Drive east from Seattle on I-90 and take a left at Missoula, MT. Head due north for about 1,700 miles. Then, theoretically, you could dip the front wheels into the Arctic Ocean’s once-mysterious Northwest Passage, right where Karl Kruger concluded an astonishing two weeks this summer.
Except you can’t drive there from here. Or anywhere.
Roads dwindle in the north of Canada, from asphalt to sealcoat to gravel to chuck-holed hardpan to tundra. Above the Arctic Circle, only airplanes, boats and barges penetrate the isolation of most of the Inuit villages scattered randomly along the Passage. The fabled sea lane that is the shortest way for ships to reach Asia from Europe was first crossed by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1906. Took him three years. But it wasn’t until 2007 and the changing climate that the first ships crossed without an icebreaker.
Summer months in the Passage these days have some commercial traffic, inspiring global energy companies to wonder about oil, gas and rare earth minerals. Also inspired are rival militaries looking for a strategic edge, including China, which has no frozen coastline but operates two icebreakers and is building a third. Russia has seven, with three under construction. The U.S. has two, and the 47-year-old cutter based in Seattle, the Polar Star, spends much of its time in Antarctica. The ship in 2021 was the first U.S. surface vessel to visit the Arctic since 1982.
Also sharing the Passage are a few, non-native smaller craft — tour boats, sailboats, kayaks — and one stand-up paddleboard.
It is the preferred conveyance for Karl Kruger, 51, a graduate of Western Washington University, an Orcas Island resident and an ambitious adventurer. The board is a custom expedition version that carries 400 intimately curated pounds, including captain. What vessel and crew lack in tonnage they make up in gumption.
Because he has a passion for the Arctic and a capacity for epic endurance, Kruger came upon a novel way to experience both. Over the past two summers, through some of Earth’s most remote wilderness, he has paddled west to east atop the Arctic Ocean nearly 1,000 miles.
No support boat. Few contacts with humans, and almost no chance for rescue in the event of, say, walrus. More on that later.
The only connection to his homewaters was via solar-powered electronics. But the standard satellite navigational devices familiar to Puget Sound mariners often don’t work well, if at all, in such yonder.
At voyage’s end, Kruger came to have one in-person connection from the south — me. A fellow freak for the north country and its mysteries, including Kruger, I traveled from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., to Yellowknife to Kugluktuk (“the place of moving water”), where this summer’s saga concluded after 457 milles. I had to hear the story in person, and see some of it.
A hamlet of about 1,400, where many seemed in the long days to be bouncing — perpetually, happily and simultaneously — upon all-terrain vehicles (quads) over dirt streets, Kugluktuk owes its place upon the treeless Canadian Shield of igneous rock to the Coppermine River, which brings north its massive freshwater flow gently into the saltwater.
Freshwater freezes first and thaws first. This is important to know in the north for the eight to nine months of the year when the Northwest Passage is smothered in wind-sculpted ice, bergs sometimes topping out more than 300 feet above waterline. Doing the necessary business of fishing, whaling and hunting, the Inuit are intuitive when it comes to choosing land time and ice time, knowing there’s serious danger in the medium between.
Summer’s difference with winter in the far north is an order of magnitude. By August, hardy tundra plants help feed herds of caribou and musk oxen, and the occasional polar or brown bear. Waters teem with whales, seals, cod and char. A short hike up a rocky shoreline hill near town offered a treeless, golf-course-green vista into the rolling interior vastness of Canada that seemed to last just a few feet short of infinity.
This summer’s difference with the past summers was distinct, and dangerous. A year earlier when Kruger began the expedition’s first 420-mile segment at Tuktoyaktuk, a village near the Alaska-Canada border, the weather was cool and windy. The ocean was speckled with bergy bits, the remnants from winter whose frequent and freewheeling collisions occasionally gathered into a roar. After storing his board in the village of Paulatuk for the winter, he presumed he would return to it and the water in similar conditions.
Along with the rest of us, he failed to anticipate July would be the warmest month in recorded human history. Even remoteness offered no respite.
“I prepared for cold-water conditions and ice,” he told me. “Part of the board’s carbon-fiber construction was to handle portages (dragging) across ice.
“This time, I didn’t see a cube of ice, much less an iceberg.”
The heat and subsequent wildfires that scorched British Columbia and sent smoke south into Puget Sound also fouled the north. The part of the sea Kruger traversed in July and August, Coronation Sound, was beyond tree line, so there was no fuel for local fires. But that also meant no shade for temperatures that soared above 80 degrees.
“For an expedition paddle, it was as hot as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I was taken aback. I was worrying about cramping. I was taking big doses of electrolytes. It was absolutely instrumental for me to keep going. I had no choice.”
But a choice came upon him. On the next-to-last day before reaching Kugluktuk, Kruger, nearly exhausted, pulled ashore on a beach and did something rare: He plunged immediately into the ocean.
“I was afraid of heatstroke,” he said.
His take-out point was near a fish camp. Local families in summer often stake out a gentle beach and build shoreline shanties from scrap construction wood and rare chunks of driftwood for sleeping quarters and a kitchen. They harvest for winter as much as their boats and vehicles can carry.
Kruger’s habit is to respect the privacy of those he encounters. But mother, father and two kids were curious, and conversation came easily.
“If you need a ride into town,” said Donny, the father, “I have a truck.”
Kruger politely declined. The next morning, after about a mile of paddling, with his left wrist throbbing and swollen, and a sun that was well into its 18-hour daily cruelty, he turned around.
“Donny, about that ride . . . “
The 15-mile drive to town was an example of a courtesy that is common along the top edge of the world: Help for the weary and the vexed. Earlier in the trip, Kruger was invited to share a camp with another family, which offered him stories, caribou stew and a roof for a night.
“The thing I kept bumping into was how willing people were to help and host,” he said. “It may be my hang-up, but I assume nothing and always ask permission — stay self-reliant and not presume help. But what I learned there is you go to fish camp and join up. Collaborate. They were the most genuine welcomes I’ve ever had. They weren’t put out, or made me feel I owed them.”
Other things were learned from the hosts too. Said Donny: “This is as hot as I’ve ever seen it.”
Heat that plagued much of North America also made trouble for Kruger early. After he paddled on from the caribou-stew chefs, he encountered a thunderstorm more intense than any in his many sailboat adventures throughout the Pacific Ocean.
“Incredibly beautiful and really scary,” he said. “There was a wall of lightning strikes on the water in the distance, seeming to chase me all day long. Then it was upon me.”
He estimated he saw hundreds of strikes: “The strikes stayed on the water, then retreated up into the sky.”
He assessed his prospects: “I was the tallest thing on the water. But if I went to the beach, I’d be the tallest thing there too.”
Kruger pressed on, guessing that the nearest strike, which was a mile away, gave him distance.The storm abated. He was lucky. And sardonic.
“Ain’t that the shit?” he said, grinning. “I’m thinking bears and wolves are the biggest threats, and it’s an electrical storm.”
The Arctic’s meteorological perversities were not done with him. Fog became so dense he had to sacrifice days of paddling for the safety of the beach.
“It was good paddling weather, but you can’t paddle inside a ping-pong ball,” he said. “In paddling, you make small-distance visual goals — round that point, reach that headland. When you don’t have visible goals, it doesn’t feel like progress.”
The only sensory input in a windless, sunless whiteout was the sound of waves hitting the beach. He stayed close to shore, then stayed on it. Absent direct sunlight, solar panels were unable to charge his electronics. For three days, online followers of his voyage saw no progress because he had to turn off his GPS tracker.
Finally, the fog lifted. He could see again — and be seen, by more than his trackers.
As he began to relax and enjoy the paddle, he had a sense of something behind him. Pivoting, he saw on the water’s surface a few feet away the giant head of a walrus. Big tusks, bushy whiskers, black eyes passively staring down the curiosity.
The moment called to mind a story Kruger told me of an earlier trip north that was something of a scout for this venture. Meeting a native hunter, he received helpful answers to numerous questions about the Arctic environment, including whether it was worth it to carry a shotgun as protection against polar bears.
“Polar bears?” the hunter said. “No. It’s the walruses and the wolves that will kill you.”
Not that walruses are predatory. They simply like to flop their massive selves on things. Those things go flat, or upside down, and remain that way. Eager to avoid proving the hunter prophetic — Kruger’s shotgun was stowed away out of reach — he picked up his pace, then shouted and slapped the water with his paddle.
He looked back. The walrus, as did the thunderstorm and the fog, disappeared. But as with many things in the intensity of the Arctic, the threat was etched forever in memory.
“Never seen anything like that, so close,” Kruger said.
By trade, Kruger is a yacht broker, working out of Seattle Yachts in Anacortes. By avocation, he is a marine wilderness guide, often leading flotillas along the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the U.S./B.C. coasts. By passion, he has been on the frontiers of adventures that include rock, ice and mountain climbing, competitive sailing, and surfing both wind and water. He spent a summer on a team of professional mountaineering guides helping amateurs summit Alaska’s Denali. He went up 19 times, but never made it to North America’s highest point. As the youngest on the team, it was his job to walk down the climbers who were too sick, hurt or scared to finish. So much for the romance of wilderness work.
Kruger etched himself into local maritime lore a few years ago in The Race to Alaska, an obstreperous annual competition held in June starting in Port Townsend. It finishes 765 miles later in Ketchikan, constrained by just two rules: No motors and no support boats/food drops. All manner of watercraft and eclectic sailors/rowers/paddlers participate, and about half the field finishes. Only one paddleboarder in the race’s seven years has completed it solo.
Kruger’s successful two-week astonishment through the perils of the Inside Passage is among those featured in the 2022 film documentary, The Race to Alaska, directed by Seattle-raised Zach Carver. Rather than becoming an adventurer’s capstone, the Inside Passage feat became Kruger’s springboard to attempt a great swath of the Northwest Passage.
The contrast was immense. The Inside Passage, parts of which are in a temperate rain forest, has abundant fresh water and more protected routes. The vast Arctic is classified as a desert (less than 10 inches of precip a year) and required Kruger some days to hike an hour or more to find fresh water in pothole ponds and lakes. This summer’s segment was further complicated by headlands of waterside cliffs that provided annoyingly few beaches, as well as waves too big for easy take-outs.
Then there was the ineffable remoteness.
“This year, I had a very strong sense of no easy way out,” he said. “Last year, if I needed it, I had a chance to get help. This year, I was unreachable. Most rescues are done by the Inuit. If you wait for the Canadian Coast Guard, it’ll be a long wait.
“I’ve taken risks before, and this wasn’t crippling. I got up every day. But the gravity was greater. On top of that, for the first time in my life, my body isn’t what it used to be. Still strong, but it’s adding up differently.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Small trials continued once he reached the small hotel in Kugluktuk. The manager was also the cook, and an ankle injury kept her out of the common kitchen/dining room for four days. After two weeks of freeze-dried meals and protein pellets, no cooked meals were available. Besides cereals, he was on his own for cookies and frozen chicken wings from the general store.
Kruger ached to get home to his girlfriend, Elyn Oliver, the project’s “executive officer” who managed transport and logistics. He also missed daughter Dagny, 15 and an increasingly accomplished sailor. But since he could not have known his arrival date to town to pre-book, he had to be wait-listed for the daily plane flight to Yellowknife.
One morning we trudged to the airport’s empty “terminal” — mostly a big room of about 200 square feet — to seek out news of seat availability and my missing checked bag. Frustrated at striking out on both, we finally found a lone worker and asked him if anyone could tell us anything, or are we dealing with a labor shortage.
“It’s not a matter of under-staffed or over-staffed,” he said, offering a wan smile. “It’s a matter of who gets up in the morning.”
As we laughed, barely, I realized I could never complain about Sea-Tac Airport again.
My bag showed up just in time for me to put on a fresh shirt and leave a day ahead of Kruger. A baking Arctic had one more drama for him. The pilot of the inbound plane radioed ahead to airport control that wildfire smoke was so thick he didn’t think he could land on the Kugluktuk strip. After some minutes of high tension, the plane dropped out of the wall-to-wall brown haze and landed. After passengers were unloaded, Kruger leaped aboard the return flight to Yellowknife. The one-man party began.
It was the most fortunate logistical development of the trip. About a day after he left, the fires moved so close to Yellowknife, a town of 22,000 and the capital of the Northwest Territories province, that the government ordered a complete evacuation, including hospital patients, for a town that had only one highway.
The fires never reached the town. But the evacuation lasted three weeks, ending September 6th. Had Karl not escaped Kugluktuk when he did, it would have been cookies and frozen chicken wings for most of a month. Unless he could find the caribou-stew chefs.
Always a forbidding place, the Arctic now has hot summer breath to go with its frozen winter stare. Kruger’s personal witness seemed to underscore scientific data that the climate is changing faster in the Arctic than anywhere on the globe. News followers are always cautioned about the difference between weather, which Kruger experienced, and climate change that is evolving over thousands of years. Nevertheless, an article in Science magazine in 2021 argued persuasively that data compared over the past 30 years shows the change is happening four times faster in the Arctic than anywhere else. And a report this week from the United Nations World Meteorological Organization said Earth has experienced the hottest three months in recorded history.
The big picture is hard for most to grasp, including Kruger. This summer, he had enough to do to stay a stroke ahead of a lightning strike.
“All these polarities,” he said. “Unbelievable beauty and unbelievable risk.”
The original ambition was to transit the Passage over the summers to its eastern terminus, the town of Pond Inlet on the north of Baffin Island, which serves as a center for Arctic tourism. The route is about another 1,000 mostly northerly miles, and traditionally has been colder and icier. Kruger wants to carry on next summer. He also needs time to understand the intensity of his latest episode with the increasingly volatile Northwest
“Lots to think about as I unpack all the many experiences,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It feels like I’ve been gone a year.”
By next year, the Arctic may be warm enough for a cameo in the Jimmy Buffett biopic.