What’s it like to be back? Plus Some Favorite Photos of the NWP


Big Berg in Disko Bay.

The most frequent questions I get now that I’m  home from the Northwest Passage are:

  1. What’s it like to be back?
  2. Would you go again?

The answer to the second of these is unequivocal, but the first is nuanced and requires some explaining.

The Northwest Passage was a domestic affair, from a certain perspective. Apart from a short sojourn in Greenland, the entirety of the voyage occurred within my “home” waters of Canada and Alaska.

That said, I’ve never traveled to a place more foreign. The sensation was of breaking our orbit to awaken on the shores of some other planet. From the discombobulation of 24-hour daylight to the invasive, grinding ice and its inescapable cold to the deep quiet of desert mountainscapes barren of trees and largely free of humans, the Arctic was decidedly not mother earth. So, returning from two months in the far north has been a stranger re-entry than my two years alone in the tropics.

On the one hand, I feel a certain pride associated with being part of a team that succeeded at a complicated, risky venture. No, not every moment was dangerous or even difficult. On Arctic Tern we baked bread several times a week; we read books in a heated cabin; we posed for pictures; we drank red wine with dinner. But the challenges of the next day, the next ice choke, the next gale, the next two thousand miles to Barrow, were always in the back of the minds. We knew we were on our own and had to rely on ourselves to get through.

Some of the self-reliant activity was quite exciting.  I won’t quickly forget our piloting Arctic Tern through the ghostly pack, giant chess pieces askew, the loose frazil tinkling like chandelier tips, or standing watch in 30 knot winds of zero degrees and snow or reefing sail with hands so cold they ached as if from intense heat. After one such experience I returned to the cockpit only to find my fingers were too “brittle” to operate the life-line clip. I had to ask for help getting out of my own gear. We poled-off bergy bits in Port Leopold; we were swept by ice off Fury Beach; we cleaved it with the ship’s bow in Bellot. These were the moments one goes to the Arctic to find.

Far more usual and wearing, however, was constant decision-making and reassessment of the plan. The Northwest Passage is a maze scattered with ice doors that open and close during one’s transit, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. Each of our hard-won advances into the maze—to Port Leopold, Fort Ross, through Bellot, around Bathurst—came with the danger of removing our ability to retreat if further advance became impossible. Intricate weather and ice reports, whose receipt was often delayed, had to be weighed against our own, local experiences. Should we take the opportunity of a possible clearing of the ice in Prince Regent Inlet or wait for a similar opportunity in Peel Sound? If we pushed on another thousand miles, could we retreat at all? What if we became embayed?

So, satisfaction at our success nestles next to a relief at having escaped.

And under that is disappointment, a gentle sadness that the adventure is now in the past and that I have left a place, so rich in interest and history, largely unexplored. Each strait, each cape and point is named for explorers from ages past, yet it still feels like virgin territory. On Fury Beach we found barrel staves from Parry’s expedition of the 1825. Here HMS Fury was wrecked, her supplies offloaded and cached, coming later to the aid of John Ross’s expedition of 1829, and here, while searching for fresh water to replenish Arctic Tern’s stores, I found the tracks of arctic fox and musk ox and came face-to-face with a polar bear. Every landing had moments like this.

Yet I can count our visits ashore on two hands. How often skipper reminded us that the Northwest Passage is not a pleasure cruise! Even on fine days one knows that the region, this bay, this peak, everything that one can see, will soon be frozen or whipped by winds that drop temperatures to inconceivable depths. Everywhere Arctic Tern sailed from Upernavik, Greenland to Nome, Alaska—that entire 3,000 mile voyage—is solid ice most of the year. Thus attendant on wonder was a sense of urgency. One must keep moving or risk not getting out. Hikes were brief; we did not dally at anchorages. Painfully, we were pulled away too soon.

Balancing all this is the sweetness of returning home, to the company and friendship of my wife, the smell of trees, the song of titmice in the back yard, to the familiar warmth of Indian summer in California.

So, what’s it like to be back? It’s a mixed bag, a jumble of related sensations all present at once and currently unsettled. I’m guessing this is pretty normal.

And would I go again?

Yes. In a heartbeat.


What follows are some of my favorite photos of Arctic Tern’s 2014 Northwest Passage:

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At a Crossroads in Nuuk.

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Taking Water in Nuuk; Ali Chats with the Water Superintendent.

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Whale Bones in Aasiaat Harbor.

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Bergy Bit in Upernavik Harbor.

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Mountains and Bay Behind Upernavik.

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Upernavik from Hilltop and Looking out to Sea (note collection of big bergs in the bay).

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Passing a Berg upon Departure from Upernavik.

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Staying Clean and Tidy during the Crossing of Baffin Bay.

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On Approach to Devin Island.

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Les and Ali in an RCMP Shack Near Dundas Harbor.

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Musk Ox Remains Near Dundas Harbor.

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The Walruses of Cuming Inlet.

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Arctic Bay Church and Longboat.

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A Dog Poses in Arctic Bay.

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Children at Play during the Grounding of Gjoa.

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Ann, Glenn, Les and Kids–Pleased at Bringing Gjoa Successfully to the Beach.

Fun at the helm, headed south for Port Leopold.

Our First Push South from Devon: Snow and Strong Headwinds.

Nick poling ice in Port Leopold.

Nick Poling ice in Port Leopold.

Ice piled on point of Fury Beach

Ice piled on Fury Beach spit.

Polar Bear, Levesque. He hung out as if performing.

Polar Bear, Levesque. He hung out as if performing.

Tandberg Polar gathering. Captain in smart sweater.

Gathering on Tug Tandberg Polar at Fort Ross. Captain in Smart Sweater.

Fort Ross shelter. Note bear-protected doors.

Fort Ross Shelter.

Slushy stuff off Cape Victoria.

Slushy Stuff off Cape Victoria.

Gjoa Haven emerges from Fog.

Gjoa Haven emerges from Fog.

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Coming Into Nome: Les and Ali Pleased at the Accomplishment.


Arctic Tern Happily Making Waves off Nome’s Sledge Island.


Arctic Ternies Celebrate a Successful Northwest Passage with the Novaras in Nome.


The Crew of Arctic Tern: Randall, Ali, Skipper Les, Nick, and Nikki.

5 Comments on “What’s it like to be back? Plus Some Favorite Photos of the NWP

  1. EXCELLENT! 1) Please details your NWP expenses. 2) If you were to go again – what would you seek out to make the experience better for you a second time? 3) Less than half of the yachts attempting a NWP made goal. What items/events/preparations/decisions made the difference between success and failure?
    I look forward to your reply. CONGRATULATIONS ON A 2014NWP!
    Douglas Pohl

    • Caveat to Douglas Pohl’s Questions: I’d never been to the high latitude north and went there specifically to learn the weather, pilotage, and endurance challenges associated with my own upcoming attempt. I just got lucky to land a crew spot with Les and Ali on Arctic Tern, who brought a tough boat and an anchor locker full of experience to the problem. It is they who should be answering these questions. Understanding that:

      3) What items/events/preparations/decisions made the difference between success and failure?

      I think the main challenge of any expedition, beyond exploring deeply, is to return home with vessel and crew in one piece. So, I have nothing but respect for the skippers who, after spending weeks on the NWP, decided the risks were too great to continue. We go to rugged places to see life in the raw and to choose for ourselves how to solve its problems. Choosing to retreat from the arctic is no piece of cake given late season weather in Baffin and Davis and can be an adventure in itself. So cudos to all who attempted, whether or not they made it through!

      Given that, my responses are as follows (not necessarily in this order):

      a. A Metal Boat. Many have demonstrated a metal boat is not a requisite hull material for the NWP. Cloud Nine, Fiona, St Brenden, Belzebub, Dodo, Gitana, just to name a few. That said, having such reserve strength in the hull gives the crew the confidence to take the risks an ice passage can require. Arctic Tern was swept off her anchor by ice at Fury Beach and punched through ice plugs in Bellot, Depot and Levesque. We had many concerns during these events—holing the boat was not really one of them.

      b. Access to Ice Reports. One boat’s crew we knew turned back because they didn’t have daily access to Environment Canada Ice Reports. Arctic Tern benefited from the help of a shore-based monitor, not an arctic expert, rather a computer handy friend who could clip those portions of the ice reports we needed and compress them for daily send over SSB/Pactor. Other boats with Iridium technology got better, prettier pictures (at sometimes much greater cost), but our snippets were plenty to allow us to make the decisions we needed.

      c. Good at Playing Poker. Success at the NWP in 2014 required waiting, almost endlessly, for right moments and aggressively taking the opportunities when they came. I got to learn from Les here, who pushed Arctic Tern to the edge of the pack (from Graham to Port Leopold then to Fury and Fort Ross, for example) so that when ice did shift we were in position to take advantage of it.

      d. Confidence of Experience (but not overconfidence). Les and Ali had the advantage of significant high latitude experience and the lessons from their 2013 attempt, making them, in my book, the best bet in the 2014 field. That said, Les spent hours with the ice charts, forecasts and the Arctic Pilot. Reading, thinking, reassessing his plan. Always reassessing his plan! This gave us a huge advantage.

      2) If you were to go again – what would you seek out to make the experience better for you a second time?

      a. Delay a Baffin Crossing. I’d stay longer in Greenland. We crossed over too early. We knew this and did it on purpose because early ice charts showed considerable clearing in Pond and further on. There was, we thought, the chance for a repeat of blue-water years like 2012. This turned out not to be, and so we got to fully explore Devon and Arctic Bay in exchange for Greenland north of Upernavik. Not the worst of exchanges, but … OH Greenland … how we missed you!
      b. Beyond that, it’s a tough question. We had good food, fresh bread, a heated cabin, arctic streams to drink from, heavy ground tackle, a solid boat, a strong engine, a big gun, two inflatable dinghies, good companions, access to weather and ice reports, and the ability to communicate with home. All on a 43 foot boat!

      1) Please detail your NWP expenses.
      Again, I was one of several crew, so did not have access to the boats overall expedition expenses. From my observations, the biggest expenses on the NWP are a) fuel and b) food.

      By my estimation, we motored or motor sailed some 70% of the time, and we refueled in Nuuk (Arctic Tern began her attempt from Newfoundland), Upernavik, Arctic Bay, Cambridge Bay and Tuk. Given the distances and fickle winds, a sail-only passage was not an option and carrying large fuel supplies added greatly to our ability to efficiently get through.

      Food in the Arctic is expensive and the selection is poor. Stoking up early, say, in Nuuk, is recommended. I found cans of stew in Arctic Bay that were $12. Overall prices for grocery store items appeared to be twice that of “normal” stateside and fresh vegetables often appeared way past “sell by” dates.

      Other expenses were nominal: no marina fees, no expensive dinners in restaurants and bars, both of which are in short supply in the arctic, etc.

  2. Pingback: One Blogger Asks, re the NWP… | Figure 8 Voyage

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