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1996: Kayakers Challenge the Arctic

Kayakers Challenge the Arctic

La Pine Couple Builds Craft for Northwest Passage Journey


Jenny and Ray Jardine of La Pine make their kayaks that carry them safely through their Arctic adventures.
Photo: Bulletin/ Diane Kulpinski


By Keith Ridler

The Bulletin, December 31, 1996

Ray and Jenny Jardine were tranquilly paddling their two-person kayak past boulder-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Ocean when they noticed one of the pieces of ice was keeping pace with them.

Looking more closely, they saw that this piece of odd-flowing ice had two dark eyes and was, in fact, not a piece of ice at all but a polar bear of at least 1,000 pounds.

"He was looking right at us," said Jenny.

The La Pine couple kept paddling at regular speed, about 4 mph, and hoped that the polar bear would continue on his own business, which he eventually decided to do

That was just one encounter the Jardines had with wildlife (they also spotted 34 grizzly bears, thousands of caribous, a dozen musk ox, countless birds and four species of whales) last summer during their 1,400-mile trip by kayak along the coast of Alaska.

They also made friends with Inupiat Eskimos at the remote villages where they stopped for supplies. The Inupiat were intrigued with the kayak, a high-tech boat the Jardines designed and made themselves from aerospace composites.

"If you paddle into one of the villages in a kayak, you're someone special," said Ray Jardine, noting that the Eskimos they met were aware that their ancestors had invented the kayak. "At every town the people adopted us."

Last summer's trip was the third leg of a much larger plan that Ray, 52, and Jenny 38, have to kayak from Seattle to New York via the Northwest Passage.

The first leg they accomplished in 1987, going from Anacortes, just north of Seattle, to Skagway, Alaska, and after Portaging the Chilkoot National Historic Trail, flowed 2,000 miles with the Yukon River across the heart of Alaska to the Bering Sea.

They began the second leg in 1995 on the Yukon River (so as not to leave any part of the journey unpaddled) at St. Mary's, Alaska, traveling 600 miles in tough conditions on the Bearing Sea up Alaska's west coast to Shishmaref.

They returned to Shishmaref last summer and, beginning June 19th, they journeyed up the coast past Barrow, the northern-most point of Alaska at just over 71 degrees north latitude. Then they headed east to just past the Canada-Alaska border, averaging 30 miles a day. The border, marked by a three-foot obelisk, is where the polar bear took an interest in them.

Shortly after that, pack ice forced the Jardines to turn back to Kaktovik, Alaska, from where they flew home on Aug. 23.

Besides the polar bear, the Jardines also had to be wary of grizzlies on their trip.

"They're the biggest problem because they're not afraid of you," said Ray, recalling the day in the 1995 trip that Jenny had to fire a flare gun past one to scare him off while he backed her up with a shotgun.

"Even though they're terrifying and mortifyingly dangerous, they're still extremely interesting. They're huge; you can see them for miles."

Still, the Jardines note that the trip was filled with more serenity and peaceful vistas than life-threatening encounters.

"It's not a survival epic for us at all," Ray pointed out. "It's something we love to do. Nothing compares to the Arctic Anything else we do is anticlimactic."

Their two-month voyage brought them near great colonies of sea birds that swept like waterfalls from the cliffs out over the sea.

The arctic weather also preserved remnants of old Eskimo villages, and the Jardines occasionally came across pieces of wooden ships scattered along the coast from the 31-ship U.S. whaIing fleet that was crushed by ice near Point Belcher in 1871.

That's a reminder that they have to be careful as well, which Is why they put so much preparation into last summer's trip and Into the coming summer's expedition. They plan to fly back to Kaktovik in early July and begin paddling east again, but this time in a different kayak they are building.

This year's model is 20 feet long and built of kevlar (used in bullet-proof vests) and a carbon fiber. It will weigh about 15 pounds less than the kayak they took in 1995, which tipped the scales at 52 pounds.

"The boat is your life," said Ray "It's got to hold together, so shaving weight off it is real dicey. You're putting all your eggs in one basket, and making sure that basket is strong."

Ray designs the kayaks on a computer, then he and Jenny put the craft together from those specifications. The Jardines have been offered free kayaks, as well as other gear, for the trips by companies eager for publicity. But they have shied away from such offers.

"We don't want to do that," said Jenny. "It's not our cup of tea."

And Ray figures he can make a kayak better than anything currently en the market. He has a degree in aerospace engineering that he used briefly at Martin Marietta, quitting at age 25 to rock climb at Yosemite National Park for 11 years while living out of his car.

While at Yosemite he invented a device called a "Friend," a popular apparatus that rock climbers wedge into crevices and run a rope through.

Sales of "Friends" and of hiking books the Jardines have written, particularly The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook," help finance their Northwest Passage odyssey.

"We can't wait to get back up there," said Ray.

The Jardines keep a detailed journal of their trip, using a global positioning system to be certain of where they are on the map.

Ray's Story: 1996 Alaska Arctic Coast

The story has 26 pages. This is page 16.
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