Northwest Passage Kayakers Face National Parks Charges

Four kayakers who set a landmark record in a remote corner of Canada have been charged with illegally visiting the area, which is protected as a migratory bird sanctuary.

West Hansen, Jeff Wueste, Eileen Visser, and Mark Agnew completed the first-ever single-season kayak journey through the Northwest Passage this autumn. We ranked it our #2 expedition of 2023.

ExplorersWeb first discovered the potential permit problem during an in-person conversation with a park warden on Baffin Island last summer. It turns out that the group never resolved this issue and so did not have permission to camp on Bylot Island. Each member has since been charged with 45 violations of the Canadian National Parks Act and the Migratory Birds Convention Act. Sirmilk National Park encompasses all of Bylot Island and some of western Baffin Island. Bylot is also a migratory bird sanctuary.

The quartet embarked on their journey in early July, and were immediately blocked by sea ice along Bylot Island’s south coast. They waited in a small hunting cabin on the southeast corner of the island for two weeks for the ice to break up. Then they paddled along the north coast for several days.

By allegedly camping on Bylot Island without permission, the Arctic Cowboys ran afoul of several regulations designed to protect migratory birds. Camping on the island without a permit is a key violation, prompting investigations by Parks Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The sanctuary protects nesting sites of thick-billed murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and greater snow geese. The Canadian Government website states: “For all non-Nunavut Inuit, a permit may be required to access or conduct activities in the MBS, particularly if firearms will be carried and/or migratory birds may be disturbed.”

Map of Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

A map of the Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The Arctic Cowboys were holed up for two weeks on the southeast corner of the Island, then paddled along the north coast for several days. The part of Baffin Island immediately west of Bylot Island is also part of Sirmilik National Park. Image: Canada.Ca

Numerous charges

Although not public knowledge at the time, the Arctic Cowboys’ journey took an unexpected turn when, over a month into their expedition, they were arrested and interviewed for these contraventions in Cambridge Bay on Aug. 25, 2023. Parks Canada Law Enforcement, assisted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, carried out the arrest. The kayakers were subsequently released, allowing them to resume their journey.

The alleged offenses are being examined under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Canada National Parks Act, specifically within the Bylot Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary and Sirmilik National Park in Nunavut. The charges against the team include a range of offenses, such as using public lands in a park against the Canada National Parks Act, possessing a firearm in a park contrary to National Parks Wildlife Regulations, and disturbing wildlife in a park, among others.

Legal action against West Hansen and Jeff Wueste of Texas, Eileen Visser of New York, and Mark Agnew of the UK is now underway in Nunavut courts. The outcome of these proceedings remains uncertain, although the National Parks Acts website lists hefty fines for contraventions.

The Arctic Cowboys’ journey was one of the most impressive kayak expeditions in recent years. However, the disregard for local laws has overshadowed their success. ExplorersWeb can’t condone this any more than we could laud a difficult climb done on a forbidden mountain in Bhutan. The natural world, even in the remote Arctic, isn’t just a stage for adventurers to pursue their goals. Though regulations and permits may seem bureaucratic, they play a crucial role in safeguarding the land and wildlife of the Arctic.

We have reached out to leader West Hansen for comment, but have not received a response.

The hearing will take place in early March.

Ash Routen

Ash Routen is a writer for ExplorersWeb. He has been writing about Arctic travel, mountaineering, science, camping, hiking, and outdoor gear for 7 years. As well as ExplorersWeb, he has written for Gear JunkieRed Bull, Outside, The Guardian, and many other outlets. Based in Leicester, UK, Routen is an avid backpacker and arctic traveler who writes about the outdoors around a full-time job as an academic.