This Couple Is About to Embark on a Four-Month Dogsled Journey Through the Arctic
This weekend arctic adventurers Sarah McNair-Landry, Erik Boomer, and 14 fluffy dogs start their circumnavigation of Baffin Island.
We met arctic adventurers Sarah McNair Landry and Erik Boomer in Iqaluit last spring while we filmed Toronto rapper Rich Kidd playing an insane yurt party. Sarah was one of the founders and organizers of the event, and when she mentioned that she did trips out into the tundra, we didn't think too much about it because, first of all, pretty much everyone up north does outdoorsy stuff, and second, we were busy having our minds blown at her epic party.
Then we started following her and Erik on social media and came to realize that they are some of the most badass people on this planet, and that all other so-called adventurers should probably pack up their titanium crampons and throw them out of whatever ultralight aircraft they're about to jump out of and call it quits.
Growing up in Iqaluit with parents who own and operate a Polar guiding business, Sarah has the title of youngest female to go to the South Pole—she was 18. That means while you were worried about second-basing your first "real" girlfriend, she was worried about dying of exposure in sub-fuck-off temperatures. She's also also a vegetarian animal lover who owns more guns than your average redneck.
Erik Boomer is comparatively new to polar adventures, but he's no stranger to doing insane shit for kicks. A professional kayaker and photographer, when he's not living out of his car, he's dropping huge waterfalls and doing first descents of nightmarish rivers. After a chance meeting with Sarah on a kite-skiing trip filled with stories of ice, dogsledding, and fighting off polar bears, he was hooked.
His first polar adventure was a 104-day ski-and-kayak circumnavigation of Ellsmere Island that should have killed him multiple times. Instead, he survived and earned a nomination for National Geographic's "Adventurer of the Year."
In short: the most boring parts of their lives would be the most incredible parts for our lives.
Now they are about to take on a 4,000-kilometre dogsledding trip around Baffin Island, retracing the same route Sarah's parents did 25 years ago. They'll be using gear similar to what Sarah's parents used and traditional Inuit equipment. Why are they doing this adventure? Well, because they can. Oh, and also because the ice is melting more every year and soon they won't be able to do this trip.
VICE: Tell me about this trip you're going on?
Erik Boomer: Well, we're going to go on a really long dogsledding expedition around Baffin Island, which is where Sarah is from actually.
Is this the first time anyone's ever done this length of dogsledding around Baffin?
Sarah McNair-Landry: Actually, my parents, before they moved up here, came up 25 years ago and did this exact trip—the circumnavigation of Baffin. And yes, it's the 25th anniversary and nobody's redone it since, so we thought it'd be really cool to take our dog team and head out and do it.
Are you guys going to use the same gear they used in the 80s to do it?
EB: Well, pretty much everything, except Sarah's mom's pink onesie. We might opt out on that one, but we're building a lot of our own gear. It's all based on the designs they used 25 years ago. The sled is basically a replica, all hand-carved. All our jackets and mitts and pants and boots stuff is all kind of hand-sewn to the same designs really because they work the best up here.
So how long are you guys going to be on the ice for?
SM: Well, pretty much the whole season. We're leaving February 1. We didn't want to leave too much earlier because we're still waiting for the ocean to freeze up solid and for there to be good snow pack. And then we're probably expecting 100-120 days, but if we can do it faster, we will because we definitely don't want to be caught out there with 14 dogs and no snow.
Oh my god, 120 days out on the ice.
EB: Yeah, Sarah's plan if we are hitting 120 days and we're not quite there, and we run out of snow for the sled, is to just take the sled back and sew a bunch of doggy backpacks so we can load up their food and divide our gear out, and backpack all our gear, and just kind of roll with this big pack of 14 dogs crossing rivers.
That sounds so arctic-apocalyptic, to see both of you guys coming into town raggedy with a whole pack of dogs around you.
SM: [laughs] It'd be a pretty sweet ending.
Yeah, that's kind of what the summit is for a trip like this: the ending.
SM: Yeah, I think the beginning and the end. The beginning is so cold and we definitely have to set ourselves up, so hopefully we don't get ourselves in that situation. But the end, and the bigger mountains and more technical terrain in the first month, but the end, it's our longest section—it's a month. Yeah, that's going to be the one where we need to make it back before the rivers open, and the ice leaves, and the snow melts.
A lot of people here in the south don't really understand why people go on these trips. They think they're sort of to become famous or for the glory. It doesn't really seem like that's the angle you guys are going for.
SM: It's what we do; it's fun. It's a pretty amazing experience to be able to take 14 dogs and travel for 100–120 days with them. For sure there's going to be storms, really, really cold days, but if we weren't doing this, we would be here dogsledding anyway and camping with friends and doing that type of stuff. So yeah, it's what we love to do.
EB: Yeah and we're definitely not making money or anything on this trip. We had a really tough time getting any kind of financial support for the trip, in fact. We got a couple companies who think it's a cool idea and it lined up, so we've got some really great gear that's been donated. But we're paying for this thing out of our pocket and it's really the cheapest trip that we could do with dogs because it starts and ends in Sarah's hometown. We're not having to fly anywhere, we're not having to fly a dog team anywhere. We're just buying food and shipping it around and living in a tent, so it's really like the cheapest thing and we're going about it just as cheaply as you could imagine. I actually live in my car when I'm down south. I don't really have any money.
So the reason you're going on this trip is just to commemorate it?
EB: Yeah, in a way, to commemorate it. In a big way, it's just because we can—because we live in a time that we can still travel for 120 days or 4,000 kilometers by dog team. The dog driving and this type of travel in the arctic has been kind of declining for a while now. And it was 100 years ago this old explorer from Denmark named Knud Rasmussen did an epic, epic journey that's just legendary where he went from Greenland to Alaska and his quotes are just talking about how thankful and lucky he is to be born in a time where he could even do that. The fact that we can still do it now, it kind of needs to be done. It's kind of a rite of passage too for Sarah and myself being here. We've got to at least do what her parents did here.
Winter days are numbered, because of the melting ice.
EB: Yeah, for sure. I think Sarah was actually on the last dog team to reach the North Pole and have a ton of experience up there and she could probably tell you what's changing up there as much as anybody.
Yeah, Sarah, you've only been exploring for the last ten years, but the ice has changed that much in that amount of time.
SM: Yeah, for sure. And a lot of it is stories I've heard of people going before my experiences of what it's like there, but it's definitely changing. And you see the changes more like further north than around Baffin.
EB: Yeah, it's cool, the pictures from her dogsledding trip (which was a while ago) to the North Pole, they were definitely having to break off these ice chunks and saw them into pieces and load up these dogs, and float them across these open water sections like a life raft with these dogs just floating across. Pretty cool.
Are you guys going to bring some alcohol or like weed with you? Or maybe even acid since it's super light, and it would make the Northern Lights look awesome?
EB: Just the other night I was out there and I got up to take a piss and check a loose dog, and I could swear I felt like I was on acid because the Northern Lights were so crazy. I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to be on a drug like that. It might be a little too overwhelming. But yeah, we'll probably slip in a bit of booze. It's a little heavy to carry, but there might be something like that to sip on on the trip and keep our mind off of the dire situation when it's cold
OK, what's a bigger fear: running out of food on the trip or running out of toilet paper?
SM: Hmmm, well, toilet paper you can't really find.
EB: I bring a lot of extra socks, so I'm not too worried about the toilet paper. I'm pretty thrifty.
SM: With food, there's usually a bird or a goose flying over. You can always find something.
So, toilet paper you're more worried about running out than food.
EB: That's for Sarah and for me, I'm a little less worried about the toilet paper. My hygiene is a little lower, but she's probably a little bit better at starving. She's definitely been on a lot of long trips and doesn't require quite as much food. For me, I eat like a horse and being low on food scares me.
SM: I think Boomer is more worried about running out of gummy bears.
Now when you're going into polar bear country, are you guys bringing firearms with you?
SM: Yeah, we're bringing a bunch of bear deterrents, like flares and stuff, and then we're bringing my shotgun.
Your shotgun, is it a 12-gauge shotgun?
SM: It's 12-guage with big slugs, but that's kind of like a last case. Pretty much one of the last things we'd want to do would be to have to shoot a bear; it's always trying to scare it away. Actually, the best way to scare a bear away is just to start swearing at it and yell at it, and kind of run towards it and just intimidate it.
So you're saying harsh language is the best way to scare a bear off?
EB: "I'm going to fucking rip your head off" is one of my favourite ones as you take another step forward.
You make fun of the bear's mom too, you just hit it at an emotional level.
SM: See, you'd be a pro.
EB: Speaking of guns, Sarah, she's a vegetarian, she's an environmentalist, but she's got a 308 rifle, and a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs, so it's pretty funny actually seeing her gun collection
I guess, Erik, compared to your Ellesmere Island trip where it was just you and your buddy, on this trip you're going to have dogs, so they'll be kind of your security system for if bears come in?
SM: Yeah, exactly, well the dogs are the best ever because they can smell the bear coming, so they'll wake us up in the middle of the night if a bear comes to camp, which is nice to be woken up 30 seconds before the bear's in camp instead of when the bear is tearing through your tent.
EB: Yeah, I've had a couple of situations where bears have essentially came to knock on the tent to say hello or scratched open it, but Sarah has had a pretty harrowing encounter where one definitely jumped on the tent and I'll let her tell you about that.
Sarah there was a story where a bear was attacking your brother...
SM: Yeah. Yeah, he came into the tent where we were sleeping. He came in on my side of the tent and started like pouncing on the tent, and ripped through part of the tent. We just started screaming and I started kicking as hard as I could, and he kind of backed up. Then we ran outside and I ran for the gun and my brother grabbed a shovel. He kind of came back, he sort of charged my brother who was standing out there with just a shovel. So my brother hit him over the face with a tiny, two-foot camp shovel. Anyways, they kind of had this duel-off, he was able to get a flare and throw a flare at the bear, and then the bear looped around to where I was coming out of the tent with the gun by then. Luckily, I shot just above his head and the warning shot was enough to convince him to go somewhere else.
EB: That's one thing too. A lot of people who are coming up here on trips for the first time and they have guns, they think: Oh, well if a bear comes in, you've got to shoot it. And both Sarah and I and her whole family have been around a lot of bears. It take a lot of work, it's really scary, but there's no need to shoot every bear. It would take a really strange case and a really aggressive, bad bear to really lead to that. We've definitely had a lot of success with intimidation and screaming. I feel pretty comfy having Sarah around. She's not afraid to run after a bear with something small in her hand.
That's good that Sarah is there as your protector, Erik.
SM: And then the dogs too. The Inuit used to hunt with the dogs, so we usually leave a couple loose and sometimes they'll just chase the bear out of camp too.
Why do you guys choose to do the overland trips instead of the big, epic summits?
SM: I don't know. It's different. I grew up here and there's something different. The summit is very short and quick. This is a lot longer, more endurance and they're both badass in their own ways, but I don't know exactly how to answer that question.
EB: I think it's being up here has been a lot about what polar stuff is about: these extended times in these elements. On some of these, you push up into those high elevations for short periods of time where you're dealing with extreme cold and you'll just put on... for that day. Out here, you're kind of dealing with it extended every day. You may not be on the verge of falling off a mountain, but you're dealing with this extreme environment and you're in this incredibly isolated place. And, for me, what I like is that that burn goes a lot longer. It's this extended deal. I just look at the chance to go on a trip that lasts 120 days and I don't know how many I can get in in my lifetime, so every chance that I can to do a long trip just makes me feel good and like I did something I will not every regret in my life. And I can't climb mountains, so.
I'm sure it wouldn't take you that long to figure it out.
SM: There's enough people climbing mountains.
I like how you guys try to stay keeping it traditional, sort of like your circumnavigation of Baffin using traditional kayaks.
SM: Yeah. One thing I love about, and I'm sure I'll love about this trip, when my brother and I did our Northwest Passage trip through Northwest territories and Nunavut is that it's just really cool to be travelling through these communities. Small communities in the north are amazing and the people are so awesome. It's just a really neat experience, especially travelling with the dog team. That's definitely a part of it that I'm really looking forward to.
Talking about being in the middle of nowhere out on this trip, what's the possibility of a rescue if it all goes to shit?
SM: I mean there's always a possibility of rescue, but it kind of depends where you are and how fast you need to get out. The easiest way to travel up here, by far, is by snow machine. But, you know, our longest section between communities is about 30 days by dog, so that would still take quite a while to get a snow machine out and back. They can come by plane, but you need an area for them to land.
EB: What's the longest you and your mom have waited or looked for a place to land a plane? There's been a couple of times you guys have been low on food. I've heard you tell stories and it's been a couple weeks before a plane could land and could feed you.
SM: So it's always in the back of your head, "Oh yeah, someone could come rescue us no problem!" But in reality, it's like you've got to be prepared. Obviously helicopter would be the easiest solution except there's no helicopters in Nunavut, so that would mean bringing a helicopter up probably from the south and that takes time too. It's definitely like sure, people would come get us, but how long would it take before people come in and get us?
It sounds like quite the epic winter vacation.
SM: Yeah, it'll be good.
You can follow Sarah and Erik's trip at wayofthenorth.com or track their trip in real-time at gramwire.com/expedition/wayofthenorth. On Facebook, see Pittarak Expeditions. Follow Erik's Instagram for more of his insane photos.