Sketch by Kevin Vallely of his journey to Bear Island.
In 2013, co-Author Kevin Vallely and a team of three attempted to row a 25-foot rowboat across the infamous Northwest Passage, the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the Canadian far north. For centuries, explorers sought a passage through its waters as a trade route to the orient but were always met with defeat. The passage has been perennially locked in sea ice and was impassable. In recent years, the pack ice had begun to melt, and Kevin and his team set out to raise awareness of the changing environment with the lofty goal of rowing west to east across the passage solely under human power. It would be a human first.
Kevin describes the environment from the opening of his first book, Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear and Awe in a Rising Sea.
The tortured form of a decaying piece of ice glides past us and disappears again into the fog, a weary foot soldier returning home from some distant battle. The hair-raising action of the last couple days has frayed our nerves, and rowing our boat blindly around the Arctic headland of Cape Parry between large chunks of ice isn’t helping. The wind died at two-thirty this morning when a cold, stagnant Arctic air mass took its place and we jumped at our opportunity to move. This is the first calm weather we’ve experienced in days, and we treat it as a change in our fortunes. We couldn’t be more wrong.
It’s July 31, 2013, as Frank Wolf and I are rowing our four-person ocean rowing boat, the Arctic Joule, through the waters of the Amundsen Gulf on the Northwest Passage. Our teammates, Paul Gleeson and Denis Barnett, are resting in the stern cabin awaiting their turn on the oars. The visibility is a mere fifty yards, but we’re forced to travel solely by the aid of GPS and compass. We know we’re close to the cape from the steady thump of waves against cliff, but we see nothing.
The seas change as we round Cape Parry, with house-sized rollers, dark and foreboding, rising out of nowhere, sweeping beneath our hull and disappearing again into the murk. The rhythm of the swell is like the deep breathing of some oceanic giant rousing from its slumber, the crash of wave on rock its wake-up call.
We rise and fall with the pulse of the ocean, but we’re blind in this world of white. The steady rumble of surf to starboard helps us navigate, and the sound of breaking waves feels ominous. It’s not long before the echoes from the cape begin to surround us—one moment to starboard, then to port, then back to starboard again—and we become completely disoriented. “We need to get away from these cliffs,” I yell to Frank.
“It’s too dangerous this close to the cape.” The sound of breaking waves envelops us. “We’re spinning in circles,” Frank says after checking the GPS. “We’re caught in a current or something.”
We try everything to right ourselves, but it’s hopeless; our boat is gripped by an invisible force and we can’t regain control. In the confusion we fail to notice the building wind until it explodes upon us, driving us straight out to sea. Just offshore, about six miles away, sits the pack ice, and we’re now headed straight for it. If we reach it, we’ll be crushed.
I clamber into the cabin and check the navigation screen of our onboard GPS. I wonder if we have space to outrun the pack ice if we fight the wind and head south. The pack ice is big, the winds are intensifying, and we don’t have control of the boat.
“Not likely,” I mumble. As I stare blankly at the navigation screen, I see it. I hadn’t noticed it earlier on the handheld GPS, but there appears to be an island between us and the pack. Called Bear Island, it’s a mere speck, maybe a hundred yards wide, but if we can make it there, we might save ourselves. It’s our only chance.
We hold a straight line going southeast, 45 degrees to the wind-driven waves, and start rowing for all we’re worth. The seas continue to build and the fog remains thick. The waves are hitting us hard to starboard as we battle cross seas to a point several miles upwind from the island and make our turn. The scream of the wind dies immediately and we start to glide with it. “It’s like landing a paraglider on a postage stamp,” Frank says, the only words we’ve shared in the last thirty minutes. Surfing among the white-capped rollers, we race toward our invisible island in the fog.
When we’re within a mile or two, I scream to Paul and Denis to get out on deck. “Put on your dry suits, guys!” They scramble out of the cabin, fully aware of what’s been unfolding.
“Tell us when you see the island,” I shout. It becomes obvious now that facing backward in a rowboat can be very impractical at times.
“We’re four hundred meters out,” Frank yells (about four hundred yards), “Do you see anything?”
“Nothing,” Paul replies. A moment later, Frank yells, “Two hundred meters out.”
“Nothing,” Paul says. “Wait a moment, I think I see—” We all hear it before we see it—the deep, resonating thud of wave against cliff. I strain my neck over my left shoulder to see Bear Island ringed in steep cliffs, huge waves, and little hope.
Our island refuge is no salvation at all.
Miraculously Kevin and team make it onto Bear Island and are faced with a stark reality that they had never prepared for – the prospect of failure at achieving their goal. How the team ended up responding to this realization will shape the rest of their journey.
Their team was at a crossroads. Their goal was to traverse the Northwest Passage from end to end to bring awareness to the profound changes happening in the Arctic. The journey across the passage was proving more challenging and treacherous than they ever thought possible and they had to face the reality that their goal was likely unachievable. Their pace was simply to slow. Autumn would soon arrive in the north and the passage would begin to freeze again. At their current pace the team could never reach their goal.
But what appeared to be a failure at first would soon prove otherwise. Because of the challenges they were facing, the team’s voyage was drawing huge media attention. Front page newspaper articles and an exclusive feature story on the CBS Evening News spoke to their efforts to bring awareness to the changes in the Arctic. Their goal of crossing the passage was to stimulate media attention to what was happening in the Arctic. They were receiving that attention anyhow. They would fail to achieve their goal of traversing the entire Northwest Passage but would ultimately succeed at their purpose of raising awareness to the changes happening there.
The team was able to make a key mindset shift. They moved from short-term goal orientation–reaching the end of the Northwest Passage, to longer term purpose-driven outcomes–raising awareness of environmental changes. All too often, leaders and teams become oriented toward only achieving immediate goals. From pursuing quarterly earnings or annual results, companies get stuck in short-term thinking without consideration of alignment to a broader farther-reaching purpose. Alignment to a purpose allows teams and organizations to deal with short term setbacks more effectively when they are anchored to those larger, longer-term efforts.
For our team of Arctic rowers, they wouldn’t make it across the entire Northwest Passage, but they would succeed in their larger purpose of documenting and sharing the stories of the dramatic changes unfolding in the Arctic.