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Explorer Ann Bancroft empowers others to follow their passions

By Brian Martucci

Mendota Heights native (and current Scandia resident) Ann Bancroft is a fearless explorer who’s dedicated her life to educating and empowering the next generation. If she’s not a true “woman who leads,” no one is.

Bancroft’s bio is a litany of firsts: first-known woman to cross the ice to the North Pole (1986); leader of the first American women’s east-west crossing of Greenland (1992); leader of the first women’s expedition to the South Pole; and first woman to cross Antarctica (with exploration partner Liv Arnesen). Her accolades include a place in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and multiple “woman of the year” honors from the 1980s to the 2000s.

In 1991, Bancroft launched her AWE Foundation to support the All Women’s Expedition on Antarctica to the South Pole, which was completed two years later. The curricula developed for the expedition educated and inspired more than 200,000 students across the U.S. In 1997, when the AWE Foundation became the Ann Bancroft Foundation, it took on a new mission: ensuring that “every girl and woman in Minnesota who dares to dream [has] the support, inspiration, and resources that will help make their dreams come true.”

Bancroft’s latest project with Arnesen is launching Bancroft Arnesen Explore Institute to continue blending exploration and education on a global scale. They also recently launched Access Water, a 12-year education and exploration initiative set to explore one major body of water on every continent. The team journeyed 1,500 miles down India’s Ganges River in 2015; next up is a paddle down the mighty Mississippi in fall 2018.

Bancroft was kind enough to share her story with us late last year. 

Have you always been adventurous?
I grew up in what was then the country just outside St. Paul. Our backyard was whatever I wanted it to be — whatever my siblings and neighbors and I could make of it. We couldn’t help but be adventurous.
My parents have always been outdoor people. Their dinner table narratives, and their eternal love for the natural world fortified my sense of adventure. They wouldn’t bat an eye when I told them I’d be camping outside in the orchard on a 40-below winter night.  

“The bravest decision is often the one that takes you off your goal.”—Ann Bancroft

Describe the most consequential experience of your childhood.
After fourth grade, in the mid-1960s, my family upped and moved to Kenya for about two-and-a-half years. If there’s one single experience that led directly to what I’m doing today, this was it.

Africa is an exotic realm for most Minnesotans, of course. My parents came under a lot of scrutiny from family, friends and community members who questioned their decision to take four little kids half a world away to a potentially dangerous place. 

My experience was nothing like that. I discovered at an early age that there’s a big world out there, not just St. Paul and the woods beyond my backyard. It was a heady time in Kenya, a new democracy elected its first president the year we arrived. I was at the perfect age (10–12 years old) to be able to recall it clearly — the sights, sounds, smells, people — and to partially understand what was unfolding before my eyes. It was a fluid time: You could go from Tanzania, through Kenya, all the way to Ethiopia with no papers. And I was naïve enough to go bounding into the bush without fear.

Do you still consider yourself fearless?
No! I’m terrified on a daily basis.

Well, I’m not truly afraid when I’m in the outdoors. Others expect me to fear what they fear, where they fear it, but the places and experiences I’m most afraid of are normal for them. I’ve lost more sleep over my nonprofit than I’ve ever lost on an expedition. Interacting with people [in formal settings] scares the pants off me. If I ever had to go back to a higher education class, I’d be petrified.
On an expedition, you do have moments of danger — maybe you punch through the ice and you’re hanging over a crevasse — and you’re certainly afraid, but it’s not the sort of paralyzing fear that keeps you from doing what you were meant to do.

What drives you to seek out these adventures?
My nature probably goes back to my non-traditional upbringing. My parents are very unusual. (She laughs.) Though I do have great respect for their willingness to stand up for what’s right.

Physical discomfort doesn’t bother me. I will push through uncomfortable situations because I know I’ll end up somewhere extraordinary. I’m curious enough to stay restless, and I lack the mettle for traditional work.

What did it mean to be the first woman to reach the North Pole?
In the moment, I felt only great relief and physical exhaustion. 

Coming to terms with it was a process. A week before, when we were sure that we’d make it and felt that nothing could deny us, [teammate] Paul Schurke tried to get me ready for the inevitable. I just dismissed it — I couldn’t take it in. All I knew is that this was a dream I’d been holding in since I was 10 years old.

This was before the internet, so we weren’t communicating with the outside world. The day I came back to Clara Barton  Open School [in Minneapolis, then Bancroft’s employer], to share my year away with the students, was the first day it really hit me. 

I call that day my epiphany, but it was really a slower unrolling. Over the previous year, each of my colleagues had incorporated the Arctic into their curricula. The math teacher taught lessons on ocean currents affecting our progress over the floating ice cap, social studies on the cultures of the high Arctic, and so forth. All celebrated this teacher on a grand adventure, following her dream. I realized then that I could be a teacher outside these four walls.

Pretty soon I was planning the next expedition and the curriculum to accompany it. We could talk about anything: the science of how you can eat 7,000 calories per day and remain a functioning human being, the gender barriers we were breaking down, anything. I decided that every expedition going forward would have an educational component.

It’s a huge responsibility to take millions of kids with you. Now, with the internet, they’re paying attention to every move, every decision you make. You want to honor that and be a role model. But it’s hard when you’re sitting in long johns in a tent on the ice! You don’t always feel like sharing moments of fear, failure, crabbiness, but they reveal your humanity.

What have your other ‘firsts’ meant to you?

Every expedition changed me in some way. The shift from the first North Pole expedition [in 1986], where I was one woman with seven men and 49 dogs, to the all-women Greenland expedition and then the all-women Antarctica expedition, was profound. 

By then, it was the 1990s, amid a resurgence of innovation in education, environmental awareness, women’s empowerment. Our expedition incorporated all these themes — we were packing out our garbage, for instance, and we by that time had an educational component. But still, nobody from the corporate world would sponsor us because, they said, “This has never been done before.”  

It was tough to run up against people who had no problem telling me I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a woman. People would say truly silly things, like “Well, you should at least take one guy,” or “Well, your first North Pole expedition didn’t really count because you were with guys.” They minimized our skills, strategy, training, simply because we were women.

It was both frustrating and exhilarating to benchmark society by our expeditions — to say, “Okay, this is where we are now” on gender, environmental issues, and so on. The frustrating part was the glacial pace of change. Ultimately I decided that the best way to hammer away at gender inequality was just to go out and do it. 

We’re making progress. Nothing is more gratifying to me than when an eighth-grade boy comes up to me and says, “You’re so cool; I want to do what you’re doing.” They think nothing of it. 

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?
Probably finishing college. I don’t want to diminish my accomplishments and my teams’, but I feel so at home in the natural environment that it’s easy to take for granted.

I’m truly grateful for my colleagues and teammates. I remain friends with virtually all of them. I’m still working with Liv [Arnesen] going on 20 years now. You read books about expeditions torn apart by disputes and big egos. While it certainly hasn’t always been easy, we’ve overcome our differences.

I also feel privileged to have gotten a chance to accomplish these things when I accomplished them. Due to climate change, it’s no longer possible to do what we did in 1986. You have to wear a different suit because you need to get in water at points; your sleds need to be lighter. I’m both fortunate and dismayed to have witnessed such remarkable changes on our planet in a single lifespan. It’s sad that the kids I’m teaching today won’t get to have some of the experiences I had. 

Your biggest disappointment?
One disappointment that sticks with me occurred in 2005 when we were forced by circumstances beyond our control to leave the [Arctic] ice prematurely. We were on Russian ice at the time, and the Russian military demanded that we use them as support or evacuate. We made contact with two other expeditions by satellite phone, trying to form an alliance to counter the demands, but ultimately decided that it would be too risky. 

I often wonder what would have happened had we just taken the risk and not allowed ourselves to be strong-armed into making a decision in the middle of the ocean. The trip was going great, but we felt beholden to all the kids following along with our curriculum, communicating with us every day. You have to look at the bigger picture; these achievements are not worth your life. The bravest decision is often the one that takes you off your goal. 

Describe the work you and your foundation do to empower young women.
We strive above all else to empower young girls — in math, science, robotics, other subjects. And more than that, to help them find their voices. So much is going on in the world around perceptions of women and girls. It’s a really exciting time. 

Still, the outdoor world remains dominated by men; there’s much work still to be done. That work continues today, with Access Water. We’re talking about water issues, the environment, global warming — but because our group is all women, gender is always present. 

What advice can you offer young women harboring ambitions of their own?
I tell young women — all young people — to listen to their hearts. Not many people are lucky enough to be able to follow their dreams and live out their passions. Finding your voice and your path, whether it’s an avocation or hobby or career, is, in my mind, the most rewarding thing on earth. Never underestimate the impact that doing what you love has on those around you.