By Brett Feldman
Millions of people across the globe have drawn inspiration from world-renowned educator and polar explorer Ann Bancroft. The Minnesota native’s accomplishments shatter stereotypes of age, gender and size. In fact, at 53 years old and just under 5’4” tall, Bancroft has proven that the most certain path to success is the one that comes from an inner desire to follow the heart. In 1986 at the age of 31, Bancroft became the first woman ever to cross the ice to the North Pole, dogsledding 1,000 miles as the lone female member of Will Steger’s International Polar Expedition. Six years later, she led the fi rst American women’s east-to-west crossing of Greenland. At 38, she led the American Women’s Expedition 660 miles to the South Pole and earned the distinction of being the fi rst woman ever to cross the ice to both the North and South poles. And at 45, Bancroft and Norwegian polar explorer Liv Arnesen became the first women in history to sail and ski across
Antarctica’s landmass — completing a 94-day, 1,717-mile trek.
So what is it about this extraordinary woman that so naturally connects her to so many people from so many different walks of life?
“When you just tell people your story I think people find truth in that story,” Bancroft says. “For them diff erent parts of it resonate — not the whole thing. Most people that I address really don’t have any desire to go to the far reaches of the globe, but there are pieces of that experience that make sense to them for one reason or another, and I never know what those areas are going to be. I do know, because of the mail I get, that women in my age bracket are excited to watch us do these trips because they might have put their dreams on hold when they were younger. Th ey may have gotten married and had a family and taken care of an older parent and had a job and they were juggling things, and they just didn’t get to some of the things they were thinking about when they were younger. And here I am traipsing around living out these childhood dreams. And so they write and they say, ‘you know, when I watch you at 53 get ready to do another trip, I think maybe it’s not too late for me.’ So there is an entry point there, just because we’ve shared a story. Kids find other places. They love the adventure, just as I did when I was 10 and 12 and on up. A good adventure story is always captivating…I think the story is really for me the connector — the hook-in — and why I’m able to interact with such a broad audience of people, which I absolutely adore. I feel so lucky to have that.”
Bancroft’s ability to connect with children in particular is no coincidence. She began her career in education as a teacher in the classrooms of Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools, where she taught physical education and special education. The consummate educator, Bancroft quickly figured out that her personal adventures were readily transferable to the classroom where the lessons could capture the hearts and minds of young students excited about the world around them. Advances in technology have enabled her to expand her educational outreach from the small classroom where she was teaching in 1986 when she went on the Steger expedition to the more than 3 million school children in 65 diff erent countries who followed Bancroft and Arnesen’s historic journey across Antartica through an interactive Web site with customized curriculum in multiple languages.
“I had what I would call my epiphany moment in 1986, coming back from the North Pole,” Bancroft says. “I came back to my school about a day or two after returning from that trip and I brought a husky to the school and realized that, even without a lot of technology or even a deliberate connection between the school and the journey that we were on, the teachers had brought our experience alive. There was a lot of pride for their teacher going off on a grand adventure, and I realized at that moment when I went from classroom to classroom and I saw how our simple dogsledding journey to the top of the world — which I just thought was my own dream — was incorporated into math, science, geography, literature — they were writing songs about the north. They were just ignited. Th ey were corresponding with Inuit kids up in the high Artic so it was that moment of understanding you can bring those outside experiences into classrooms. I thought, if I ever go on another large expedition I’m going to do that, and of course I’ve been doing it ever since. With the advent of the technology that we have today, it has gone beyond just my own personal school. I’m able to talk to kids all over the world. It’s pretty amazing that we have that connection.”
Of course, Bancroft’s lesson plan wouldn’t be complete if she didn’t include a session on environmental stewardship. Whether she is on the international stage enlightening people about global climate change, or at home in Minnesota helping to pass the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Bancroft is committed
to passing on a healthy planet to future generations.
“Because I’ve had the privilege to travel to some pretty remarkable places on the globe, I have a really intimate understanding that those places are constantly in peril,” Bancroft says. “And although they might be far from home, they need our help and our protection. I’m 53 and I’m kind of in a hurry. I’m impatient. I don’t feel that I can just sit back and relax about it.”
“I’m constantly trying to get young people to experience the outdoors in one way or another, because I really believe that if we have that experience in our early years then we carry it throughout our lifetime. Certainly as a kid growing up in Minnesota with lots of space around I got that appreciation and that love, and I want to pass that on to people I don’t even know. I don’t want to squander this richness that we have right in our midst.”
And if Bancroft could be granted one wish? “I would want people to have an awakening to understand that our globe is precious and that we need to be good stewards. We can’t take it for granted.”