Last month, Justin Fornal and Wesley Archer, two Americans with a penchant for extreme adventure, set out to attempt what no person has done before: swim 27 miles through Arctic waters from Canada to Greenland across the Nare Strait. The journey to get to the starting point in and of itself was an unprecedented feat. Airports and accommodations aren’t exactly abundant that close to the North Pole. But between Fornal’s ambition as an endurance athlete and Archer’s logistical prowess as a general aviation pilot, the duo was able to piece together a plan that positioned them for success in a near-impossible scenario.
As is the nature of evolving conditions in uncharted territory, from the moment they left U.S. soil, little went according to plan. Still, with the aid of an expert science advisor, plus a team of Inuktun (Polar Inuit) boat captains and local Arctic ambassadors, they were able to reach and swim across the Nare Strait, albeit via an adjusted course. The process introduced them to the limitations of both technology and man, as well as the direct impact of global warming and sea-level rise. We caught up with Fornal and Archer the day after the Nare Strait swim to recount their harrowing adventure and its takeaways for mankind and Earth at large.
Men’s Journal: How did the idea for this expedition come to be?
Justin Fornal: I wanted to attempt to swim from Canada to Greenland across the Nare Strait, and Wesley was also interested in the project. There aren’t a lot of places to land that far north, but hiring a float plane was beyond our budget, so we needed actual tarmac. We decided to go to Qaanaaq, the northernmost village in Greenland with a runway, then take boats to Pim Island, where it’s a straight 27-mile shot across the Nare Strait to Canada.
What were the main motivations for the trip?
Wesley Archer: Initially we were both driven by the adventure. The swim was a massive feat for Justin, and for me getting there felt like such a unique experience as a pilot. During our planning we got to know the area and came to realize that global warming has a massive implication in this specific location. The more I learned about the science of what was happening there, the more fascinated I became with the project.
How did you manage flight and operation logistics in such a remote area?
I coordinated the logistics for the trip from beginning to end. Doing that, plus the flying logistics, was a massive effort. There’s a lot to consider with a flight like this. There’s fuel, weather, remote locations, and the countless random things that can happen along the way.
There are no services that far north. We had to ship fuel to Qaanaaq a year in advance just to ensure we didn’t run out. From there, it’s a matter of figuring out how to safely reach the destination for each leg of the flight. In this case, it was seven legs. I thought about how to do that day and night for two years.
Fornal: To help with operations upon reaching Greenland, we found a woman named Saki Daorana who was essentially a high-Arctic fixer, operating out of Qaanaaq. She was essential in helping plan an expedition that certainly was not the norm. She orchestrated the whole team.
What was it like flying the plane?
Fornal: To me, the flying was more dangerous than the actual swim. Flying up here in a single-engine plane through some of the conditions that we went through had some terrifying moments. I can only imagine what Wesley was feeling as the pilot.
Archer: From the beginning this was the worst weather I’d ever flown. The first leg from New York to Canada didn’t seem like a big deal, but when you start crossing vast bodies of water in a single-engine plane, things get nerve-racking. It was so remote in so many ways; you’re completely on your own.
We made our first landing in Canada in 20- to 30-knot winds. I was tense, and wanted to wait it out. Then my mentor told me, “Wesley, you just have to go.” So, we went.
On the second leg, we were immediately immersed in pure clouds at 12,000 feet and above. The other aspect of flying you need to consider is icy conditions. We were getting up there and the temp was dropping to negative. Justin had no idea, so he was falling asleep. Meanwhile, I was freaking out.
Six legs later, I couldn’t sleep the night before our last and most remote leg of the journey to land in Qaanaaq. Thinking about the flying freaked me out more than the flying itself, even though there were points where it felt like the wings were going to get torn off the plane. I told Justin, let’s just get there.
We landed in Qaanaaq and the next day a 70-knot windstorm blew through that would have easily flipped my plane on the tarmac. I had to drive spikes into the ground and double the tie-downs on my wings to hold it. From there we still had the swim, and the flight home ahead of us.
How did you get around once you were there?
Fornal: The unpredictability of the ice makes this a very dangerous area to navigate. Luckily our two guides, Argiunnquaq Qaernagag and Otto Simigaq, were familiar with the waters, and the way ice can move. Argiunnquaq had once gotten locked in by ice and stuck there for 10 days, so he knew the places where we could seek shelter if necessary. We used two small fishing vessels, not the big ice-breaking vessels that generally go in this area.
Talk us through the days leading to the swim.
We left Qaanaaq on August 14 and had a long ride to get to Pim Island, where we planned to start the swim. Along the way we had an outstanding view of the violent beauty of the Greenlandic coastline. There are parts that look like Mars, parts that look like Scotland, and the beauty is astounding. Once we got up there, we attempted to scout the course in the boats and abruptly ran into an ice sheet—essentially a frozen arctic desert—that went on for what appeared to be infinity. It was impenetrable, so we went to Refuge Harbor to wait a few days, hoping the wind would blow the ice away so we could do the full swim.
While we waited, our filmmaker, Emiliano Ruprah, decided to fly the drone and get some shots of the ice sheet. The drone couldn’t land on the boat because the radar was interfering with it, so I ran up to the bow and grabbed it out of mid-air. In the process, I almost cut the tip of my right ring finger clean off. Blood was spraying everywhere, and it was the day before the swim. I knew the Greenland shark hadn’t ever attacked a person, but the hunters said, “They will come if there’s blood.” I was a little freaked out.
At what point did you decide to reroute the course?
Fornal: I wanted nothing more than to wait until the wind blew the ice out of the strait so we could attempt the swim from Canada to Greenland. But our guides kept saying, “If we stay here, we could get stuck.” I didn’t want to risk anyone’s life, so we decided to go for what was available.
When did you make the decision to go for it?
Fornal: On the day of the swim I was sitting around waiting outside, on a beach, lying on rocks and fuel cans, eating raw walrus—it wasn’t how a person would typically prepare for a massive endurance feat. Not optimal for getting ready for the hardest swim of my life. I was sitting on the shore and starting to get a chill, my boots got wet, and I realized—I’m not going to get any stronger being in the elements for a week, I need to go for this today. We cut the finger off a rubber glove and duct taped it to stop my finger from bleeding, then we took the boats out as far as we possibly could toward Pim Island before we ran into a solid wall of floating ice. The hunters said, “Guys, this is it.”
What gear and provisions did you use?
Archer: Wesley: I brought an Oru Kayak, which is a foldable, origami kayak that works great for travel. The plan was for me to paddle ahead of Justin so I could guide him on how to navigate all the floating ice.
Fornal: I had a nice 7mm wetsuit by Oceaner that sticks to your body and feels almost like you are wearing a layer of blubber. You have to lubricate yourself to put it on. We put our gear outside the night before to make space for people to sleep on the boat, and when I went to suit up, my wetsuit was frozen and the lubricant was a slush puppy. So I had to rub myself down with an icy salve and put on a frozen wetsuit, that’s how the swim began.
For food, I had a one gallon Yeti thermos filled with very strong coffee, some honey, and a special electrolyte powder. I also brought from home 20 small bags containing a mixture of cooked sweet potatoes, bananas, and maple syrup. I froze the bags before we left, and prior to the swim, it stayed good for the 12 days of traveling. Then on my first food break during the swim, I dug into one of the bags and it was completely rotten. It had fermented the day before and was inedible. At that point all I had was liquid, and it served me well. In the arctic, you have to be ready to adapt.
Talk us through the swim itself.
Archer: I got in the water first, and almost immediately my kayak nearly got crushed between a giant piece of sea ice and the boat. The captain had to quickly move the boat out of the way or I would have gotten sandwiched by it.
The first two miles of the swim was a maze of ice. I had a whistle in my mouth the entire time, and as Justin swam behind me I’d whistle to him every time we needed to turn. There’s ice moving in all directions, literally shifting around you, and it was my job to keep Justin from getting crushed by it.
There were close calls left and right, and sometimes close calls that you didn’t even realize were close until after the fact. You’re in the moment doing it, and you know it’s nutty but you just have to get through it.
Fornal: We started the swim and it was just this absolute hall of wonders, so blue and clear. I was staring down hundreds of feet into this abyss, and all around me there were these thick ice sheets. The bottom of the ice had been carved by currents, so we were surrounded by this mesmerizing, phantasmagoric gallery of ice sculptures, and I wanted to stop and sit and stare at it, but I had to keep swimming.
Swimming long distances is more like a train than a car. You don’t want to be starting and stopping often because that’s when the body cools down. You want to maintain momentum and fall into a rhythm. Mindstate plays a massive role. My goal during the swim was to enter a trance-like state, almost falling asleep, and operate almost entirely out of muscle memory where I’m not thinking at all. When you’re in that flow, it feels like you could almost swim forever. You kind of shut down the system and go on autopilot.
The ice was constantly moving, so I was essentially going in a zig zag, like Pac-Man, going through this strange labyrinth of ice. I’d breathe on my right hand side, so anytime I took a breath I could look up and see Wesley in front of me. I probably drank at least two pints of sea water. It’s just part of it.
How did it feel to complete the swim?
Archer: The false summit aspect was tormenting us, especially toward the end. It felt like we were almost there the entire time, then there’d be another expanse of ice to get through. Over and over. Finally, it cleared up for the last 100 yards, and I held back and let Justin finish it on his own. Seeing him complete a feat that I thought was unfathomably difficult—with the cold, the ice, the psychological aspects of just getting there—it was euphoric.
Fornal: When you’re swimming long distance in a deep channel, other than seeing land, the thing you desire most is the bottom. That’s how you know you’re at least getting somewhat close. So I was swimming along hoping to see the bottom for what felt like miles, then suddenly, I could start to make out rocks. Words can’t describe that wonderful feeling when I finally saw the bottom. I realized I’d made it.
As soon as I touched bottom, one of the guides, Otto, handed me this beautiful nuggety rock he’d found covered in mica shards. It was him saying, “Welcome back to Greenland.” It was a beautiful moment.
We didn’t swim from Canada to Greenland, but we ended up doing 11 miles in the Nare Strait in 7.5 hours. With everything we’d gone through, given the circumstances, it was a resounding success.
How did climate and global warming play into the expedition?
Archer: When people say “the Arctic ice sheet is melting,” the Nare Strait is what they’re talking about. When ice leaves the Arctic, it travels either down the west or east side of Greenland. The Nare Strait is on the west side of Greenland, and throughout all of known human history, every year an “ice bridge” forms there between Canada and Greenland that acts as a bathtub plug to keep ice in the Arctic Ocean. For thousands of years that bridge shows up for six months a year. It’s how the Inuit got to Greenland in the first place.
It’s also what we were relying on to keep the water clear of ice for Justin to swim from Greenland to Canada. But two times in the last four years, maybe for the first times in history, the ice bridge has not formed. That is 100 percent directly caused by global warming. The result is a non-stop flow of ice out of the Arctic ocean down the Nare Strait, eventually drifting south and melting, which is what causes sea-level rise.
We needed that bridge to keep the swim path free of ice, but it wasn’t there, so we had to improvise.
Is there any positive effect of the impact of global warming on the Nare Strait?
Archer: We work with Polar Bear International, and they say that because of the ice flow that continues from the Arctic, the Nare Strait may be one of the last polar bear habitats on Earth. Is that a good thing? Of course not. Because, instead of the entire Arctic, their habitat would be confined to just this one area.
Conversely, the local hunters rely on areas of broken ice to hunt polar bears, walrus, and elephant seals, so the absence of the ice bridge is helpful for them. On the other hand, it’s terrible for the world, because it’s essentially purging all the ice from the arctic.
Other than the accomplishment of the adventure, what’s your biggest takeaway from the expedition?
Archer: This story is crazy. A couple guys hop in a plane, go to swim in the Arctic, and in the process learn a bunch about global warming. You can’t ignore it, so I’m listening. I find it fascinating and tragic, so if this helps get a little of that message out, that’s great. Whether people choose to listen or not, I guess we’ll see.
What’s next for you?
Fornal: Our goal is to return in May or June 2023 when the ice bridge is expected to form, then I’ll have an open path between Pim Island and Greenland with no ice in the way. I’m very excited to come back and do another swim in this amazing body of water.
Read about another of Justin Fornal’s swim adventures here.
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