The Pre-Dorset, Dorset, Thule, and their modern day ancestors the Inuit, Aleut, Yupik, and Ainu peoples have hunted and travelled on foot and by kayak across the Arctic for millennia. They have likely explored every bay, cove, strait, and beach in search of food and resources.
The first successful recorded transit of the Northwest Passage took place from 1903-1906, when Amundsen sailed his 21m sloop Gjoa from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today, although complete transits remain somewhat rare, the waters of the Northwest Passage are travelled extensively by locals, resource extraction companies, shipping companies, remote tourism operators, and other adventurers.
We are not the first to attempt to paddle the Northwest Passage. Below is a list of notable attempts, as well as other long-distance Arctic paddling expeditions.
Polar Lys Team
An obscure adventure team founded by Pierre and Frederic Vernay in 1981. Together with Jean-Yves Lapaix and Francois Saunmure, the Polar Lys Team explored more than 5,000 km of Arctic Coast by kayak, skis, dogsled, bicycle, foot, and on horse between 1981 and 2001. In July and August 1995 they completed a significant portion of the Northwest Passage by bicycle and kayak, including paddling the ice choked waters and strong currents of Bellot Strait.
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 Foster returned with his wife Kristin and paddled from Kuujjuaq in Ungava Bay to Nain on the Labrador Coast.
1982, 1999-2000, 2011
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.
1986-1997 (and beyond)
Jill Fredston & Doug Fesler
Beginning in 1986, for three to five months every summer, Jill and Doug would escape to explore the rugged shorelines of Alaska, northern Canada, Labrador, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and Norway. Jill would travel in her custom designed ocean-going rowing shell, while Doug travelled at first by kayak, but eventually succumbed to the efficiency of a rowboat.
Jill has written perhaps one of the best books in the genre recounting their trips together: Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge.
Vidar Sie and John Anderson
From May to October of 1988, Scandinavian explorers Vidar Sie and John Anderson hiked and kayaked from Resolute to Nicholson Island. They hauled their boats over ice, hunted seals, and paddled open leads when they were available. Short on time, they began portaging peninsulas in an attempt to reach Tuktoyaktuk, including Parry Peninsula and Cape Bathurst. Sea ice ended their remarkable trip on Nicholson Island, where they flew out to Inuvik.
Renowned New Zealand sea kayaker Paul Caffyn – who was the first to circumnavigate Australia by kayak – paddled solo from Prince Rupert, BC to Inuvik, NWT along the entirety of the Alaska Coast from 1989 – 1991. Freya Hoffmeister recently completed this route, as have only a small handful of other paddlers.
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, for the purposes of our list, it is important to note that for the majority of the trip Ramón travelled by dogsled and not kayak.
In 1990, famed canoeist Don Starkell attempted to kayak from Churchill, Manitoba to Tuktoyaktuk. In his first year he turned back after capsizing a few days out of Churchill. After a year of training, in 1991, he returned with Victoria Jason and Fred Reffler. Fred left the trip early due to an injury, but over the summer, Don and Victoria paddled together to Naujaat. The following year, Don convinced Victoria to return in the spring and they dragged their boats over the ice to Gjoa Haven. Don continued on alone, taking ever more consequential risks, until he was finally rescued by helicopter just over a hundred kilometers from Tuktoyaktuk.
In 1991 Victoria Jason set out from Churchill, Manitoba with 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 and used snowmobiles to reach Kugaaruk. From there, they dragged their kayaks on sleds to Gjoa Haven.
In 1993 and 1994 Victoria 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 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.
Phil and his paddling partner, Mark, left Inuvik bound for the Northwest Passage in the summer of 1993. Despite being a week behind, Victoria Jason was able to catch them in Tuktoyaktuk and they travelled together for a few days. Victoria’s account of their time together is quite comical, and based on her observations, it seems the trip was doomed to failure. Phil and Mark were attacked by a polar bear on Nicholson Island between Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and Cape Bathurst.
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.
Martin Leonard III
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.”
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 to Naujaat.
From 1997-1999 mountaineer and adventurer Jonathan Waterman paddled, sailed, walked, and dogsledded over 2,200 miles from Prudhoe Bay 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 and survived capsizes, strong polar storms, and weeks without human contact.
Waterman’s book, Arctic Crossing, is a phenomenal account of his journey and Inuit culture.
2009-2010, 2013-2015, 2017
Inspired after reading Victoria Jason’s account of her kayak from Hudson Bay to Tuktoyaktuk, Diane decided to set out on her own adventure in 2009. A new resident to the north and a new kayaker, she left her home in Yellowknife and over the summers of 2009 and 2010 paddled to Tuktoyaktuk via the Dehcho (Mackenzie River). 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).
Diane chronicled her journey in a recent book, Impossible is Nothing.
Yuri is a northern explorer, who has completed several astounding Arctic expeditions on foot, by skis, and by kayak. From 2012-2015 Yuri undertook his most ambitious expedition, the Arctic Venture. He paddled, skied, walked, and kited over 3,000 km from Nome, Alaska to Paulatuk. Are kayaks are currently stored next to Yuri’s in Paulatuk.
Sébastien Lapierre & Olivier Giasson
Team Rêve de Glace attempted to cross from Inuvik to Igloolik in a single season in a tandem sea kayak. They travelled 2,800km and ended their attempt on September 12 in Gjoa Haven. This remains one of the best single season attempts at the Northwest Passage, although by most counts they were several thousand kilometers short.
Although, not a sea kayak attempt, Dennis Barnett, Paul Gleeson, Kevin Vallely, and Frank Wolf left Inuvik in 2013 in a 4-man rowboat intent on completing the passage in a single season. The team battles difficult weather and ice conditions and struggle with their heavy ocean-going vessel in the shallow waters. They reached Cambridge Bay before wisely choosing to end their trip.
Kevin Vallely wrote a gripping account of the attempt: Rowing the Northwest Passage
2014, 2015, 2018
In 2014 & 2015 Anne attempted to kayak 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.
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 stashed her boat, returned to Seattle and began paddling south in a second boat. In the summer of 2022, Freya reached Tuktoyaktuk. She has a goal of reaching Cambridge Bay in 2023 and will be paddling with a friend, Jimmy Harvey. We will continue to be in discussion as we both move east and may eventually combine our trips.
In late July, 2022 Karl left Tuktoyaktuk with an ambitious plan to stand-up paddleboard to Pond Inlet in a single season – a distance of 2,000 miles. Karl experienced the same constant headwinds we did along the Tuk Peninsula, but made amazing time to Paulatuk. Here he re-envisioned his trip, deciding to complete it in stages every year, giving him a chance to slow down and enjoy the power and immensity of the Arctic Coast.
West Hansen & Jeff Wueste
Amid much media and fanfare, Jeff Wueste, Rebekah Feaster, and West Hansen of the Arctic Cowboys left Pond Inlet in early August to attempt a partial transit of the Northwest Passage in a single season. Late sea-ice, transportation issues, and rough weather all delayed the trip. Rebekah withdrew shortly after departure, and less than 400km in, at the community of Arctic Bay, Jeff and West made the decision to postpone the trip until 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. ***