July 12, 2013
by Dennis Anderson
Ann Bancroft reflects upon her polar adventures and announces her next stop — the Himalayas.
Sitting on the porch of her vintage farmhouse that overlooks the St. Croix River, Ann Bancroft appeared more homebody than polar explorer the other day.
Now 57 — fully 27 years after she became the first woman to reach the North Pole by dog sled — Bancroft, effusive and upbeat on a summer morning, was flanked by her oversized Alaskan malamute, Scissors, who snoozed contentedly except when harassed by the playful comings-and-goings of three cats.
Not far away, a coop full of laying hens paraded helter-skelter, bobbing and pecking, while a garden of tomatoes and other vegetables destined for a nearby farmers market grew behind tall fences intended to keep deer at bay.
“It was a lucky find,’’ Bancroft said of the picturesque farmstead. “It was a horse farm, and the older woman who had it wanted to move on.’’
Yet Bancroft’s tranquil surroundings belie a relentless adventurous bent that drives her no less today than in 1986 when she and Will Steger, six other adventurers and 48 sled dogs completed their 1,000 mile unsupported slog to the North Pole, the first-ever confirmed trek of its kind.
“That trip changed my life,’’ Bancroft said.
An outdoors junkie who pestered her parents beginning at age 8 to camp outside in winter, Bancroft was born in Mendota Heights and suffered as a kid from dyslexia.
Nevertheless, she graduated from the University of Oregon with a teaching degree. But after the North Pole expedition, she didn’t return to Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis, where she had been a wilderness instructor and gym teacher.
Instead in 1992 she headed north again, leading the first team of American women to ski across Greenland. Later she spearheaded a women’s expedition to the South Pole — again a first — and in 2001 she and Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen became the first women to complete a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica, a 1,700-mile journey that spanned 94 days.
Steger, who interviewed Bancroft for three consecutive days before selecting her for the North Pole expedition, said Bancroft’s “dogged persistence’’ is among her major attributes.
“She doesn’t give up easily,’’ he said. World by Water
Woven in and among Bancroft’s sojourns in recent decades have been fundraising and other work for Wilderness Inquiry (www.wildernessinquiry.com), the Twin Cities-based group that offers about 300 adventure outings each year, from daylong metro paddles of the Mississippi (including one on Saturday hosted by Bancroft), to African safaris.
Yet it’s a much grander, multicontinent adventure and education project that Bancroft and Arnesen will lead beginning next year in the Himalayas that consumes most of Bancroft’s time these days.
With six other women from six continents, the two will undertake a 1,500-mile, 60-day expedition on and along India’s Ganges River, on which some 400 million people depend for water, food and bathing.
A similar trip to Africa will follow in 2016, and to other continents thereafter.
The intent is to draw attention to the plight of the world’s waters, and water supplies.
“Water links us all as human beings,’’ Bancroft said. “Everyone needs water, and we all have challenges about it, no matter where we live. Yet even in the U.S., people aren’t aware of problems facing water.’’
Using the Internet and social media, as well as a classroom curriculum that will be distributed worldwide with partner groups, foundations and companies, the women hope to educate — and motivate — as many as 50 million kids, as well as adults.
“The world is radically different than it was in 1986, when we went to the North Pole,’’ Bancroft said. “It’s hard to imagine now, but we used a sextant to guide us then. There was no GPS (Global Positioning System), no email, Facebook or tweeting.’’
“The journey is what people will follow,’’ Bancroft said. “But in the process, we want people to better understand the issue, in this first instance to know that the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
“This type of information creates knowledge and, hopefully, as we move the trips from continent to continent, knowledge will lead to people making a difference.’’
Steger — one of only 19 recipients since 1888 of National Geographic’s Oliver La Gorce Medal for exploration (Amelia Earhart and Admiral Robert Peary are among others) — is a believer.
“I chose Ann for the North Pole expedition primarily for two reasons,’’ Steger said. “One is that I knew she had saved the life of a climber friend who had succumbed to hypothermia.
“The other was her commitment to education. At heart, Ann’s a teacher.’’
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