No Summer Holiday

It's June 4th 2022 and Sarah McNair-Landry and Erik Boomer are standing on sea ice, preparing to set out from the small Inuit village of Clyde River1 on the east coast of Baffin Island. They are on skis, hauling kayaks and sleds, jam packed with camp supplies, food and climbing kit, weighing well over 100kgs apiece into the interior of the arctic island; almost2 sufficient provisions for over two-months of self-sustained adventuring. The journey is 150km long, via frozen fjords and lakes. They have set off as late as possible; it won’t be long before the sea ice begins to break up and summer arrives. The wind gusts and the couple allow their kites to fill with air and carry them deep into the wilderness, sandwiched between towering cliff walls. They cover days-worth of hauling time in just a few hours. The summer holiday has begun.

Ah, summer. As we enter the tail end of the season in the northern hemisphere, cast your mind back to late spring. Months filled with warm and daylight-packed days stretched out before you. Endless possibilities for adventure prickle your imagination. For the vast majority of us, that desire for adventure is satiated by a couple of weeks holiday, and maybe making the most of lighter evenings to squeeze in some fun in between working hours. 

Real life etc, etc. But what if you were in the position to take the entire summer off? What if your profession allowed you the flexibility to pursue your personal passions for a couple of months? Would you travel the world, or explore your own backyard? 

McNair-Landry and partner Boomer are in just that position. The pair, who work as expedition guides, filmmakers and photographers for the rest of the year, give themselves a window in the summer to pursue their own goals.

In 2021, like so many of us worldwide, Sarah and Erik had little choice but to explore their backyard rather than travel further afield. What entailed was anything but a typical ‘staycation’, however. It helps that they live in Baffin Island, which sits in Nunavut – the traditional lands of the Inuit – and lies off the north east Canadian coast, almost entirely within the arctic circle. The Inuktitut name for the island is Qikiqtaaluk; or ‘big island’. And big it is; its area is roughly that of Spain, but fewer than 15,000 people live in the landmass. That leaves a hell of a lot of room for exploration. The pair spent a few weeks immersed within the remote landscape; they big wall climbed, ticked first kayak river descents and lived under canvas for a couple of months, and left with a new appreciation of the land that they call home; and a yearning to return in 2022.

Phase One. Skiing couloirs.

Once deeper into Kangiqtualuk Uqquqti3, the winds die down and for the following two weeks, the pair revert to hauling their loads by ski. The surface of the ice is melting, so they slide through half a foot of slushy water, seeking out small ridges of higher ice; little islands of white that they hop between. As they make their way towards Kangiqtualuk Agguqti (Walker Arm) they scout couloirs to explore; enticing ski lines to climb up and descend but the June weather doesn’t make for dream snow conditions. They are frequently thwarted by avalanche debris piles and slumping snow. They manage to ascend the castle-like Broad Peak via a glacier and a rocky scramble up the south ridge; a line of weakness up an otherwise apparently impenetrable4 fortress. They toiled onwards towards land, under the constant light of the arctic summer.

“There is so much that I love about these trips”, explains McNair-Landry. “I love spending time in one relatively small area, watching the season’s changes, immersing myself there. So often on other expeditions, we are travelling through somewhere or to somewhere. The goal is ostensibly a destination rather than simply being in that destination. I love that we are able to link together what feels like a collection of adventures in a single trip, and I love the variety that different activities bring; and the myriad ways that they allow us to interact with the landscape. But, for all of the fun, there was a lot of toil in between.”

McNair-Landry and Boomer’s schedule was jaw-dropping and exhausting in equal measure, but the pair have more than a little ‘history’ when it comes to playing in cold environments. Sarah grew up in Baffin Island, the daughter of polar guides. Her life was steeped in the sense of adventure that only expeditions could bring, from the earliest age. Sarah would join her parents on dog sled camp trips, then kite skiing. It wasn’t long before she was joining the expeditions her parents guided, and she became the youngest person to travel to both the north and south pole. As she got older, Sarah began guiding her own trips and eventually took over the family expedition business. Alongside this, she developed a passion for photography and filmmaking, documenting what inspired her on her journeys.

Erik Boomer had a relatively more conventional upbringing, in Idaho. He would go out with his dad and older brothers on wilderness fishing trips. But, it was when he was nine and got his first kayak that his world changed. He was kayaking whitewater a few years later, and it remained an all consuming passion into adulthood (he remains a world class whitewater kayaker). Boomer took the dirtbag approach to pursuing his love; living in his car, doing temp work and some guiding to keep funds coming in. He would take photos of his trips, and as he took it more seriously, photography became his main income source.

It was around this time that the pair met; drawn together by a mutual passion for exploration. Since then, the pair have circumnavigated Baffin Island on a 120 day sled-dog trip, kite-skied and kayaked across Greenland, and have also worked together countless times on other expeditions.

Life in the vertical plane; Just hanging around on the wall.

Phase 2. Big wall climbing.

It takes Sarah and Erik four days of gear shuttling to move their kit from the base of the Stewart Valley. It gives them plenty of time to scope out lines on the vertical granite cliffs above them. More toil. But in the most incredible of settings. They settle on an unclimbed ridgeline and prepare for several days on the wall, edging their way skywards. They haul a portaledge for their first ever nights dangling in space. A third of the way up; a no man's land in the middle of the vastest no man's land. Erik throws up a drone, partly to shoot their remarkable aspect, partly to scout what is to come. Sarah holds out a hand to catch the hovering drone, as a gust of wind unsettles it and she catches her finger in a propeller. The smallest of mistakes can have overwhelming consequences; it is no longer possible to leave via the way they came; the sea ice will now have begun to break up. Yet, it isn’t possible to sail up the ice-choked fjord. The only option would be helicopter rescue; as long as there was one close enough (which isn’t guaranteed) and a sufficient weather window to enable it. Fortunately the cut isn’t too serious, but the pair descend as a bad weather system draws in. A few days later, they regather and reclimb their route with a better plan, better preparation. More food, more water. They learn as they go; applying their resilience and overall fitness to a new game. Living in the vertical plane for three days and three nights.

“We are very much beginners when it comes to climbing”, Sarah and Erik tell me. So often when you speak to people who excel at what they do – who seem to be able to achieve the impossible on a daily basis – you need to temper their modesty and learn to read between the lines. The pair even acknowledge that even a couple of days of their so-called holiday would be a worthy adventure by any other means. And while their climb may not have been even close to the cutting edge of what is possible, it is made of the stuff that many will only ever dream of; new routing through seams and corners of granite to soleless peaks cresting like waves over fjords and valleys below.

Phase three: Hunting out new rivers to paddle. 

After the mental strain of operating on the edge of their comfort zone on the climb, Boomer in particular is in his element, although McNair-Landry is a long way from being a newbie when it comes to whitewater. They haul up river. Eyeing goals that they have only scouted with Google Maps. The first two rivers are ticked off. River three requires a crossing of an icecap. What should have been easy is more challenging than expected as the pair take four days to negotiate crevasses and huge melt rivers that carve deep canyons in the ice. They lower their kayaks off the edge, down a near sheer ice wall. Each river brings its own unknown challenges. They journey down them in pitches, occasionally paddling together on easier sections, always scanning the horizon for the telltale signs of whitewater. Again, they play along an invisible tightrope, making constant judgements about where they can push their limits and where to hold back. 

Risk is a constant in life. We variously manage it, live with it, try to ignore it or let it dominate our decisions. As guides and leaders, Sarah and Erik are responsible for groups of others, taking clients to the edge of their comfort zones and beyond; in a safe manner. Or perhaps more accurately, in a manner where the objective and subjective risks have been managed to the appropriate degree. On holiday, they are free to focus on their own ability and appetite for risk. So despite being in the same environments in which they guide for the rest of the year, there is a sense of freedom and reconnection to not only the activities that initially fuelled their passions, but also the land, sea and whitewater.

“The landscape becomes part of you. It felt like home. We had the luxury of time,” Sarah explains. “For me the highlights of the trip – and it feels strange even thinking of it as one trip, rather than multiple adventures stitched together – were the times in between. Living on the ice, spending time with Erik. One day we were hiking along a river, and we’d heard there might be fish we could catch there. We landed three, with nothing more than a hand line and hook. They were the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten.”

It’s easy to paint an idyllic picture of the couple’s time in Baffin; and in so many ways, it was. But, as Sarah already noted, the shining moments; the summits, the ‘firsts’, the rushes of adrenaline were not just interspersed by toil, they were engulfed by it. Physical effort, day after day; rationed food; the mental strain of decision making. It would be easy for tiredness and stress to bubble over.

“We are quite good at managing each other’s mental expectations”, explains Sarah. “Wherever possible we try to pre-make decisions early in the day. It’s so much easier than when you are tired, and you don’t want to be the person to call it. We are so used to the way each other works that we are pretty good at balancing a bit of flexibility with our energy levels. Our camp routine is also dialled now. We just get on with what we need to do.”

Not your average holiday snaps. “It feels strange thinking of the trip as a whole, rather than as a series of adventures”.

Phase four. Homecoming. 

The original plan was to meet friends sailing the North West Passage and grab a lift home, but the ice break up was late. There was still 50-60km of sea ice surrounding the shore, so the boat stood no hope of making contact. A friend could maybe boat in a little later and pick them up, but there were no guarantees about when that would be. Sarah and Erik face a decision; wait, while consuming dwindling supplies, or paddle their own way out. In the end paddling feels like the responsible choice. They don’t want anyone else to feel the weight of time ticking and their dependence on extraction. Gear is cached for pick up at a later date and they set off on a seven day journey paddling out; or rather they hike over headlands, paddle across stretches of sea, hike some more, paddle a lake, then down a river to a final ocean stretch. They finish tired, hungry but fulfilled. It feels somehow apt that an adventure should bookend an entire seventy one days of adventure. And with it, the final chapter of the holiday draws to a close.

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective

Words: Tom Hill

Photos: Sarah McNair-Laudry and Eric Boomer

23 December 2023