It was on Day 3 that the trip nearly came to an end. It was early February 2015, and Sarah McNair-Landry and partner Erik Boomer had just begun a planned 120-day circumnavigation of Baffin Island by dogsled when, after two days of clear but cold weather, a winter storm hit them full-on.

They didn’t have a thermometer but knew that nearby Iqaluit, their departure point, stood at -70˚C with the wind chill. With 90 kph winds approaching, Iqaluit was shut down, something that didn’t happen often to the high Arctic town.

The plateau over which they were traversing northward was 600 metres higher than town and farther inland, geographical facts that served to make it even colder and windier. As they travelled that day, the storm continued to build. With visibility reduced to mere metres, the dog team didn’t want to run; at one point, when they left the trail, Sarah skied ahead to coerce them back onto it. That’s when the dogs pulled a move that, as Erik puts it, “wasn’t very cool.”

“They completely turned around,” he recalls. “They did a full 180 and started running downhill. Sarah’s cross-country skis got caught in the harness ropes and dragged her under the thousand-pound sled; she was just helpless, hurtling down the hill. I thought she’d already blown her knee.”

article continues below

 

Sarah McNair-Landry during her recent retracing of her parents’ circumnavigation of Baffin Island. ERIK BOOMER PHOTO.

Erik jumped in to help, but lost a mitten in the mêlée. A small female got loose, further agitating the team. Eventually, they’d managed to free Sarah and calm the dogs. They tried to push on, but on what would prove the coldest day of the trip, they soon had to call it and pitch their tent instead.

“The storm was so bad you couldn’t see,” says Erik. “Had the sled taken off and left us—which could easily have happened—or if one of us got lost, no one would come get us for a few days. It would have been an extreme survival situation. That really put things into perspective.”

The storm lasted the next five days. Though the wind never dropped below 40 kph, they’d travelled on, knowing the sooner they got off the plateau, the sooner they’d escape the worst of it. Still, the heinous weather was not entirely unexpected.

A quarter century earlier, Sarah’s parents, legendary polar explorers Matty McNair and Peter Landry, were the first to conquer this exact same route. That endeavour—the longest and toughest of her parents’ many such sojourns—became part of family lore. More importantly, it was a trip Matty and Peter never truly returned from; as soon as the expedition finished, they’d moved the entire family to Baffin Island.

 

Roping up in crevasse country during the 2015 circumnavigation. ERIK BOOMER PHOTO

Baffin, Canada’s largest island and ranked fifth in the world, remains one of the planet’s last great wildernesses. Located west of Greenland and almost completely north of the Arctic Circle, its 507,000 km2—fully a quarter of the vast territory of Nunavut in which it lies—are home to polar bears, caribou, glaciers and a scattered human population of only 11,000, two-thirds of them in the capital, Iqaluit. Adjacent Baffin Bay is wintering ground for narwhal, walrus, beluga and bowhead whales.

The island was named for English navigator and explorer, William Baffin; before that, Vikings knew it as Helluland. Geologically, Baffin Island comprises the eastern edge of the Canadian Shield, which rises along its eastern coast as the glacier-scoured landscapes of Auyuittuq National Park, including towering Mount Asgard and the sheer face of Mount Thor, believed to be the earth’s greatest uninterrupted vertical drop at 1,250 metres. It’s remote, rugged, and a place few Canadians will ever travel to—certainly not during winter.

The circuit Sarah’s parents made in 1990 wasn’t plotted by simply studying a map; instead they’d followed routes linking seven coastal communities used by generations of Inuit. But while the Inuit regularly travel between these points to hunt, visit relatives or gather supplies, the idea of looping them all together during one season isn’t something they would ever consider.

“It was very much a white person thing to do,” says Sarah. “[The Inuit] wouldn’t say, ‘we’ll just go in a big circle for four months.” But Matty and Peter did. And for Sarah, it remains an exceptional accomplishment.

One she eventually decided to retrace.

 

Paterfamilias, Paul Landry, a young Eric and Sarah, and matriarch Matty. MATTY MCNAIR / PAUL LANDRY PHOTOS

“It was the expedition that led to me growing up on Baffin Island, so it was always special,” she says. “I’d seen the photos and heard the stories over and over and thought it was pretty neat that nobody had tried to redo it—especially after 25 years. It’s rare [that such] trips aren’t repeated. I also couldn’t think of a better route to do—Baffin is so beautiful and the terrain so varied, it had all the right challenges… and it was long.”

Historical and aesthetic reasons are powerful motivators for adventurers, but finances can also be a deciding factor.

“The downfall of [many] dogsled expeditions is that as soon as you have to get in a plane with dogs, your cost is insane compared to [travelling by] skis or kites,” Sarah explains. “That generally makes dogsled expeditions logistically hard to fundraise and put together. But this one, we could literally just step out our back door.”

From Iqaluit, the pair would travel through Pangnirtung, Qikiqtarjuaq, Clyde River, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay and Igloolik, before finishing again in Iqaluit. Over 4,000 kilometres they’d cross the sea ice of fjords, unstable rivers, frozen tundra, and rocky canyons; in order to complete the trip before breakup, they’d need to average 33 km/day. In an Arctic beset by rapid climate change, would it be possible?

They’d spent months preparing, building their own sled, amassing and meticulously sorting gear and food, making their own clothes. They’d selected their dog team and spent weeks training both themselves and their canine companions. They’d shipped supplies ahead to each of the communities they’d visit. The logistics were almost as onerous as the physical demands of being on the land would be. But if anyone in the world was prepared for a trip like this, it was Sarah McNair-Landry.

At the tender age of 18, Sarah joined an unsupported expedition to the South Pole. A year later came a dog-sled trip to the North Pole with her mother, making her the youngest person to reach both poles.

Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Sarah was but three years old when her parents disappeared for four months to round Baffin Island. During that time, she lived with her grandmother in New Hampshire; when her folks were done, they’d flown her and brother Eric (not to be confused with boyfriend Erik) to Iqaluit. Sarah’s formative years would be spent on the Arctic Ocean with a team of sled dogs in her backyard.

During this time, her parents ran NorthWinds, a guiding outfit for Arctic journeys via dog sled, ski, raft and foot. As time passed, they offered longer and longer trips, including some of the first guided expeditions to the North and South Poles. Sarah grew up immersed in adventure, gaining requisite travel and survival skills. Even then, however, she didn’t see the writing on the wall, unaware she’d follow as the next generation of explorer.

“When I was in high school I wasn’t like ‘I wanna be a guide,’” she says. “It just kind of happened.”

With this family, “happen” is a relative word. At the tender age of 18, Sarah joined an unsupported expedition to the South Pole. A year later came a dog-sled trip to the North Pole with her mother, making her the youngest person to reach both poles. Even a sampling of the significant adventures she crammed into the next decade, often with brother Eric, make for an exhausting litany: traversing the Greenland ice cap five times, both east-west and north-south; guiding other adventurers to both poles; an unsupported crossing of the Gobi Desert by kite buggy; and kite-skiing the 3,300-kilometre Northwest Passage. In 2007, she was named one of the “Top Ten Women in Adventure” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine. At only 30 years of age, you have to believe there’s more in the works.

 

During their 1990 circumnavigation, Sarah’s parents enjoyed Inuit hospitality in several remote communities. MATTY MCNAIR / PAUL LANDRY PHOTOS

In Igloolik, the last community on their circumnavigation before returning home to Iqaluit, Erik and Sarah visited a family her parents had stayed with 25 years earlier.

“In most towns, we met folks that remembered my parents,” says Sarah. “But these people helped them get dog food. Their daughter is the same age as me, and my parents had all these photos of her when she was about three.”

It was Day 95 when they left Igloolik for the final 25-day push to Iqaluit, the longest stretch between communities. The pair had departed Iqaluit a week earlier than Matty and Paul had in 1990, hoping they wouldn’t outrun winter; breaking through the ice, or pulling a sled across bare ground weren’t issues they wanted to confront.

“It was actually one of our big worries,” says Sarah. “It’s always tough being so much at the mercy of weather and conditions. And that’s what the whole last month was. We were just keeping our fingers crossed. My parents had run into some open water, rivers that were already flowing, big stretches of tundra they couldn’t sled on, and here we were 25 years later—with a different climate.”

Sarah’s parents, in fact, were on a packed snow-machine trail when their sled broke through over a deep water area of Foxe Basin notorious for rotten ice. They were fine and able to pull the sled out, but Sarah well knew she and Erik couldn’t count on that kind of luck: a week earlier, Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo, two experienced Dutch explorers on a two-month scientific study of ice, had fallen through in Resolute and drowned; Sarah had known them both. With the effects of global warming amplified in the north, it was anyone’s guess what this final leg of the trip might bring.

“There were some big, scary sections of open water,” says Sarah. “We got into some really bad ice, where we literally stopped moving. The dogs were like, ‘are you kidding me?’”

Given such a multigenerational litany, one can’t help wonder Why? What compels this family, their scions, these couples into such dangerous situations in such remote locales?

An approaching full moon brought high tides that meant much ice movement, plenty of cracking and strong currents. “An Inuit friend in Iqaluit sent us a message saying ‘Get off the ice as soon as you can,’” she recalls. “So we ended up taking this route that her grandfather had once done. She’d never done it herself, but passed on her grandfather’s description over the phone. As soon as we turned off, we hit this place where there were tons of inukshuks. It had a cool feeling and we thought, yeah, this must be the right path.”

Having successfully skirted Foxe Basin, they began to really cover ground. Thankfully, after one of the coldest winters in decades, snow held along the route. “Once we got 24-hour light, we’d travel for six hours, then tie up the dogs, set up the tent, eat dinner and just lay down for 20 minutes,” says Erik. “Then we’d do another six-hour shift. We were hitting 60-kilometre days with that, sleeping a total of four or five hours a night. Eventually we became the lead dogs and skied in front of the team.”

In addition, Sarah now owns and operates NorthWinds. Being a woman in the male-dominated worlds of both adventure guiding and exploration has never deterred her. “I work hard, and I’m stubborn so I figure out a way to make it work,” she says. “Probably the biggest problem is when I’m approaching possible clients or sponsors. Most people think of explorers as 40-year-old males with beards. I definitely don’t fit that mould.”

Indeed, her skills and résumé should speak for themselves, and Erik Boomer believes they do. “She’s a very strong woman,” he says. “She doesn’t really see a difference; you can make a big deal about women’s rights and I think women need it, but ultimately it just should be. She expects to be treated the same as men. She’s a strong leader, and by her leadership and skills, demands the same kind of respect.”

The same spot when the senior McNairs passed it on their 1990 circumnavigation of the island. MATTY MCNAIR / PAUL LANDRY PHOTO

Tallied on paper, the collective accomplishments of the McNair-Landry clan are staggering. Further staggering in that these aren’t more celebrated by Canadians.

Sarah, in fact, is a third-generation outdoor adventurer. Her father Paul grew up in Smooth Rock Falls, Ontario, where he spent summers in a canoe and winters snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. His passion for the outdoors eventually landed him the position of Program Director at Outward Bound, where he spent a decade—the last four years with the Canadian Outward Bound Wilderness School, promoting the spirit of adventure to young people.

He’s touched the North Pole four times, the South Pole three, crossed Antarctica, climbed numerous South American peaks and been awarded a medal of bravery for risking his life to save four hikers in Auyuittuq National Park.

Born in Pennsylvania, mother Matty’s achievements comprise a laundry-list of firsts that include guiding an all-female team to the geographic North Pole, leading her kids on a youngest-people-to-the-South Pole trip, and crossing the Greenland Ice Cap by kite ski and dogsled. Matty’s parents were instrumental in underpinning this dynasty; they won the U.S. canoeing nationals three years in a row and paterfamilias Bob McNair was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame in 2005, honoured for writing the manual on basic river canoeing techniques, and being key to the formation of both the American Whitewater Affiliation and the American Canoe Association Slalom Committee.

 

Kayaking below Mount Thor in Pangnirtung National Park. ERIK BOOMER PHOTO.

No surprise that Sarah’s sibling Eric also inherited the family thirst for adventure. In addition to kite-skiing the Northwest Passage and crossing the Gobi Desert with his sister, he’s been to the South Pole twice and traversed Greenland six times. He received the Outdoor Idol Award in 2007 and set a world record for the longest distance kite-skied in 24 hours, travelling 595 kilometres over Greenland’s icecap in June 2010 with photographer/explorer Sebastian Copeland, with whom he pioneered a new coast-to-coast route across Antarctica the following year.

Given such a multigenerational litany, one can’t help wonder Why? What compels this family, their scions, these couples into such dangerous situations in such remote locales?

“It’s the challenge,” says Sarah. “Every good goal is going to be hard and uncomfortable at some point and I just love being out there for that long. Just being away from everything. It’s a pretty cool feeling when you’ve got your team—of people or dogs—and you’ve packed up your gear and your food and been dropped off at Point A. You then have to get to Point B and whatever happens, you gotta figure it out with what you have. It’s also fun to go to these super remote places. You can come up with all these other reasons for being out there, but the bottom line is that if you’re not having fun, you might as well not be there.”

Robert Peary said, ‘some toes are a small price to pay for the Pole.’ But Sarah and her mom are like, ‘Why did you get frostbite? That’s stupid. It means you did something wrong.’

Lest you think this sounds reckless, think again.

“Sarah and her mom have a philosophy that strategy is very important for polar travel,” says Erik. “A lot of the British explorers, they’ll take pictures of the frostbite on their face. Ranulph Fiennes is famous for cutting off fingers when he got home. And Robert Peary said, ‘some toes are a small price to pay for the Pole.’ But Sarah and her mom are like, ‘Why did you get frostbite? That’s stupid. It means you did something wrong.’ A lot of trips come in and they’re frostbitten, exhausted, stinky, tired and that’s a dangerous place to be. When Sarah and her mom come in from a trip they’re unfazed, happy and ready to go out for more.”

On Day 119, Sarah and Erik were setting up camp when some friends arrived on snow machines. They’d come out from Iqaluit with a generator and a waffle iron to make eggs and waffles for the couple.

“It made our day,” says Erik. “We actually joked about staying out longer because this is what we were missing—food and friends.”

The following day, the exact same length of time it took Sarah’s parents, the pair pulled back into Iqaluit, arriving at 2:00 a.m. to be met by family and friends.

“The dogs had been slowing down a lot because they were getting tired and as we came around that last corner, they realized where they were,” says Erik. “They knew they were coming home—and they sped up.”

Coming full circle and adding to a legacy, Erik and the indomitable Sarah became only the third and fourth people ever to circumnavigate Baffin Island—a feat of northern tradition in the service of adventuring that, more than likely, won’t be repeated for a while.

This feature is from the 2016/17 Mountain Life Annual
More features can be found here.

 

.

SUBSCRIBE TO MOUNTAIN LIFE ANNUAL NOW

Mountain Life Annual is a once-a-year visual and journalistic ode to the intersection of planet Earth and its people. Designed to appeal to the outdoor lover, regardless of age or activity level, MLA employs ideas, art, thoughtful words, and exceptional photography to go beyond the bravado of adventure, highlighting the social, cultural, political and environmental contexts behind many of our endeavours. By engaging the outdoor state of mind over its physical dimension, Mountain Life Annual values inspiration over aspiration… Read it online or subscribe now.

 

Comments