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