The modern-day sea kayak can trace its origins to the skin-covered sea-going craft used by the indigenous peoples of the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years. These early crafts were not designed for travel, but were used almost exclusively to hunt on lakes, rivers, and coastal waters of the Arctic. The entirety of the Arctic Coast has likely been explored by sea kayak during hunting excursions by the Inuit, Aleut, Yupik, and Ainu peoples.
Numerous individuals have crossed the North American Arctic entirely under human-power using a combination of sleds, kayaks, skis, or by walking. However, for what it is worth – and as far as I can tell – the Northwest Passage has never been kayaked in its entirety, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
In fact, as of spring 2022, there have only been 324 complete maritime transits of the Northwest Passage in any type of vessel, since the first recorded European transit in 1853. There were only 5 transits in 2021, although this number is surely so low due to restrictions from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Although complete transits remain somewhat rare, the waters of the Northwest Passage have been travelled extensively by explorers, whalers, fur traders, and Inuit. The waters are still regularly travelled by locals, mining and exploration companies, and remote tourism operators, and we do not expect to be alone.
Although we intend to complete our paddle in Newfoundland, our expedition begins in Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast and not in the Pacific Ocean, and therefore cannot be considered a ‘true’ Northwest Passage transit. The first person to complete the transit entirely by sea kayak will likely be Freya Hoffmeister, who is currently attempting to circumnavigate North America (see below).
While numerous modern day paddlers have done significant sea kayak trips in the Arctic, a single-season maritime crossing of the Northwest Passage under human-power remains as a one of the last “firsts” in modern adventure. Though several teams continue to indicate that this is their objective, these same teams start and end their trip in the Arctic Ocean, rather than the true Northwest Passage.
Below is an attempt to detail the modern-day exploration of Arctic North America by paddle. Victoria Jason, Jonathan Waterman, & Martin Leonard III have come the closest to completing a full transit of the passage by kayak.
Anne Quéméré: In 2014 & 2015 Anne attempted to kayaked from Tuktoyaktuk east across the Northwest Passage. She turned back not far from Tuk on both occasions due to strong NE winds. In 2018 she took a solar powered kayak on a similar attempt, but aborted her trip just east of Paulatuk.
Reve de Glace: In 2013 Sébastien Lapierre and Olivier Giasson attempted to cross from Inuvik to Igloolik in a single season in a tandem sea kayak. They travelled 2800km and ended their attempt on September 12 in Gjoa Haven. Unfortunately, it appears that they did not return the following year to complete the trip.
Diane Hache: Inspired after reading Victoria Jason’s book of paddling from Hudson Bay to Tuk, and another account of a descent of the Mackenzie River, Diane decided to set out on her own adventure in 2009. She paddled from her new home in Yellowknife to Tuktoyaktuk over the summers of 2009 and 2010. After three years of dreaming and saving money, Diane left again from Inuvik in the summer of 2013 and made her way in stages across the Northwest Passage as far as Gjoa Haven, completing the majority of the journey solo and finishing when she was 62 years old in 2017 (she did not paddle in 2016 due to the ice conditions).
Don Starkell: In 1990, canoeist Don Starkell attempted to paddle from Churchill to Tuktoyaktuk. In his first year he turned back after capsizing. In 1991 he returned with Victoria Jason and Fred Reffler. Fred left due to injury, but over the next two summers, he and Victoria paddled and dragged their boats together to Gjoa Haven. There Don abandoned a sick and injured Victoria and continued on alone to Cambridge Bay by sled, where he began paddling. He never completed the trip. Don’s version of success includes a failed partnership and a rescue resulting in the amputation of most of his fingers and toes. In 1992 his boat was helicoptered out of the bay to the northeast of Tuktoyaktuk where he was forced to abandon it.
Ramón Larramendi: Between 1990 and 1993 Ramón Larramendi and teammates made a 12,000km crossing from Greenland to Alaska using kayaks and dogsleds. It was an extraordinary trip that is still considered the longest non-motorized Arctic crossing ever made. However, the majority of the trip Ramón used dogsleds and not kayaks. Ramón has also done major expeditions in Norway and Greenland by kayak.
The Polar Lys Team: This is an obscure adventure team that I do not have much information on. Pierre and Frederic Vernay founded Team Polar Lys in 1981 and together with Jean-Yves Lapaix and Francois Saunmure they explored more than 5,000km of Arctic Coast by kayak, skis, dogsled, bicycle, foot, and on horse between 1981 and 2001. I do not have any information on the team post-2001 and their website is no longer active.
In addition to numerous trips, in July and August 1995 they completed a significant portion of the Northwest Passage on bicycles and on kayaks, including paddling through the ice choked waters and strong currents of Bellot Strait.
Paul Caffyn: Renowned New Zealand sea kayaker Paul Caffyn, who was the first to circumnavigate Australia by kayak, paddled solo from Prince Rupert to Inuvik along the entirety of the Alaska Coast from 1989 – 1991.
Ray Jardine: Adventurer, climber, and gear maker Ray Jardine has done numerous canoe and kayak trips along the coasts and rivers of the north. In 1995 & 1996 Ray and Jenny Jardine paddled a tandem sea kayak from St. Mary’s Alaska to Herschel Island, the entirety of the Arctic Alaska Coast. They have also paddled the Mackenzie River and Arctic Coast east to Kugluktuk.
Jon Turk: Adventurer & author Jon Turk is one of the most well travelled modern day arctic sea kayakers. His paddle from Japan to Alaska in 1999 and 2000 (with Misha Petkov) is still considered one of the most epic kayak trips ever undertaken. He has completed numerous paddles in Arctic North America, including the Mackenzie River to Kugluktuk and long expeditions in the Eastern Arctic. His most notable sea kayaking trip is a 104 day circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island with Erik Boomer in 2011.
Nigel Foster: Acclaimed kayak designer and long distance paddler Nigel Foster has completed two significant trips in the Arctic, including the first recorded kayak crossing of Hudson Strait, when he paddled from Baffin Island to Labrador in 1981. In 2004 Nigel returned with his wife Kristin and paddled from Kuujjuaq in Ungava Bay to Nain on the Labrador Coast.
Jonathan Waterman: From 1997-1999 mountaineer and adventurer Jonathan Waterman used a combination of paddling, sailing, walking, and dogsledding to travel over 2,200 miles from Prudhoe Bay on the Alaska Arctic Coast to the Gulf of Boothia. Waterman paddled in a skin-on-frame kayak and completed the majority of the trip solo. He also travelled without any communication or rescue devices. He survived capsizes, strong polar storms, and being chased by a polar bear on the open ocean.
Victoria Jason: In 1991 Victoria Jason set out from Churchill, Manitoba with renowned Canadian canoeist Don Starkell & Fred Reffler. She had only been kayaking for one season. Fred dropped out due to injury, but over the summer of 1991 Victoria and Don paddled their boats to Naujaat. Despite some tensions between them, in 1992 Victoria and Don returned to Naujaat. They used snowmobiles to reach Kugaaruk and then dragged their kayaks on sleds to Gjoa Haven. Overcome by exhaustion, Victoria was forced to remain in Gjoa Haven while Don continued on alone. This ended up being a benefit for Victoria as Don was dangerous and a poor expedition partner.
In 1993 and 1994 she returned solo and paddled west to east, starting on the Mackenzie River and reaching Paulatuk in 1993 and then Gjoa Haven in 1994. She completed her trip in amazing style and wrote a remarkable account of her journey: Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak.
In 1996, Victoria returned to Kugaaruk with a desire to complete the section of her 1992 journey from Naujaat to Kugarruk on her own power. She fortuitously met up with sea kayak Martin Leonard III and they travelled together by kayak and overland to Naujaat.
From 1997-1999 Victoria returned to the community of Kugaaruk and helped to re-introduce kayaking to the local community. She passed away from cancer in May 2000.
Yuri Klaver: Yuri is a northern explorer, who has completed several astounding Arctic expeditions on foot, by skis and kayak. From 2012-2017 Yuri undertook his most ambitious expedition, the Arctic Venture. He paddled, skied, walked, and kited over 5000 miles from Nome, Alaska to Greenland. He travelled during the winter and summer seasons. His trip also included a crossing of the Bering Strait by kayak (with a Russian “rescue”) and he became the first known person to cross the Brooks Range on foot (while hauling a kayak). I am unsure of his exact route, but I know he abandoned his kayak in Paulatuk.
Martin Leonard III: Martin’s arctic expeditions rival any of those by household names like Paul Caffyn or Jon Turk, yet he remains unknown to the sea kayaking community. Over a series of subsequent trips Martin “paddled the majority of Alaska’s open ocean coast, the Bering Strait, the Russian Far East and Canada’s northern shores, covering some 10,000 miles and passing through seventy-five villages and hundreds of traditional camps.” He has only yet to transit Hudson Bay and reach the Atlantic Ocean to record a complete transit.
In 1995 and 1996 having already paddled the majority of the shore between the North Pacific and Inuvik, Martin attempted to cross to the Atlantic Ocean. He used a modified surf-ski kayak and averaged 50 mile paddling days. In 1995 he reached Umingmaktook in the Central Arctic, where he left his kayak, Arctic Cheetah, for the winter. He returned the following year and after paddling solo to Kugaaruk he met Victoria Jason, who joined him on the rest of the journey by kayak and overland to Naujaat.
Freya Hoffmeister: Freya is an extraordinary sea kayaker who has likely paddled more shoreline than any human ever. Among other significant paddles, she has circumnavigated Iceland (2007), New Zealand South Island (2008), Australia (2009), South America (2011-2015), and Ireland (2016). The majority of these paddles have been completed solo and in incredible style.
In 2017 she left from Seattle paddling north in an attempt to circumnavigate North America. When the weather deteriorated she left her boat and paddled a second boat south from Seattle. Heading south, she will have reached the Panama Canal by spring 2023. Paddling north, she has reached Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast. We assume Freya will reach Kugluktuk next year, perhaps with our friend Jimmy Harvey. Freya paddles at a much faster pace than we do and is less conservative in questionable conditions due to her experience and skill. We will be in discussion as we both move east and may combine our trips.
West Hansen & Jeff Wueste: In the summer of 2022, Jeff and West (The Arctic Cowboys) left to attempt a partial transit of the passage from Pond Inlet to Tuktoyaktuk by sea kayak. Late sea-ice, transportation issues, and rough weather prevented them from getting very far. They made it less than 400km to the community of Arctic Bay and hope to continue in 2023.
Karl Kruger: In late July Karl left Tuktoyaktuk with an ambitious plan to stand-up paddleboard to Pond Inlet in a single season – a distance of 2000 miles. Karl experienced the same constant headwinds we did along the Tuk Peninsula, but made amazing time to Paulatuk. Here he decided to massively rethink his trip, deciding to complete it in stages every year, giving him a chance to slow down and enjoy the power of the Arctic Coast. Depending on timing we may leave Paulatuk with Karl in 2023.
*** It is important to note that many adventurers chose not to chronicle their expeditions, and it is certain that many significant trips in Arctic North America have gone undocumented. ***