The first 48 hours are great . . . then we get out and push

Northwest Passage Diary: Paul Gleeson and team have hit the water, on their 3,000km rowing trip

Thu, Sep 5, 2013, 13:23

At 12pm on July 5th, we push off from Inuvik down the MacKenzie River on our 3,000km voyage. I’m with three other men in a 25ft rowing boat in the Canadian Arctic. Our aim is to row across the Northwest Passage, the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

After completing our final preparations in Inuvik – a remote community of 3,500 people and a gazillion mosquitos – we share a few beers with some of the locals. All say that the weather has dramatically changed in the past 20 years and that what we are attempting is now possible due to changing ice conditions. The warmth of the Inuvialuit people makes us feel very welcome, though our time is short.

Our immediate goal is to reach a small town called Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk), approximately 180km North East of Inuvik. Our hope is to do this in two to three days.

The first 48 hours are great, Kevin Vallely and I take the first rowing shift, and rotate with Frank Wolf and Denis Barnett as we settle into our routine and get used to life on our small rowing boat.

We are rowing in four-hour shifts; our aim is to keep this going 24 hours a day weather permitting. I’ve got blisters on my hands and stiffness all over as my body acclimatises to its the 12-hour daily rowing regime.

The weather changes quickly up here. At time of writing, we have a 25 knot head wind and choppy whitecap seas. Rowing a 2,300 lbs rowing boat into this just isn’t possible. However we know we only have a limited time in which to complete this trip before the ice closes in, and we decide that if we can’t row into the wind, we will push the boat through the shallow water.

We spend a few hours this morning pushing. Our feet sink into the soft sand but it works for a while until the water becomes too shallow and the boat runs aground, then too deep for us to control the craft.

As I write this from our small cabin, it’s day four, and we are about 10km from Tuk. We’ve taken shelter in a little inlet out of harm’s way (no need to worry Mom) but the forecast for this evening and tomorrow is for slightly higher winds from the northeast – the opposite of what we want.

The number four is said to be unlucky for Chinese people. Maybe they’re onto something. We are stuck on day four. On a previous cycling trip across Australia, I got hit by a car on day four which also slowed me down a bit so perhaps four is not a good number for me.

One of the things I love about these types of expeditions is that life gets peeled back to the basics and becomes very simple. All thoughts of emails, voice messages, meetings, etc vanish into the wilderness and instead are replaced with time. Time for reflection, time for some original thought, time for dreaming of things to come and time to appreciate family, friends and all the things I am so fortunate to have in my life.

At this moment, we simply have to sit and wait. We have to carefully pick our battles along the way to make it across the passage. Mother Nature will tell us what to do and, I suppose, like all good Irish lads I listen to my mother.

We’re currently out of water but the salt content in the water here is very low so for now we’re just boiling water for food and drinking. Right now, we’re drinking tea, the dinner (Kung Pao freeze dried chicken) is on, spirits are high and there’s a deck of cards ready to be dealt.

Dispatches from Paul Gleeson’s Northwest Passage trip will be published in The Irish Times over the coming weeks. You can follow the team’s progress at:

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