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People & Culture

Canada’s greatest modern women explorers

Whether diving in Antarctic waters, making scientific breakthroughs or summiting Everest, these remarkable women are making their mark on Canada and the world.

  • Jan 27, 2016
  • 1,039 words
  • 5 minutes
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A century ago today, the first group of women won the right to vote in Canada and, though it would be decades before all Canadian women were given the same freedom, the event opened the door to greater equality across the country. The women below are modern trailblazers in their own right, and were part of Canadian Geographic’s “Canada’s Greatest Explorers 2015” project. Whether diving in Antarctic waters, making scientific breakthroughs or summiting Everest, these remarkable women are making their mark on Canada and the world.

To meet more incredible women and explore the history of suffrage in Canada, go here.

Leanne Allison
Adventure team with her husband Karston Heuer, with a focus on wildlife conservation issues

Roberta Bondar
For eight days in 1992, Roberta Bondar left Earth. Canada’s first female astronaut, the first non-American woman to fly on a U.S. space shuttle and the first neurologist in space, she was aboard NASA’s shuttle Discovery to conduct scientific experiments for 14 nations and help us learn about how humans react to space. In one experiment, since immortalized in the Imax movie Destiny in Space, cameras recorded Bondar’s eye and inner ear responses to her body spinning in a chair in microgravity. She was able to use her artistic side while in orbit as well, snapping stunning photos while flying over Canada. Back on Earth, Bondar headed an international space medicine research team, finding new connections between recovering from floating in space and neurological illnesses, and continues to publish books of her landscape photography. — Carys Mills

Kathleen Conlan
Canadian Museum of Nature marine biologist and deep-sea diver, with more than 20 field expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic

Susan R. Eaton
Geoscientist and conservationist; leader of the all-woman 2014-2017 Sedna Epic Expedition, which will snorkel the Northwest Passage

Kate Harris
Adventurer, writer, photographer and conservationist; encourages thinking “beyond borders” through expeditions such as 2015’s Borderski

Jill Heinerth
Most days start with a swim in a spring near her home in High Springs, Florida — an unassuming activity for this Mississauga, Ont.-born woman who has explored places less frequented than the moon, according to director James Cameron. She was the first diver to explore and film Antarctic iceberg-cave ecosystems and has pushed deeper into underwater caverns than any woman in history. “I get to swim through the veins of Mother Earth within the lifeblood of the planet,” says Heinerth, and she’s proudly working to spread water literacy through the We Are Water Project. Last year, to highlight the issue of disappearing sea ice, she snorkelled with all-female Team Sedna from Labrador to Western Greenland. — Jessica Finn

Eva Koppelhus
Palaeobotanist and palynologist (expert on plant pollen and other microscopic palynomorphs); has studied prehistoric flora around the world

T.A. Loeffler
Educator, climber and author; reached the highest points of Nepal, North Africa, Greenland and Antarctica

Meagan McGrath
Only Canadian woman to climb two versions of the Seven Summits; first Canadian to ski solo to the South Pole

Matty McNair
Arctic adventurer; led the first-ever all-female expedition to the geographic North Pole

Sarah McNair-Landry
During an unsupported expedition with her older brother, Eric, in 2004-2005, Sarah McNair-Landry became the youngest person to ski to the South Pole. She was 18. Since then, the Nunavut-born siblings haven’t stopped breaking records during their many expeditions. In 2006, Sarah became the youngest person to reach both poles when she dogsledded to the North Pole. In 2011, the duo kite-skied 3,300 kilometres through the Northwest Passage, following the route Roald Amundsen took in 1903-1906; it was during this adventure that Eric established the world record for longest distance kite-skied in 24 hours. The duo have also kite-skied across the Greenland ice cap, dogsledded across Ellesmere Island and piloted three-wheeled kite-buggies over Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. — Michela Rosano

Baiba Morrow
Mountaineer, photojournalist and filmmaker; works as a team with her husband Pat, who was the first climber in history to reach the Seven Summits

Jen Olson
Mountain guide and climber; represented Canada in the cultural event of ice climbing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

Pascale Otis
Biologist, polar adventurer and video¬grapher; wintered in Antarctica on a yacht; shares adventures with a global audience

Mylène Paquette
“I won’t beg you to leave me alone; it was me who asked for it.” So begins the letter that Mylène Paquette wrote to the sea on Nov. 11, 2013, the day before she touched France’s shore and became the first North American woman to row solo across the North Atlantic from west-to-east, a route considered more difficult than its reverse. She endured four months of solitary travel, not to mention the ravages of Hurricane Humberto halfway through her journey. Paquette, who is also the ambassador of the St. Lawrence River for the David Suzuki Foundation, hopes this and her other rowing expeditions serve as a bridge between the public and environmental activism. — Sabrina Doyle

Heather Ross
Mountaineer, polar trekker and head of the Cardiac Transplant Program at Toronto’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre; expeditions raise awareness for heart health and research

Natalia Rybczynski
Canadian Museum of Nature paleobiologist; discovered that camels lived in the High Arctic, highlighting climate change in the region from the Pliocene to the present

Sharon Wood
Sharon Wood was 12 when her dad took her up her first mountain. “I learned pretty early that the outdoors and the mountains were home for me, where I felt most comfortable,” she says. Soon after, she dedicated herself to climbing, ultimately preparing herself to reach the top of the world in 1986. Wood, climbing with fellow Canadian mountaineer Dwayne Congdon, became the first North American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and the first known woman to have done so by a new route (along the west ridge) and without the assistance of a Sherpa. “Everest was my biggest accomplishment in terms of psychological challenge,” says Wood, now based in Canmore, Alta. “It required tremendous psychological endurance to keep going.” — Carys Mills


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