RIVER FALLS -- International explorer Ann Bancroft shared experiences from her expeditions around the globe during a Thursday, Nov. 21, event at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls as part of its weeklong International Summit.
Bancroft was the first woman to cross the ice to reach both the north and south poles — accomplishments she made in 1986 and 1993, respectively. In between, she crossed Greenland and, in 2001, made more history by crossing Antarctica’s land mass with ski partner Liv Arneson on a 94-day, 1,717-mile trek.
Bancroft gave an interview to RiverTown Multimedia before her UWRF presentation, excerpts from which are published below.
Why is it important to you to give presentations like these — to share your experiences?
What happens on an expedition happens in life. It affords me a wonderful backdrop to sort of tell my tales of the trail, as it were. But really talk about things that are important to me such as empowerment, the global community that we live in. And that if we’re engaged and living our potential and following our passion, we can make a difference on the planet, which I think most people are interested in doing.
I think it's the teacher in me that really helps fuel my love of doing this. I have to say, it really doesn’t matter what group it is. I used to think that it was schools that I wanted to be in — primarily K-12, because that's where I was a teacher and a coach and they get so excited about adventures. But it's taken me to all over the world, speaking and sharing my adventures and what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen and witnessed. I’ve just come to love this mixed audience, where there’s all kinds of ages and perspectives and there's people from town, there’s people from campus and there's people who came to campus. There's no better environment for an educator.
You talk about global warming in some of your presentations. What have been some of the most revealing things you’ve witnessed?
Looking back to my time in Greenland, we didn’t know what we were witnessing, exactly. We were seeing what they’re now talking a lot about with the glacial ice melt on that island as well and we saw that back in 1992. And so in retrospect, I just shudder at the kind of rivers coming off the ice cap particular toward the end of our traverse that we witnessed. But we as non-scientists, we actually didn’t realize what was truly taking place and what was underfoot. And now of course we know dramatically what's going on.
Antarctica's a little bit more different in terms of the things that we witnessed. I would say it's more subtle. Typically you’re not witnessing this whole calving of a sheet of an ice cap dropping off. But what you do see is anomalies in the weather system and the patterns. So when we intersect with scientists and climatologists in that region of the world, they help us understand what we’re experience. But it's less dramatic it's much more subtle from the naked eye.
I feel so lucky on the one hand to have been able to travel to the ends of the earth and to points in between, and to also bear witness to some of the changes and to be able to speak about those to audiences such as tonight.
But it's hard, I have to say, standing in front of a group of eighth graders, for instance, and talk about how things are changing so rapidly. I’m showing my dogsledding pictures and what we did in 1986 is something that can’t happen anymore. People can go to the north pole, but they’re all going very differently. We typically drag sleds that are more like canoes that can float in the larger expanse of open water. Big 1,400 pound sleds being pulled by 10 dogs and having 5 of them in a big group -- eight people, 50 dogs. That’s a thing of the past and that kinda makes me shake to my core, especially when I’m talking about dreams and aspirations. And looking at 500 little faces that are dreaming big. And that's a dream that they can’t obtain.
Why has exploration driven you, been important to you?
I came to it as a kid who was lucky enough to grow up in a rural situation. I was shy, so the out-of-doors and my imagination was everything. I just started thinking about these places at a very early age and fortunately had parents that didn’t squelch those odd dreams. And started my first expedition at age 10 in the backyard in a 30 below winter of Minnesota.
They just grew and built upon themselves. It's where I feel probably most at home for myself. I realize that what I do is not for everybody. But it allows for me to talk to people about what it is that they want to do, and how do they get to live their best life with maybe a different background. Because the elements that go into these outdoor expeditions are really the same for any aspiration — it's doing the legwork, its putting your head down and going for it, it's finding people around you that support you when the chips are down.
As a woman it's a great opportunity for me to want to show young girls that the world is theirs. Wherever they want to put their foot down. And for young boys to show them that girls are doing these things too. It's just rich and fertile ground for me as an educator. How lucky am I that I am able to mix both my passion for outdoor travel and my passion for education and young people?
Of all the adventures and expeditions, was there one that was the most rewarding or unforgettable?
That's like picking a favorite kid.
There's nothing really similar to the north pole to the south pole except for cold and light. They’re just totally different ecosystems, different animals, different kinds of ice. The common denominator is they’re long and they’re cold — and that's what I love. it's hard for me to have a favorite.
You’ve previously described a night where wolves circled your sled dogs. What was that like?
We hadn’t even started the expedition, really. We were going up with the north pole expedition. We were shuttling all of our dogs and people and gear to the starting spot. One of the guys at the airstrip ... said "your dogs that are chained up are being circled by a bunch of wolves."
So I went up there and had to sit with a rifle on a bunch of our crates of gear. It was just a cold job more than anything. Sit there and talk to those wolves and convince them that those dogs are really not for dinner! They were so spectacular. What a blessing to see them — just a little closer than I anticipated.
Is there a secret you’ve learned to overcoming obstacles in the wild?
First and foremost: I think that the people that do these kinds of things, they have a certain sort of personality. I've got a lot of friends that climb and do really extraordinary things. But when you talk about 100 days, they're like, “no way." So I think I've come to understand that I’m just well suited for this. It doesn’t come quickly. I’m just good at putting one foot in front of the other and kind of sticking with it. I don’t know if it's the Irish in me or what. And I'm introverted, and I think you find a lot of expeditioners, particularly ones who go on long trips, they’re just pretty comfortable being inside their head for a long time. We’re just a weird bunch.
But I think you take, I call it a little bag of tools, on each expedition. I always take a little something of inspiration: I take a little picture of home in greener times to remind me of where I’m going to end up eventually. You find little things that don't weigh much but are pretty powerful reminders of people that are rooting for you and care for you and that you’re not really alone as you sometimes feel. Because there's dark nights and things don’t always go according to plan.
I don’t take myself seriously. You’ve got to laugh at stuff. You’ve got to have a sense of humor and have fun even amongst all the hard work and the stresses and strains of staying on course and on track and on time.
Because these trips always have a pressure to them because of the seasons. You want to get a jump on the season and Mother Nature usually doesn’t allow for that on your schedule. You’ve got to finish before she tells you it’s another season. So there’s a time pressure always on these kinds of things that is kinda nagging you all the time. So it's really important to have fun and remind yourself of what fuels these dreams when you were 10 or 12 years of age.