NORTHWEST PASSAGE

"Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea."

 

-Stan Rogers

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.

It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Passage was sole domain of steel-hulled ice-breakers.

We hope by traversing the Northwest Passage completely under human power in a row boat, without sail or motor, in a single season ...

... we will be able to demonstrate first-hand the profound affects climate change is having on our world.