Northern Limits

No planes, no trains, no automobiles

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It’s a long way from Bellingham to Kotzebue, Alaska—4,000 miles, to be precise.

And if you wanted to make the trip without a plane, without a car, without any kind of mechanized transport at all, it would take you a while. It took Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell six months.

The duo began on the shores of Bellingham Bay, where they launched their rowboats (built by Farrell) in a hailstorm on St. Patrick’s Day, 2012.

Both had ties to the City of Subdued Excitement from their student days at Western Washington University. Caroline studied creative writing. Patrick studied art. These skills have proven to be valuable as the couple is currently on a west coast tour with “Northern Limits,” a multimedia presentation about their epic adventure. (They’ll be in Bellingham to show it off Wed., Feb. 13 at Backcountry Essentials.)

After that auspicious beginning in Bellingham Bay, they rowed north for seven weeks, up the Inside Passage to Lynn Canal in Alaska, where they exchanged rowboats for skis.

With pack rafts on their backs, they skied across the imposing glaciers of the Coast Range. On the east side, they inflated their rafts and floated down the Swanson River, skis lashed to the gunnels.

Upon reaching the Yukon River, they swapped rafts for canoes and paddled to Dawson, where they bushwhacked through the Tombstone Range in deep snow. Continuing northeast they made their way by pack and paddle, finally reaching the mighty MacKenzie River, which transported them through a nightmare of mosquitoes to the Arctic Coast and the final leg of their journey across the Brooks Range to Kotzebue Sound.

“We first conceived of a journey from the Pacific coast to the Arctic Ocean while stuck in a June snowstorm on the Ferrebee Glacier in southeast Alaska,” Van Hemert says. “I was midway through my Ph.D. program and we planned to take a chunk of time off to explore after I finished. We debated about foreign travel, but instead decided to stay close to ‘home,’ which, broadly defined, hosts some of the largest wilderness areas in the world. 

“Weeks later, while paddling on a perfect day in northern Lynn Canal, surrounded by humpbacks and sea lions, we decided that we would begin with the Inside Passage. Piece by piece, the rest of the journey evolved.”

Among the many highlights of the trip, she says, were their encounters with wildlife. “We encountered the Western Arctic caribou herd crossing the Noatak River on their annual fall migration—this incredible pulse of life was one of the most amazing wilderness experiences we’ve ever had.”

What was the most difficult?

“When I think of ‘difficult,’ I picture the Mackenzie Delta, not because of its physical challenges, but because of the mental endurance it required. For several hundred miles we fought a fierce headwind, mud like I’ve never seen it before and mosquitoes so thick that we couldn’t inhale without our head nets. Over the rest of the journey, we had many other experiences that were much more strenuous or scary, but during the weeks of misery on the delta, these would have been welcome distractions.”

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