Northwest Passage Diary: A counter for preparing food and two wooden beds equals luxury

It is refreshing to hear that the Australian adventurers we meet have found the trip as tough as we have, and are also finishing in Cambridge Bay

Frank rowing the Arctic Joule

Frank rowing the Arctic Joule


The past week has been a busy one. Earlier this week, we made a 22km crossing to Lady Franklin Point, a significant milestone for us as we reached Victoria Island. Cambridge Bay (on Victoria Island) is about 380km east of this point.

The original plan by myself and three companions was to row 3,000km across the Northwest Passage, the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But the weather has hampered our efforts, ice is encroaching on the route, and we now plan to finish in Cambridge Bay.

Lady Franklin, after whom the point was named, was the widow of John Franklin, whose quest to find the North West Passage in 1845 resulted in the death of his entire crew of 129 people. An Irish man, (Francis Crozier) on board Terror was Franklin’s second in command.

The precise details of what happened to Franklin and his crew remain a mystery. Between 1848 and 1859 more than 50 expeditions attempted to find the crew; quite a few were funded and put together by Lady Jane Franklin.

The wind is picking up as we complete the crossing, so we pull into a little cove. We spot a small cabin near the water’s edge, and are delighted to find it is still in use. It stands 12ft by 12ft, is made of plywood, and has a little counter on which to prepare food, and two wooden beds, which are effectively planks of raised wood: luxury. Our evening meal is pasta with meat sauce; we spoil ourselves by adding one sausage to each meal. Coupled with a hot cup of coffee, this is bliss.

The company of fellow travellers
Our stay at our cabin gets even better when we are joined by another expedition team: Cam and Matt from Australia are doing a similar trip to ours in a 17ft sail boat, open-style with no cabin.

Swapping stories proves interesting. They are both experienced adventurers with North Pole treks, Southern Ocean sailing and Arctic and Antarctic kayak guiding experience. It is refreshing to hear that they have found the trip as tough as we have, and are also finishing in Cambridge Bay. No boats of any kind have made it through the passage this season, and the eastern side is virtually choked up with ice.

The next few days allow us to make good progress, but a gale warning forces us to pull into another sheltered spot over the weekend. The gale warning is upgraded to a storm warning and we are belted by 55 knot winds (about 100km an hour). We have to beach the boat and maintain a watch throughout the night. As the Arctic Joule is being slapped about by the waves, it rocks the anchor points. We’ve used hundreds of pounds of rocks and loose stones packed into bags to add more stability, but there is still the risk (hopefully a small one) that the lines could snap and the boat get swept out to sea such is the pressure being exerting on it. So maintaining a watch all night is a must.

The order of the watch is decided over a game of hearts. Frank wins and opts for the first shift; I am second. We certainly have plenty of tension in our little world tonight as we watch over the boat while also hoping that the tent poles don’t snap in the stormy winds.

On my watch, I peer out the vent every five to 10 minutes, to make sure the boat is still there. I then go back to my chosen activity to pass the time, which tonight is writing.

At 3am, I go down to the boat to check the lines. I bring the shotgun with me in case I stumble upon a grizzly. The temperature is below freezing tonight, it’s dark, we’re in the middle of an Arctic Storm, I’m carrying a loaded shot gun for protection and the boat is under serious pressure. But I find myself enjoying this. Am I a bit odd? Perhaps it is just easy to enjoy a situation like this when you feel you have things under control (or at least as much control as is possible in this situation).

At 4am I go out again to check the lines before Kevin takes over. All secure. I join the lads in the tent, climb into my sleeping bag and quickly nod off to the sound of howling wind and the flapping of the tent.

Another interesting day in the Arctic.

After a few days, the storm passes and we push on. We row through an inside channel between Victoria Island and the Edinburgh and Richardson Island group.

This is one of the most beautiful parts of the trip so far, an enchanting landscape of rugged cliffs and soft green patches scattered with rocks and boulders: like a blend of the Gap of Dunloe and the Giant’s Causeway. If you can struggle through some of the Northwest Passage’s weather tantrums, it truly is beautiful.

As I write, all four of us are crammed in the cabin. We’ve been hit once again by stiff headwinds, so for now we’re on anchor. This weather is due to clear later tonight, so if we get some good fortune over the coming days, we’re hoping to make it to Cambridge Bay (our new finish point) by this weekend. It’s day 54 of the trip and I’m looking forward to a shower.

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