The Inuit have a word: “ILIRA.” It has no equivalence in the English language. Ilira is the sensation you feel when you glide down the waters of Franklin Bay under a setting sun, with sulfurous plumes of smoke erupting from the hillsides and a giant bow head whale surfacing just meters away.

Ilira is the feeling you get when you go to sleep at night facing a mirror-smooth ocean, and awaken to a cauldron of sea ice, churning and grinding in its place. Ilira is the sensation when a nine-foot grizzly bear stands on its hind legs, discovers you’re there and slowly walks towards you.

Ilira is the sensation of rounding a precipitous rock-walled cape in gentle seas, knowing that bad weather is on its way and in seconds your world could be chaos. Ilira is the gentle flush of fear that comes with awe.

And Ilira defined our ocean-rowing journey through the waters of the Northwest Passage this summer. On July 1, 2013, the Mainstream Last First team – comprised of myself, Frank Wolf, Paul Gleeson and Denis Barnett – attempted to do something that has never been done before: to row the Northwest Passage, without sail or motor, in a single season.

It was a feat only possible now due to the melting ice in the Arctic. The expedition challenged us in ways we couldn’t have imagined and we dodged many bullets along the way. The “bullets” came in the form of a pan of multi-year ice, intent on running us over in Franklin Bay in the form of wind, storm and current, wanting to sink us the grinding pack ice of Darnley Bay and in the form of a southerly wind so strong we were powerless as it pushed us out into open sea.

But with the bullets also came the wonder: a beluga whale rising inquisitively from the surf mere meters away, stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient Thule site on a secluded bay we never intended to visit and watching the horizon twist and bend and turn upon itself as the heat and cold from air and water played games with our mind.

The Mainstream Last First Expedition has come to a close and my head is still spinning from the experience. On Tuesday, November 26 at 7:30 p.m., we will recount the tales of our high sea adventure at the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver. I hope you can join us for the event. For tickets or more information, visit the website here.

Guest blog post by Kevin Vallely, one of the four members of the Mainstream Last First Expedition (@lastfirst2013). The team attempted to be the first to row the Northwest Passage without motor or sail in one season. Although they did not reach their goal of a full crossing, they rowed almost 1,900 kilometres over 55 days, making it halfway across the treacherous passage.

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