Jul 28, 2015

Kayaking the icy waters

Kayaking the icy waters

Alaska's world champion paddler crossed Bering Sea and Northwest Passage

By George Bryson / Anchorage Daily News

Suppose they came by sea.

Instead of walking across the Bering Strait land bridge during the last ice age, as had long been assumed, perhaps the first people to reach the Americas arrived here by boat -- as an increasing number of archaeologists and anthropologists now believe. If so, migration theorists curious about the journey might profit by talking to Martin Leonard III, an educator, surfer and adventurer who lives near Bethel, a city in southwestern Alaska.

Martin Leonard III

Leonard, 45, is probably the only man alive to have kayaked the Bering Strait and then continued in a series of other trips over the top of the North American continent -- through the perilously icy Northwest Passage -- as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way he formed opinions about such journeys.

One: Don't travel from east to west -- against the wind -- as a couple of Canadian kayakers did on their own Northwest Passage expedition about a decade ago. One of them lost all his fingers to frostbite.

Two: Travel fast and light -- since the ice-free days of summer in the central Arctic are so fleeting -- and ride the surf whenever you can. That's how earlier Eskimo kayakers probably voyaged, Leonard says."There's documented Russian accounts that depict these kayakers going at superhuman speeds, beating sailing ships that are traveling 7 or 8 knots," he says. "And my thesis is: The way they did that and the way you win at Molokai and the way you paddle a kayak fast is to be a good surfer (riding ocean swells)."

Original Cheetah Original Cheetah

Wanting to put his theory to the test, about 10 years ago Leonard asked Hawaiian boat designer Hunt Johnsen to modify one of his prototype racing kayaks into the Arctic Cheetah. Which Johnsen did, crafting a sleek, 20-foot-long wisp of a boat that's exceedingly fast -- as long as you keep it upright.

With a rounded, highly efficient hull that's a mere 14.5 inches wide at the waterline beam, the Cheetah is tippy as a tightrope. Just listen to Johnsen's daughter, accomplished kayaker Spinnaker Wyss-Johnsen, describe her own experience when she first placed a prototype of Leonard's craft in the water outside her dad's boatyard in Hawaii.

"I spent the first day with my legs hanging over the side like training wheels," Wyss-Johnsen wrote in an article for Sea Kayaker magazine. "Once I got a bit of speed, the boat became slightly more stable. But just when I thought I'd gotten the hang of it, I'd find myself upside down again. ... To say that the Cheetah teaches you good bracing skills in a hurry is an understatement."

Martin Leonard III Arctic Cheetah Martin Leonard III Arctic Cheetah

Yet it is extremely light, with a thinly glassed Kevlar hull that weighs about 35 pounds. When the wind's blowing hard and Leonard beaches the boat, sometimes he has to place a large boulder in the cockpit to keep it from blowing away. Just as he did in the Northwest Passage, fighting the frequent windstorms that battered the first leg of his two-year (1995-96) journey.

Which is just about the last time we heard about Leonard.

Unassuming and apparently indifferent to publicity, the Alaska geologist-turned-educator didn't bother to contact the media when he began his one-man Arctic journey, departing from the mouth of the Mackenzie River

Mac Delta 2

(about 250 miles east of the Alaska-Canada border) on a coastal route heading east. Consequently, he didn't feel obligated to contact the press when he concluded the first leg, stopping in mid-August as an early winter settled on the central Arctic village of Umingmaktok, Nunavut.

Uming Sno-boat

Earlier, however, villagers in Tuktoyaktuk near the Mackenzie delta had grown concerned about Leonard paddling unseen through some of the wildest summer weather in a decade. Learning that he hadn't reached the next village on schedule, they called out a search party. Soon a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched, and a brief story about the search ran on a Canadian wire service. The story was picked up by the Anchorage Daily News, which ran it as a small digest item. No subsequent story about Leonard's progress ever appeared. Consequently, when he returned to Anchorage that fall, a few friends were surprised to see him.

"Everybody thought I was dead," Leonard says.

They were wrong. Leonard was so alive that later that fall, he managed to win first place in the World Surf Kayak ing Championships in Costa Rica. He returned to the Canadian Arctic the next winter and completed his "Inuit Passage." A couple of years later he married Lucilla Alexie of Bethel, started a family and taught telecommunica tions at the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska while doing his best to promote a kayak renaissance among hundreds of mostly Native students in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

At the same time, Leonard has remained active in the growing sport of surf kayaking, drawing a certain degree of worldwide attention whenever his feats are noted in magazines and Internet journals (most recently in the Web log of a traveling surfer who caught up with Leonard in Turnagain Arm, where the two kayak-surfed the local bore tide -- an account full of praise and wonder that ultimately dubbed Leonard "Mister Mysterioso").

So just who is Martin Leonard III? And how did he become Alaska's most unrecognized world champion?

Maybe by developing a few unconventional interests while growing up alongside the Delaware River in Trenton, N.J. It was there, he says, that he first got interested in kayaking.

"I lived in ethnic neighborhoods, so I was exposed to a lot of different cultures," he explained during a telephone interview from Bethel.

His father was Lithuanian; his mother was Italian. Some of his neighbors were immigrants from Slavic and Baltic countries that had long dominated Olympic events in canoeing and kayaking. As a kid, he belonged to one of the oldest German sport clubs in the nation and later traveled to Europe, competing in club soccer.

His interest in outdoor sports continued when he began attending a small college in western Pennsylvania with a nationally competitive soccer team, premier white-water kayaking in the nearby Appalachians and a strong program in sedimentary geology. Pursuing field work in geology ultimately led Leonard to Alaska, where he moved for good in the early 1980s.

Attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Leonard added an education degree to his bachelor's in geology, a combination that allowed him to work in the field for mineral companies and teach in rural schools all over Alaska.

He also met Arlene Williford, a fellow educator who shared his desire to kayak the entire coast of Alaska. The two were well on their way to doing just that in 1989 -- the year they were married -- when they decided instead to turn west and kayak to Siberia.

The expedition by about a dozen kayakers from the United States and England was part of a larger goodwill exchange celebrating the improved relations between the Soviet Union and its "divided twin" -- Alaska -- while also reuniting Siberian Yupiks whose families had been torn apart by political boundaries.

They would kayak from Nome to Wales, at the western tip of mainland Alaska, then cross the Bering Strait -- a distance of about 55 miles -- to the Chukotkan village of Uelen. Once on Soviet soil, they would continue southwest along the Siberian coastline to the town of Provideniya, where everyone would fly back home.

But that plan began to fall apart about halfway across the Bering Sea when a strong storm stalled the caravan a few miles short of the Diomede Islands.

Exhausted after paddling for 14 hours, some of the kayakers needed to be rescued. In a show of unity, the group decided to stay together. They were all rescued. Then when a motorized umiak began towing their empty boats to the islands, some of the kayaks sank (including a $5,000 bai darka -- a replica of the ancient kayaks of the Aleutians -- that had been donated to the expedition by kayak craftsman George Dyson).

The weather had been miserable for weeks. About half of the participants decided to call it quits, having at least reached the Russian possession of Big Diomede. Williford and Leonard decided to continue. They'd lost their visas when one of the towed boats capsized, but they ordered copies and waited for their documentation to arrive. About three weeks later, they completed the crossing to mainland Russia on calm, blue seas.

The nicest part was yet to come, Leonard says. For some reason, the Soviet authorities had forgotten about them, so they were able to explore the Russian coastline from Uelen to Provdeniya without the red tape.

"We arrived pretty much unattended and unescorted," Leonard says, "and so we saw some things probably other folks wouldn't have if they were on an organized trip."

One unexpected attraction was crossing paths with David Lewis -- the physician, author and world-famous mariner -- along with his anthropologist wife, Mimi George. After living in Western Alaska for several months, the couple had traveled across the Bering Strait to study the subsistence lifestyle of Native reindeer herders.

Then in his 70s, Lewis was mostly known for his navigational accomplishments, having completed the first solo voyage to Antarctica and the first circumnavigation of the globe in a catamaran while studying ancient forms of navigation.

"David is well-known for his maritime feats, but I became interested in his work as an ethnographer," Leonard says. "He was one of the first people to document traditional ways of knowing, as he did with the Polynesian mariners."

Unlike his counterpart Thor Heyerdahl, who asserted that the early people of the South Pacific were capable of traveling great distances but reached their destinations more or less by dumb luck, Lewis believed that the same people used pre-European strategies of navigation -- and he put his own life on the line on several long-distance sailing expeditions to prove so.

A few years later, in 1992, Lewis was planning another trip to the South Seas when he invited Leonard to join him as a crew member aboard a 30-foot gaff-rigged cutter, sailing out of Port Townsend, Wash. Leonard jumped at the chance. But once again, a twist of fate intervened around the halfway mark.

While anchored in Kauai, their boat was damaged by the passing whim of hurricane Iniki, by far the most destructive storm to strike Hawaii in recorded history.

"We had a couple of boats wash over, or fly over," Leonard said.

While waiting for repairs, he got to visit the boatbuilder Hunt Johnsen. He couldn't help but notice the striking similarity between a modified 20-foot sea-racing kayak in Johnsen's boatyard and the sketch of an old Native Russian kayak in the book Leonard held in his hand.

"So I covered the captions and any notations on the page, and I showed it to Hunt," Leonard says. "And I looked at him, and I said, 'What boat is that, Hunt?' And he said, 'Well, that's the Cheetah.' Then I uncovered the captions and notes, and it said it was a pre-contact Aleut design -- and it was exactly like the Cheetah."

A few years later, while living in Valdez, Leonard took delivery of that same boat's single offspring -- the Arctic Cheetah. The modified version included a cockpit -- as opposed to the "sit-on-top" style of the original -- with a sea skirt designed for northern conditions. He planned to take it as far north as he could, exploring the Northwest Passage.

This time, however, Leonard would be traveling alone -- his marriage with Williford had broken up a year earlier. Still, he was confident the Cheetah was up to the challenge.

"It's extremely fast," he noted later. "That's it, really. It can get you from point A to point B like no other boat can. But there's challenges to that, like keeping it upright or keeping it straight, and that comes with the territory."

After the Cheetah arrived in Valdez, the middle-school students in the local boatbuilding class helped Leonard get it ready. Together they spent a week trimming it out with paint. All that was left to do was attach the thigh straps that help the paddler brace the boat.

"I was chomping at the bit," Leonard recalls. "It was painted and looking pretty and ... gosh ... I realized I hadn't even floated the thing yet. So I took it down to the harbor to float it. And people were saying, 'Yeah, get in! Get in!' And so I got in. And as soon as I got in, a little bit of wake or a little bit of wind came up and I went to brace ... and had nothing to grab onto -- and out I went.

"So it was a pretty fitting christening. I could already see the boat had a character."

(Anchorage Daily News reporter George Bryson can be reached at gbryson@adn.com.)

Paddling the "Inuit" Passage

Paddling the "Inuit" Passage
FROM: SeaKayaker Magazine

Story by Spinnaker Wyss-Johnsen
Photos by Martin Leonard III

Martin Leonard III did what the paddling community said would be impossible, suicidal or perhaps just plain crazy. In 1996, Martin succeeded in paddling a route across the Arctic coast of the North American continent. He is, in all probability, the first modern-day kayaker to complete a coastal route through the fabled Northwest Passage-a route linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. He did it with the help of a designer who believes that industry standards are something to measure shoe size by, but never boats. And the motivation? Something called "traditional technology."

Martin Leonard III

An avid kayaker for 25 years, Martin began going on sea kayaking expeditions 15 years ago as a way to better understand the cultures of Alaska's coastal communities. These expeditions have evolved into a lifestyle. For him, a kayak is an affirmation of the traditional technology of the Alaskan native peoples. He has paddled the majority of Alaska's open ocean coast, the Bering Strait, the Russian Far East and Canada's northern shores, covering some 10,000 miles and passing through seventy-five villages and hundreds of traditional camps. But what is more interesting than how far he traveled is how he did it.

Martin Leonard III

Martin started conceptualizing a high-speed expedition kayak to provide the edge he needed to make the most of the short Arctic summer paddling season. When I met Martin in Hawaii in 1992, he was looking for a racing kayak to modify for expedition use. Three years earlier, he had worked with the late Steve Sinclair (SK Aug. '96) to develop two surf skis for a trip across the Bering Strait. The surf ski had a fast, low displacement hull and enough storage capacity for the kind of travel Martin envisioned. Martin had paddled the surf ski with a large international group in an exchange with Russian Eskimos to promote visa-free travel for locals after the fall of the Ice Curtain. "We encountered some storm conditions on the first portion of the crossing, and I found myself in the middle of the Chukchi Sea surrounded by fog on a very narrow, 19-foot-long wash-deck kayak. After 20 hours of paddling against strong winds and current with the kayak surfing the ocean swell, I remember thinking, 'This has real potential.'"

Martin and his partner, both on surf skis, were the only kayakers in the group to complete the crossing and traverse the Chukchi Peninsula. It proved the concept that touring with a fast hull was advantageous, but Sinclair's surf ski had its drawbacks. "Steve Sinclair and Tom Sherburne designed it as an ark for open ocean survival and storm sea paddling," said Martin. "It's a tremendous craft but, for my purposes, it was a bit heavy at 75 pounds, and its bulbous bow was a bit too buoyant and slowed the boat in certain conditions. It was also difficult to take to windward." Martin turned his attention toward finding a full-blooded racing kayak.

Around that time, my father, Hunt Johnsen, an innovative designer/shipwright in Hawaii, was also thinking about racing designs. According to Martin, "Hunt has a deep understanding of how boats move through the ocean on scientific, practical and artistic levels. He builds beautiful boats with exceptional performance-they are usually ahead of their time and blow people away," he comments.

Hunt Johnsen Designer

After years of watching racing surf skis of varying designs careen across the Moloka'i Channel, Hunt knew he could build one that was faster and that had more ocean savvy. In 1991, he built a surf ski he called the "Cheetah." The final design was 20 feet long and had a reverse transom and an ocean-going bow, proving itself exceptional in ocean swells. Its round hull and 14.5-inch waterline beam, influenced by an Olympic K-2, contributed to its speed at the expense of stability: It had none. It had only a brief resistance when leaned at 45 degrees. The Cheetah collected dust.

Original Cheetah

A few months before meeting Martin, I had dug the Cheetah out of the boat yard and launched it. I spent the first day with my legs hanging over the side like training wheels. Once I got a bit of speed, the boat became slightly more stable. Just when I thought I'd gotten the hang of it, I'd find myself upside down. To say the Cheetah teaches you good balance and bracing skills in a hurry is an understatement. After a couple of days, I could keep the Cheetah upright, and I was quickly hooked on its speed.

When Martin and I met, I introduced him to the Cheetah. Initially, we used the Cheetah with wing paddles to train and do short expeditions in Hawaii. We moved the rudder farther forward under the hull to eliminate ventilation in swells, and eventually Hunt designed the retractable skeg/rudder assembly. Support from resin manufacturer System Three and fabric from Hexcel and Dupont allowed us to experiment with various layups, which became lighter, tougher and more resilient until we were satisfied with an expedition layup.

Martin Leonard III Arctic CheetahSpinnaker Laminate and Epoxy testingArctic Cheetah CockpitMartin Leonard III Arctic Cheetah
For the Arctic version of the Cheetah, Hunt also redesigned the sit-on-top deck to accommodate a low-profile, Olympic-style cockpit. This type of cockpit offered protection in Arctic climates without compromising proper leg drive when using the wing paddle. It also had the added benefit of easy entry and exit, which was important given the unstable hull. Thigh straps anchored to the inside of the cockpit provided a firm connection to the boat, allowing total control and rollability.

Cheetah Touring-ski collage

The final Arctic Cheetah, constructed of Kevlar, S-glass and epoxy, weighed only 35 pounds. It utilized cutting-edge construction materials and techniques, and was virtually indestructible: It was a modern touring kayak that was faster, lighter and stronger than any other. Foam-core construction eliminated the need for internal pillars, which gave Martin the extra storage space needed for long expeditions. An innovative "trimmable" seat and foot steering bar assembly were completely removable and eliminated the need for hatches. All equipment was stored and easily accessible in stow bags, leaving nothing but safety lines on the deck. Every detail was designed to withstand the rigors of the Arctic, and to be field repairable in an emergency.

Cheetah Guts

Having already paddled the coastline between the North Pacific Ocean and Inuvik, Canada, in previous years, Martin set his sights on reaching Hudson Bay, over 2,000 miles to the east. Paddling the Arctic Cheetah and carrying an "alpine style" expedition kit (see Appendix) weighing only 30 pounds, he could travel fast and light, taking advantage of the short and fickle Arctic paddling season. This method also gave him the ability to drag or carry his kayak and gear in one trip, without unpacking, which cut any portage times significantly.

Kit Pic copyBoat Portage

With the creation of the expedition kayak complete, the second half of the venture lay in the paddler's skill. Martin set out to increase his ability and refine his technique in order to paddle the Arctic Cheetah with maximum efficiency. "Traditional kayakers built the best craft they could and had the skills not only to paddle them, but to hunt from them," says Martin. "The evolution of kayaks did not always lead to wide, stable craft. It led to sleek, tippy kayaks. Doing an expedition in a racing kayak meant that I, too, would have to rely on my skills."

In July of 1995 Martin set out from the Mackenzie River Delta, Northwest Territories, Canada, heading east on a solo quest to reach the Atlantic Basin. During one of the worst weather seasons in decades, he navigated 1,250 miles in 25 paddling days, an average of 50 miles per day. On the first leg of his journey, drought conditions left stream beds dry and eliminated a portage, adding an unexpected 150 miles to the 300-mile section. By paddling 78 miles in a single day, he managed to reach safety in the middle of a storm, arriving at the village of Paulatuk in the endless twilight of a summer night.

Mac Delta 2

In remembering some of his difficulties during that 1995 season, Martin says, "I can honestly say I've seen the Eastern Beaufort Sea at its worst-and it's not a time and place I'd want to revisit." Martin had waited for the ice to retreat to the north, leaving free and easy passage-until summer storms kicked up the seas. "It was the worst weather folks had seen for 15 years. The three capes, Dalhousie, Bathurst and Parry, lived up to their reputation as the Gatekeepers of the Central Arctic. I had high winds, up to 50 knots, and really nasty conditions at each prominence. The shallow sea, combined with a flat, featureless coastline, made navigation very difficult. A mile off shore with no land in sight, I'd run across sandbars."

The run to Dolphin and Union Strait was also tricky, Martin recalls. "I experienced some of the biggest seas I have been in during my six years of paddling above the Arctic Circle. The wave height was not the problem, it was the short wave length that developed from nearby Arctic storms. The Cheetah was designed for big ocean swells. In the choppy seas, the boat was a bit out of place. It was very challenging paddling, but I still made good time."

Martin attributes his successful navigation to the shared traditional knowledge base of the Inuit who live in the region and have traveled this route for centuries. "I purposely did very little of the usual historic, scientific or geographic background investigation prior to the '95 and '96 seasons. The route finding and selection was based on local knowledge and lore gathered through personal interactions with elders, hunters and other ocean travelers."


Martin is quick to point out that, "Inuit roamed the Arctic in kayaks and umiaks long before renowned 'Euro Northwest Passage explorers' retraced their living migration routes and passages." He maintains that the route should be named the 'Inuit Passage' in respectful recognition of the people of these Northern regions.

Pelly Kayak

He made week-long stopovers in each of the villages to meet with friends and acquaintances and to collect route information, often in conjunction with waiting out bad weather. "On a map it's very difficult to delineate portages; however, local hunters told me of small lakes and rivulets I could take. Invariably, I found the routes to be exactly as they had described them. Many times the hunters could not remember the last time a kayak had been through the passages, but they always knew precisely how the kayaks used to travel from village to village." When an early winter set in during the second week of August, Martin put the Arctic Cheetah on storage racks in the central Arctic village of Umingmaktook.

Uming Sno-boat

In mid-July 1996, Martin Leonard reunited with his kayak and departed from the village of Umingmaktook to begin the final leg of his journey toward the Atlantic Ocean. "The real key to the second season was the use of the traditional portage at Itibliyaruk on the southeast side of the Kent Peninsula. It allowed me to avoid the ice-choked Dease Strait and enter the Queen Maud Gulf quickly, in conjunction with breakup." The weather was favorable and the pack ice in the Queen Maud Gulf had moved offshore; there was nothing to slow his progress eastward. He paddled for 10 or 15 hours at a stretch, eating Powerbars and dried caribou meat while in the boat and making good time.

Garlic TuttuCooking over a fire

The journey was enchanting: The weather was calm and sunny and there was lots of new terrain around each bend in the coastline. "Some days I just didn't want to stop! At the end of a long stint I often made excuses not to stop, but eventually I always found a nice spot with water nearby, crawled into the tent and listened to the worldband radio until I fell asleep."

"I didn't see another person for a 400-mile stretch, but there was always wildlife around-Arctic summers are so full of life." On one occasion Martin landed at the mouth of a bay near a traditional whaling camp. As he set up for the night on a gravel spit, beluga whales began to leave the bay. "There was a bunch of young whales in the pod. They all played as they traveled, spyhopping and chattering to each other. A steady stream poured out of the bay, then more, and more! It must have been a few hundred animals. I made dinner and fell asleep on the beach next to the fire, listening to their breath and chirps."


Farther east, the low-lying coastal plain of the Adelaide Peninsula went on as far as the eye could see. One evening Martin tucked his camp behind a small bluff for the night, the only protection from the wind for miles. "I got up in the middle of the night and my tent was surrounded by sleeping caribou, about 30 of them. I was so tired I just said hello and went back to bed. In the morning I had to check for tracks, just to be sure it wasn't a dream. You know you've picked a good campsite when your evening company is a herd of caribou."


It wasn't unusual, after finding a good campsite, to find traces of others also having been there. It may have been years, sometimes centuries since the last traveler had set foot in the area, but rest assured that where the modern traveler seeks shelter from the storm, so had the ancients. He found old tent rings, skeletons of boats, turn-of-the-century tools, even an old car with a rotting wooden frame.

Inukshuk 1

The Arctic has seen a fair number of visitors during the last couple of thousand years, and not all of them survived. Near the south side of King William Island, inukshuks (Inuit rock pile sculptures resembling a human form) marked important water holes. "Rock cairns marked the winter trail, and I couldn't help but think of the frozen remains of the ill-fated Franklin expedition found nearby. (In 1845, Sir John Franklin ventured from England with two ships, hoping to locate the fabled Northwest Passage. The expedition vanished in the Arctic, initiating years of fruitless search and rescue efforts.) In seeing these sites, Martin felt confirmation that his light and nimble traveling style was certainly advantageous. He would not get frozen in for the winter.

About halfway to his final destination of Repulse Bay in northern Hudson Bay, Martin encountered the Gulf of Boothia, a region known in the maritime community as unnavigable and uncharted. What's it like? I asked. "Ice and polar bears," he said over the static and delay in the phone line from Pelly Bay. "I'm a bit early, the ice is still tight, and the going is tedious. Between the polar bears, ice, and a waning summer season, there've been lots of very anxious moments. I'm never sure what will await me around the next corner."

Boothia Lookout

Several days prior to reaching Pelly Bay, as he was paddling through an area of high ice coverage, he rounded an iceberg and saw a polar bear sleeping on the ice about 50 yards away. With bated breath he maneuvered his way through the ice and past the bear and spent the next few hours looking over his shoulder, fully expecting to see it stalking him. He saw a total of four polar bears that day: the lone young male and a sow with two cubs. He camped that night on an ice-bound beach without getting much rest, keeping his shotgun in hand as he dozed with fitful dreams of man's only predator. "Traveling in heavy bear country is very intimidating, and traveling solo is even worse; there is no one to outrun!" he said with a chuckle. It wasn't until later, when he reached the ice-free waters in the southern corner of Committee Bay, that he relaxed his watch for polar bears.

Martin - Ice dancing

While resupplying in Pelly Bay, he met renowned Canadian paddler Victoria Jason. Victoria was hoping to paddle to Repulse Bay, but the Elders had persuaded her that this was not a good year to travel solo in the Gulf of Boothia. Too many bears, and the ice conditions were marginal. Martin concurred, so the two teamed up for the remaining section of coastline. After negotiating the southern shores of the Gulf of Boothia, they had one more section to complete before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. He outlined the conditions and the route around the Simpson Peninsula and into Committee Bay: "Ice coverage is very high. I've watched it moving at about 6 to 8 knots...loose pack ice and growlers grinding against steep cliffs.

Committee Ice Vicky 2

All this amidst a tidal current running on a range of about 11 feet. Paddling at high tide around grounded ice should allow passage. Once around the west side of Committee Bay, it's only a 45-mile journey across the Rae Isthmus. I will be doing some short portages, crossing a few large lakes and negotiating a couple of whitewater rivers. I'm following a well-known traditional route. I'll be in northern Hudson Bay in no time! The village of Repulse Bay is just a 15-mile paddle from the mouth of the North Pole River.

Rapids Vicky

In late August I received a voice-mail message from Martin. He was whistling a favorite Inuit tune from the Greenland Kayak Club. He described the final miles of the season paddling through thick fog on a compass course, when he came bow to bow with a huge ocean transport vessel. The ship was the Matilda Desgagnes, and he noted her home port: Montreal! He was in the Atlantic at last.


"It was a fitting meeting for me, after traveling across one of the most challenging oceans in the world via traditional means. I paddled alongside this testament to modern man, this massive cargo ship. I reveled in the fact that this ship would never see the route I had taken. The encounter just reinforced what I feel about our modern society and how so often traditional technologies are cast aside as being obsolete. It's a trend that I'm glad is beginning to change with younger generations who are learning to balance the two."

"It has been a remarkable journey," said Martin. "On the adventure side, the open ocean in a very small boat is always a very humbling experience. From a cultural perspective, the kayak still is a powerful symbol of Native spiritual and traditional values, as well as their technological ingenuity."

Waterhole sunset


Hunt and Judy Johnsen are still designing and building WaveWitch paddlecraft and can be reached at hjdww(at)gte.net

Martin Leonard III lives and works in Bethel, Alaska, as a project manager for the National Science Foundation and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus. When not at work or going on expeditions, he can be found building "concept" paddle-craft, ice-bikes and kayak-surfing ocean swells in Hawaii and Alaska.

For more information regarding route, equipment or traditional technology projects, you can contact Martin: qayaq_alaska(at)yahoo.com and geocities.com/qayaq_alaska/

Victoria Jason
Dedicated to Vicki...We Miss You!

A Passion for High-Performance Touring

Paddler Profile
SeaKayaker Magazine
August 2005

Martin Leonard—A Passion for High-Performance Touring

An expert in ultra-fast cruising finds his inspiration in the kayaking traditions of the Arctic.

Ice Flats

Text by Peter Bronski

Photos by Martin Leonard III

In the world of performance kayaking, there are paddlers whose accomplishments are so renowned that they become household names: paddlers like Paul Caffyn and Ed Gillet, Oscar Chalupsky and Greg Barton. Then there are those who remain resolutely out of the limelight, like Martin Leonard III. Leonard made a splash in the kayak community during the early and mid-1990s when he crossed the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia, then paddled the fabled Inuit (Northwest) Passage from Alaska to eastern Canada.


Since then, he’s slipped back under the radar, all the while quietly pioneering a new brand of performance kayaking that blends innovative boat design with specialized skills and a unique philosophical approach to expedition touring and surfing. That philosophy is unfailingly holistic—from his knowledge of ocean conditions to the food he eats and the sunglasses he wears. “You don’t need a $4,000 boat and a carbon-fiber paddle to be a performance paddler,” explains Leonard. “It comes down to the entire system.”

Kit Pic copy

In the early ’80s, the New Jersey native moved to Alaska as a telecommunications specialist for the University of Alaska at Bethel. The move landed Leonard squarely in the heart of Yup’ik territory, where he became immersed in a Native American culture rich in kayaking heritage. From his home along the Kuskokwim River on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the remote southwestern part of the state, Leonard began plying the waters of the far north: the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering and Beaufort Seas, the Arctic Ocean. This is performance at the extremes, in an unforgiving environment on the edge of the Earth.

Cheetah in ice

“If you look on the map, I’m definitely on the edge logistically, up here on the fringe,” says the 47-year-old. “I’ve been in Alaska long enough to know I’m somewhat out of touch, but I pride myself on doing my own thing.”


In many ways, Leonard is like a high-altitude mountaineer or a fighter pilot. His pursuit demands refined technique, specialized equipment and protocol, and a style all its own—one that’s unequivocally utilitarian. “For me it comes down to application. I need a work boat,” he says. “We’re talking about boats and a system that you take on the ocean and trust your life with. The objective dangers [are high]. Everything we do here is an expedition. It’s wilderness as much as most people are ever going to -experience.”

Waterhole sunset

Still, Leonard insists that the principle of what he’s doing can be applied to performance kayakers in any ocean around the world (in fact, much of his earlier training and development took place on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, rather than in the Arctic).

Original Cheetah

Over the last decade, he’s regularly logged 1,000- and, just as often, 2,000-mile seasons; no small feat when the ocean is locked up in sea ice and pack ice for much of the year. And during this time, he’s developed what he calls “a total paddling system: equipment, skill level and worst-case-scenario safety backup systems, which enable the paddler to best address the conditions and situations presented on the water.”

Ice Trap

For Leonard, that “total paddling system” (TPS) comes down to developing an effective synergy among four critical components: boat construction (hull design and amenities), wing paddle technique, an alpine-style approach to touring and surfing. When such harmony is achieved, the result is speed. In the Arctic, speed is access, and the formula is simple: The faster you go, the greater distance you can cover in less time with less fatigue—a crucial advantage for maximizing the short northern summers.

Arctic Cheetah Portage

What does Leonard’s TPS look like in practice? The importance of the boat itself can’t be overstated. “Building boats for this environment is an art,” says Leonard. Like the system as a whole, the hull needs to be fast, which means long and narrow. The Arctic Cheetah, a one-time prototype out of Hunt Johnson’s Hawaii shop designed for Leonard’s Inuit Passage, was a major step in that direction—20 feet long, with a narrow, 14.5-inch beam.

Original Cheetah Expedition
Cheetah Touring-ski collage

The hull, too, needs to handle displacement out to its endpoints, taking into account the distribution of stowed expedition gear. Unlike performance-racing boats, for example, which are designed to carry their load within a narrow window focused around the boat’s center of gravity, performance-touring hulls need to function well when their full length is loaded with weight. “If you get in a touring boat at a demo day, don’t just paddle it,” Leonard says. “What happens when you put 100 pounds of gear in it? Know these answers before you invest—it may not be the boat you think it is. Spend time to test your boat…know how it performs in different conditions and at its limits.”

Martin Leonard III Arctic Cheetah
Martin Leonard III Arctic Cheetah

Just as important as hull design are details—hatches that don’t leak, bomb-proof deck fittings and a simple, fail-safe rudder system. It all speaks to the high demands of an extreme ocean environment that would challenge most boat designs, and where performance failure could cost you your life.

Cheetah Guts

The design of the kayak is closely tied to the technique used to paddle it. Its extraordinary length and narrow beam are appropriate only for a paddler with the strength and balance to take advantage of its potential. The same is true for the wing paddles Leonard uses—they require a skilled and powerful paddler.

Arctic Cheetah completed

Wing paddles, according to Leonard, are the not-so-obvious but highly preferable choice. “I was told there was no application for wing paddles in touring. You couldn’t brace or roll with them,” says Leonard, who found that, contrary to popular opinion, wing paddles did have an important place in performance touring. That’s not to say wing paddles are right for all paddlers. “There’s no point in using wing paddles to improve your paddling efficiency seven to 10 percent on a boat that only does 3.5 miles per hour,” Leonard notes. But with the right boat, wing paddles give Leonard more of what he’s after: speed.

And in his pursuit of going ever faster, Leonard has adopted the mantra of the outdoor backpacking industry: Go light, go fast. “I take an alpine-style approach to kayaking,” says Leonard, borrowing a term from mountaineers. “You can’t move 30 pounds of gear as quickly as you can move 10 pounds of gear.” It’s a philosophy that marries well to performance touring—trimming weight from all parts of the system in the name of improving efficiency.

Committee Bay, Nunavut

The final, and perhaps most dynamic, component of Leonard’s TPS is the refined skill of surfing. “I’m not talking cutbacks and roundhouses, negotiating the surf zone,” he emphasizes. “I’m talking about ocean swell surfing—open ocean running on a big wave train.” When it comes to achieving speeds in excess of 15 mph on the water, surfing is the key. It’s how you take a fast kayak, and make it go really fast. “It’s how traditional paddlers go fast; how people that win the Moloka’i Challenge go fast; that’s how I went fast across the Arctic Ocean averaging 50 miles per day, and upwards of 70 to 80 miles per day in the right conditions,” says Leonard. “We’re surfers first, paddlers second.”


Being a surfer first means becoming intimately attuned to Mother Nature, understanding the ocean environment you expect to paddle and, according to Leonard, borrowing the requisite skills and techniques from sea kayaking’s whitewater cousin. “They shouldn’t sell a sea kayak without a whitewater or a river boat attached,” he says. “The skills that you learn in a whitewater boat—ferrying, using currents, eddies—those microskills from the river translate directly to the macro ocean environment.”

Rapids Vicky

Leonard points out that even huge islands, such as the Hawaiian island chain, create effects like eddies in the ocean. Not understanding those factors and conditions—tides, swell direction, wind direction, eddies, currents, wave height, steepness of the wave face, ocean depth (and hence, wave energy)—can hurt as much as help a paddler.


He uses the example of kayakers looking to cross a channel and make it to the beach to illustrate his point. “A lot of people are going to say, I don’t want to be in the tidal rip. They’re going to wait for slack water and mosey across,” Leonard explains. “If you’re a competent surfer, you’re not going to be afraid of the tidal rip in the middle of a channel. I’m looking for peak tides when I’ve got the biggest waves and the fastest water to get me where I need to go. And well, I’m going to beat those other people to the beach by a long shot.”

Panroama Cheetah

In simpler terms, it comes down to working hand in hand with Mother Nature, rather than against her. And that’s precisely how Leonard blazed across the Inuit Passage in record time—he wanted “the ice gone and big winds.” Knowing that Arctic winds prevail out of the northwest, he traveled east. With the wind on his shoulder, he made incredible time, “and those were happy times,” he says. “A little bit of planning and research can really go a long way. You’re not going to beat Mother Nature, and there are plenty of people, especially here in the Arctic, who didn’t live to tell their story because of that.”


All in all, such synergy with Mother Nature and the techniques as a whole, are skills that Leonard, a kass’aq, or “white man” in Yup’ik, borrows from the early Alaskan cultures, and appropriately underscore the immense contributions of native paddlers to present-day kayaking.


As performance kayaking ushers in the future of the sport with cutting-edge designs and techniques, ironically, it moves closer and closer to kayaking’s heritage.

Lutinar Boat 1

From Leonard’s perspective, today’s paddlers are “still playing catch-up” with the sport’s native forefathers. “Traditional paddlers lived on the ocean in their kayaks,” he notes. “There’s no way to equate their experience to that of paddlers today. From that standpoint, we’re all recreational boaters.”

Pelly Kayak
Nash Harbor Students

That’s not to diminish the skill and drive of today’s performance kayakers. Leonard, for his part, has his sights set on a host of notable projects for the coming years. The consummate multitasker (he maintains a dizzying array of Internet blogs on all things kayaking-related) is intent on perfecting a performance-expedition touring ski.


He tries to spend as much time as possible on what he calls “Alaskan expedition surf surfaris”—paddling hybrid sit-on-tops, many of which are the creation of Hawaiian kayak designer Hunt Johnson, to remote breaks along Alaska’s 35,000 miles of coastline and surfing like a bandit.

Martin with the WaveWitch...15web.wwpro

He spends much time, too, giving back to the native communities of the Y-K Delta through the beloved sport they taught him: kayaking; something he wishes the greater kayak community would do as a whole.


In all, it’s an ambitious ticket, but one that Leonard, among all people, just might be capable of pulling off. “If you’re not unsuccessful—if you’re not failing—you’re not really trying to do anything,” he concludes. “I’m just trying to stay on the water. There are 10 mountains on my list, and if I climb half of them, I’m doing pretty well.”

Adventure writer Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) profiled New York City’s Eric Stiller for Sea Kayaker’s February 2005 issue.

related LINKS:

Slide show of kayak surfing in Alaska

Slide show of Martin in Inuit Passage w/ Cheetah

Photo set Cheetah Expedition SOT Prototype

Dedicted to Vickie...We Miss You
Victoria Jason