Two Yellowknife residents have completed a three-day ski from North Arm Territorial Park to Yellowknife, a distance of more than 120 km along the frozen Great Slave Lake.
Sara Wong and Nicola Langille were accompanied by a two-person camera team filming the trip for what videographer Keith Robertson says will be a forthcoming adventure documentary.
The trip involved not just days of 40 km or more on skis while pulling sleds of equipment, but also nights spent camping in temperatures of around -30C.
They arrived back in Yellowknife’s Houseboat Bay just before 11pm on Tuesday, having departed North Arm Territorial Park – around 10 km south of Behchokǫ̀ – on Sunday.
Use the audio player to listen to our interview with Wong and Langille about the trip, or read a transcript below.
This interview was recorded on March 30, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Why do this?
Sara Wong: I don’t know why we did this, just I guess, to see if we could. And it turns out that we did.
Nicola Langille: I mean, the North Arm is pretty beautiful. A lot of people paddle it. It was an interesting route: there’s a ton of islands, there’s Old Fort Rae, so there was a reason that we chose that route. I think we probably both like to push ourselves beyond our limits. Together, we’re a pretty stubborn pair so when both of us are pushing ourselves beyond our limits, we’re going to try something hard.
Is it not a little bit repetitive?
Sara: Some parts were repetitive, but there’s a large chunk of the route where you’re skiing in and around islands. So that made it more interesting. The terrain did change as we were skiing closer to town.
What keeps you occupied and energized when you’re doing 40 km a day?
Nicola: It’s kind-of the same as… I don’t know if you’ve ever been running and you get into a bit of a meditative state, you just kind-of zone out, because your body’s constantly doing the same forward motion. And then you just, I don’t know! You just keep doing that until you feel like it’s time for a break
Was there anything that happened along the way that you hadn’t planned for?
Nicola: I hadn’t planned for most of it, I don’t think. I hadn’t planned for all the gear failures. Both of our sets of boots were pretty bad. Our feet were in really bad shape by day two.
Sara: Your feet were a lot worse than mine.
Nicola: I don’t think we planned for the weather to be as cold. I certainly didn’t plan for the weather to be as cold as it was. For weeks, we’d been checking the long-term forecast and at one point, Sara texted me that we would be skiing in our tank tops. We definitely weren’t. It was -25C, I think, the first day. Probably -30C, lower than that, overnight.
And you’re camping in this?
Nicola: Yeah, we were camping.
Sara: The first night was -26C, I believe, in nighttime. And then the second and the third day I think were around -20C. The second and third day were much colder than I had expected it to be.
How close did you come to a screw-this moment?
Nicola: Our lunch on the last day was probably the lowest point for me, and the point at which I was most tempted to throw in the towel. We had done maybe 15 km. We thought we had about 30 or 40 km left to go. We weren’t sure exactly how long it would take us to get back to town. Our feet were destroyed. We were exhausted. We didn’t sleep very well the two nights, and you’re just alone out there in nature, in a pretty hostile environment. And at that point I felt at my lowest, for sure.
Sara: You and I both knew that we were going to finish the trip. The question was were we going to finish it in three days or four days? On the morning of day three, we had to navigate around a bunch of islands and I wasn’t sure how many kilometres that was adding on. We could have been doing an extra 10 km, which would mean that we would have had to ski 55 km total on the third day of our trip, when your feet hurt and we had the potential to get injured maybe. I was worried about an injury,
You say you’re alone out there but you’re not, of course, because there’s two of you.
Nicola: … Oh, yeah!
I would think a very robust test of your relationship with somebody is to ski 120 km with them in about -20C over three days along the North Arm. I think I would have a good idea at the end of those three days as to whether I was compatible with the other human being.
Nicola: It should be a first date idea, I think.
For many reasons, it probably shouldn’t. After those three days, what have you learned about Sara?
Sara: Yeah, Nicola. What have you learned about me?
Nicola: There’s a lot I could say here that’s very nice. Sara is unbelievably stubborn and determined. When she puts her mind to something, she will accomplish it. She also has an unbelievable amount of technical knowledge and outdoors knowledge. She navigated pretty-much the whole way – mostly, it turns out, on gut, unbeknownst to me, who blindly followed for much of the time.
You didn’t find out until the end that Sara was basically busking it navigation-wise?
Nicola: I told her, at one point: “Can we check a map, just to make sure we’re not wasting time here?” She told me afterwards that she pulled out her phone, and looked at a picture of her cat, and then put it back in her pocket.
Sara: This is the actual truth.
Nicola: So yeah, we learned a lot about each other. We maybe also learned how much she loves her cat.
Other than cat-related navigation, how were you steering this trip, Sara?
Sara: Well, we followed a dog-sled track so I didn’t have to do any navigation because I knew that it was going to Trout Rock Lodge. Two people were coming out to do filming so we would be able to follow their snowmobile tracks because, obviously, they were coming from town. But there was the afternoon of day two, we were without them, and also the morning of day three. I had the shore on my left aAnd I had the open water on my right. It’s kind of easy, because we’re going to be on a snowmobile trail and if the snowmobile trail’s going in the general direction of where we need to go, that’s where we’re also going.
So rather than tell Nicola any of this, you just looked at a cat photo for five seconds and put it back again?
Sara: Yeah. And I was like, “Well, there’s no way I’m getting off the snowmobile trails. It’s the only one that we can see. There’s no other option. This is where we’re going.
Nicola: It wasn’t a perfect system but it was shockingly good.
Sara: That is how people navigate in the North, though.
Nicola: We were, at one point, going the wrong direction on a snowmobile path. Anyway. We made it.
Sara: We got into a tiny little inlet and then we had to turn around and backtrack for like 200 metres.
… Can just sense the atmosphere changing slightly and I’m conscious that I don’t want to be the one who ruins this. Having said that, Sara, what did you learn about Nicola?
Sara: She has an amazing attitude. I can definitely fall into the pit of being in pain and also having a really bad attitude, and getting grumpy, borderline angry. When Nicola is having those moments, she always tries as hard as she can to be positive, not for me or for anybody else, but just because she wants to be a positive person. That is a really important lesson to me because as we were approaching Houseboat Bay, I was in a pretty foul mood. Nicola was beside me, smiling and having fun and I was like: I am remembering the end of this ski as feeling pain and basically nothing else, and Nicola’s changing her experience. She’s going to have a good memory for the ending of this ski, but also you just felt better than me, right? And so maybe you were in less pain. To me, you looked like you were still having a good time.
Congratulations, both, on doing it. I think the last question I have is: what are you going to do to top it?
Nicola: I had a moment this winter where I was going to move to Toronto–
Don’t ski there!
Nicola: … and Sara promised me that if I stayed, she would skate-ski to Łútsël K’é with me. So I think that’s the next plan.
Sara: Do I get take-backs?
Nicola: If I didn’t get a veto on North Arm, you don’t get a veto on this.