Beware of polar bears! The adventurer from Washington wants to paddle first through the Northwest Passage
An adventurer from western Washington cast off last week and attempted to become the first human to cross the Northwest Passage on a standup paddleboard. The Passage is the fabled but normally frozen sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific through Canada’s far north.
The solo paddleboard Journey is the brainchild of Karl Kruger from Orcas Island, Washington. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because Kruger is the first — and so far only — person to complete the 750-mile Alaskan race from Port Townsend to Ketchikan on a standup paddleboard. It was during the race 2017 up the Inside Passage—abbreviated R2AK—that Kruger said he had the idea of tackling the much longer Northwest Passage for a “deeper experience.”
“What I wanted after R2AK was just more,” Kruger explained. “What made me happiest about the Race to Alaska was A, the loneliness and B, the connections I made with people along the way.”
On July 24, Kruger launched his 18-foot, custom-built, expedition-style paddleboard from Tuktoyaktuk into the Arctic Ocean near the northwest corner of Canada. The appeal of this starting point is that it is the only place along the Arctic coast of the Northwest Territories that is connected to the rest of North America by road. If all goes according to plan, Kruger will hug the coast heading east, following the receding pack ice for 1,900 miles until he reaches Pond Inlet on the northeastern tip of Baffin Island, Canada.
“There are so many risks I can’t even count them all, physical risks in doing this project,” Kruger said. “But at the same time, I know I’m capable of it. I will have much to share. For me personally, I see the greatest danger of this trip in not making it.”
Risks include stormy weather, hungry polar bears, moving sea ice, and hypothermia from falling into the cold, cold water. Race to Alaska co-founder Jake Beattie said he wasn’t overly concerned about Kruger’s survival on that trip.
“When I first heard about his paddling in the Northwest Passage, I think I had two reactions. They were at the same time, no flipping, and if anyone can do it, Karl can do it,” said Beattie, from Port Townsend.
Beattie described Kruger as “an incredibly competent seaman” with an “amazing combination” of physical fitness and mental toughness.
“He’s like nobody I’ve ever met,” Beattie said. “He can get through anything.”
Kruger organized supply deliveries to coastal villages along the planned route. He paddles between them with bundles of freeze-dried food and a high-energy protein shake concoction tied to the bow and stern of his paddleboard.
Perhaps the most unusual Gang Kruger grabbed for this odyssey is a tripwire encircling his tent. This wire will make a loud bang if a polar bear approaches while Kruger is sleeping.
The 50-year-old father is taking about seven weeks to complete the Northwest Passage before returning to his day job as a tour guide and charter boat captain in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Support crew member Elyn Oliver wrote in a July 25 Facebook update that Kruger covered 14 miles on his departure day and hit 15 miles on day two as he battled strong headwinds and choppy seas.
In an email interview by Tuktoyaktuk on the eve of departure, Kruger said he expects highlights of the trip to include paddling alongside beluga whales, spotting his first polar bear in the wild, threading ice floes and meeting Inuit residents and learning their connection to whales would be warming north. He said one of his motivations, aside from personal challenge and fulfillment, is to draw attention to how the Inuit way of life and the Arctic environment are changing.
“What also drew me to this project is exactly why I’m able to paddle through here in a single season: climate change,” Kruger said. “The Arctic is no longer what you imagine it to be. She has changed a lot.”
The Northwest Passage has attracted the interest of explorers for centuries. Some of history’s most prolific navigators made unsuccessful attempts to find a shorter trade route from Europe to the Far East, including John Cabot, Captain James Cook, George Vancouver, and Vitus Bering. The arctic route was difficult to locate due to shallows and the presence of sea ice almost all year round.
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully sail the entire route, and it was not completed until 1906. It was another 38 years before the second navigation took place, reinforced by a crew from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in a schooner to handle the icy waters.
The recent seasonal decline in pack ice due to climate change has led to an increase in shipping and commercial interest in the high Arctic, which in turn has prompted the Canadian Coast Guard to create it a command for the arctic region in 2018. But search and rescue tools are still few and far between.
“Transiting the Northwest Passage is a risky endeavor, even in favorable weather conditions. Weather conditions are often unfavorable and it’s a challenge even for a larger, well-equipped vessel,” said Steve Thompson, Superintendent for Maritime of the Canadian Coast Guard’s Arctic Search and Rescue.
“The Arctic is unforgiving. These trips are dangerous and those making them really need to consider the risks they pose to themselves and others, including community responders and professional responders.”
If an adventurer got into trouble, the first people to come to the rescue would likely be Inuit villagers or hunters. Thompson said the Canadian Coast Guard has provided training and, in some cases, new lifeboats to volunteers in Arctic villages who serve as Coast Guard auxiliaries.
Kruger carries a SPOT satellite tracker, a device that can send a distress signal and act as a distress signal. The tracker updates its location 24/7 a public online map (Click on the “Load limited data” button).
Two other expeditions planned historic first human-powered passages of the Northwest Passage this summer, albeit in the opposite direction that Kruger chose. Scotsman Levan Brown planned to leave Baffin Island with two aft rowing boats to Point Barrow, Alaska, but announced in June that the expedition would be postponed until next summer due to unfavorable ice conditions and problems with utility lines.
A Texan trio is dubbed every day the arctic cowboys expected to depart from Pond Inlet to Tuktoyaktuk in sea kayaks. Like Kruger, the cowboys plan to camp on land, but since there are three of them, they can sleep in shifts, with one person keeping an eye out for polar bears under the midnight sun. They give themselves two months to traverse the Northwest Passage westward.