Angela Gzowski
Connor Lynch

Pole to Pole to Yellowknife

A northern-born polar explorer makes Yellowknife his next home base

It’s June 4, 2014, around a quarter to four in the morning, and it’s cold and dark out on the hard-packed snow. Eric McNair-Landry and his expedition partner Dixie Sansercoer have been kite-skiing through the night. As they arrive at their extraction point, Greenspeed Ridge on the east coast of Greenland, they’ve just completed the first non-mechanized, unassisted circumnavigation of the Greenland icecap. They’ve traveled over 4,000 km in 56 days.

Quite an achievement, but just about a regular day in the life of Canadian adventurer-explorer McNair-Landry. Among other feats, he’s criss-crossed Antarctica, hauled a buggy across the Gobi Desert, and traversed the Northwest Passage by kite-ski. Not to mention, he holds the world record for the furthest distance by kite-ski in 24 hours (just shy of 600km).

His latest achievement? Moving to Yellowknife last October. In a way, it’s a step closer to his roots. Eric was born in the North and raised in Iqaluit by Arctic explorers Paul Landry and Matty McNair. The marks of a life spent exploring in extreme climates reveal themselves in small ways; his gait is smooth and even, and he never wastes energy. He’s not slim, but lean; while not musclebound, he restrains his enthusiastic dog with a calm ease. He laughs easily and listens attentively, his eyes honed straight into yours.

Did McNair-Landry’s parents want their kids (his sister Sarah is an accomplished polar explorer in her own right) to follow in their hardy footsteps? Perhaps. They had a gift for making the the young man think their ideas were his own, Eric says today. “It works on adults too,” he adds.

“My mother won national competitions at dogsledding, but she never taught me how to dogsled. She was an amazing paddler, and she didn’t teach me how to paddle. At least, she never said ‘You need to learn how to paddle.’ I just did.” Raised without access to a television or any other form of conventional entertainment, Eric and his sister found themselves pretty much forced outside and, perhaps unintentionally, taking up their parent’s habits.

In other ways, they blazed their own trails. At the age of 10, Eric and 9-year Sarah decided that they would find the lake that fed a stream near where they lived. Their parents said that if they could prove they were ready, they could go. After a successful week of camping on the porch, communicating with mom and dad only via radio, and cooking with a small gas stove, their parents were satisfied. Carrying backpacks larger than they were, they set off to find the lake. After a two hour expedition, the young duo successfully “discovered” it.

Learning to operate with that level of collaboration at such a young age was vital training for Eric. Perhaps even more vital was a lesson learned from his parents that he only realized in hindsight. “Unlike everyone else, they lived in the elements they were working in. Climbers don’t live in cities, they live where there are rocks. It’s an odd thing, that people assume they can take on expeditions while living in Toronto.”.

A lifetime of practice has paid off in big ways for Eric. He and his sister were nominated for the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Award in 2007, and received it along with 14 others in 2008. He also received the Outdoor Idol Award in 2007. As well, like his parents, Eric has a successful career guiding expeditions through exotic and extreme locales. The expeditions are not cheap, and his clients are often wealthy, including figures such as Sam Branson, son of Richard. When Eric asked what Branson would be doing post-expedition, the multimillionaire scion blithely mentioned that he would be helping to launch the Virgin Galactic commercial spaceflight company.

But perhaps one of the most meaningful expeditions he’s undertaken is quite possibly his least publicized, swamped as it was by his polar heritage and career.

In 2009, he, Sarah, and mutual friend Curtis Jones, crossed Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. They were the first to traverse it using only kites and un-motorized buggies, without recourse to powered vehicles. They were hoping to expand their horizons in an extreme climate of a different sort. “You can’t take a client somewhere outside your comfort zone,” says Eric. They decided on the Gobi on something of a whim. “We knew there was a desert there. That’s about it,” he says, not quite sheepishly.

The trip began inauspiciously. “Most of the information we had turned out afterwards to be made up on the spot. We were in way over our heads. The buggies were huge; they weighed about 80 kilos each, and we had 40 kilos of water to carry, not counting food.”

Curtis was the first to take flight, choosing a small kite to be on the safe side. “So he goes about 10 feet, and gets stuck on a tuft of grass, which is about a foot and a half tall. Then the wind picks him up, and the buggies have these foot straps that you steer with and that lock your feet in, so he gets yanked forward and down, and slams head-first into the ground.”

“We each got about 10 feet and got stuck. He got another 20 feet, got stuck, starts working the kite. This time the wind yanks him up in a perfect 10-foot parabolic arc, and he comets head-first into the ground. He’s got a rock stuck in his face, bleeding over one eye, and he’s the only one with any medical knowledge [Curtis is a pharmacist]. We’d just waved goodbye to our transport, it had taken us three days to get out here.”

This would only be the start of the trip’s difficulties. “We hauled the buggies about 2 km and then we hit the salt marsh. Then we had about an hour of hauling, and finally we camped, in sight of our start area.”

“It kinda just continued like that, us hauling these giant things. I mean, they rolled super-well and generated very little resistance, so it was ok until you got to a hill. Hauling them up was awful, and going down, well, they didn’t have any brakes.”

They completed the trip, perhaps owing to Sarah’s breakneck pace. “Her plan was hauling them 40 km a day. I told her ‘we can’t live through that,’ hauling them over a marathon every day. We were going for at least 12 hours each day.”

“It was also a good refresher on map and compass skills.” GPS has become a ubiquitous tool, but Eric pointed out one of its gravest limitations to the intrepid explorer. “GPS is useless if you can’t correlate it with where you are.”

They had a number of maps for the trip, none of which agreed on basic geographical information. “Mongolia doesn’t have roads. It’s mostly these tracks, and they move from year to year depending on which areas are muddier. My dad at the other end of a satellite phone had more information from Google Earth than we did, because he could zoom in and see the areas that were muddiest.”

They had set out to test themselves on a trip in an unfamiliar locale, but the equipment was what ended up being the most difficult part of the trip. The kites were difficult to manage at the best of times, but they simply proved useless in the rough and scraggly Gobi terrain.

Now, though he’s hardly at the end of his journeys, Eric and his partner, Katherine Breen, an emergency medical doctor, have bought a house together on Latham Island. He figures they’ll stay for at least five years, but “who knows.”

“The idea is to stay here as long as it’s interesting,” he says. “After having lived in Iqaluit, I want to live in Yellowknife to its full potential, be a part of the communities and events. If at the end of five years we’re bored, we might continue west. Everything so far says it’s great.”

Ultimately, Eric needed to live in the North. After all, you can’t be a rock climber living in Toronto.