Over the top
Eat, Sleep, Row, Repeat
The beauty and fury of Desolation sound was on full display on our one-month training run up the west coast of Canada in the late winter of 2023.
The snow had fallen six inches in the night and the sun broke soft and grey over a cloudy morning. Our tent had a layer of condensation inside that dripped onto our bags and any unlucky items of clothing that had been left carelessly exposed. “It never snows like this. It’s really unusual.”
Our friends Luka and Ashe had told us the night before. They had been gracious enough to let us pitch our tent in their yard and use their beautiful homestead as an impromptu command center and departure point for our three-week training run up the infamous inside passage. Snow we hadn’t expected - but strong winds, heavy coastal fog, enormous tides, and perilous currents that can create standing waves 8-foot tall and whirlpools that would swallow our boats whole - those were all on the menu.

I had just driven over 2,000 miles from the relatively mild temps of my hometown in Arkansas, all the way up the Rockies and across the northern border, to scoop my expedition partner Matty from his dusty boat shop in the frozen flatlands of eastern Alberta where he had just finished building his expedition rowboat. We made our way across Canada in late February with the hopes of catching some early spring weather on the west coast and a mix of conditions that would replicate summertime in the Arctic. We decided to make our start on the island of Cortes - Three ferry rides east of Vancouver Island and a gateway to the desolation wilderness and the inside passage.
We donned our cold weather gear and began to pack up the remainder of our many dry bags and pelican cases. I found an old shovel and began to scrape the accumulated snow from the edges of the tent so that we could retrieve our frozen pegs. Our bodies had not yet hardened to the cold and wet conditions and my hands throbbed from exposure. “You guys are crazy!” Luka chimed in unhelpfully as he looked on.

Fortunately, the forecast was looking up, and by the time we finished rounding up our gear and loading it into the back of the truck, the sun had begun to poke through from behind the clouds. By late morning we had finished loading the last of our gear and supplies into the boats, and we bade goodbye to our incredulous friends on Cortes, ready to catch the outgoing tide through the narrow straight of Gorge harbor.

Matty and I were both new to rowing. I had taken my boat out only a handful of times on the placid lakes of Arkansas, and Matty only had the opportunity to row his boat for just a few hours the day before our departure. We donned our drysuits and pushed off from the boat ramp unsteady and entirely unsure of what we were getting into. I fumbled with my oars and tried to steady my heavily laden boat, unused to facing backward I almost plowed headlong into an anchored sailboat, which would have been an unceremonious start indeed. We got our shit together enough to press our way out of the harbor and rounded the southern tip of Cortes in the waning hours of our first day.

We didn’t make it far. By the time we had made the two-mile crossing to the neighboring island of Hernando, we were running out of daylight and knew that we weren’t going to make our planned destination that evening. Hernando is a millionaire's island, private and off-limits to lowly rowers such as ourselves, but we were in a pinch, and it appeared that no one was home. The Northern shore had a wide pebble beach covered in large driftwood logs. Peppering the hills above the high tide line was an array of houses, all beautifully handcrafted in cedar and glass, and all stunningly empty. Not a soul in sight, we pulled our boats ashore to make dinner on the camp stove and had a look around. On the edge of a small rocky overlook at the northwest tip stood a gorgeous roundhouse made of stone, the forward third facing the ocean revealed a wall of glass. These houses were not ostentatious or excessively large, and each one was charming, eloquent, and beautifully constructed. The carpenter and home builder in me looked on with a combination of envy and sadness. Such a stunningly beautiful place and space, wasted on those who were not there to enjoy it.

Matty taking in the view from our first campsite
That night we took advantage of the mooring buoys just offshore from the beach and enjoyed our first night inside our boats. Preparing ourselves and the boats each evening is quite a routine. First, the heavy food bags and our clothing duffels have to be removed from the sleeping compartment. They are stored there during the day to keep the weight of the boat as low and centered as possible. But maneuvering them in and out of the compartment would be a constant chore.

After these bags are hoisted onto the deck, it becomes very difficult to row the boat, as the bags interfere with the movement of the oars, so it is necessary to move the boat into position very carefully to avoid capsizing at a time when the sun is down and you’re no longer in your drysuit. Once moored, a very careful dance takes place opening the hatch and sliding into your pre-made bed without tipping the boat too heavily. None of it happened smoothly, but we both managed to hit our bunks that first night without any major mishaps. I lay in my sleeping bag with the top hatch slid open and gazed at the stars shining bright overhead. The sound of lapping waves on the shore and the gentle rocking of the boat reminded me that I was at sea.

Our first night at anchor was a little exposed and the rolling of the boat in combination with the unfamiliar sensation of sleeping in a space the size of a coffin kept me up half the night. Even still, I woke with a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment. We had done it! After months of work building our boats, planning for this trip, raising funds, and driving thousands of miles, we were finally here, at anchor off a small island on the coast of Canada.
We had done it! After months of work building our boats, planning for this trip, raising funds, and driving thousands of miles, we were finally here, at anchor off a small island on the coast of Canada.
A little sore and stiff from our first day on the oars and a night spent in a tiny sleeping compartment, we had a quick stretch and more than one cup of coffee before making our way back onto the water. Our route was loosely planned. It didn’t matter to us exactly where we were going as long as we were covering miles and getting the necessary hours on the water. Our expedition through the Northwest Passage would require ten or more hours per day pulling on our oars, and the extremely short Arctic summer meant that our daily average will have to be 25-30 miles of rowing per day. The shorter daylight hours on the west coast in February made it difficult for us to replicate those kinds of days, and besides, our bodies were not quite ready for such an undertaking, but with only a few short weeks to prepare, we had to hit is as hard as we could.

Following our friend Luka’s recommendation, we hugged the coastal mainland along the Homfrey channel, spectacular for its jagged snowcapped peaks and crystal clear water. It felt like being in the Fjords of Norway or Iceland. The scenery was breathtaking and the weather impeccable. If we were looking for freezing rain and impossible headwinds, we were going to have to wait. It was like rowing through a fairytale. Enormous bald eagles circled over us and seals poked their heads curiously out of the water to examine our passing boats. We leaned into our new duties and pushed our bodies as hard as we could. The first strains of our efforts began to show as we developed hotspots and blisters on our wet and salty hands. By the end of the third or fourth day, those blisters would burst leaving bright red, raw, and stinging skin underneath. The most extreme part of the toughening-up process was taking place on the most direct points of contact between the boat and our bodies. Sore hands and a sore ass became our daily reality.
Our journey continued uninterrupted for several days. We would wake around sun up, pulling up the freezing wet anchor rope as gingerly as our blistered hands would allow, row ourselves to shore, and prepare breakfast. We fell into natural roles that catered to our individual strengths and preferences. I became the unofficial camp chef while Matty attended to the fire and myriad of other camp chores. He was almost always first up, while I preferred to cling to the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag for as long as my pride allowed. Our stove was a temperamental and cantankerous bitch - loud, difficult, and dirty; An expedition grade multi-fuel stove that purportedly could work on anything from diesel fuel to horse piss. Our daily ritual involved coaxing the damn thing to life and listening to its relentless cacophony while we made our daily gigantic pot of oats, with a rapidly dwindling selection of toppings to give us some semblance of variety.

When you’re on an extended foray into the backcountry, managing your food supply is a fine art that requires serious self-discipline. Our food bags consisted of about 100 pounds of dry goods, canned goods, fresh fruit and veg, oils and fats, and a small sampling of luxuries that would inevitably be the first to go. We began our trip eating nuts, chocolate, hard-boiled eggs, fresh fruit, and energy bars and ended it eating plain oats and ramen.

Nevertheless, it was still early days, and as we made our way up Homfrey Channel and north toward the tip of Vancouver Island, we were still eating well. Our first few days had blessed us with mild weather and sunny skies, but we were in the Pacific Northwest in late winter, and such pleasantries were not to last.
By the end of the third day, the weather began to turn, and as we broached the northern terminus of Homfrey Channel we were confronted with our first real taste of Canadian winter on the water. The wind had picked up, and a cold northern breeze was being funneled down the many mountainous inlets, stirring up short choppy waves and chilling the air. The ice and snow-covered mountains created a katabatic effect, also known as a drainage wind. The colder dense air on top of the mountains was forcing its way down the slopes to the warmer air sitting on the water. You could feel the moisture on the wind, the humidity adding a touch of sting to the cold, and we knew that snow was not far off.

We rounded into our prospective anchorage that evening, Redonda bay, and found it wide open to the chop and waves. Fortunately, there was an empty logging camp and homestead nestled just off the beach, and we took advantage of the rare spot of cleared flat ground to erect our four season tent and wait out the weather. The homestead had been an old mussel farm, and tall pile-ons of cedar logs protruded from the low tide line, now the nesting ground for cormorants, dozens of which were perched atop the weathered beams, oblivious to the blinding snow that fell wet and heavy over a dark moonless night. We stared into the black abyss from a small covered platform and each fell into our own private trance as one can only find in the solace of wild places.

By day five my sore and achey muscles were a palpable reminder of how far we had to go in conditioning our bodies for the Northwest passage. We had been averaging about 15 miles a day, a far cry from the requirements of a 2000 mile journey over the top of Canada that would be underway in just a few short months. There were positives, however. The rowing was becoming second nature, and I found myself increasingly on auto-pilot. Able to settle into the repetitive motion of a sliding seat rower. Push with the legs, pull with the back, lift the oars, reset, repeat. Hours and miles passed without nary a thought but daydreams and preoccupations, foremost among them was food.

I could feel the weight dropping from me. I came into this trip more than a few pounds heavier than I normally carry myself, and by the end of the first week my face was taking on a leaner and more familiar healthy appearance. Matty had the opposite problem. Naturally a lean person, pulling up his shirt revealed just how little fat he had left to spare. You could see every muscle and his skin pulled taught over his frame. We were coming into this with very different body compositions and would need radically different approaches to nutrition as a result.

To counter the massive calorie deficit that came from a full day of rowing, Matty took a giant container of peanut butter into his deck bag, and would regularly scoop enormous spoonfuls into his mouth at any available opportunity. Anything to stack calories that his body was desperately craving. I felt the hunger less, but anyone who has spent time outdoors burning excessive calories knows how quickly your mind can become obsessed with food. It was a favorite topic of ours and we relished our campfire dinners. Lunch was usually a quick affair. Most days it was taken on the boats, pulled alongside each other as best we could with the oars stowed against the deck. We would stuff down a few mouthfuls of peanut butter, a couple of hardboiled eggs, protein bars, a can of kippers, and if we were lucky a piece of fruit or cheese.

Matty serving up some campfire bannock.
Our food supply when crossing the Arctic would consist of mostly freeze-dried or otherwise lightweight, calorie-dense items. As opportunities for resupply will be few and far between, weight will be the biggest factor in deciding what makes the cut. For a shorter journey of only three weeks, we were able to take more liberties, and our food bags were absurdly heavy.

The end of our first week on the water brought our first real test. This part of the coast has some of the highest tidal swings in North America. As a result, the narrow channels that we were traversing could generate enormous currents during peak tide. Certain choke points at narrow passages between islands create a kind of tidal rapid. Unlike the rapids most people are familiar with on rivers, the water in these tidal rapids isn’t particularly shallow, the depths could still be dozens or even hundreds of feet deep. But the sheer volume of water moving through them created some scary effects.

Our first set of rapids we were approaching was through the Cordero channel and had to be timed perfectly to align with the slack tide, a short window of just thirty minutes where the tide shifts from ebb to flow (or vice versa) that happened only once every six hours. We arrived the evening before at the entrance of Cordero Channel with anticipation and a mild sense of anxiety. We pored over the charts, littered with nail-biting names such as “Devil's Hole” and “whirlpool point”. We discussed our strategy and decided to time our crossing for late the next morning, and settled into our cozy cabins dreaming of boat-swallowing tempests.

The next day, we woke to cloudy skies and donned our dry suits, pulling the neck cinch extra tight. We battened down our hatches with anticipation. The first set of rapids was considered the mildest and we ran those early to perfectly time the sketchier rapids up the channel. We pulled hard against the current, which was still coming out, giving us stiff resistance as we rounded the point of Big Bay and the small settlement of Stuart Island. We had read that there was a small community store on the island and a boat dock from which to wait out the rapids, and we pulled in hoping to find at least one lonely soul with which we could chat.

It had been a week on the water and so far our only company had been the birds and seals. We tied off and made our way up to the small post office and community center, manned by a friendly and very helpful local woman named Cassandra. She told us that we were the first people she had seen recreating on the water in over three weeks and the first “kayakers” that year. Of course, she was super intrigued by these two crazy guys in dry suits out on the water this time of year, and we passed a very quick two hours chatting and enjoying some complimentary cups of coffee while we waited for slack tide.

Stretching our legs on Stuart Island
It had been a week on the water and so far our only company had been the birds and seals. We tied off and made our way up to the small post office and community center, manned by a friendly and very helpful local woman named Cassandra. She told us that we were the first people she had seen recreating on the water in over three weeks and the first “kayakers” that year. Of course, she was super intrigued by these two crazy guys in dry suits out on the water this time of year, and we passed a very quick two hours chatting and enjoying some complimentary cups of coffee while we waited for slack tide.

She gave us very helpful advice on how to navigate the upcoming rapids, and very unhelpfully showed us some videos of just how scary the giant whirlpool known as Devil's Hole really is. At peak tide, it could be as wide as twelve feet across and had pulled an unfortunate solo canoe paddler to his death just last year. Fortunately, there was a bypass, and Cassandra showed us on the chart how our small boats could maneuver around the worst of the rapids. We bade goodbye to our new friend and pushed off from the boat ramp ready to meet our maker.
Almost immediately we hit a brick wall of current. We had jumped the gun a little too early and were still fighting the rising tide. After twenty minutes of hard pulling, we abandoned our efforts and found shelter amongst the rocks of a tiny nearby island. Small seabirds flocked around the rapids, flying to the top of the channel and letting the current pull them down into the bay. I’m not sure if they were fishing or simply enjoying the ride, but they were a great indicator of when the tide was shifting. As we waited the heavens opened up yet again and freezing sleet began to pelt us. There was nothing to do but sit there and try to stay warm, and we couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of our position. “You gotta have your nuts screwed on tight on a day like this” Matty said sarcastically. That became a regular refrain for us throughout the trip. Our nuts were indeed screwed on tight.

The rapids were a spectacular letdown and relief all at the same time. During peak slack tide, nothing but a few mild boil-ups and eddies remained, and the worst they could muster was to push the boat off course when we were least expecting it. As we pulled free of the rapids we were treated to a rare sight. A boil-up of small fish created a feeding frenzy amongst the local bird population. As we rounded Dent Island and through the channel, bald eagles began to appear from every direction. I’d never seen so many eagles in all my life. Well over a dozen of these majestic birds swooped and dove around us as the smaller seabirds frantically maneuvered out of the way. Seals broke the water surface from below, taking advantage of the easy meal as well. It was a spectacular event that marked an exciting moment in our journey.

We made our way past the danger zone with little additional fanfare and continued on through some windy and choppy waves to shoal bay. The waves were a challenge to a couple of inexperienced rowers. Unlike being on a rowing machine, your oars are moving completely independently of one another. When rowing in heavy surf, a poorly placed oar could broach out of the water unexpectedly, lurching your boat broadside to a wave or catching your knuckles along the outrigger or cabin top. It was a delicate dance that required concentration and skill to perform perfectly. We were learning that dance quickly, and before long could move our boats through conditions that would have stymied us just a week earlier.

We rowed into Shoal Bay in the cloudy and blustery twilight and pulled alongside the long government dock protruding out of the open harbor. We were in one of the choppiest anchorages that we had yet encountered, and the prospect of being cloistered inside my tiny cabin in such conditions was deeply depressing. Fortunately, we had barely finished tying off the boats before a much more sensible option was presented to us. Walking down the dock was Mark, the owner of a small bed and breakfast, Shoal Bay Cottages, who had received a text from Cassandra to keep his eye out for two crazy rowers coming his way. “I heard you guys were coming. You look like a couple of ‘Race to Alaska’ guys!” He joked. The race to Alaska is a famous event around those parts. An 1100-mile open water race from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska in which anything goes and only the saltiest of watermen make it to the finish. Frankly, I was honored at the comparison.

He quickly offered us a free space to set up our tent for the night and we gladly accepted. Hoisting all our gear down the dock a mild dusting of wet snow gradually developed into the kind of weather that can sap the warmth from your body in no time. We were glad to have the tent up and be off the boats for an evening and took the opportunity to download the footage we had gathered thus far from our journey. We were documenting the training run with the same level of care and consideration that we were planning for the main event in the Arctic this summer, and our new cameras had just as big of a learning curve as the boats.

Despite some mishaps and stumbles in both the filming and the actual journey, we were feeling good about the progress we had made. A week in and almost 100 miles covered felt like a solid foundation from which we had pulled some hard-earned experience. We were starting to feel like real rowers, and at the best of times, our bodies felt like an extension of the boats, everything in alignment and everything operating in blissful unison. There was a long way to go, however, and we still had much to learn before hitting the shores of Tuktoyuktuk. Little did we know that the greatest challenges of this journey were still to come.

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