tampabay.com

Cold 'vacation to Hell'

By Stephanie Garry, Times Staff Writer
Published February 19, 2008


Russell Farrow won't properly bathe for at least a month this summer.

He'll haul 200 pounds of gear across the world's largest uninhabited island and kayak in some of the most remote waters.

He'll leave Florida's sunny beaches to dodge icebergs and polar bears in a place so far north that compasses don't work.

And it's all part of a vacation.

Farrow, co-owner of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg, and three friends won the second annual Vacation to Hell from kayaking company Immersion Research. When the veteran kayakers applied, they didn't know where they'd be going. It could have been Tahiti.

Instead, it's the Canadian Arctic.

In 2005, Russell Farrow and teammates - Alain Cormier, 41, Tim Keen, 42, and Mark Prator, 43 - paddled the coast of Labrador on the east coast of Canada. It helped secure the $24,000 grant for the Arctic adventure they will undertake this summer. Farrow, 48, talked recently about the upcoming trip. He feels lucky to be going, he says, but may change his mind after a month of sponge baths.

 

Your whole team are over 40?

We are geezers, man.

 

How do you know each other?

Misfortune. Mark and I have known each other the longest. We are musicians and have played in bands together off and on for 20 years. Tim was associated with Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association. They hired me to teach them how to paddle sea kayaks. Alain used to live in St. Pete and I met him through paddling here.

 

What about the trip most intimidates you?

I think that 60-mile open water crossing, hands down, has all of our attention. The reason is because it's not like Florida. You'll get five or six weather fronts a day through there. When they have wind, they don't have 15- to 20-knot winds, they have 60-knot winds. Even though we're waiting for the ice to break up and move out, there's plenty of ice up there to get in our way.

 

Have you ever feared for your life? Is that a possibility on this trip?

It is. ... I'm fairly certain that we've all got better risk-assessment skills than we did five years ago. The whole point of the trip is to finish the trip, but even more important than that is to know when to say we can't go, we can't do this today. If we run out of time sitting on a beach and the ice starts covering the water again, so be it.

 

Is this basically the warmest time?

We're going the only time of year there isn't ice on all the water. Historically it breaks up the last week of July, and starts covering things again the second week of September. This trip could well take that entire time.

 

What will you be eating?

Pasta. Tuna. A local fish called Arctic char. We ate that in Labrador. We'll probably buy some seal meat - it's got a ton of energy and it keeps you warm. We made pizzas one year in Labrador. We actually eat pretty good. Unfortunately, you burn a lot of calories just standing around and being warm.

 

Have you been threatened by polar bears?

Once, we sat on the beach (in Labrador) making brownies. About 50 feet away from us was a bear making its way toward us. We all jumped up and yelled at it and it ran away. One day by myself, about 25 feet away was a bear on its hind legs. I stood up and made myself as big as I could. It dropped down, I yelled at it, and the boys came up and started yelling at it. It looked at them and looked at me and turned around. A couple of people had their guns aimed at it, and I was disappointed they didn't have their videocamera aimed at it.

 

You won't bathe the entire time you're there?

Considering the water is around 30 degrees, would you?

 

Why do you do this?

When you get in your kayak and you push off from shore, the feeling of freedom, being the master of your own vessel, is unparalleled.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.