Today, after finalizing the final, final logistics, the Be First-supported Arctic Row expedition launches their effort to row 1,300 miles from Inuvik, Canada to Provideniya, Russia. The crew of Collin West, Paul Ridley, Neal Mueller and Scott Mortensen plan to spend a non-supported month at sea in a specially designed rowboat, making progress one stroke at a time through 1,300 miles of territory more suited to polar explorers than doubles sculling. And they plan to complete this oceanic crossing following a portion of the Northwest Passage that has been ice-free for less than a decade.
It is one serious mission, but just getting the rowboat to the boat launch was one heck of a long trip as well. Team leader Paul Ridley somehow convinced his newly retired father, Mark Ridley, and his stepmother Nadine, to volunteer as shuttle drivers. They loaded up the trailer and set off from Chicago, linking together the Alaska Highway, the Klondike Highway and the infamous, dirt-and-gravel Dempster Highway. Despite flat tires and Caribou crossings, the boat made it on time to the launch and you can track the real-time progress of the Arctic Row at arcticrow.com and on the First Ascent Facebook, but this is the report from the road of the miles the boat’s already travelled before it even hit the cold waters of the Arctic. -EB Editor
Words by Paul Ridley, Images by Mark and Nadine Ridley
With Arctic Row’s departure countdown in the low single digits, Collin, Scott, Neal, and I should be supremely nervous. Our launch from Inuvik on July 15th will mark the point of no return, when every piece of equipment on the boat needs to be operational, our safety gear in order, food packed, goodbyes done and seasickness pills at the ready. This Sunday we’ll begin a month or more of twelve-hour days on the oars, little sleep, constant exposure to the elements and the struggle to get by in a small boat on an open ocean.
The Arctic Row team’s pre-row preparations took nearly 18 months, and constantly called on the generosity and favors of our friends, family, and supporters. Fittingly, the end of our preparations called for the biggest “ask” of all – a volunteer for a remarkable two-week adventure towing our boat and equipment from Chicago, IL more than 3,600 miles to our starting point in Canada’s Northwest Territories. For better or worse, you could drive there, as long as you were willing to spend almost two weeks living out of a car while towing thirty-five feet of boat and trailer over one of the most demanding routes on the continent. Oh, and we didn’t really have any money left so we couldn’t pay anyone for their troubles. Right.
We only had one application for the job, which was one more than I expected. Turns out the adventurous streak runs in my family, and my newly retired Dad (Mark Ridley) and stepmother (Nadine) thought it sounded like a good time. After hitching up the boat in Chicago, the first few legs of the trip were relatively uneventful and the roads were paved. 875 miles on the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, BC to Whitehorse, Yukon? No sweat. Another 345 miles on the Klondike Highway? All good. Eight days of driving were in the books.
Then there was the Dempster Highway. 460 miles of mud, dirt, gravel, and heaving permafrost. The highway greeted them with a sign that read “No Services Next 370 KM” (230 miles). That left no room for error. No wonder the Discovery Channel has a whole series devoted to the truckers who drive this road.
The first casualty was a fender on the trailer that shook itself loose after 120 miles. While dealing with the nearly-detached fender on the trailer, my Dad heard an ominous hissing sound coming from one of the tires. No problem, the spare tire would do the job, just as long as there wasn’t another flat. Outside the only gas station at Eagle Plains, NT the hissing was back, this time from both sides of the trailer. Two more flats, both punctured by rocks…simultaneously. At least they were already at a service station and their campsite for the night had a once-in-a-lifetime view.
The last day of the drive rewarded Mark and Nadine for their trouble. A massive herd of caribou watched as the Arctic Row boat crossed the Richardson Mountains. After a fourth flat tire, the boat crossed the McKenzie River on a ferry, with the complements of the ferry’s captain. By the time the boat made it to Inuvik it had already been treated to a tour of the Canadian wilderness that would make Lewis and Clark jealous, and Arctic Row hadn’t even started yet.
To be sure we’re fresh for the row, Collin, Scott, Neal and I got to fly to Inuvik, but more reminders that we were now in wild country greeted us on our way. A stuffed adult polar bear towered over the only baggage claim belt at the airport in Yellowknife. I hoped it’d be the only one I saw on this trip. Turns out the airport in Inuvik had a polar bear too, this one even bigger. The woman I sat next to on the plane was headed home to Cambridge Bay to set her family’s nets, which would provide enough Arctic Char to get them through the winter. Clearly, we had entered a whole world.
With only a few days to go before Arctic Row begins, the nervousness I expected is drowned out by the curiosity of being in one of the planets most wild places, fear for what lies ahead for this fragile and threatened ecosystem, excitement for the adventure ahead, and the gratitude I feel toward everyone that has helped Arctic Row get here.
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