WHO: The Arctic Cowboys, a Texas-based team of four endurance kayakers.
WHAT: A grueling, 83-day journey to complete the first human-powered crossing of the 1,600-mile Northwest Passage in a single season.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Generations of explorers have dreamed of crossing the Northwest Passage, a treacherous, sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. (The mileage varies depending on the route, with some estimates running close to 2,000 miles; the Cowboys’ route was 1,600.) The first recorded navigation took place in 1906, when Roald Amundsen sailed through on the ship Gjøa. Thirty-six years later, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, St. Roch, made the second navigation. Since then more ships, even sailboats, have traversed the passage. In the late 1990s, the explorer Jonathan Waterman crossed it over multiple years via “sea kayak, ski, foot, dogsled, and, briefly, sailboat.” But no one had ever kayaked or rowed the entire route in a single season, in part because it had been blocked by ice—which is now melting as the planet warms.
That changed on Sunday afternoon, when a Texas-based team of four paddlers reached the western edge of the passage, becoming the first to kayak the route in one season. The Arctic Cowboys, led by 62-year-old endurance paddler West Hansen of Austin, spent 83 days battling the elements. Along the way, they faced freezing temperatures, ice floes, crashing waves, and the occasional rear end of a retreating polar bear. Besides Hansen, the team included Jeff Wueste of San Marcos, Eileen Visser of New York, and Mark Agnew of Scotland.
“It has yet to settle in. I’m still in the mindset of getting the team safely back to their homes,” Hansen, now thirty pounds lighter than when he started, wrote Monday in a text message he sent from a GPS device.
Their journey isn’t over just yet. On Monday evening, the explorers were still camped at Cape Bathurst, in the remote Northern Territories, with several days of paddling ahead before they could reach the nearest community. They plan to spend two nights in Inuvik, north of the Arctic Circle, before heading to their respective homes, according to expedition manager Barbara Edington, who is Hansen’s sister.
Hansen began planning the expedition more than five years ago. A fund-raising campaign brought in about $10,000 of the $70,000 that the adventure would cost. Weather and the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the trip several times, but Hansen and Wueste (along with a third paddler, who dropped out several days in) launched last year in solo boats. They cut that attempt short after seventeen days and 260 miles, plagued by severe weather and logistical issues.
But Hansen regrouped and tried again this year, this time with two new paddlers and tandem kayaks instead of solo boats.
They got off to a slow start. Moving ice kept them pinned in a cabin for two weeks before they could enter the passage at Baffin Bay. After a helicopter supply drop, they officially started July 18 and headed southwest, traveling the opposite direction from that of most paddling attempts.
The feat marks the first human-powered crossing of the remote passage in a single season—an achievement that explorers often describe as “one of the last great firsts.” As Arctic ice melts due to climate change, the journey will become much easier in the future. “Right now it’s just a goat path, and we’re going to paddle it before it becomes a superhighway,” Hansen said before last year’s failed attempt.
The human-powered quest briefly turned into a three-way race, but two other expeditions attempting the crossing this season pulled the plug midway through. In mid-September, with winter conditions closing in, an eight-person rowing team led by Leven Brown of Scotland called it quits near Cambridge Bay. Matty Clarke and Adam Riley attempted to row homemade boats through the passage, but Riley dropped out after injuring his shoulder and Clarke bailed in late September due to equipment failure.
“Primarily, the wind is the biggest concern,” Hansen told Texas Monthly prior to his 2022 attempt. “We’re prepared for snow and ice and rain, but the wind will create choppy waves and difficult paddling conditions.”
That prediction held true this year. Once, they flipped the boats coming into shore. Their dry suits developed leaks. In the Bellot Strait, a narrow, eighteen-mile, cliff-lined channel, the Cowboys paddled through swirling currents and fast-moving chunks of ice. At one point Wueste thought he’d torn his Achilles tendon (it improved).
According to a blog post shared by Barbara Edington on Monday, the final sixteen miles as the team approached Cape Bathurst were among the most difficult of all, with terrifying, fifteen-foot waves. Then the team had to slog through ankle-deep freezing water and mud. Snow began to fall while the kayakers searched for a campsite.
Perhaps surprisingly, these physical challenges weren’t the hardest part of the journey, according to Hansen. He and his crewmates faced even more trying tests of mental fortitude. The team’s mix of personalities and kayaking skill levels, along with the sheer boredom and frustration of being forced to wait out wind and waves for days at a time, were tough, Hansen wrote in a text. To keep morale up, the paddlers kept themselves busy while they were stuck in their tents. They read books and once held an impromptu talent contest. The breaks also gave them time to rest before tests such as a grueling, forty-mile open water crossing.
Along the way, the kayakers marveled at the Arctic’s stark beauty. They gazed up at the flickering green lights of the aurora borealis and paddled past wildlife, including groups of narwhals and beluga whales, caribou, shaggy musk oxen, and polar bears, which they dubbed “polar corgis” for their stubby tails. The team collaborated with scientists studying narwhal tusks and genetics, collecting samples for a study that will examine the impact of microplastics on marine life.
The Northwest Passage crossing is just the latest in a long list of extreme achievements by Hansen, who chairs the Texas chapter of the Explorers Club. He kayaked the entire 4,000-plus-mile Amazon River from source to sea in 2012, with Wueste along for most of the ride. Two years later, the two paddled Russia’s 2,200-mile Volga River. “I’m really good at handling difficult situations in the moment and figuring out what needs to happen,” Hansen told Texas Monthly last year. “I’m not good at avoiding difficult situations, and I put myself in those situations unnecessarily.”