Cold with a chance of grizzlies: nobody said it would be easy

Northwest Passage Diary: Paul Gleeson on the latest leg of his rowing journey

Denis on a rowing shift

Denis on a rowing shift


My eyelids open wearily. It’s one of those mornings I wish I didn’t have to get up. It’s been four hours since I closed my eyes. It is 1am as I crawl out of my sleeping bag for my next four-hour shift. Denis is doing the same; we are rowing together.

I pull on damp socks, climb into my drysuit and clamber out of the cabin into the brisk Arctic air. The temperature must be close to zero, so we get rowing to warm up. The liners of my wellies are wet from a mistake I made on my last shift.

Within the first hour I feel my feet getting very cold. By hour two, they are numb. Finally the four hours are done and Denis and I fall into our sleeping bags shortly after 5am. It’s difficult to dry things during the night as the cabin fills with condensation, so I stuff my socks into the end of my sleeping bag to try to dry them out. Denis and I vow to be up earlier for our next shift, which starts at 9am.

A tap on the door wakes us. Frank shouts, “15 minutes to go, lads!” Not again. We have slept through our alarms. We jump into our drysuits and hit the oars. My feet have thawed and the socks are nearly dry. Fog has rolled in and it seems colder.

The next four hours are a delight. The sun gradually burns off the fog, our spirits (and bodies) warm up and the water becomes calm. It is gorgeous. We see a beluga whale in the distance. I’m tired but very satisfied with our last 24 hours – we have made 40km and it washard-earned.

We also see our first icebergs. I suppose we are chasing the ice across the passage and our hope is that it continues to open up so that we don’t get to a certain point and be forced to stop.

As I write, we’re in day 12 of our expedition. Even at this early stage we often discuss creature comforts: a toasted ham, cheese and onion sandwich; a rock shandy; fresh fruit.

Part of our daily routine now is 12 hours of rowing per pair, so 24 hours in total. Some of this time is spent rowing, while at other times we push the boat in the shallow water, into the wind, to make progress.

Sometimes Denis and I chat as we row but there are often chunks of silence, which can lead to quirky moments. Yesterday I was trying to work out how many oar strokes we would make during the trip. The figure I came up with was 2.1 million over 70 days. I shouted, “hey Denis!”, to which he replied, “hang on a second, I’m trying to work something out.”

Turns out we were thinking about the same thing. Denis’s figure was 2.5 million, so we agreed to split the difference.

Another part of our routine now is keeping an eye out for grizzlies. Polar bears should be a little later in the trip. Some locals said we might see some grizzlies where we are now. Our main goal will be to avoid them but as a back-up we have two 12-gauge shotguns on board. During the times we have to push the boat along in the water close to shore, I find myself scanning for bears.

Music is a great distraction. When I need a pick-me-up, I have a few reliables, such as U2, AC/DC, Mumford & Sons and Daft Punk. I have some audiobooks with me too and have just started listening to Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open.

When I told my family and friends about this expedition, I explained that it was far less dangerous than rowing the Atlantic but that our chances of success are also far less. The first 12 days have confirmed this and we know we have a big fight on our hands to reach Pond Inlet before mid to late September (when the water will begin to freeze up for the winter). Last summer was the lowest ice year on record but this winter has been a very cold one so there is a lot more ice.

I believe we can do this but it will be extremely difficult. We knew this from the outset; there is a reason this has never been done before. A wall of ice may ultimately prevent us from finishing. We have very little control over how this pans out.

Paul Gleeson’s dispatches will be published in The Irish Times over the coming weeks. You can follow the team’s progress at

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