Way of the North: Circumnavigating Baffin Island by Dogsled


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The goal is simple: to circumnavigate Baffin Island by dogsled and celebrate northern tradition.

I found this quote on Way of the North, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer's website about their latest adventure. Starting on February 1st, 2015, Sarah and Erik are going to embark on a 120-day journey around Baffin Island via dog team, traversing sea ice, frozen tundra, unstable rivers, and polar bear territory. Doesn't sound so simple, eh? Not unless you're Sarah and Erik.

Sarah and Erik's anticipated route.

Sarah and Erik's anticipated route.

First of all, the entire trip is inspired by a nearly identical journey that Sarah's parents completed in 1990. Her parents, Matty McNair and Paul Landry, are both accomplished polar and world explorers: Matty led the first all-female expedition to the North Pole, and Paul holds the record for most North and South Pole expeditions (seven). I've met Matty several times - she runs NorthWinds in Iqaluit - and imagine having her as a mother is probably like being raised by Jacques Cousteau and the teacher from The Magic School Bus.

For their part, both Sarah and Erik are established adventurers themselves. Sarah is the youngest person to reach both the North and South Poles; Erik, a pro-kayaker, was the first person to circumnavigate Ellesmere Island via ski and kayak; both have been nominated separately as National Geographic's "Adventurer of the Year." In 2013, the pair completed a 1000 km journey across Baffin Island by kayaks that they built themselves (Sarah's brother, Eric McNair-Landry, was also part of this latter expedition). I could go on about their achievements, but instead I will tell you one thing that they forgot to include in their bios: for all their epic experiences and downright dangerous feats, Sarah and Erik are super down-to-earth, laid-back, and really, really fun. It won't surprise you then that when offered the opportunity to meet their dog team, I gleefully accepted.

DOGS.

DOGS.

When I entered the McNair residence early on Thursday morning, I found Sarah on the phone casually enquiring about a snowmobile. It turned out that her machine, which had been in the shop for months, was still out of service, and Erik was left without a way to travel inland to plant the food caches that will sustain them for the first part of their journey. Immediately it became obvious that for a trip of this magnitude, planning is of the utmost importance, rivalled only by the dire need for flexibility. Calm and collected, Sarah soon found an available snowmachine (I offered her my 1999 Bravo; she understandably declined), and after a short chat with Matty about teaching art and the utility of felt liners, we headed out to the dog yard.

Sarah walking over to the dog yard early in the morning.

Sarah walking over to the dog yard early in the morning.

While Sarah was preparing the dogs and the sled, I asked her about her motivation to complete this trip. She touched on her desire to commemorate her parents' trip and challenge herself briefly, but mostly, Sarah talked and seemed excited about getting outside, visiting other communities, and mostly, having a great time with Erik and the dogs. No bravado, no grandeur. To hear Sarah tell it, you'd think they were about to embark on a road trip to Disney World.

Sarah laying out the harnesses,

Sarah laying out the harnesses,

Of course, that's not so say that Sarah and Erik aren't taking this expedition seriously. Their gear and supplies are clearly labelled and sorted in bins. They've set up a website that will geotag their tweets and Instagram uploads along the route, allowing viewers to track their progress on a map. They have staggered cargo shipments to coincide with their anticipated arrivals at various communities, where they will refresh their supplies. Standing in their tidy, organized storage rooms, I, too, felt the sense of calm excitement that comes with exemplary preparation.

Darting across the tundra at midday.

Darting across the tundra at midday.

There is another very important but less controllable factor to success on this trip, and that is the dog team. Sarah and Erik will be travelling with 14 Inuit sled dogs, some of whom belong to another notable dogsledding couple, Andrew Maher and Julia Landry. Any good musher must get to know and love their dogs; the entire sport is so dependent on the beautiful creatures' natural propensity to pull heavy loads over long distances in harsh climes. And, as Sarah relays in a recent interview with Vice, the sled dogs can also be sent out on polar bear duty, sniffing out any danger before it can reach the campsite. That being said, Sarah and Erik talk about their animals the same way many people discuss their children, comparing notes, relaying twee stories, and defending their preferred pets.

Puppy love!

Puppy love!

Now, anyone who knows me/has added me on Snapchat will be well aware that I love dogs. So you can only imagine the pure joy I felt when I met 12 of Sarah and Erik's favourite huskies. While petting, photographing, and harnessing the team, it became increasingly obvious that the canine unit is the real star of the expedition. Not only are these Inuit sled dogs strong and smart, but each is a character unto him or herself. Take for example Mawson and Takiq, whose fraternal bond is so strong that whether running or waiting, the two are always together. Or Bianca and Gloria, the smartest and prettiest girls in the pack, both of whom are constantly vying for the attention of Aiviq, Sarah and Erik's lead dog and my personal favourite.

Aiviq (right) and either Bianca or Gloria.

Aiviq (right) and either Bianca or Gloria.

Ultimately, it was the easy interactions between humans, animals, and humans and animals that put the whole crazy plan into perspective for me. Justin and I have a lab-poodle mix named Heffley who routinely inspires and motivates us to go outside and find new adventures, and Heff has definitely given me extra confidence when on the land (he once alerted me to the presence of a wolf, but that's a story for another time). Switch out Heffley for an elite team of huskies and me for a girl who was raised on the tundra, and slowly, that monumentally ambitious goal of circumnavigating Baffin Island by dogsled starts to sound pretty "simple."

"Give me winter; give me dogs; you can keep the rest." - Knud Rasmussen

"Give me winter; give me dogs; you can keep the rest." - Knud Rasmussen

You can learn more about Sarah and Erik's trip at wayofthenorth.com or track their trip in real-time at gramwire.com/expedition/wayofthenorth. For amazing photos, make sure you follow Erik on Instagram and check out the hashtag #wayofthenorth.

Good luck, team Way of the North!

Good luck, team Way of the North!