Human Powered Achievements through the Northwest Passage

by Julie Angus

Northwest Passage Attempts by Human-Powered Craft

At Angus Rowboats, our passion for adventure naturally draws us to the mystique of the Northwest Passage – one of the world's most captivating and perilous waterways. Historically, this elusive passage promised a shorter shipping route, spurring early navigators to fervently chart and struggle through its icy intricacies.

In bygone days, mere navigation through this maze was an enormous challenge. Yet, with advancements in technology, accumulated knowledge, and the sobering effects of global warming, the Northwest Passage has become slightly less daunting, allowing people to attempt this 3200 km route in smaller and human powered craft.

The summer of 2023 saw three audacious teams, including one using our very own RowCruiser boats, aiming to be the first to traverse NW Passage solely by human power within a single season. As the season concludes, we've chronicled these attempts, and catalogued past human-powered endeavors to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Definition of a Northwest Passage Traverse:

For some reason, the defined boundaries of the Northwest Passage seems to draw a lot of controversy.  Usually, it is a few vocal individuals wishing to diminish the accomplishments of those that have gone through hardships the rest of us can barely fathom.  Really, the definition is quite clear:

The International Hydrographic Organization defines the limits of the Northwestern Passage as stretching from the eastern limits of the Beaufort Sea to the east coast of Bylot and Ellesmere Islands (condensed from a more expansive definition).  The most common starting and ending points are near the communities of Tuktoyaktuk and Pond Inlet.  The International Hydrographic Association is the world's leading authority in maritime mapping and research.

There are other definitions created by various organizations, groups, clubs, and individuals however, the human powered-community has unanimously accepted the International Hydrographic Association's definition as the one to abide by.

Some who have traversed the passage by motorized or motor/sailing vessels claim that the Northwest Passage extends from Arctic circle to Arctic circle, but this is simply not correct, and likely has arisen from the fact that large motor boats have no choice but to travel this route to enter and exit the passage.  

Most Notable Human-Powered Northwest Passage Triumphs

  • First to Complete the Entire NW Passage by Human Power: Charles Hendrich (2014-2015) Charles Hendrich, a Frenchman, embarked on a three-summer quest, rowing from Wales, Alaska to Pond Inlet. Two of those summers were dedicated to the stretch officially recognized as the NW Passage – from Tuktoyaktuk to Pond Inlet. He navigated in a custom rowboat crafted by Mathieu Bonnier.  It is argued by some that technically Charles didn't complete the NWP because he finished in the community of Pond Inlet 64 km from the IHA defined end.  From this standpoint, the Arctic Cowboys were the first to complete the entire passage by human power.
  • First to Complete the Entire NW Passage in a Single Season: Arctic Cowboys (2023) West Hansen, Jeff Wueste, Eileen Visser, and Mark Agnew used two sets of tandem kayaks to complete voyage the entire Passage in a single season.
  • Greatest Distance Rowed in a Single Season: Matty Clarke (2023)
    Navigating in a RowCruiser boat, Matty Clarke covered two-thirds of the Northwest Passage in just one season, traveling about 2100 km from Tuktokuktuk to Gjoa Haven. Unfortunately, technical issues with his electronics thwarted a full traverse.
  • Toughest Arctic Paddler: Freya Hoffmeister Freya, hailing from Germany, can arguably be crowned as the most accomplished sea kayaker in the world. Her accolades include kayak circumnavigations of Australia, New Zealand, and South America.  Currently, she's on a mission to circumnavigate North America, with the Northwest Passage being just one of the inconveniences she's facing. Having already covered half of it, we anticipate her completion in the next year or two.

A Compilation of Human Powered Attempts

1906: First to Voyage the NW Passage - Roald Amundsen
Although Roald Amundsen's journey wasn't human-powered, his significant historical accomplishment can't be ignored. The Norwegian explorer completed the first full traverse of the Northwest Passage aboard a herring fishing boat, accompanied by a crew of six.

1986-1987: First Sail Through the NW Passage
While this wasn't a human-powered expedition either, Jeff MacInness and Mike Bedell's remarkable journey aboard an 18-foot Hobie is worth noting. They were the first to sail through the Northwest Passage without auxiliary engines.

1990-1992: Kayaking the NW Passage - Don Starkell
Over three years, Don Starkell covered significant portions of the Northwest Passage by kayak. Starting in Churchill at the Hudson's Bay, he transitioned to snowmobiles for an overland portion, later resuming his kayak journey from Gjoa Haven to Tuktoyaktuk. Close to Tuktoyaktuk, his kayak became trapped in ice. A fortuitous helicopter rescue saved Starkell, but he tragically lost most of his fingers and toes to frostbite.

1990-1994: Kayaking the NW Passage - Victoria Jason
Victoria Jason initially accompanied Don Starkell to Gjoa Haven. After they separated, she later embarked on a solo journey. Starting from the opposite direction, she paddled down the Mackenzie River, past Tuktoyaktuk, and journeyed to Gjoa Haven — reaching the the spot she'd made it to with Starkell from the opposite direction.

2010-2011: Rowing the NW Passage - Mathieu Bonnier
From Greenland to Resolute, Mathieu Bonnier rowed in a custom-designed rowboat, equipped with a small cabin.

2013-2015: First Complete Human-Powered Traverse of the Northwest Passage - Charles Henrich
Over three summer seasons, Charles Hendrich of France rowed from Wales, Alaska to Pond Inlet. Covering the official Northwest Passage — from Tuktoyaktuk to Pond Inlet — took two seasons. His rowboat was custom-built by Mathieu Bonnier.

2013: Diane Hache's Kayak Attempt
Diane Hache covered about a third of the passage by kayak. However, a damaged kayak forced her to halt her journey at Paulatuk. Before this attempt, she had kayaked the Mackenzie River to Tuktoyaktuk.

2013: Reve De Glace Tandem Kayak Journey
Oliver Giasson and Sebastien Lapierre of Quebec covered two-thirds of the Passage in a tandem kayak, starting in Tuktoyuktuk and ending in Gjoa Haven. Unfortunately, icy conditions halted their progress.

2013: Arctic Joule: A team of four comprising Kevin Vallelly, Frank Wolf, Paul Gleeson, and Dennis Barnett rowed halfway through the Passage from Tuktoyaktuk to Cambridge Bay.  They were aiming to complete the entire passage in one season, but due to ice conditions had to stop.

2022-2023: Stand Up Paddle Boarding the NW Passage - Karl Krueger
Karl Krueger successfully paddle-boarded a third of the Passage and intends to complete the journey over multiple seasons.

2023: Over the Top - Matty Clarke and Adam Riley
Using two RowCruiser boats, the duo aimed to be the first to cover the passage by human power in a single season. After an injury forced Adam to leave a month into the trip, Matty continued solo. However, an electronic failure later forced him to abandon his attempt. Still, Matty now holds the record for rowing the furthest distance through the Northwest Passage in one season.

2023: Levin Brown and Crew  A team of four led by Levin Brown made it almost two thirds of the way through the NW Passage in a four-person ocean rowboat.  Their voyage began near Pond Inlet, and they ended the Expedition several hundred km past Cambridge Bay due to deteriorating weather.

2022-2023: Kayaking with Freya Hoffmeister
Freya Hoffmeister has already kayaked half the NW Passage as part of her more extensive expedition to circumnavigate North America. Given her previous successful circumnavigations of Australia, New Zealand, and South America by kayak, it's highly anticipated she will complete her current endeavor.

2023: Arctic Cowboys Triumph - Led by West Hansen
In a remarkable achievement, the Arctic Cowboys became the first team to traverse the Northwest Passage by human power in a single season. They covered the full length of the passage, from near Pond Inlet to the Beaufort Sea near Tuktoyaktuk. A massive salute to West Hansen, Jeff Wueste, Eileen Visser, and Mark Agnew!

Julie Angus
Julie Angus


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