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The Blizzard

A Circumnavigation of Baffin Island by Dog-Sled
Sarah McNair-Landry // Erik Boomer

In celebration of the launch of the brand new Sidetracked Volume Seven, we’re releasing one story online from each of our previous issues. In this story from Volume Six, Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer get pinned down by a blizzard during their 120 day circumnavigation of Baffin Island by Dog Sled.


Our satellite communicator beeps as the green light flashes to signal a new message: ‘Big 90km/h winds and blizzard forecasted in town today. Build a snow wall,’ reads the text from our friend in Iqaluit, 150km south of our camp.

Cozy inside our red tunnel tent, two stoves melt snow for the day. I warm my fingers curling them around my mug of hot chocolate. The tent fabric flaps lightly.Travel has been great; we are ahead of schedule, the weather is cold and calm, and the dogs are happy. Still early in our expedition and eager to get miles under our belt, we don’t want to be halted by a storm.

I unzip the tent and peek outside. There is a slight breeze and some clouds, nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe we are in a different weather system and the storm will miss us. This was wishful thinking.

Four days earlier, my partner Erik Boomer and I harnessed up our 13 Canadian Inuit dogs, and set out from my hometown of Iqaluit, in Canada’s Nunavut Territory, to attempt a circumnavigation of Baffin Island. The fifth largest island in the world, it lies frozen in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Although the route had been attempted several times, it has only been completed once by my parents, Paul Landry and Matty McNair, who spent four months circling the massive landmass by dog team. Now, 25 years later, Boomer and I were attempting to retrace their route.

This wasn’t our first expedition. Boomer, an extreme white-water kayaker and photographer had spent 100 days skiing and kayaking around Ellesmere Island, and two months crossing southern Baffin by ski, foot and kayak. I had skied twice to the South and North Pole, crossed Greenland 5 times, spent 85 days kite skiing though the Northwest Passage, among other expeditions. But this journey was the longest, both in time and in distance, that either of us had undertaken.

Boomer turns the dial to kill the flow of white gas to our burner and I watch the last of the flames die out. The heat escapes, and I notice my breath as I lace up my ski boots. It’s going to be a cold day. Last night we had set up camp in the deep valley of the McKeand River. Our Inuit friend Meeka had told us, ‘It’s always colder near the river, don’t camp there.’ But when we arrived yesterday it was getting dark and we were too tired to climb up and out of the valley. We decided to call it our home for the night.

Of course, Meeka was right. It was colder. And when our average temperature hovers between -35C to -40C, colder is really cold. It’s a cold that is so painful all we can think about is making that pain go away. The only way to fight the freezing temperatures is to dress smart, eat and drink frequently, and continually keep our body in motion to stay warm.

Outside the tent Boomer and I run in circles to get our blood flowing. Once warm, we load our 16ft wooden sled that we built for the expedition. Based off my parents’ expedition sled, it’s long enough to carry our dog food, people food, and all other equipment.

I unclip Aven and, holding her by the collar, walk her to the colour-coded different-length traces fanned out on the snow. I straddle her, and pull her red harness over her head, then slip first the left than the right front leg in.

‘Aven, get down please.’ She knows the routine well. During hookup and whenever we stop, the dogs need to sit down. Boomer lets the last couple loose, and starts to pack up our tie-out chains.

‘Aivik, Bianca, come,’ I call. They run towards me, tails wagging, excited to run. I slip on their harnesses. I swing my arms back and forth a dozen times to encourage warm blood to flow towards my fingers before I clip on my skis, and grab the back of the sled. The dogs are eager to go. Boomer looks at me and I nod.

I unzip the tent and peek outside. There is a slight breeze and some clouds, nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe we are in a different weather system and the storm will miss us. This was wishful thinking.

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‘Hike!’ The words just barely leave his mouth and the dogs jump up and start to run. We ski beside our sled, each holding, with one hand, the tall handlebars that rise up from the back.

Aivik at lead, we head northeast across the Hall Peninsula. The winds steadily increase, blowing snow in the air that soon obscures our vision. Two thousand feet above sea level, the tree-less and unsheltered plateau of the Hall Peninsula is notorious for bad weather.

‘You never know how long it will take you to get across the 100km section,’ my parents had told me. They spoke from first-hand experience, having been stuck in storms for days up here.

By lunch break the winds increase so much that our visibility is close to zero. We huddle behind our sled to seek shelter and to catch our breath. I shove a handful of frozen tasteless trail mix in my mouth; Boomer sips warm onion soup from our Thermos.

With increasing winds in our face, we start to climb up a long slope. If it gets any worse we will have to camp.

By lunch break the winds increase so much that our visibility is close to zero. We huddle behind our sled to seek shelter and to catch our breath. I shove a handful of frozen tasteless trail mix in my mouth; Boomer sips warm onion soup from our Thermos. The dogs curl up and tuck their faces out of the wind while blowing snow drifts around them.

The conditions continue to deteriorate. ‘What do you think about travelling through this?’ Boomer shouts. I look around. On the side of a steep slope, I see no spot to camp. I unzip my jacket a couple inches and grab my GPS. Boomer leans in as I scroll over the map.

‘There is a flat lake 2km ahead that would make a good camp. Let’s try to make it there.’ The runners squeak as they slide over the frozen snow. It’s not long until the wind becomes so fierce I have to lean into the gusts to stay upright. They are much stronger than the predicted 90km/h. The dogs do not like the gale in their face or the haul up the steep hill. Aivik turns and glances back at us, with an unsure look, as he starts to veer off course.

To encourage them to continue into the building storm I ski up to the left while yelling the command ‘Gee’ to get the dogs to continue up the hill. They listen for a second then take a 180-degree change in direction.

In an instant the dogs u-turn and bolt downhill. I see the traces catch around my skis, then tighten around my legs and knock me off of my feet. Before I can react my thigh and my ankle jam underneath the sled. I drag backwards down the hill, blind to what lies in front. I know if the sled drives me into a rock my leg or ankle will break. I scream ‘whoa’, our command for stop. But the dogs don’t.

Boomer, who got separated from the sled when the dogs pivoted, skis after it in an attempt to catch up. Finally the dogs come to a stop. Trying to help, Boomer skis up and lifts the sled so I can free myself. At the same time, our youngest female, Bianca, slips out of her harness and runs out in front of the team. The dogs bolt after her, jamming my legs even more deeply under the main load. Every bump the sled goes over, 700lbs comes crushing down on me.

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A cry wrenches out of my chest leaving me breathless as the weight of the sled again comes down on my leg. Worst-case scenarios flash through my mind. If we come into contact with a rock, my leg will crush between the momentum of the sled and the hard object. Hopefully I will only break my leg.

Finally, Boomer gets the dogs to stop. They are antsy and eager to bolt. Frantic, he tries his best to get a bad situation under control, and gets the dogs to all lie down. I reach down to unfasten my skis, still caught in the dog traces, and crawl out from under the sled. My thigh and ankle throb. I sit on the snow beside the sled and take a deep breath. My hands shake as the adrenaline still runs through me. I need a minute, but Boomer shouts at me. I can’t understand him through the high winds.

‘I lost my mitt,’ he shouts a second time. I notice Boomer has his bare hand stuck down his pants to try to re-warm it. I look around and see my ski pole 50m back up the hill, and just beyond it I can make out a red and black object. I stand up and gently put weight on my leg. It’s painful, but I can stand. Mindful of each step I start to limp up the hill to retrieve the dropped items.

With no place to camp we turn the dogs around and continue up the hill. No more than five minutes later the dogs try to u-turn a second time. Boomer, this time ready, throws on the sled breaks and stops them. ‘This isn’t working!’

I agree. I am lucky I didn’t shatter my leg and Boomer is lucky he didn’t freeze his hand. Either outcome would force us to abort our expedition dreams. Even though we are only 150km away from Iqaluit we are completely on our own. Even with our satellite communication device no person, plane or snow machine can come and rescue us in a storm like this.

The blizzard rages. We huddle, our backs to the wind, shouting to come up with a plan B. The dogs only want to run downhill and downwind, so we let them. We turn around and backtrack to a flat lake several kilometers back to camp on.

Facing directly into the wind, our Hilleberg tent, secured with ice screws, stands strong as gusts collide with our shelter. The dogs, fed and cared for, curl up and sleep. I eat the last couple bites of rehydrated Stroganoff, and wash it down with a sip of hot chocolate.

I flip through my parents’ old black journal from their 1990 expedition and read an entry. ‘It seemed that as soon as we passed one challenge or difficulty, another would greet us.’ This became the slogan of our expedition. With 116 days and just under 4,000km ahead, challenges awaited us around every bend. But so did the memorable moments: the northern lights dancing over Mount Thor, the kindness of people in the small communities we passed through, the bond and trust we developed with our 13 dogs, and being able to share all these experiences with Boomer.

120 days after our departure, skinny, sleep deprived, but with grins from ear to ear we pull back in to the town of Iqaluit, having successfully circumnavigated Baffin Island.


This story was originally featured in Sidetracked Volume Six

In 1990 Sarah’s parents, Paul Landry & Matty McNair, along with their friends, Jeff and Rosemary Murray, set off on an epic dog sledding adventure; a four-month-long journey around Baffin Island. No-one since then has followed in their footsteps. So, exactly 25 years later, Sarah and Erik closed down their computers, packed 120 days of food and toilet paper, and set off with their 14 dogs to retrace the route of their adventure.

Website: Wayofthenorth.com
Instagram: @sarahmcnairlandry // @eboomer

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