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- all images courtesy Denise Martin
Denise Martin with her global positioning device.

Water may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines the challenges facing an expedition to the North Pole. But when Saskatchewan's Denise Martin looks back on the record-setting 1997 excursion she guided to the top of the world, water plays a leading role in her recollections.

Martin, a summer and winter wilderness guide based in Waskesiu, is the only Canadian woman ever to reach the North Pole. In 1997, she and American Mattie McNair led the first ever all-women's expedition to the pole.

The project was organized and promoted as a unique skiing adventure by a British tourism company. Twenty British women ranging in age from 20 to 54 completed the journey in relay fashion, with a fresh team of four shuttled in by aircraft every two to three weeks. Martin and McNair were the only members of the expedition to travel the entire distance of more than 900 kms (600 miles).

Temperatures were in the -35C to -40C range when the expedition started its trek on March 14 at Ward Hunt Island, says Martin, a native of Regina who was living and working as a guide in the Yukon at the time. This early part of the trek presented the most challenging terrain encountered by team members, each of whom towed a 55-kg "pulk", or sled, behind her.

"Lots of the time we were slogging,
not skiing."

"Picture the ice up there as small football fields, and each of these football fields is surrounded by these massive pressure ridges of ice,'' says Martin, adding some ridges were as high as houses. "You'd cross over these 'mountains' and you'd land on a flat and travel across it to the next (pressure ridge).''

Sooner and more sharply than expected the mercury began to rise. This presented a new set of problems with "leads", or cracks in the ice that revealed open water, among the most significant of them. It was still cold enough that water in the leads froze over night.

"So we'd get up early and ski over it, even though it was only an inch thick.''

From mid April until the team reached its destination on May 26 - Martin's 31st birthday - the women were forced to ski around wide leads and traverse the narrower ones as the polar ice cap broke into massive sheets of floating ice. Occasionally, they had to wait for an ice pan they were floating upon to drift close enough to the next one before hopping onto it.

"Sometimes you'd have to step on a big floater, in the middle, and jump over to the other side.''

Three women did fall in, but fortunately there were no harmful consequences.

Falling into open leads wasn't the only water hazard. While preparing to sleep in their six-person, double-walled tent -- by mid April there was no real nighttime in the Arctic -- Martin and the other women listened with consternation as the ice moaned and fractured in the not-too-distant beyond. Outdoors, as they skied northward with their pulks in tow, they watched "bridges" tumble down and pans of ice raft up and on top of each other.

This dynamic, shifting environment caused them to "lose ground" any time they remained still, particularly as they neared the pole. Team members used a global positioning device to plot their location before going to bed, and again after getting up. Once spring arrived in the Arctic, Martin said it wasn't unusual to drift several miles during the course of an eight-hour sleep.

On the march.

The expedition introduced a new and effective travelling strategy Martin suspects is now used by other trekkers. Instead of skiing all morning and then stopping for lunch, the women travelled for 60 to 75 minutes and then stopped for a five- to six-minute break. After a drink, and perhaps a snack, they'd carry on for a similar period of time. They did about seven of these "marches'' each day, covering an average total distance of 12 to 13 km. But there was no lunch break, per se.

More frequent but shorter breaks offered several advantages over fewer longer ones, according to Martin. During the early part of the trip, especially, stopping meant suiting up in a parka to protect oneself from the bitter cold. Shorter stops reduced the threat of frostbite, and they also limited the amount of sweat that accumulated in clothing by maintaining air movement.

And more stops allowed for frequent food and water intake. Martin contends staying "fueled up" on salami, fatty nuts like cashews and almonds, dried fruit and chocolate was an essential ingredient in the expedition's success. And there were less tangible benefits, as well.

"Even towards the end of the trip, when it was warm enough to lounge around, (the regular break regime) just seemed to keep us going. Psychologically, it helped.''

The tent, says Martin,
was "paradise".

Group dynamics and the relationships built between individuals sharing hard work and common goals are subjects of particular interest for Martin. She says some people scoffed at the notion of a group of women skiing to the pole in a series of relay teams. They thought the idea was "silly''.

"In reality, it was a great idea,'' she says. "The relationships that I developed with all the women, and with some of the groups moreso than with others, really was the strongest part of the trip for me.''

But the expedition's ever-changing composition certainly created difficulties, as well.

Crossing the leads could be tricky.

Getting to know and work smoothly with four people only to have them replaced with a set of new faces two or three weeks later was the most trying part, says Martin, explaining exchanges were coordinated by radio. Each group spent up to 10 days training in Resolute Bay before shipping out to do its leg of the expedition. Martin said the women arrived fit and eager. But they were still greenhorns when it came to Arctic travel.

Their skiing and navigational skills were weak and they had little experience camping in extreme conditions. For Martin and McNair, the arrival of a new team meant it was time to teach another immersion course in Arctic travel.

"You'd go through all the stages of getting to know people -- the honeymoon stage, the conflict stage and then the resolution, and finally working really well together -- and then they had to leave.''

"I was surprised at how beautiful the whole area was."

Arriving at the North Pole was anticlimactic for Martin. While she always knew the real value of such endeavors doesn't lie in reaching the goal, the North Pole expedition crystallized this view.

"The experiences along the way, really, they're what made that expedition as exceptional as it was for me, and I know for everybody on that trip.

"It's the journey that's important.''

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