Video: Adventurers Cross Baffin Island on Age-Old Inuit Routes

When you grow up on Baffin Island, Canada, with the Arctic Ocean as your backyard and world-renowned polar explorers for parents, dreaming up expeditions just becomes the norm. Sarah McNair-Landry and her brother Eric have spent their entire lives exploring untracked corners of their Arctic home. The duo received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant for their expedition snow-kiting 1,500 miles across the Greenland Ice Sheet and was nominated for the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award in 2007.

But last summer they took things up a notch and decided to hand-build traditional Inuit sea kayaks for a 2-month, 620-mile expedition across southern Baffin Island with their partners Erik Boomer and Katherine Breen. The goal of this expedition was to combine history, culture, and adventure, and to give back to the youth and Inuit people of Baffin. “Qajaqtuqtut” is the Inuit word for “they kayak,” so they called it Expedition Q.When the Expedition Q film, made by filmmaker Skip Armstrong, was released recently, Sarah and her partner Boomer had already set out on a 120-day dog sledding expedition around Baffin Island. But Sarah was kind enough to answer a few questions while taking a pit stop. Here’s what she had to say…

Photograph by Erik Boomer
Photograph by Erik Boomer

What inspired Expedition Q?
It was my brother Eric who heard that there was a route across southern Baffin Island that was possible to travel with very few portages. The idea intrigued both of us, but it wasn’t until we added the extra challenge of building our own traditional Inuit sea kayaks that we decided to do it. We invited Boomer and Kate to join us, and the expedition took off from there. The kayak I built for the expedition was the first sea kayak that I had built. When we started planning this expedition Eric built two prototype kayaks before we started building our kayaks for the expedition.

You skied, whitewater kayaked, and sea kayaked across southern Baffin Island. Logistically, how do you prepare and accomplish this kind of multi-sport expedition?

Logistically it was difficult because of all the different gear we needed: skis and snow gear to cross the ice cap, hiking gear, whitewater kayaking gear, and sea kayaking gear. It was a lot of pre-planning and packing to get everything ready. The transition between skiing over the ice cap to whitewater kayaking was the toughest, and we ended up caching our skis at the bottom of the ice cap, which we just picked up this week by dog sled.

The Inuit people of Baffin traveled the sea kayaking portion of this route historically. Has anyone else attempted this route/expedition before your team?
The Inuit people that lived near the communities of Pangnirtung (where we switched to sea kayaks) and Cape Dorset (where we finished) traditionally would head inland to the great lakes and plains for the summers to hunt caribou and fish. It was theses old routes that we linked together to cross Baffin. Occasionally people still head inland, using more modern forms of transportation such as powerboats, ATVs, or sometimes even getting dropped off by bush plane to hunt for a week or two. We, however, saw no one along our route.The sea kayaking portion of the route linked together old Inuit portage routes. Along the way there were many signs that people once traveled in theses areas, from old tent rings, to graves, to Inukshuks (cairns) that marked old paths.

Photograph by Erik Boomer
Photograph by Erik Boomer

You dealt with some seriously cold conditions. How do you prepare and deal with that?
The cold was one of our hardest challenges. That summer ended up being the coldest summer on record for the past 30 years. The blueberries never ripened, we had a snowstorm in July and a three-day snowstorm in August. By the time we finished there was snow on the ground and the puddles were frozen solid.

We did everything we could to stay warm. As soon as we got out of our boats we would run in circles to get warm. We also sewed our neoprene socks into mitts to keep our fingers warm when paddling.

You never really know what the biggest challenge will be on expedition until you head out. On this expedition we had several big challenges: portaging and paddling up the Amadjuak River, paddling through the huge tidal currents and rapids on the ocean, and the cold weather and snowstorms.

You grew up with Baffin Island as your playground. Can you tell me a little about what that was like?
I feel so fortunate to gave grown up with a team of dogs and the Arctic Ocean in my backyard, and awesome parents who showed me everything I need to know when it comes to traveling in the Arctic. I want to inspire [the next generation of] youth to get outside and get active.

Learn more about Expedition Q here.