It wasn’t long after Eric McNair-Landry and his sister, Sarah, had beaten back a polar bear with a shovel that they asked themselves: “Was kite-skiing across the Northwest Passage – an 85-day trip over 3,000 kilometres of ice and snow – really such a good idea?”
And it was much the same thought that popped into Kevin Vallely’s head soon after he and his fellow adventurers rowed their way out of an Arctic storm and onto the shores of Bear Island. Otherwise, they would have been crushed by a building-sized iceberg.
It was a moment, Vallely said, of extreme doubt and clarity. “Sitting on that island, the father of two kids, I wondered what I was doing,” he recalled.
“It was a very humbling experience.”
The Arctic is many things to those who answer its siren’s song – a region in the throes of a territorial tug of war, a place where arguments over global warming can be traced and measured. To others, it is the ultimate testing ground for human endurance, from physically to mentally to emotionally.
Men and women – adventurers all – head north to learn something about themselves and to be humbled. They come for the “magnificent desolation,” words used by astronaut Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin in 1969 to describe his view of the lunar surface; words that equally describe the Arctic’s allure and how it stirs the restless soul.
There are vast possibilities in the Arctic, countless challenges.
You want to dip yourself in frigid water for 18 minutes?
British maritime lawyer Lewis Pugh did so in 2007. He swam across the North Pole for a distance of 1 km wearing only Speedo swimtrunks, a swim cap and a monitor to record his body heat, which dipped to 36 C. His first words when he was helped out of the water: “How on earth did we do that?”
You want science spiked with an icy theme?
American snow specialist Matthew Sturm has made dozens of trips to the Arctic. Last year, he was part of a group that travelled 4,000 km on snowmobiles conducting experiments and geophysical studies while retracing the routes of the fabled Northwest explorers.
Then, there are the Canadians enticed by their portion of the Arctic – the McNair-Landrys, who have grown up in Iqaluit with an unbridled fervour for the outdoors, and Vallely, a Vancouver architect with a conservationist’s itch who has cross-country skied 1,600 km of the Iditarod Trail and recently tried to row from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories to Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Until, that is, he and his crewmates ended up dodging an iceberg and clinging to tiny Bear Island in Darnley Bay.
Vallely said skiing the Alaskan Iditarod to Nome and the edge of the Arctic Circle hooked him. He spent 33 days traversing the frozen wilds, skiing in the dark with only a head lamp to light the way.
“I didn’t think I could do it. It was nasty,” he acknowledged. “Every trip I’ve done I’ve had to say, ‘Am I insane?’ We all feel that way sometimes. We’re human. But that’s what drives us.”
The McNair-Landrys were so driven to stretch the boundaries of their sanity their goal in 2011 was to ski from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, to Pond Inlet using wind to inflate the kites that would drag them west to east. When the winds blew hard, they made great time. When the winds stopped, they skied. It was the two of them alone in one of the most unforgiving places on earth and they revelled in it, amazed by its breathtaking barrenness.
“Why did we do it? There are personal reasons and historical reasons,” Eric McNair-Landry said. “On the personal side, when you’re out there you get rid of your cellphone. There’s no group of friends hanging around. It puts you in a pure environment.
“On the historical side, every culture has its shamans who go out into the wilderness to grow as a human being; people who would go off on expeditions to learn. There’s a huge driving force. It’s why explorers like to get lost so they can see what’s around the next corner.”
As for their too-close encounter with a polar bear, that was the one physical force the McNair-Landrys could have done without. It happened early one morning as they slept in their tent. For protection, they had set up a bear fence around the outside the tent that would fire off a flare should a bear brush against a trip wire.
At best, the flare would frighten away the bear. At worst, it would serve as a warning that something was approaching.
This bear didn’t touch a thing.
“I think he was a ninja,” said Sarah McNair-Landry, who was awakened when the bear began pawing on her side of the tent before trying to bite through it. Once outside, Eric smacked the approaching bear in the face with a shovel. The bear slowed until Sarah got her gun and fired a warning shot over its head. Even then, the bear wasn’t startled. It merely turned and sauntered off.
“We didn’t sleep well for the rest of the week,” Sarah said.
And yet last fall, the McNair-Landrys were back in the Arctic. This time, they built their own kayaks in traditional Inuit style then paddled and portaged across Baffin Island, a mere 1,000-km junket. Their next project? Retracing the route their parents took 25 years earlier, when they circumnavigated Baffin Island by dog sled.
“Part of doing this is physical. You have to be fit and strong,” Sarah explained. “But the hard part is having the mental strength to deal with having a tough day then dealing with the fact you have another 80 days to go. You have to believe in the goal. Put your head down and keep moving. That’s what I’ve learned from doing these expeditions.”
In Whitehorse, Marcelle Fressineau is preparing for her personal journey. She is 59, and about to compete in the Last Great Race on Earth, the 2014 Iditarod, her first. She has previously done the Yukon Quest, from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, and is ready for the next step.
She is spending $48,000 to mush her 16-dog sled team for nine to 15 days on a perilous path. The biggest chunk of that money is going to food for the dogs and their veterinary care.
But there is not a single complaint from Fressineau, who was drawn to the Yukon from northern Quebec in 2007, and has embraced all it offers. For her, the Iditarod is a way of honouring a lost friend and of putting herself through something so demanding it makes no sense yet is utterly understandable.
“My friend, Beatrice, here in Whitehorse died of cancer. Her last words to me, ‘You have to race Lola in the Quest,’” Fressineau said.
Lola was one of Beatrice’s sled dogs. Lola ended up pulling for Fressineau in the 2012 Yukon Quest and is part of her Iditarod team.
“I was dreaming [of racing in the Iditarod] for a long time. Yes, it is hard but it is worth the hardship,” insisted Fressineau, who runs an adventure touring company with her husband, Gilles Proteau. “Life is better if you do what you want. It’s never too late. I am 59. If you can’t do what you dream, you can try to do what you want.”
That dreaming, that trying, is what the Arctic symbolizes to those who pit themselves against it. It is a proving point of foot-freezing, mind-numbing proportions, where all that magnificent desolation chills and inspires at the same time.
As Vallely put it, doing anything competitive in the Arctic is less about winning or beating the other guy; it’s more about making it to the next day and surprising yourself.
“In the city, you might think you’re the top dog. Up there, you’re just surviving,” he said. “You have to think differently because of how treacherous things are. Everything is heightened.”
Everything including the questions: Why take that risk? Why strand yourself in a meat locker with howling winds and poor visibility where one miscalculation could cost you your life?
The best answer is simply this:
“The more challenging it is, the more interesting it is,” Eric McNair-Landry said. “And the Arctic is all about challenges.”