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adventurer Denise Martin

December 17, 1998

I am well aware there’s always going to be men who are physically stronger than I am. I think women make up for that difference in mental tenacity. It is important for women to get out and challenge themselves. There isn’t anything stopping women from doing it whatsoever.

— Denise Martin | 1997

On May 26, 1997, Denise Martin became the first Canadian woman to reach the North Pole. “I would have done it if I had been the hundredth. I had the time of my life. I loved every minute of it.”

Denise has been challenging herself in the outdoors since the age of 17, first through Katimavik, and later, over nearly a decade, as an instructor with Outward Bound. She was well prepared when a group of British women contacted her with their idea of reaching the pole by relay. Each team was on the Arctic ice for 2–3 weeks, but Denise and her co-leader, Matty McNair, completed the entire expedition – a total of 81 days.

It’s not as flat and boring as people would imagine. The ice was incredible colours. I found it so fascinating and beautiful. The world underfoot was ever changing. Life on the ice becomes simple and deeply satisfying and revolves around the three themes of food, shelter and companionship.

After the camaraderie of the quest, arriving at the pole was anti-climactic. “I was actually quite sad to get up their because I just really loved the trip. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much. It was quite something to be involved with such a team and such an idea ...”

Denise’s experience challenges assumptions about the heroism of daring expeditions:

We don’t have any epics to talk about and that’s a good thing. It was well done in that we didn’t have any problems, really no safety issues at all. Women perhaps do things differently from men, who would probably think more about goals and distances and such. I think we paid attention to our emotional wellbeing, and how we could encourage each other. A group of women out on the ice needs to be creative about some of the physical problems we encountered. We relied on each other. And we made just as good time as some of the male trips.

Denise lives in the Yukon and, with her partner, Rod Taylor, runs Uncommon Journeys, an outdoor guiding company. She is planning a trip to the South Pole for 1999.

resources for this story
  • Herstory 1999 – The Canadian Women’s Calendar, by the SASKATON WOMEN’S CALENDAR COLLECTIVE, Coteau Books.
  • The Herstory calendars, are a wonderful, practical resource on historical and contemporary women in Canada. They have been published almost continuously since 1974 by the Saskatoon Women’s Calendar Collective, Box 7344, Sasktoon, SK Canada S7K 4J2. Bravo to the Collective for their vision, commitment and hard work! HERSTORY 1978, 1979 and 1980 are available at $2.50 each from the Collective; the 1981 and 1982 calendars are available for $3 each. Postage and handling costs also apply.
  • Herstory 1985–1998 are available at a cost of $7 each from Coteau Books. Also available is the HERSTORY 20th Anniversary Set which includes the original editions of all years except 1983 and 1984, when it was not published, and facsimile editions of 1974 through 1977 (cost is $75). Postage and handling costs also apply.
  • The Yukon Territory became part of Canada 100 years ago, in 1898.
  • Klondike Women: True Tales of the 1897–1898 Gold Rush, by MELANIE J. MAYER, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press | 1989

The feature on Denise Martin is one of the many features in Herstory 1999 – The Canadian Women’s Calendar. It is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Coteau Books. This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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