Between February and June 2015, Sarah and Erik spent 120 days circumnavigating Canada’s Baffin Island by dogsled. Vast, remote and barely inhabited, Baffin is the size of France, yet has a population of 11,000, the same as the town of Ilfracombe. Ben Saunders talks to the pair about the background to their 4,000km expedition, high in the Canadian Arctic, and the paths that led to its start line.
How would you describe Baffin to someone who’s never heard of it, and what is it about this place that is so special to both of you?
Sarah: It’s unique. There are no roads between these remote Inuit communities, so from Iqaluit – the capital and the town I live in – to get anywhere you have to fly, or travel by dogsled or snowmobile, or by boat in the summertime. The scenery has everything, the east coast is stunning – cliff faces taller than anything in Yosemite, and these giant valleys and glaciers. The west side is flat and white as far as you can see. The people are amazing. Everybody has this great respect for the land, and a connection to hunting and fishing and travelling. We couldn’t have done this trip anywhere else; we literally woke up and walked out the front door, hooked up the dogs, left for 120 days and came back to the same spot.
Erik: The landscape is incredible, and the weather is just so powerful. It’s common to hear stories like: “Yeah, we had this cabin, but some strong winds took it away 10 years ago.” The communities are so tight, it feels like a huge step back in time, and it’s wonderful to meet people that live so differently.
How did you become professional adventurers, and what brought you together for this expedition?
Erik: Really I’m just a white water kayaker from Idaho. I learned to kayak when I was 13, although I didn’t have many people to kayak with. So, whenever my parents would leave town I would take their pick-up truck – of course, I wasn’t old enough to drive – and I would go on road trips to find rivers. Often I only had enough money to get where I was going and not to get home again, but those trips were all good adventures. I never knew what was going to happen, but I remember setting the sails for the winds of destiny and just going for it.
I met Sarah about five years ago, kiteboarding on Hood River. And she was talking about 50-day and 100-day expeditions, and I thought, “That sounds awesome”. Right after that I was invited to join Jon Turk’s Ellesmere trip [a world-first kayak circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island that earned the pair a nomination for National Geographic’s 2012 Adventurers of the Year], and I had an awesome time. Then Sarah and I started swapping ideas and thinking of other trips to do.
Sarah: My parents moved to Baffin Island when I was three, to start an adventure tourism company, so I grew up with dogs and snowmobiles and hunting at the weekends.
I remember being eight or nine, my brother was a year older than me, and we got it into our heads that we wanted to go camping by ourselves with no adults. So the deal we made with our parents was that if we proved that we could light the stoves and work the radio and read a map then they would let us go for one night. I remember we had to pitch the tent on the back porch and cook dinner, and, once we were deemed ok, we headed out with our backpacks. I’m sure we didn’t go far, but it was such a big adventure – just the two of us.
Where do you find inspiration?
Erik: I’m inspired by the underdog: the archetypal hero. I’m a big fan of people burning their bridges, selling everything they own and just going for something.
Sarah: My parents. They travelled here with no sat-phone or GPS, just a map and a compass. And then there’s the thought that people have travelled these lands before them without even a map, just memorising rocks and hilltops, and using the wind and the sun.