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North West Passage Adventure, but 'It's Warming'

by Mike Kilen, Desmoines Register on 23 Jan 2008
Sailing to the North West Passage David Thoreson
David Thoreson was a member of a sea-weary crew of six, halfway into the 73-day trek on the edges of the Earth, trying to become the first American yacht to travel east to west through the Northwest Passage. Thoreson, surprised by the lack of Arctic ice, knew they had made it.

Ice had stopped vessels for centuries on this treacherous route, as explorers dreamed of cutting a path between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic seas and Canadian archipelagos. But after Gjoa Haven - ominously - the ice would be no problem for the rest of the 6,640-mile journey.

'When we went into town, we were like rock stars,' said Thoreson, 48, of that September day. 'They wanted to look at you. They wanted to see your beards. It's a very remote village. They don't have many visitors.'

Thoreson, along with captain Roger Swanson of southwest Minnesota, went on from there to complete the passage in a 57-foot Fiberglass ketch in 73 days, considered the fastest trip ever by Americans and just one in roughly 30 recreational boats to make the passage in history.

The euphoria has faded a bit.

Today, Thoreson is immersed in composing a traveling photography exhibit that will tour Iowa this summer. More importantly, he has been honing a message to awaken others to the planet's peril.

The voyage was aided, Thoreson and others suspect, by global warming.

'Not only was there less ice but a record amount of less ice,' said Thoreson, whose last attempt with Swanson failed in 1994 when ice stopped them. 'In fact, we didn't encounter any ice.

'The arctic ice pack is shrinking. My feeling is that it's irreversible. Within my lifetime, there will be no more ice in the Arctic. Some scientists say it could be gone within 10 years.'

Thoreson is no activist or climate scientist. He's an adventurer and photographer. But researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Snow and Ice Data Center both released research last summer showing that Arctic ice will drastically decrease from the effect of global warming over the next 40 years.

Thoreson only knows what he saw and how it affected remote villages and wildlife along the way. 'I really think we bridged two eras of history,' he said. 'The end of the era of exploration and the new era of climate change.'

In 1905, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to navigate the passage in a wooden sailboat. The graves and sunken boats of countless others litter the way, including that of Sir John Franklin, whose two ships and 129 men disappeared in 1845.

Thoreson and Swanson saw the Franklin crew's graves - a sobering sight - on their first failed attempt in 1994. They would soon have to make a hasty retreat from danger themselves. Swanson tried it again without Thoreson in 2005 and failed, vowing never to try it again.

Then news of melting ice this year made the trip seem possible. The ice had steadily retreated in prior years, but last summer's shrinkage was extreme, Europe's space agency told the BBC.

Different Paths

Thoreson and Swanson met in 1990, having taken different paths to their dangerous adventure.

Swanson, 76, is a former pig farmer and factory owner from tiny Dunnells, Minn., who took up sailing in midlife. Approaching age 50, he took his daughter sailing in the Caribbean, and she asked him when he was going to sail around the world.

'I decided if I waited until I had the time and money to do it, I never would,' said Swanson, who has since done it three times.

Thoreson literally grew up on smaller water, spending summers in Okoboji, an hour from his hometown of Algona. He became the third generation of his family to become commodore of the Okoboji Yacht Club.

While freelance photography is his profession, operating the Blue Water Studio with wife Teresa in Okoboji, he has fit in 20 years of adventures, such as bicycle trips across Canada and the United States.

When he met Swanson, he asked if he could be part of the crew of Swanson's yacht, Cloud Nine. Swanson tested him in 1991 on a trip around the southern tip of Africa, where they encountered dangerous seas with no Coast Guard to rescue them.

'We neared Antarctica when we were caught in a band for three days with 40 to 70-knot winds,' Swanson said. 'He handled himself real well.'

The audition complete, Thoreson joined Swanson at the opposite pole in 1994. There, icebergs loomed in the water, popping into vision out of the fog, ready to sink their boat.

'I used to think I did this because I'm a photographer,' Thoreson said. 'It's more than that. I'm trying to learn something about myself personally, and the world we live in, and share the wonder. It's really uncomfortable and I don't like it when I'm doing it. But then there is this breakthrough. One of those wow moments.'

Extreme Moments

The 'wows' are alive in his photographs of the beautiful seas at the edge of the Earth: The polar bears; two hundred beluga whales in the bay; the deep blue tint of the skies over rolling, ice-cold water.

'The serene beauty of the poles is something I really like,' Thoreson said. 'I enjoy the remote cultures and being able to experience them and not just fly in as a tourist. To work hard to get to these places makes it all the more special, in addition to the feeling of being where not many people have been.'

Crew members took four-hour shifts sailing the boat. Sailing is Thoreson's greatest skill, honed by navigating small boats in races on Okoboji.

The three-bedroom ketch - it has two masts and four sails - caught winds over the treacherous seas, starting along Greenland.

The ketch sailed through Canadian archipelagos to along the coast of Alaska. Even with less ice, storms brewed stronger as the boat made its way toward Alaska, Thoreson said.

'There were 80-mph winds and 25-foot seas. I can't explain the gravity of the situation. We were surfing down the waves with 26 tons. They are pitch-pull conditions and you can just go end over end. It just scares you, and you start shaking.'

Although they wore harnesses, if Thoreson went overboard he was certainly dead.

'You can't think about the danger too much or you can't function,' he said. 'But you have to know it's dangerous. There is a fine line there. You know you will be tested. There is that one moment when things are hanging on the line and you have to use your instinct and talent and experience. I like that challenge.'

They made it through the storms and ended their voyage on Oct. 1 in Kodiak, Alaska, a record 73-day voyage.

Peter Semotiuk, a ham radio operator in Arctic Canada's Cambridge Bay, who has been broadcasting ice reports for 25 years, is one of the official sources on voyages through the Northwest Passage. He said last summer was 'unbelievable,' as six boats attempted passage - four successfully, although one was later lost in Alaskan seas.

The ice was out a whopping six weeks, while some years it's open for only 24 hours or not at all, he said.

Get the Word Out

On Cloud Nine, with skeptics on global warming aboard, the crew became astounded at the change in climate. None more than Thoreson. Locals told Thoreson about weather phenomena they had never seen before. He heard of hunters unsure if ice packs would break apart. They saw remote Alaskan villages emptied by approaching violent seas.

'The trip solidified my feelings about what is going on in the Arctic,' said Thoreson, who winters in Sante Fe, N.M. 'What I'm working on now is to relay to the public what I have learned in my travels.'

His exhibit, '20 Years/20 Stories' concludes with a call to action. Thoreson wants people in every community to explore steps to slow global warming.

Someday, he plans to captain his own

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