Northwest Passage

In the summer of 2019, the Arctic Cowboys will kayak the entire 1,900 mile Northwest Passage which lies within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago boundaries of Baffin Bay and the Beaufort Sea. The team of three solo kayakers will be the first to navigate the historic route in one season by kayak. The Passage was made famous by Franklin, Rae and Amundsen.

Northwest Passage Trailblazers

Extensive searches were made for the famous John Franklin expedition, urged on by his wife who expended a great amount of social and political clout over the decades-long endeavor to find her husband. She even went so far as to enlist the influence of her friend, Charles Dickens, to nullify and shame John Rae, who found evidence of the Franklin expedition with signs of potential cannibalism to the point that he was denied the hefty reward and left muted in the annals of history until justifiably recorded in Ken McCoogan’s book, Dead Reckoning, which I highly recommend.

Robert McClure’s expedition was one of the greatest close-but-no-cigar almost-victories in history. During one of the many expeditions to find survivors or remnants of the Franklin expedition, McClure departed London in 1849 and approached the Northwest Passage from the west, after spending a year rounding Cape Horn and sailing up the Pacific coast of the Americas. After making their way through the Bering Strait, the HMS Investigator sailed northeast through the Chukchi and Beaufort seas along the sea ice, until spotting Banks Island. At this point, the ship became locked in the ice, leaving the crew to spend three winters on the island at Melville Sound. McClure and his starving crew were found by Sir Edward Belcher, who, with his crew, had taken to dragging sledges over the frozen ocean from their ships, the HMS Resolute and HMS Intrepid. Belcher’s charge was combined with several other English ships under simultaneous searches for Franklin. Belcher then led them all back overland to their ships; but the Resolute and Intrepid became ice bound and were abandoned. The combined crews hiked over the ice to meet the HMS Phoenix, HMS Talbot and HMS NorthStar to sail back to England.

McClure claimed the first expedition to circumnavigate North America. He hiked over land and over ice, sledged and sailed in multiple ships through the Northwest Passage. These factors didn’t stop him from arguing his case and collecting the 10,000-pound prize, which was shared with his crew. McClure was knighted and promoted to rear-admiral. To claim the large monetary prize, he maintained that he was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage. Most mariners maintain that navigation is completed on the water, which wasn’t accomplished until Amundsen’s expedition.

Roald Amundsen is one of the few people in history I admire and in which I find a particular kinship, primarily due to some personality quirks we both share which can rub some the wrong way while simultaneously benefiting our efforts beyond the parameters of warm and safe environs. I believe it has something to do with our C-Student mentality. The journals of his efforts through the Northwest Passage and to the South Pole (the first for both) reflect his good sense of humor, mundane toughness and ability to adapt to the situations and conditions in order to achieve his goals, by learning from tried and true experts. Instead of relying on a hierarchy of authority he viewed no one on his teams as greater or lesser, but emphasized the strength of the whole group to succeed. Likewise, instead of reinventing the wheel, he learned from people who lived for centuries in sub-zero climates on how to exist and travel efficiently, with only enough men needed to prevail.

Non-Sail, Non-Motor

A handful of explorers have attempted to kayak, sail, row and otherwise navigate the northwest passage without motors. All have either portaged over land or were unable to complete the water routes because of sea ice, personnel issues, weather conditions or equipment failure. The Arctic Cowboys are sticking strictly to water navigation, with no overland portages and will be entirely human powered in our kayaks (no sails). To that end, we endeavor to be the first expedition to kayak the entire Northwest Passage and to do so in a single season. Here is a list of recent expeditions:

Karl Kruger – Kruger will attempt to SUP the entire NWP in 2019

  Sedna Epic Expedition – Susan Eaton is leading a team of women who will be pulled through the NWP while holding onto what amounts to an underwater trolling motor, while wearing electrically powered dry suits and breathing through a snorkel. The sea women will switch out every 1.5 hours. See for more information.

Meet the Arctic Cowboys

The First Expedition to Paddle the Entire Northwest Passage

Arctic Cowboys

In 2019, West Hansen, Jimmy Harvey and Jeff Wueste will be the first to navigate the Northwest Passage in kayaks.

A series of routes through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, bordered by Beaufort Sea on the west and Baffin Bay on the east, make up the elusive Northwest Passage. The team will launch near the town of Pond Inlet, where Roald Amundsen entered the Passage in 1903, and complete the journey at Tuktoyaktuk, near the Amundsen Gulf, where the famous Norwegian explorer completed the first navigation of the passage in 1906. The

expedition is expected to take about 60 days, depending on weather conditions.

Team member Jeff Wueste, an accomplished ultra-marathon canoe racer, participated in Hansen’s National Geographic Amazon Express Expedition and the Volga River Expedition.

Team member Jimmy Harvey, also an experienced ultra-marathon canoe racer and explorer, participated as a member of the support team on the Amazon River expedition.

The three solo kayakers will depart in late summer 2019, as soon as the sea ice breaks up in the northeastern boundary of the passage. All other attempts to kayak the passage departed from the southwestern boundary but were eventually blocked by sea ice. The Arctic Cowboys plan to keep the timing of their trip flexible, to optimize weather conditions.

The team will guard against polar bears by sleeping in shifts, carrying screamer flares and firearms. While the team plans a self-supported expedition, they will meet a support team periodically along the route, if funding becomes available. Pam LeBlanc, experienced adventure journalist, will cover the expedition for contracted magazines and other print and online media.

The team is looking for financial sponsorship and expedition patrons who want to be a part of this rare first experience.

The Plan

Though the Arctic Cowboys must remain flexible, since any navigation through the Northwest Passage is influenced and impeded greatly by the sea ice and weather, our current plan is to drive from Austin, Texas to the easternmost edge of the Passage, at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, Canada on the Beaufort Sea with our three kayaks and gear to launch early in July 2019. If we garner enough sponsorship funds, then we may opt to fly all our gear to Pond Inlet, near the western edge of the Passage to launch a west to east route.

Driving Route

During previous expeditions, we’ve averaged about 50 miles (80 km) per day; however, given the significant wind driven waves, storms and sea ice conditions, we are counting on a wider variation in our daily progress. To that end, we’re planning on having to camp out for up to a week at a time in different places to wait for better conditions.

With enough sponsorship funding, we’ll hire a chase boat, captained by team mate Jason Jones and the expedition’s embedded reporter, Pam LeBlanc. This boat, if it comes to fruition, will meet us every few days to report on our progress and re-supply. If we’re unable to afford the support boat, then the team is prepared to go unsupported, as we have on previous expeditions.

While the 1900-mile (3000 km) route is our shortest expedition, thus far, the conditions will be far different than that of the Amazon River, though temperatures and weather will mimic some we experienced on the northern Volga River.

With some perseverance (and luck), we’ll get to Baffin Bay, near Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, in 2 to 2.5 months, then figure out how to get back to Texas.

West Hansen's expeditions are managed under the non-profit organization Worldwide Waterways Inc. Please support our work by making a tax-deductible donation. Contactwest@westhansen.comto donate gear for an upcoming expedition.


Meet the Team

West Hansen
West Hansen

West began kayaking back in the 1980s, then started racing in ultra-marathon canoe and kayak races in the early 1990s. He led the first expedition to paddle the entire length of the Amazon River from it's most distant source to the sea. The 4100+ miles took 111 days, through 500 miles of uncharted white water, then 3800 miles of cloud and rain forest.

Jeff Wueste
Jeff Wueste

Jeff is a building contractor in Austin, Texas. He's been racing ultra-marathon canoe and kayaks for 25 years. He was part of the first expedition to paddle the entire length of the Amazon River from it's most distant source to the sea: The Amazon Express in 2012. Jeff was raised in the Sonoran desert in west Texas, participates in yoga for the past 10 years and behind his redneck veneer is a closeted intellectual, occasionally committing philosophy given half a chance.

Jimmy Harvey
Jimmy Harvey

Jimmy Harvey was part of the support team for the Amazon River expedition and also an experienced world explorer and ultra-marathon canoe racer.

Pam LeBlanc
Pam LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc, experienced adventure journalist, will be covering the expedition for contracted magazines and other print and online media.

Barbara Edington
Barbara Edington

Barbara lives in SETX(Southeast Texas) married to her husband for 19 years, raising a 16 year old daughter as well as 3 older kids. She has 4 grandkids. She participates in triathlons for a hobby and organizes the Texas Winter 100k canoe/kayak race each January. In addition, she organizes a charity bike ride, Tour de Groves, each October, raising money for the local senior center. As manager of both the Amazon Express Expedition and the Volga River Expedition it was her position to prepare for anything the team needed in advance of their arrival in base cities, lay out transportation/lodging via locals, and communicate with the team each day for specifics and concerns.

What is the Northwest Passage?

Northwest Passage Map

For centuries the route between Europe to Asia required sailing through the dangerous storms and rough seas around Cape Horn at the tip of South America or hauling cargo across the thin stretch of land in Panama to transfer to another ship. Early sailors and mapmakers predicted open seas and even tropical conditions across the North Pole, once the “ring of ice” was broken through; which would shorten the voyage around the world by months and thousands of miles. As with many famous expeditions, the potential for commerce or political advantage funded and drove the early explorers to venture into the barely charted seas west of Baffin Bay and east of the Bering Strait.

Whalers in search of fresh hunting grounds to satisfy the world’s hunger for whale oil and corset supports ventured further into the icy regions each year, eventually making the Beaufort Sea, outside the western boundary of the Passage, a regular pasture of plenty in which they wintered over and made themselves quite at home. Still, to venture into the straits between the islands was blocked by erratic sea ice and the threat of being trapped or crushed. The same went for the eastern entrance to the Passage, which was even further north than the western access, even with permanent settlements growing along Greenland’s coast a few short miles away.

By the mid 1800’s, as the golden age of exploration was at full sail after the discovery and mapping of the coast of Antarctica was big news, geopolitics and commerce combined to fuel several pushes to find the Northwest Passage. It was during the 1800’s that overland expeditions made their way to the Passage from Canada’s barren lands, via the great rivers that flowed north. Slowly, a general map of the southern route of the Passage began to take shape and regular visits were not uncommon by fur trappers, partnering with indigenous people, who knew the land well. From the west, semi-permanent outposts and missions were established in what would later be named “Alaska”, along the coasts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to service the whaling fleets and trade with the indigenous people.

Still, even with all that was learned and mapped of the Northwest Passage, by the mid 1800’s any attempt to navigate a vessel east of the Beaufort Sea or west of Baffin Bay was thwarted, with the exception of short forays into the natural boundaries set by the group of large islands.

The first person to spot a western entrance to the Passage was Sir Robert McClure, in 1851, during one of the many attempts to find the missing Franklin Expedition. McClure found what was to become “McClure Strait”, between Banks and Melville Islands; however, this northern route through the Passage was blocked by sea ice. During another search for Franklin in 1854, John Rae mapped another western entrance into Lancaster Sound (later named “Amundsen Strait”), which led to Dolphin and Union Strait – the southernmost and most frequently navigable route through the Northwest Passage.

Many laymen believe the western boundary of the Northwest Passage is at the Bering Strait, primarily because it’s a relatively narrow body of water between the two huge bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Chukchi Sea, resembling a gate or entrance – which it kind of is… between the Atlantic Ocean and Chukchi Sea, not the Northwest Passage.

This same kind of subjective pop-mentality is what leads many to believe Columbus discovered America, the Mississippi is the longest river in North America, the Nile is the longest river on the planet and that vaccines cause autism and that man never landed on the moon. Geographic parameters, such as the length of rivers and the boundaries of routes like the Northwest Passage, require more than hearsay or conjecture. This is where actual science, geology and international maritime laws come in handy.

The International Hydrographic Organization is the only internationally recognized organization accepted by most governments to define parameters of waterways and oceans. The USA and Canada are members of the IHO.

The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Northwestern Passages as follows:

On the West. The Eastern limit of Beaufort Sea from Lands End through the Southwest coast of Prince Patrick Island to Griffiths Point, thence a line to Cape Prince Alfred, the Northwestern extreme of Banks Island, through its West coast to Cape Kellet, the Southwestern point, and thence a line to Cape Bathurst on the mainland (70°36′N 127°32′W).

On the Northwest. The Arctic Ocean between Lands End, Prince Patrick Island, and C. Columbia, Ellesmere Island.

On the Northeast. The Coast of Ellesmere Island between C. Columbia and C. Sheridan the Northern limit of Baffin Bay.

On the East. The East Coast of Ellesmere Island between C. Sheridan and Cape Norton Shaw (76°29′N 78°30′W), thence across to Phillips Point (Coburg Island) through this Island to Marina Peninsula (75°55′N 79°10′W) and across to Cape Fitz Roy (Devon Island) down the East Coast to Cape Sherard (Cape Osborn) (74°35′N 80°30′W) and across to Cape Liverpool, Bylot Island(73°44′N 77°50′W); down the East coast of this island to Cape Graham Moore (7250’53.48”N, 7604’06.64”W), its southeastern point, and thence across to Cape Macculloch (72°29′N 75°08′W) and down the East coast of Baffin Island to East Bluff, its Southeastern extremity, and thence the Eastern limit of Hudson Strait.

On the South. The mainland coast of Hudson Strait; the Northern limits of Hudson Bay; the mainland coast from Beach Point to Cape Bathurst.

Since the 1940’s Canada has engaged in international legal procedures to establish maritime law and parameters designating the entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago as within the Canadian maritime jurisdiction. While this seems like a no-brainer, international maritime law designates a limited distance from shore as sovereign territory of a country. The width of the Parry Channel exceeds twice this distance, meaning that any ship can cruise down the middle of the channel through the Northwest Passage and stay outside the jurisdiction of Canada, all the while being smack dab in the middle of Canadian territory. Throughout all this debate and litigation, the eastern and western boundaries of the Northwest Passage have been recognized, and universally agreed upon, as the IHO definition, leaving the Bering Strait a good 1000+ miles away.

If the interests of scientifically and geographically based definitions aren’t enough, then it should also be noted that Roald Amundsen’s navigation of the Northwest Passage has never been called into question. Being the first to successfully make the passage on water, Amundsen made note of the western limit of the passage once he entered the Beaufort Sea and, upon finding a whaling ship, declared that the goal of the Gjoa had been attained. Wrote Amundsen in his journal on that date,

“The North-West Passage was done. My boyhood dream — at that moment it was accomplished. A strange feeling welled up in my throat; I was somewhat overstrained and worn — it was a weakness in me— but I felt tears in my eyes.”

Continuing on a few miles beyond Cape Bathurst, the Gjoa became icebound at Herschel Island with several whaling ships that were in the habit of over-wintering at the island for several years, forming a community with local missionaries and indigenous people on Canada’s northern shore at the approximately 1000 statute miles from the Bering Strait. Since being the first to navigate the Northwest Passage wasn’t badass enough, Amundsen cross country skied overland 500 miles to Eagle City, where he sent out telegraph communications that he had completed the Northwest Passage. Though he later sailed through the Bering Strait on the same journey, he did not retract or alter his claim that his navigation through the Northwest Passage was completed near Cape Bathurst.