Not your average family vacation

Kite-powered trip propels Iqaluit family to Greenland and beyond



An ambitious ski trip across the Greenland Ice Cap has strengthened the bonds between an already close Iqaluit family.

Internationally acclaimed polar guides Paul Landry and Matty McNair crossed the world’s second largest ice cap over 22 days this past June.

They were accompanied by their two children Eric, 18, and Sarah, 17.

“This trip confirmed that when [our children] set their minds to something, they have the willpower to do anything,” McNair says. “It’s easy for families to grow apart. Doing this gave us a common goal and a family focus.”

Though the family has gone backpacking through Iceland, Patagonia and Greenland, last month’s adventure was the first time they undertook a trip as demanding and as long.

And by using kite power in addition to sled dogs and skis, the trip was not nearly as gruelling as it could have been. Using wind power actually shortened the journey by five days.

From their kitchen table in Iqaluit, the family happily discusses their adventure over fruit salad, cheese and homemade bread. They talk over one another in excited tones. On this particular day, McNair, a firm and disciplined guide, appears unusually reserved as she weathers the family’s trademark teasing.

“We all take turns,” McNair says with a hint of the New Hampshire accent she brought with her to Canada several decades ago.

Eric and Sarah grew up watching their parents pack for extreme expeditions. Not content to sit and watch, they pushed for a different kind of family vacation.

“We’ve been bugging them for years, saying, ‘Let’s do something before you get too old,'” says Eric, a second-year engineering student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

And who could blame them? McNair guided the first all-female group to the South Pole in 1997. She also raises and races sled dogs. Landry has led trips to the North and South poles, three trips last year alone.

The trip reaffirmed what the couple already know about their children.

“It confirmed they have passions they’re willing to commit to,” Landry says. “It confirmed our relationship [with our children] as adult to adult.”

Risks and rewards
The trip started outside Kangerlussuaq on Greenland’s west coast. It ended 600 kilometres away in Tasiilaq.

They packed 500 kilograms of tents, stoves, dog food, dehydrated meals and drink crystals onto one main sled, called a pulk. Rations of chocolate and single malt scotch were tucked away for special occasions. Two smaller toboggans carried the rest of the gear.

On days with winds faster than 15 kilometres an hour, they kite-surfed, allowing the wind to pull them along.

“It’s a drag pulling 75 kg for six hours a day at the excruciatingly boring speed of three km/h. With winds of 15 to 50 km/h, we more than doubled our daily distance of 25 km and had lots of fun doing it,” Landry says.

The group took turns driving the dogs, breaking trail and navigating. On days with no wind, a team of 10 dogs pulled the pulk.

“Being out there was not just an expedition, it’s our life, our passion,” McNair says.

Last year, seven of the 11 groups granted permits to cross the cap were forced to evacuate due to bad weather or equipment failures.

While the weather was good for most of the family’s expedition, it posed a few minor problems. Gusting wind created poor visibility at times. But the foursome carried Iridium phones and GPS (Global Positioning System) devices to help them find each other if they were separated.

Ten days into the trip, they switched to night travel.

“It’s now too hot for the dog team to work during the heat of the day, so we are traveling on teenage-time, at night,” McNair wrote in her online log on June 6. “Eric and Sarah say this is the best way teenagers function: stay up late at night and sleep in late in the morning. We’ll see.”

Crevasses on the east side of the cap posed the greatest hazard. Strangely, the dangerous ice ravines inspired Sarah, an accomplished runner, kayaker and rugby player, to kick into race mode.

“She’s very competitive,” Eric jumps in, clearly proud of his sibling’s athletic prowess.

The plan
In the polar world, there are three classic expeditions, the North Pole, the South Pole and the Greenland Ice Cap. Landry explains. While driving to a family reunion in the United States last summer, they decided to commit to the cap.

If the cost of airfare and freight weren’t prohibitive, the family would have gone to the South Pole. As it was, the Greenland trip cost $25,000.

Pre-trip planning began in March. Eric designed the Web page, while Sarah, who attends school in Quebec, started soliciting financial and in-kind sponsorships from Air Nunavut, Toshiba, Harvest Food Works and Hilleberg Tents.

Pre-trip kite surfing began on Frobisher Bay this past spring.

There were some moments of doubt early on. The trip was in jeopardy after Sarah developed a stress fracture a month before the May 25 departure date. With careful training, though, the injury healed and the trip started on schedule.

For a couple who make their living from guiding, through NorthWinds, their outfitting company and store, the trip was a welcome break from the extreme expeditions Landry and McNair sometimes face.

“I didn’t have to take care of clients. I felt like I didn’t have to take responsibility. It was not a hard-push trip,” McNair says.

On a personal level, their 22 nights camping, playing cards and teasing one another made a rock solid foundation even stronger.

The family is planning a trip to the South Pole in 2004.

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