Oh, for just one time, me and my sister would kite-ski the Northwest Passage. By Margo Pfeiff.
Check out Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry's chronicle of their adventure, including route maps and videos, on their blog.
Like technicolour Arctic butterflies against a deep blue April sky, six kites soar across the flat white landscape of Victoria Island. Behind them they tow skiers, zigzagging and whooping in the spring sunshine as the Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay dwindles to a speck in the distance. Then, four of the kite-skiers – an “escort party” of locals – turn back, shouting wishes for good wind. The remaining two, siblings Eric and Sarah McNair-Landry, wave and keep moving east.
Just a few kilometres further on, they spot half a dozen muskoxen. Sailing slowly over the rough sea ice, their options are limited: They have no choice but to move directly toward the herd, thinking they’ll run in the other direction. Surprisingly, they gallop closer, then stop. Each time the skiers approach, their kites billowing in the sky, the animals run briefly, then stop to watch. “Herding muskoxen with kites,” Eric says to his sister. “That’s gotta be a first!” Finally, they pause to let the muskoxen amble off.
The siblings haven’t been able to pause much on this trip. It’s Day 36 of their quest to kite-ski the length of the Northwest Passage – 3,000 kilometres through the most legendary corridor in the Arctic. Eric, 26, and Sarah, 25, had left from the Beaufort Sea village of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, and expect to arrive in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, at the edge of Baffin Bay, two months from now. Their next stop is Gjoa Haven, 400 kilometres away.
Despite their youth, Eric and Sarah are old hands on the ice. They’re the wunderkinds of famous polar guides Matty McNair and Paul Landry, and were raised in Iqaluit, where family outings meant dogsledding, skiing and kayaking, bivouacking in tents on the tundra, and meeting up with polar bears. “When they were little, they’d watch Richard Weber [a leading polar guide] training for a North Pole trip, skiing back and forth across the sea ice on Frobisher Bay outside our back door,” says Paul. “They’d beg to go out and join him, and we wouldn’t see them the rest of the day.” Matty remembers the kids pitching a tent on the back deck, lighting up the MSR stove for dinner, checking their GPS unit and radioing their co-ordinates to their base camp inside.
Over time, their make-believe became real. In 2005, when Sarah was 18 and Eric 20, they skied with Matty to the South Pole, becoming the youngest people to do so. Three years later they joined American explorer Will Steger on a 2,250-kilometre dogsledding expedition from Resolute Bay, Nunavut, up and down the length of Ellesmere Island. They’ve also crossed the Greenland ice cap four times, for which National Geographic named them its 2008 Adventurers of the Year.
Ironically, though, the first seeds of their Northwest Passage expedition were sown not on ice, but sand. In 2009, Eric and Sarah were traversing Mongolia’s 1,200-kilometre-wide Gobi Desert, riding over the dry plains in kite-powered buggies. It was an epic trek, powered entirely by the wind – and at night, bunked down in their dusty tents, they began discussing other kite-powered adventures. When they were growing up, explorers and expeditions were the stuff of dinner-table conversation, and few treks were as revered as Roald Amundsen’s groundbreaking Northwest Passage trip. Sailing west from Davis Strait in 1903, it took Amundsen three winters to become the first person to navigate that legendary route, arriving in the Beaufort Sea in 1906. Eric and Sarah decided they would re-trace Amundsen’s path – but would do it in the opposite direction, and in a single season, using kite-skis and going flat-out from west to east.
They assembled sponsors: Ozone Snowkites would provide 14-metre paraglider-style kites, National Geographic would supply some cash in exchange for photo rights, and Canadian North would fly supplies into communities along their route. On March 19, 2011, in Tuktoyaktuk, they stepped into their skis and strapped harnesses to their chests. Tethered to their waists were sleds, weighed down with as much as 300 pounds of food and gear. To their fronts they clipped 60-metre lines, at the end of which were kites as broad as a house. Gusts filled the nylon sails, which rose into the sparkling sky. They were off.
Kite-skiing in the Arctic can be either a blessing or a curse. Where the wind and tides have churned the ice into a jagged battlefield, or when the wind dies and the kites are becalmed, progress can be excruciating. But when a smooth white field unfurls in front of you and the winds are in your favour, it’s a euphoric way to travel. Over the past decade and a half, kite-skiing has become the favoured method of transport for polar trekkers. Eric and Sarah fell in love with it a dozen years ago, letting the wind pull them across the icy expanse of Frobisher Bay. In 2007, they formed Team Pittarak (the name means “fierce winds”) to kite 2,300 kilometres across Greenland from south to north. During that trek, they once covered 412 kilometres in 24 hours.
As they set out from Tuk on the Northwest Passage, their distances weren’t quite so impressive. Their aim was to average 42 kilometres a day, the equivalent of a marathon. There were days of windless slogging – and, blissfully, windy days of kite-skiing across landscapes buttered with low, reddish sunlight. They quickly fell into a routine. They pitched tents and packed them, rolled and unrolled kites, gorged on high-calorie meals to stave off the cold, and downloaded weather and wind forecasts on their satellite phone. Each morning, Sarah would spring out of the tent, ready to roll. Meanwhile, Eric would remain in the depths of his sleeping bag, grumbling.
Although the pair have their differences, they travel easily together. “There are no surprises between Eric and I,” says Sarah. “We know our strengths and weaknesses. It’s not the same as travelling with a stranger.” Eric is laid back, with a strong techie streak; Sarah, like her mother, is goal-oriented and competitive. Sarah likes to travel on a strict schedule; Eric calls her “militant” and refuses to wear a watch. “We have an unspoken truce that we don’t rib or tease one another about our differences on the trail,” says Eric. “It wears down the morale very fast.”
As they zigzagged eastward, friends, family and curious Northerners followed their progress on blogs and videos Eric beamed onto their website. He described kiting past pingos, foxes and caribou. Near Paulatuk, he wrote about the stench and surreal appearance of the Smoking Hills – a perpetually burning coal-seam smouldering on the coast. They encountered abandoned boats that hadn’t made it through the passage, one of them with magazines from the 1960s on board. At communities along the passage, they were welcomed with open doors, hot meals and new friends.
On May 7, two weeks after leaving Cambridge Bay, they skied out onto the wide-open Gulf of Boothia. Lately, travel had been a challenge. Gjoa Haven to Taloyoak was brutal: They were forced to pick their way through boulder fields stretching to the horizon. Their sleds took a beating. Some days Sarah would unpack dented pots and battered cups and bowls.
Yet they knew they were about to encounter their biggest challenge: crossing the sea-ice from the Boothia Peninsula to Baffin Island. Though only 100 kilometres wide, the crossing would be unpredictable – some years it freezes solid, other years it’s open, churned by swirling currents that give it the nickname “the toilet bowl.”
To get a look at it, they ascended to a high point, “double-hauling” over rubble ice by first pulling one sled and then backtracking to get the second. They gained less than 150 metres in two exhausting hours. Finally, Eric climbed up onto an ice chunk and peered east. “Hey Sarah!” he shouted. “You have to see this.” The ice was alive: a fast-moving slurry of “blunder ice” – unstable, compressed chunks – bobbing in the cold black water as far as they could see.
They backtracked to a sheltered spot, set up a tent, made soup – and debated. “It’s a step up from what I came across on the North Pole trip,” said Sarah, “but I think we can get across.” Eric disagreed, pointing out that “our sleds don’t float and the leads are wide.” And Sarah had to concede they didn’t have the right gear. Even the small raft they’d picked up in Taloyoak would never get them to Baffin Island. For hours they discussed their options – including quitting the trip and calling a helicopter to take them home. Eric phoned their ice specialist, based in Belgium, for advice. He looked at the ice charts and reported just one way forward: by taking a huge detour, to Igloolik on the Melville Peninsula, and crossing to Baffin from there. It would add 500 kilometres and weeks of travel. They decided to sleep on it.
At 4 a.m. Sarah was jolted awake. Something was brushing against the tent, scratching at the fabric. She leapt up – polar bear! It pounced, crumpling the tent and narrowly missing her. Screaming, she kicked at it with both legs. It backed up and hit the trip-wire of their bear-fence, which automatically shot a flare into the sky. Sarah grabbed more flares, struggled to unzip the half-collapsed tent and rushed to the rear vestibule for their shotgun.
Eric burst out of the tent close behind his sister. The bear, briefly frightened, paused, then charged. He stood in the snow in his socks and long underwear, wielding the only weapon he could find – a collapsible aluminum shovel. “Get the fucking gun!” he yelled to Sarah. Half-blind without his glasses, he smashed the bear across the face. It backed up and then, as Eric waved the shovel, made a series of bluff charges. Eric grabbed a flare and, with the bear just a metre away, pulled the pin. The deafening bang made the animal back off, but not far: It stopped and watched them from a nearby chunk of ice.
By then, fumbling through the crumpled tent, Sarah had grabbed the shotgun. She aimed, then paused. She’d always dreaded the thought of shooting a bear. She had only two slugs, and if a warning shot failed, she’d have just one round remaining. She pointed the gun over the bear’s head, pulled the trigger and ducked. Eric, still brandishing the shovel, could see no blood. He was incredulous. She missed! But the bear turned and trotted off. Sarah reloaded and fired a second slug into the air to encourage its departure.
Shaking, they packed up and fled the area. The trail forward was unnerving. There were dead seals and bear tracks all over, and in the following hours they spotted five more bears. “This place is like a sushi conveyor belt,” quipped Sarah. “The bears just sit here while the moving ice delivers seals to them.” Then they came across two cabins, which they found to be ransacked – the windows shattered, the doorframes torn off. Eric said it looked like “a serious zombie attack,” but they cleaned up one of them and bunked down, sleeping with the gun between them.
The next morning, May 9, Sarah celebrated her 25th birthday with a tiny set of candles. They’d made up their mind. They weren’t going to quit. They would leave the bears and the churning ice behind, and detour southeast, toward Igloolik.
By May 28, after a week of dead calm and hard effort, they found themselves off their maps. The snow was melting and the food was quickly vanishing from their packs. So they cheered when the weather report called for wind. When it came, they kept their sails up for 24 hours straight, until they were within sight of Igloolik.
There, they sought advice. With no knowledge of local travel routes to Baffin Island, they did what they knew was the quickest way to get help in the North: stand in front of the grocery store poring over a map. Sure enough, within moments a group of elders had gathered to outline a traditional dogsledding trail to Pond Inlet.
On June 1, their 75th day on the Northwest Passage, a white-out storm shot them across Fury and Hecla Strait, 157 kilometres in a single day. Finally they were on Baffin. Then they slogged northeastward, skiing narrow strips of snow where they could find them, dragging their sleds over tundra where the snow was gone. When the wind came back, there was no way to set up their kites. They’d spent the past three days knee-deep in meltwater, their mangled sleds splashing behind them.
That’s how they arrived in Pond Inlet on June 11, skiing up to the beach just after noon. They were greeted by most of the town’s residents. The firetruck flashed its lights and, that night, the mayor threw a dance for them. What had taken Roald Amundsen three years had taken Eric and Sarah 84 days – and eight smashed sleds.
“It’s fun cheating death by kite-skiing through rough ice in low light,” said Eric, summing up the trip. And when asked what’s next, he suggested “the other Northwest Passage,” across the top of Russia. “We have a long list,” he said. “If one trip stays on it long enough, it gets done.”