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Making History on the Northwest Passage

Team aims to row legendary Arctic route, document climate change along the way.

By Sebastian Salamanca, 20 Jun 2013, TheTyee.ca

Crew of the 'Arctic Joule'

The crew of the 'Arctic Joule.' Photo by Claudia Calvo.

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They are four men with one small rowboat and a big, risky dream.

Denis Barnett, Paul Gleeson, Kevin Vallely and Frank Wolf will leave Vancouver next week, destined for the Northwest Passage.

The four Vancouver-based adventurers plan to be the first people to row this legendary route; a 3,000-kilometre journey through one of the harshest climates on the planet.

It's a feat attempted by few, and never before achieved by a human-powered vessel in a single season.

Carrying nothing more than a select stash of supplies, the group will face polar bears, potential food shortages and injuries, and the threat of losing their way.

Why take the risk? To raise awareness about climate change.

The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic sea, used to be covered with thick pack ice that made crossing a dangerous feat even for purpose-built ships made to withstand it.

However, global warming has melted Arctic ice to a point where, the men believe, a small rowing boat can now cross the passage, finding its way around ice floes.

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Denis Barnett, 33, joined the crew after meeting fellow Irishman Paul Gleeson. The trip was their crewmate Kevin Vallely's idea originally, Barnett said.

The fourth adventure, Frank Wolf, may not be a world-class rower like Gleeson, but his role in the group is different. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker planning to record the trip.

To Barnett, the idea is "to document everything from the adventure side of it, the fun we are going to have, the hardships and of course, the ultimate message is the climate change."

Barnett was at the Vancouver Maritime Museum when he took a break from working in the boat, the "Arctic Joule," to give The Tyee some insights about the trip they are about to start.

What's the route for this treacherous journey, and how long will it take?

"We'll drive from Vancouver all the way through B.C., the Yukon, all the way up to the Northwest Territories. We are going to put the boat down in a place called Inuvik, which is in the NWT, and there we are going to paddle down the Mackenzie River for about 150 kilometres and get to the start point, which is called Tuktoyaktuk.

"Tuktoyaktuk is basically a small settlement in the Arctic, up at the top of the NWT near the border of Canada and Alaska. Then we row west to east across the Northwest Passage, ending up in a place called Pond Inlet, which is on the far side of the Northwest Passage by Greenland.

"We estimate approximately 75 days [for the trip]. We're starting at the beginning of July, and by the end of September the ice is going to start to reform and it will get pretty cold, so as soon as the ice is back we are done. It's got to be less than 90 days, so we need to be there by mid-September at the latest."

Denis Barnett (left) and Paul Gleeson

Denis Barnett (left) and Paul Gleeson. Photo by Claudia Calvo.

I understand that some years ago it was impossible to make this trip.

"Climate change has changed everything in the Arctic. [The Northwest Passage] was once one of the most disruptive and impossible passages in the world. If we can row across it, that just shows you how dramatic the change has been. It was completely ridiculous to think that you could do this 20 years ago. That's how fast things are changing up there, that we can actually do this trip."

Has anyone tried this before?

"People have tried, but no one has ever done what we are trying to do before: to get across the Northwest Passage in a single season using just human power. We've been physically preparing for this for about 18 months."

What do you expect to be the biggest challenge?

"We will be rowing four hours on, four hours off for the most part. Apart from rowing 12 hours a day, seven days a week, sleep deprivation is a problem. There is 24-hour daylight up there, so trying to get sleep when we do have time will be an issue.

"It's a very small space to share with four people, for three months essentially, so there is the whole dynamic of the group that we have to be very well aware of, you know, when you have four people who don't really know each other very well. We have got to coexist, and the mental challenge can change everyday."

Tell us about the boat.

"The boat is a custom-built, ocean-rowing craft. It is a self-riding [propelled by oars], very strong boat, designed to pop-up on ice if we do get caught on an ice flow. If you squeeze it together, it will pop out of the water. It is essentially made of fibreglass and Kevlar, very strong but also slightly flexible."

See the 'Arctic Joule' in action. Video by Sebastian Salamanca.

It looks pretty small. How are you planning to carry supplies?

"We have a desalination plant on board, which will take sea water and filter it to make fresh water. We have freeze-dried food, so all the food will be made by adding boiling water and waiting 10 minutes. It is not great, but... we plan to bring around 80 days of food, and we are expecting to collect some food along the way.

"The comforts of home are not going to be there: we don't have a washroom, we don't have a shower, but these are the sacrifices you make for an expedition like this.

What do you think is going to be the most difficult part of the trip?

"From a physical point of view, it's going to take its toll. As time goes by, days and days, it grinds you down. It is going to be tough, and we all know that, but the biggest jolt we are going to find is seeing the change there. We are going somewhere that used to be completely soaked in by ice, and now there is nothing there.

"We will see how local people now deal with these circumstances, how nature, animals are struggling there. I think we are all going to learn a lot in this trip. Unfortunately, it is not going to be all good news. There is a crisis up there.

You are leaving in a week. How are you feeling?

"Excited and very nervous. We have been meticulous about our planning, but it is terrifying to even think of how bad things can get. We planned for the worst and hope for the best."

Stay tuned to The Tyee later this summer for an update on the Arctic Joule's journey through the Northwest Passage.  [Tyee]

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