12/26/2011 06:03 EST | Updated 02/25/2012 05:12 EST

Iqaluit adventurers enjoy banner year

It has been a year to remember for the McNairs.

Matty McNair, the matriarch of a family that has made its name skiing and sledding across some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, attended a reception at Buckingham Palace on Dec. 8, where she and other explorers were honoured by the Royal Family.

And earlier this year, her children, Sarah, 26, and Eric McNair-Landry, 28, became the first to travel the 3,300-kilometre length of the Northwest Passage by kite-ski, surviving a polar bear attack in the process.

"I got to shake the Queen's hand," the American-born McNair, who now lives in Iqaluit, recalled during a brief interview on Monday. She said she also enjoyed talking with Princess Anne about the sled dogs that are such an important part of life in the North.

The princess, whose love of animals is well known, is a chancellor at the University of Edinburgh and patron of the institution's veterinary school, the oldest in Scotland.

In an interview with CBC News following her invitation to the prestigious event, the self-effacing McNair said she felt herself less an explorer than someone who helps other people "make their dreams come true."

Polar expeditions

But the invitation to Buckingham Palace was certainly not sent in error: In 1997, she led the first all-woman expedition to the North Pole. A second trip to the top of the world followed, as well as three trips to the South Pole, including one on skis with her daughter, Sarah.

And in 2005, she was honoured by National Geographic magazine as "adventurer of the year" after a 37-day dash to the North Pole from the east coast of Ellesmere Island that broke a record set in 1909.

"Using the same kind of wooden sleds and carrying the same 227 kilograms of supplies, the Nunavut, Canada–based polar guide…broke American explorer [Robert ] Peary's record by five hours," the National Geographic wrote.

Nevertheless, McNair said she was so shocked by the invitation to the palace that she had a hard time believing it was authentic. She even joked about how she should dress for the event: “It's like, hmm, should I wear my caribou skins or my seal skins?”

Not wishing to have her apparel taken as a political statement, she decided to dress more conventionally for the reception, McNair said Monday.

Specialized training

McNair, 60, remains active in the North through her company, NorthWinds, which offers dog-sledding adventures and specialized training for those determined to make a polar expedition. In February, she said, she will be mentoring a group of Irish adventurers planning a trip to the North Pole.

At the top of her list for preparing for such a trip is the equipment needed to make it as safe as possible. It's all about "bring this, don't bring that," she said, emphasizing that the weight and reliability of gear are vital to the success of any such expedition.

A quote from the NorthWinds website offers another clue to her take on surviving such a trek: "The rules are simple: embrace challenge, no whining, treat others kindly and maintain a positive attitude."

Her children have followed in her adventurous footsteps. Of course, she added, that might be because they were "dragged along" on all kinds of treks — including Patagonia and Iceland — starting when they were still in grade school.

Eric, she added, is currently within a day's march of the South Pole, acting as guide for an American adventurer.

Eric and Sarah also got the attention of National Geographic in 2008, when they were honoured among the adventurers of the year for a snowkiting adventure with their friend Curtis Jones that took them across 2,414 kilometres of the Greenland Ice Sheet.