Recognizing the Difference between Purpose and Goals

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By Kevin Vallely: Explorer, Peak Teams Facilitator, Author


In the opening pages of my new book Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear and Awe in a Rising Sea I am faced with the impermanence of goals while leading an expedition into the unknown.



The tortured form of a decaying piece of ice glides past us and disappears again into the fog, a weary foot soldier returning home from some distant battle. The hair-raising action of the last couple days has frayed our nerves, and rowing our boat blindly around the Arctic headland of Cape Parry between large chunks of ice isn’t helping. The wind died at two-thirty this morning when a cold, stagnant Arctic air mass took its place and we jumped at our opportunity to move. This is the first calm weather we’ve experienced in days, and we treat it as a change in our fortunes. We couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s July 31, 2013, as Frank Wolf and I are rowing our four-person ocean rowing boat, the Arctic Joule, through the waters of the Amundsen Gulf on the Northwest Passage. Our teammates, Paul Gleeson and Denis Barnett, are resting in the stern cabin awaiting their turn on the oars. The visibility is a mere fifty yards, but we’re forced to travel solely by the aid of GPS and compass. We know we’re close to the cape from the steady thump of waves against cliff, but we see nothing.


The seas change as we round Cape Parry, with house-sized rollers, dark and foreboding, rising out of nowhere, sweeping beneath our hull and disappearing again into the murk. The rhythm of the swell is like the deep breathing of some oceanic giant rousing from its slumber, the crash of wave on rock its wake-up call.


We rise and fall with the pulse of the ocean, but we’re blind in this world of white. The steady rumble of surf to starboard helps us navigate, and the sound of breaking waves feels ominous. It’s not long before the echoes from the cape begin to surround us—one moment to starboard, then to port, then back to starboard again—and we become completely disoriented. “We need to get away from these cliffs,” I yell to Frank.

“It’s too dangerous this close to the cape.” The sound of breaking waves envelops us. “We’re spinning in circles,” Frank says after checking the GPS. “We’re caught in a current or something.”

We try everything to right ourselves, but it’s hopeless; our boat is gripped by an invisible force and we can’t regain control. In the confusion we fail to notice the building wind until it explodes upon us, driving us straight out to sea. Just offshore, about six miles away, sits the pack ice, and we’re now headed straight for it. If we reach it, we’ll be crushed.

I clamber into the cabin and check the navigation screen of our onboard GPS. I wonder if we have space to outrun the pack ice if we fight the wind and head south. The pack ice is big, the winds are intensifying, and we don’t have control of the boat.

“Not likely,” I mumble. As I stare blankly at the navigation screen, I see it. I hadn’t noticed it earlier on the handheld GPS, but there appears to be an island between us and the pack. Called Bear Island, it’s a mere speck, maybe a hundred yards wide, but if we can make it there, we might save ourselves. It’s our only chance.

We hold a straight line going southeast, 45 degrees to the wind-driven waves, and start rowing for all we’re worth. The seas continue to build and the fog remains thick. The waves are hitting us hard to starboard as we battle cross seas to a point several miles upwind from the island and make our turn. The scream of the wind dies immediately and we start to glide with it. “It’s like landing a paraglider on a postage stamp,” Frank says, the only words we’ve shared in the last thirty minutes. Surfing among the white-capped rollers, we race toward our invisible island in the fog.

When we’re within a mile or two, I scream to Paul and Denis to get out on deck. “Put on your dry suits, guys!” They scramble out of the cabin, fully aware of what’s been unfolding.

“Tell us when you see the island,” I shout. It becomes obvious now that facing backward in a rowboat can be very impractical at times.

“We’re four hundred meters out,” Frank yells (about four hundred yards), “Do you see anything?”

“Nothing,” Paul replies. 
A moment later, Frank yells, “Two hundred meters out.”

“Nothing,” Paul says. “Wait a moment, I think I see—”
We all hear it before we see it—the deep, resonating thud of wave against cliff. I strain my neck over my left shoulder to see Bear Island ringed in steep cliffs, huge waves, and little hope.

Our island refuge is no salvation at all.




Miraculously we make it onto Bear Island and are faced with a stark reality that we had never prepared for - the prospect of failure at achieving our goal. How we ended up responding to this realization will shape the rest of our journey and, in many ways, the rest of our lives.

Just a month earlier we had set out to row the infamous Northwest Passage in the Canada High Arctic to highlight to the profound changes shaping our world. Our goal was as extraordinary as it was bold, to do something that has never been done before because it could never have been done before, but now our goal was now slipping away.

Perennially, the Arctic has been locked in ice and impenetrable to all but a steel hulled icebreaker but things have begun to change. The Arctic is now melting long enough in summer months to allow the passage of smaller vessels and our intention was to cross it solely under human power in a single season to speak to those immense changes.

Sitting on the rocky islet of Bear Island, halfway through our journey, we are faced with the grim reality that goal to traverse the Northwest Passage was likely unachievable.

We were at a crossroads. Our goal is to traverse the Northwest Passage from end to end to bring awareness to the changes happening in the Arctic. Our journey across the passage was proving more challenging and treacherous than we ever anticipated and it was likely wouldn’t complete it in totality. What appeared to be a failure at first blush was not after all. Our voyage was drawing more public attention than we could have ever hoped because of the challenges that were hindering us. We were failing to achieve our goal of traversing our entire route but were succeeding tremendously at our purpose.

On Bear Island we stared down the failure of a goal and moved beyond it. Recognizing the difference between goals and purpose saved our expedition and allowed us to achieve our purpose of documenting and sharing the dramatic changes unfolding in the Arctic today.