Sarah McNair-Landry: Journey from Polar to Paddler

Greenland 18 M


An unknown river riddled with 60-foot waterfalls is no place for a novice paddler, but Sarah McNair-Landry is no ordinary outdoor athlete, and she’d fallen hard for extreme kayaker Erik Boomer. So when he asked she said yes, even though her kayaking experience at the time was half a notch above zero.

She’d joined Boomer in Quebec for stakeout, the annual pilgrimage of elite boaters to the swollen rivers of Eastern Canada. He was eager to explore the Rivière Sainte-Marguerite Nord-Est, but his kayaking friends were chasing big waves. None of them wanted any part of a multi-day canyon run.

Sarah McNair-Landry is no stranger to challenging environments.

“I couldn’t get any of the boys to go but I thought, well, Sarah would go,” Boomer explains. “She was just learning how to kayak but she also just got back from the North Pole, which is essentially a 700-mile portage.” She had everything you could wish for in a paddling partner—except kayaking experience.

They packed light in case they had to hike out. Four days later they emerged from the canyon in high spirits, having tag-teamed the river in their own unique style. They paddled the flats and moderate whitewater together, while Boomer ran both boats through the biggest drops.

“It’s pretty smooth,” Sarah explains. “Boomer gets to run everything twice, and I don’t have to portage.” They used the same system on Westwater and Cataract Canyons on the Colorado, and then the Grand Canyon. When their adventures took them into Sarah’s comfort zone—kiting, dogsledding and arctic travel—the roles were reversed. “It was pretty fun when we met because I could teach Boomer how to kite-surf and kite-ski, and he could teach me how to kayak,” says Sarah, 31, who works as an arctic guide, instructor and filmmaker. Boomer, 33, is an award-winning photographer.

Scenes from Sarah and Erik’s Baffin Island expedition, which featured frigid temperatures. The coldest that McNair-Landry has ever spent in a tent? She has no idea; the thermometer only goes down to minus 40. “Cold enough for the tequila to freeze,” she jokes with Boomer. At top, camping next to an Inuit tent ring. “The cool thing about sea kayaking in the Arctic is that you naturally find yourself in these traditional campsites,” Boomer says, “because people have traveled this coast by kayak for generations.”

They met in 2010 at a kite-surfing beach in Hood River, Oregon. Sparks flew, but two of the boldest adventurers in their respective sports still needed a bit of help making the connection.

“I found some tickets with some friends for $200 bucks return to Hawaii, and we decided to jump on a plane the next day and go kite,” Sarah explains. “I called Boomer up and — ”

Here Boomer interjects something. Ever since the pair built a tiny house on a flatbed trailer two winters ago, it’s hard to have a conversation with just one of them, even on the phone. Sarah starts over.

“Boomer didn’t text me back so I’m like ‘Whatever, I’m not going to call him.’ So one of my friends said, ‘I’ll call him for you.’” Boomer emptied his bank account to buy the ticket, and they’ve been a couple ever since.

Sarah in go-mode, Greenland.

Sarah McNair-Landry grew up on Baffin Island with a pair of renowned Arctic guides as parents, a pack of sled dogs and her brother Eric, a willing partner in adventures large and small. They spent their first night on the land without adults when she was 10 and Eric was 11. “I think our parents made us sleep out on the porch first to prove we could do it,” laughs Sarah, who skied to the South Pole at 18 and drove a dog team to the North Pole a year later. She’s since guided clients to both poles, canoed through Mongolia, crossed the Gobi desert by kite-buggy and the Sahara by camel. She’s crossed the Greenland ice cap six times, including a 1,400-mile south-to-north kite-ski traverse in 2007. She shared that and many of her other adventures with her brother, which explains why she calls Boomer by his last name. “‘Eric’ was already taken,” she says.

Kiting brought her to the Columbia River Gorge, where the wind sports world rubs shoulders with one of North America’s most vibrant kayaking scenes. When she met Boomer there in 2010, Sarah was preparing for her longest kite-ski expedition yet, a 2,000-mile crossing of the Northwest Passage with her brother. As the finished that expedition in late spring 2011, Boomer was launching his first big Arctic trip with Jon Turk, a 104-day ski and kayak circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island.

Sarah and Erik’s adventures would take them across the globe. Photos by Eric McNair-Landry and Boomer.

While Boomer had been quick to invite Sarah on that uncharted river in Quebec, she didn’t immediately ask him to join her on the ice. “Early in our relationship she had a little bit of a chip on her shoulder,” Boomer says. “She was like, ‘I’m not going on trips with a boyfriend. I’m a team member!’” Sarah is known for doing expeditions with people she knows very well.

“We get ourselves into a lot of stressful situations and it’s just really nice not to have any surprises out there,” she explains, though there’s more to it than that. The end of a long expedition can be incredibly abrupt, and team members simply go their separate ways. But doing big expeditions with loved ones, Sarah says, “you live these amazing experiences together, and it’s really fun to be able to share those experiences with people you’re close to. It’s something special that you share.”

The Baffin Island team with their skin-on-frame kayaks during and before the mission.

Fittingly, Sarah and Boomer’s northern expedition together was a family affair. They joined Sarah’s brother Eric and his girlfriend Katherine Breen on a two-month crossing of Baffin Island which this magazine dubbed “the burliest double date in history.” They traveled primarily by ski and traditional Inuit kayaks, but also wrote a Class V first descent into the script for Boomer. He hauled a creekboat over the Penny Ice Cap in order to run the Weasel River’s meatiest rapids before the team picked up their sea kayaks and continued across the island.

“That’s when the idea of the Greenland trip was born, because we realized these ice caps are just highways to the rivers they create,” Sarah says. The ‘Greenland trip’ eventually got a formal name, Kitekayak Super Trip 5000, and an equally outrageous mission profile. Sarah, Boomer and Ben Stookesberry would kite-ski more than 600 miles across Greenland to descend a Class V river through canyons of ice into Baffin Bay. Not every trip is an extreme-sports medley—in 2015 they spent 120 days circling Baffin Island, just Sarah, Boomer and 16 sled dogs—but they’d been collecting the pieces for a new kind of multisport expedition for years: kites for power, skis for speed, kayaks as sledges and whitewater vehicles. Just as importantly, they’d each become proficient in the other’s specialty.

“I don’t think either one of them gets so caught up in the specific skills an expedition calls for,” Stookesberry says. “The real thing they share in common is this ability to thrive in incredibly tough conditions. I won’t call it suffering, because for them it’s not. When other people including myself start to get worn down, Sarah and Boomer just seem to get more and more motivated and thrilled by the challenge.”

Kite-skiing across Greenland, kayaks in tow.

On the fifth day of the Greenland trip, Sarah’s kite rigging malfunctioned in a sudden gust. She was lifted 20 feet in the air and just as abruptly dropped on her head. The impact split her helmet, knocked her cold and—unbeknownst to the team at the time—cracked her T8 vertebra.

A film team shadowing the first days of the expedition was scheduled to fly out the next day, so less than 24 hours later a helicopter was waiting with its door open. Sarah chose not to get in it. She was in team member mode. She didn’t want to slow the others down, and she certainly didn’t want to listen to Boomer’s boyfriend concerns, which came to a head a few days after the accident.

“It was obvious she was a huge pain and it seemed to Boomer and me that there was a big chance she might be doing permanent damage,” Stookesberry says. “Boomer was almost in tears pleading with her. And as caring and tender a moment as it was, it ended with ‘Fuck you man, I’ll let you know if I need to evacuate.’”

Sarah’s arctic skills proved completely necessary for navigating the crevasses.

“I can be pretty stubborn,” Sarah concedes, but that’s not why she stayed. She stayed because she still had something to contribute. Five days after the accident she was able to kite again, and later led the team through the expedition’s crux—fields of deep crevasses in the ice sheet. Stookesberry, who’s known his share of hard characters, was in awe of her quiet fortitude.

When they reached the river she and Boomer slipped into the tag-teaming style they developed during that first trip in Quebec, though these days she paddles more than she walks. The river had three massive waterfalls—a pair of 60-footers and a monstrous triple drop farther downstream. Boomer ran Sarah’s boat through the first two cascades.

“There was a really sweet Class III canyon below the second drop that we wanted to paddle together,” Sarah explains. “It worked out really great because there were big sections that we could paddle together for miles, and then it would just come to one of those big drops.”

Ben Stookesberry on ‘the second drop,’ Greenland.

Boomer ran the triple drop with Stookesberry setting safety in crampons, and the trio reached the sea on the afternoon of the 45th day. The end was anticlimactic, as expeditions so often are. “We paddle out into the ocean and sure, we gave each other high-fives, but it’s freezing cold, the sun just set and we still have 2 kilometers of ocean to paddle to get to the spot where we can camp,” Sarah says.

Lately they’ve been doing more paddling day-trips. The last two summers they parked the tiny house at Otter Slide on Idaho’s North Fork Payette. Sarah hasn’t stepped up to that test piece yet, but she’s a regular on the nearby South Fork Payette and last summer she and Boomer did an overnight on the Class IV-V South Fork Salmon. “It’s sort of a classic, and it was my big goal last year to get in there,” Sarah says. “I hope to get in another good boating season this summer.”

For now the tiny home is in a friend’s backyard at the edge of the Tetons, with snow drifted over the wheels. Sarah and Boomer spend their days kite-skiing, or when the wind fails just plain skiing. They’ll be in Baffin in the spring to teach Arctic skills, and then back on the river for summer. The seasons turn and the sports change, but they always have each other, the memories of expeditions past and the anticipation of those to come.

Together under arctic skies.

CROSSING BAFFIN ISLAND: The Burliest Double Date Ever
INTO THE TIAN SHAN: Boomer’s journey down Central Asia’s Sary-jaz River

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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