doing that," said Vallely. "They were doing a transition from one crew to the other so their hatch in the stern was open and suddenly they had 2,000 pounds of water pouring in to the boat, flipping it and anchoring it upside down. We're up in colder conditions and we're going to be very, very concerned about keeping that hatch door closed at all times."
The team are documenting their journey on their blog and through video footage. On the expedition's website, mainstreamlastfirst.com, audiences can post messages, expect a reply, and follow the team's progress on the GPS-enabled Trip Tracker map.
These modern-day explorers may be making history but they're also revisiting it.
"It's high seas adventure with a huge historical component," says Vallely.
"If you think about all the names: Hudson, Baffin, Frobisher, Franklin, Vancouver, Mackenzie, Cartier - all these names were individuals looking for the Northwest Passage who didn't succeed at finding it, and charted Canada in a sense."
The team is working with scientific research partners at Vancouver Aquarium, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Rangers.
They'll be collecting data for the Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch program, or CROW.
The program measures and monitors environmental changes and provides early warnings of ecosystem shifts in Canada's Arctic. The crew will use a small device called a CTD to collect the data. The CTD resembles a white pipe with a cable attached at the top, less than a metre long and weighing about three kilograms. The device measures five key components of Arctic water: conductivity (salt content), depth, temperature, oxygen and chlorophyll.
(POST YOUR RESEARCH DATA TO YOUR PUBLIC WEBSITE - AND ASK ONE OF YOUR ROCKET SCIENTISTS TO MAKE A STATEMENT OF RESEARCH... AND DATA CORRELATION REVIEW - I BET IT NEVER HAPPENS... ITS JUST MORE BUZZ-WORD HYPERBOLA.)
Inuit hunters in four northern communities are using the same equipment to collect similar data for the CROW program.
The collected data paints a picture of Arctic water from the surface down to the bottom, said Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium's director of Arctic programs and a North Vancouver resident.
Said Solomon, "Despite how important the Arctic is, there's not a lot of information of this kind in the areas where they're going and so every time that thing goes in the water and comes back up again, the data are useful and interesting."
Sixty-seven per cent of Canada's coastline is Arctic coastline, Solomon said. "That's longer than the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines combined.
"Canada is an Arctic country and there's still so much we don't know about it, and we know it's changing so fast. It's one of the reasons the kind of research these guys are collecting is important. While a single snapshot is interesting, what this allows is to continue collecting this kind of data and see how things are changing over time, and we just don't have those kind of pictures very well right now."
Solomon said the data will be used by policy makers and scientists as well as the aquarium to help audiences better understand the Arctic. Northern communities will also benefit from the research, which is expected to show how changes to Arctic water impact the food chain.
While the Mainstream Last First team is racing against the clock to complete their journey before the ice closes in, the world is struggling in its own race to fight against the profound effects that climate change is having on the environment.
"We're in a real race," said Solomon. "The Arctic is changing faster, almost two times faster than just about anywhere else on earth. And we don't understand it very well as it currently is let alone how it's changing.
"And these things matter."