I initially welcomed the return of the sun. Now I fear that its presence will bring spring to the Arctic too quickly. The heat is relentless as it sets for only a few minutes before rising again. It is late in the evening when the sun finally drops low enough on the horizon for the air to cool. A fog approaches our temporary camp as we harness the dogs, and continue south on the final stretch of our 4,000-kilometre expedition to circumnavigate Baffin Island. The fifth largest island in the world, Baffin is about twice the size of the UK and has a population of just over 10,000 people, most of whom are Inuit. The population is scattered among eight settlements, the most sizeable of which – Iqaluit – is my home.
The fog soon limits our vision. I ski in front of the pack to scout a route through the heaved-up sea ice. My partner, Boomer, skis beside the dog team and steers the sled to avoid the ice boulders. In time, the sled wedges itself on a hunk of ice. I wait to see if Boomer needs help. He attempts to pull the heavy sled free, but after 30 seconds he raises two hands in the air. This is the signal that he needs assistance. I ski back to him wearily. With the two of us hauling we eventually inch the sled back just enough to steer it clear of the frozen roadblock. We continue for a couple of hundred metres until the sled becomes stuck again. And again. And again. Each time, the dogs become less motivated and we grow more tired.
We aren’t travelling fast enough to hit our daily average of 50km. Yesterday we didn’t, either. I look up at the sky. It won’t be long until the sun heats the snow. Then our dogs will sink to their bellies in slush. Like a broken record, I tell myself over and over that the weather will get colder and the conditions will get better. If I’m wrong, and the sun keeps warming the landscape at the same rate as today, we’ll be stranded on the tundra with no snow, limited food, 16 hungry dogs and a long distance between us and home.
Yesterday, while nestled in our tunnel tent, Boomer melted snow for dinner as I opened my parents’ old black diary and read out loud, ‘A very, very low night for me. I’m very tired, more emotionally I think than physically. We have so far to go… the conditions are getting bad, the dogs are burning out.’
Boomer and I looked at each other but said nothing. What my mom had written paraphrased how we were feeling. I was three-years-old when my parents, Paul Landry and Matty McNair, headed to Baffin Island with a couple of friends and a team of dogs to attempt the first circumnavigation of the island. By this stage in their odyssey, at the tail end of May, their two friends had packed their bags and left. My parents were worryingly low on food and they had been out of radio communication for several days. Somehow Paul and Matty pulled their strength together, and after 120 days of dog sledding and skiing they arrived back where they had started in the town of Iqaluit. 25 years later, my partner, Erik Boomer, and myself were attempting to become the first team to retrace my mother and father’s route. In a strange way, my parents’ dispirited journal entries gave me hope. If mom and dad had made it, then so could we.
Much has changed since Paul and Matty’s expedition a quarter of a century ago. The biggest shift in equipment between our two expeditions is the respective communication systems. My parents took with them an unreliable shortwave radio. At times they would travel for days without being able to communicate with anyone. By contrast, we had the luxury of a handheld satellite-connected device with integrated GPS. We used it to exchange text messages with our support team. A satellite telephone was carried as a back-up.
We always knew that our biggest challenge would be completing the circumnavigation in a single winter season. Although we left early, on 4 February 2015, we still had to average more than a marathon every day to make it back to Iqaluit before the snow melted off the land. As we rounded the northern tip of Baffin Island, we switched to travelling at night since the daylight temperature was too warm for the dogs.
The small community at Arctic Bay served as a recuperation point. We rested the dogs for a couple of days, fed them as much seal meat as they desired, and figured out a strategy to make it home. During a visit to a 94-year-old elder named Qappik, our conversation turned to the topic of the approaching spring and I asked if she had ever run out of snow while on a dog sledding journey.
Qappik smiled an honest grin and told us her story of running out of snow while travelling with her family by dog team. With no snow to continue their trek by dog sled, they had to wait out the summer, hunting to provide food, until the next winter came and they were able to continue their journey. I didn’t sufficiently trust our hunting skills to believe that we could survive an entire summer and autumn living off the land, providing not only for ourselves but also for our furry teammates. We needed a Plan B.
To begin with, we scanned through all our gear, re-evaluating the importance of each item solely in terms of getting us home. Some warm clothes, a spare camera, several pairs of socks and a few slabs of precious chocolate were all left behind.
Next, we obtained two lightweight plastic sleds and a couple of backpacks. If we became stranded without snow, we figured that we would ditch our heavy wood sled for the two toboggans. The plastic pulks would be loaded up with dog food and dragged by the huskies across the snowless tundra. If necessary, we would cut up our sled bag and turn the panels of fabric into little panniers so the dogs could carry the remainder of their own meals. We would carry our personal gear and rations in the backpacks.
When we returned to the trail a few days later, a blizzard delivered more wet snow. I started to feel nauseous as it was impossible to see in the whiteout conditions. Our sled continually sank into the thigh-deep slush. The dogs could hardly walk, let alone pull. Even our young bitch, Aven, who usually seemed to have endless strength, was wiped out. I had raised and trained Aven. It broke my heart to see her so tired.
We were now caught in a maze of rubble ice created by strong ocean currents. Those same currents were also tearing the ice apart to create areas of open water. Some of these gashes were as small as a soccer pitch. Other polynyas were so wide that we could barely see the opposite snowbanks.
When we turned on our little communications system that evening, a message came through from a friend in Iqaluit. ‘Full moon soon, lots of open water and dangerous ice. Get off the sea ice as soon as possible. My grandfather once travelled an old traditional route. Turn left and follow the river that looks like an “L”, past the big lake. Then turn right towards Nettilling Lake.’
Boomer and I discussed our options and, the next morning, we took a leap of faith: we turned left and walked off our maps to follow the old Inuit route. The conditions underfoot improved just enough for us to maintain forward momentum.
Eventually, after a week of seemingly never-ending spring storms and warm temperatures, we experienced a cold snap. The mercury dropped just low enough to transform the slush into a crust that our sled glided effortlessly across.
After four months of skiing and dog sledding, we set up our final camp 40 kilometres from Iqaluit on the penultimate day in May. The next morning, we woke to the sound of snow machines. My mom and several of our friends had driven out at dawn to greet us. A canvas tent went up, coffee was brewed, and my mom scrambled eggs on a stove. The waffle iron was plugged into a generator, fresh cream was whipped up, and homemade bread was fried.
‘What are you looking forward to most when you get back?’ asked one of our friends during the feast.
‘I can’t wait to feed the dogs all the fresh meat they can eat,’ was my reply.
As with my parents’ expedition, our huskies had been the real heroes of our Arctic odyssey. They were – and remain – the best team members Boomer and I could have wished for.
Sarah McNair-Landry has skied to both geographic poles, kite-skied the Northwest Passage and crossed the Greenland ice cap five times. Sarah’s Baffin Island journey is recorded at www.wayofthenorth.com
TEN OF THE BEST
Equipment has come a long way since Sarah McNair-Landry’s parents first circumnavigated Baffin Island. For the updated trip, she made sure to pack lightweight, yet durable clothing, foods and tents that could withstand the harsh elements. Also important was keeping the energy levels up and being able to stay in contact with the base camp...
Hilleberg Keron 3 GT – £995/4.9kg
The Keron can withstand any storm when pitched correctly. We chose a three-person tent to give ourselves sufficient room to cook and melt water inside the canopy. The GT version has a spacious vestibule in which to store gear.
Delorme inReach Explorer – £240/190g
The inReach is a great safety device in an emergency, and includes a digital compass and GPS waypointing capabilities. We also used it to exchange satellite text messages with our Base Camp team. The device also allowed us to update the expedition website with our precise location.
Smith I/O 7 – £190/125g
Not even a millimetre of skin can be exposed to the weather when it is stormy and cold, so we used these goggles to keep our eyes protected from the elements. The stylish I/O 7 includes bright light and low light performance mirror lenses with anti-fog treatments.
Voke tablets – $7/36g
Skiing and dog sledding 12 hours a day left us with no more than half a dozen hours to sleep each night. We brought these green tea leaf caffeine tablets – which also contain guarana berry (for focus and memory) and acerola cherry (for vitamin C) – to give us a boost.
Ozone Frenzy V10 Ultralight – £1,200/3.7kg
Our secret weapon. When the wind blew, one of us would kite-ski in front of the dogs to break trail and to provide extra motivation for the team. The ultralight version of the V10 is 25 per cent lighter.
Alfa Polar Advance – €429/1.07kg
Obtaining warm and comfortable ski boots is always a challenge. The Alfa Polar Advance, with its leather-reinforced Cordura outer, looks like a museum piece. But looks can be deceptive: it is the warmest boot on the market. I fitted my pair with Intuition liners.
Fischer E99 Crown Xtralite – £195/1.95kg
The E99 and I have known each other for many years. Together, we have skied to both geographic poles. The E99’s slightly opened tips improve gliding and turning. A narrow steel edge along the entire length of the ski helped me to maintain constant contact on a variety of surfaces.
Harvest Foodworks Stroganoff – $9/211g
We wanted a food that was light in weight, high in calories and enjoyable to eat. Harvest Foodworks produces many different flavours that meet this trio of requirements. The company’s Stroganoff dinner, which is topped off with red wine and a sour cream sauce, became one of our favourites on the journey.
NRS Expedition Socks with HydroCuff – $43/200g
Vapour Barrier (VB) garments are perhaps the least understood of all outdoor clothing systems and yet VB apparel is essential for Arctic travel. We wore these VB socks on top of thin merino wool socks to stop the sweat vapour from our feet condensing into our thick socks and boot insulation.
Klattermusen Hild Jacket – €240/490g
A lightweight, high collar, insulated jacket filled with Primaloft Eco synthetic fill (made from 50 per cent recycled content). Fitted with an unusual yet effective angled zip. Elasticated hems and an internal storm flap help keep spindrift out. The ripstop Pertex outer on the body of the Hild is augmented with stretch polyamide on the shoulders.
This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.