Iqaluit siblings to cross Baffin Island on kayaks
“Starting with the new and going back to the old”
Professional adventurers Eric and Sarah McNair-Landry of Iqaluit have long lived for the outdoors.
They completed their first expedition when Sarah was just nine and Eric was 10.
But it took some convincing. Before their parents would agree to let them spend the night alone in a tent, they had to prove their readiness by camping out on the family’s front porch for a week.
“We had to prove that we’d be okay in the rainy weather… and we’d radio in, ‘We’re still on the porch’” said Eric, now 28.
“My parents were really good with kind of letting us take the steps, learn the skills necessary to be able to take on these larger challenges,” he said.
Over the past five years, the McNair-Landrys have crossed the Greenlandic ice cap using kite-skis, powered themselves across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in kite-buggies, and traversed the Northwest passage, again on kite-skis.
Now they’re getting ready for a new journey across Baffin Island, and they’re calling it Qajaqtuqtut – which means “they kayak”.
For this trip, they’ll round out their adventure team — dubbed Pittarak for the strong winds that come off the Greenlandic ice cap — with two other members: Katherine Breen, a family doctor, and Eric Boomer, a professional kayaker.
Eric McNair-Landry says each teammate adds something to the mix.
“Boomer’s really the kayaker. I’m probably the best in the workshop. Kate’s the doctor. Sarah’s the videographer.”
Part one of the journey – the “modern” leg – will start in July. The team will begin in Qikiqtarjuaq, travel up across the ice cap and down into Akshayuk Pass, formerly Pangnirtung Pass. To get from A to B, they’ll rely heavily on kayaks.
The three slightly less experienced kayakers hope to portage along the Weasel River while the group’s pro, Boomer, takes the white rapids head on.
Sarah explains the relevance of this part of the journey.
“By doing that modern white water kayaking it makes it cool. It’s the best way to get kids interested… starting with the new and going back to the old and where this boat came from.”
In Pangnirtung, the team will trade their modern boats for traditional kayaks.
From there, they’ll travel via an old portage route to Nettilling Lake, traditionally a meeting spot for surrounding communities. Finally, they’ll head down to Cape Dorset.
By traveling a historically significant path, Pittarak hopes to revive the kayaking tradition, an integral part of Inuit culture.
Eric McNair-Landry explains: “Basically the Inuit people inspired the whole sport of adventure kayaking, both sea kayaking and river kayaking comes directly from their design. It’s turned into an Olympic sport, (but) there’s nobody saying, ‘Yes, that’s us who invented that. That’s our sport.’”
The team wants to get Nunavummiut excited about traditional kayaking.
They’ll start by building their own traditional boats for Qajaqtuqtut, in consultation with professional kayak builders.
They’ll also solicit the help of local high school kids through workshops at Inuksuk High School. Getting the community involved in the kayak-building process is central to their mission.
As the doctor in the group, Breen speaks to the importance of making kids aware of recreational options in their community.
“Obesity is a problem across Canada and especially in Nunavut, and so getting kids active and outdoors is important.”
In addition to the workshops, the group hopes to lead kayak-training sessions, to get kids in the water.
“Another really important aspect of the project is boating safety and water safety. The rates of drowning in Nunavut are sky-high compared to the rest of Canada,” Breen said.
There’s also the language preservation aspect, Eric McNair-Landry explains.
“There’s about 50-100 words for different parts of a kayak, for different terms used while kayaking, for different types of kayaks.”
On Saturday, Jan. 5, Pittarak kicked things off with a kayak-sewing demonstration at the Iqaluit museum.
The two kayaks they’re building now are only prototypes, however, intended to help them decide what modifications they’ll need to make for their journey.
Sarah explains. “The Greenlandic-Baffin kayak was a seafaring kayak, so they were very small… they weren’t used for 50-day expeditions. One of our biggest challenges is taking that model that we made as the prototype and making it bigger so that we can fit 25 days of food in it.”
It’s just one of many challenges the crew faces as they prepare for their two-month trek. But to be a modern adventurer, you have to love the challenge.
You also have to be enterprising if you hope to make living at it. The McNair-Landrys support themselves through guiding, film, photography and public talks.
They rely on sponsorship for their expeditions.
“If we really wanted to make money, we would write books and make movies, but that would be like an expedition every two years…” Eric McNair-Landry said.
“That’s not very fun,” his sister added with a laugh.