Vancouver-based adventurers plan to row small boat through Northwest Passage next summer

·National Affairs Contributor

The immortal Stan Rogers summed up the lure of the Northwest Passage best.

"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 wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea."

For centuries, explorers from Martin Frobisher to the doomed expeditions of Henry Hudson and John Franklin sought an ice-free route across the top of the world to link Europe with Asia.

Roald Amundsen finally made it in a three-year odyssey between 1903-06. But it wasn't until 1940 that the RCMP ship St. Roch made the first successful west-to-east transit through the Passage from Vancouver to Halifax.

Now its magnetic attraction has drawn a group of modern adventurers with a unique objective — become the first to row the length of the Northwest Passage in a single season. They've dubbed it The Last First.

A team of four to six, led by Vancouver architect Kevin Vallely and Irish trans-Atlantic rower Paul Gleeson, plans to row from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, east through the Passage to Pond Inlet, Nunavut, starting next July 1.

The group, which includes Canadian filmmaker Frank Wolf, Denis Barnett, another Irish expat living in Vancouver like Gleeson, and Ray Zahab.

The project kicked off its one-year countdown in Vancouver this week as it works to raise $200,000 and sign up sponsors.

The small boat, being designed and built in Britain, will cost $100,000. The other $100,000 will be fore gear, clothing and equipment.

"The design of it will be quite unique," Vallely, an experienced Arctic trekker whose feats include traversing the South Pole and Siberia's frozen Lake Baikal, said in an interview with Yahoo! Canada News.

Unlike conventional ocean rowing boats, the Northwest Passage vessel will incorporate features to help it cope with the harsh winds and ice of Arctic waters.

Vallely said the final size of the boat — 26 to 28 feet — and the number of crew members hasn't been decided. But however many there are, the plan is to row around the clock under the midnight sun.

"The beauty is because it's the Arctic we're actually going to be rowing 24/7," he said.

Vallely estimated the journey could take from 70 to 80 days, which gives them very little margin for error between "first fracture," when the icebound waters become navigable in July, and freeze-up in the Eastern Arctic three months later.

"It's not a lot of time," he said.

The boat's route is about 1,800 nautical miles, Gleeson told Yahoo! Canada News, but currents and detours could make it much longer.

"The Atlantic was 2,500 miles-plus," he said. "But we rowed closer to 3,000-3,500 miles."

Ice and wind present significant challenges, said Gleeson.

"When you row an ocean you've got weather to contend with but you don't have anything that can trap you in and hold you up, so the ice conditions are going to be very significant, as are the winds," he said.

The expedition could also encounter polar bears, he added, and is seeking advice from northerners on how to deal with them.

And with survivability in the icy water around five minutes, tipping over is a non-starter, he noted.

Vallely has been nurturing the idea of rowing the Northwest Passage for 15 years, since having a conversation with a fellow adventurer about the last unchallenged frontiers. Thus, The Last First.

"It just sat there for me," he said. "At the time it was an impossible thing to do because of the ice conditions."

Climate change, which has increased the Passage's ice-free period and increased international pressure to turn the Canadian-claimed waters into an international shipping route, has helped make the expedition possible now.

[Relaed: As ice cap melts, militaries vie for Arctic edge ]

Despite the 24/7 rowing schedule and the relatively short time window, the trip won't be non-stop.

The boat will make stops at coastal communities to focus attention to life in the Canadian Arctic. The expedition will be in touch with the world via a specially built satellite smart phone.

"When we come into communities, which is very important to us when we do this trip, we like to meet with the people that live there, the native people," said Vallely.

They'll also stock up on provisions there, if only because Vallely expects residents will insist on showing hospitality.

"The last thing we're going to do is say no to that, so our unsupported status is destroyed," he said. "We don't really care."

But that leaves open the door to a future unsupported run through the Passage, he added.

"How then am I so different from the first men through this way?" Rogers sang.

"Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away.
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men
To find there but the road back home again."

(Handout photo)

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