|- all images courtesy Denise Martin
|Denise Martin with her global
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
"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
"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
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,
"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,
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
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
"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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