Minn. explorer to highlight global water woesSCANDIA, Minn. (AP) — Polar explorer Ann Bancroft will head to India next fall for a 1,600-mile, 60-day expedition on and along the Ganges River, to draw attention to the global water crisis.
By: MARY DIVINE, St. Paul Pioneer Press, WDAY
SCANDIA, Minn. (AP) — Polar explorer Ann Bancroft will head to India next fall for a 1,600-mile, 60-day expedition on and along the Ganges River, to draw attention to the global water crisis.
Until then, she'll be wrangling roosters and hanging with her hens.
Bancroft, who lives on an 80-acre farm on the St. Croix River in Scandia, is working on behavior modification with her two roosters so they won't keep attacking her longtime partner, Pam Arnold.
"I go in at night, and I stroke them," Bancroft said. "They really love it. I'll just start stroking their crop — you know, where they digest all their seeds — and they just go: 'Oooh, that's really good. Thank you.' "
When she's not out exploring, Bancroft's day-to-day pursuits are decidedly domestic.
She gardens, keeps bees and hangs out with her 25 chickens.
"It's not uncommon that you see me out here sitting or laying down with them," she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1hrVW5K) during a recent tour of her chicken coop. "I just love them. They crawl all over you if you're quiet. I've got two young ones, and they sit on my shoulders and ride around while I do my chores in the morning."
Bancroft, 58, was the first woman to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole. In 1986, she and Will Steger and six other explorers drove dogsleds to the North Pole; seven years later, she successfully led the American Women's Expedition to the South Pole.
Bancroft made history again in 2001 when she and her polar-trekking partner Liv Arnesen, 60, of Norway, became the first women to cross Antarctica.
Now the women, who co-own an exploration company called Bancroft Arnesen Explore, will follow the Ganges from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal with six other women from six continents.
The trek, scheduled to begin in October 2014, will include team members from India, Israel, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and China.
A similar trip to Africa is planned for 2016, with trips to the other five continents in the next five even-numbered years — all to highlight water's central role in life.
"Water encompasses everything," Bancroft said. "It's an element that links us all as human beings. Everyone needs water, and we all have challenges about it, no matter where we live. You can talk about everything when you talk about water — economics, politics, gender issues."
The 2014 expedition, dubbed Access Water: A Journey from Hope to Action, will start at Gomukh, the terminus of the Gangotri Glacier, which is one of the primary sources of the Ganges.
The women plan to hike along the river for two weeks, then travel by boat.
An estimated 50 million schoolchildren from around the world are expected to follow — and learn from — the adventure online.
"We never leave home without the kids," said Bancroft, a former schoolteacher. "We always have that education component."
"We'll start by talking about glaciers and their importance to our freshwater supply," Bancroft said. "They're diminishing at a rapid rate, and they supply much of the world with freshwater, sometimes thousands of miles away."
Bancroft said she plans to talk to schoolchildren along the Ganges about living on the St. Croix.
"We're sort of reporters, in a way, as we go down the river," she said. "We're not doing it in a conventional way where we would get in a kayak and paddle every day, 12 hours a day."
Bancroft and Arnesen purposefully picked team members who were interested in clean-water access issues and education — not just being part of an athletic endeavor.
"This isn't about the expedition," Bancroft said. "We're not moving along at a certain pace. We're not trying to set a record. It was really about the global conversation with kids. That was the focal point."
The expeditions have been set up to continue regardless of whether Bancroft or Arnesen participates.
"We've been wanting to have a much more sustainable, continuous sort of model of the work that we're doing," Bancroft said. "I can host this from here if I have blown out a knee, or I'm too old, or I want to get fuller into farming. It's not about us anymore. That's the part that's really, really exciting."
Getting fuller into farming wouldn't be much of a stretch for Bancroft. She and Arnold, who met in 1989, run Salt-n-Pepper Farm and sell their produce, honey, eggs and flowers at the Scandia Farmers' Market.
Bancroft had been searching for a farm near the metro area when she learned about the property — a former horse farm — through a family friend in 1988.
"I had been driving all over kingdom come, but not in this area," Bancroft said. "This woman called me and said 'Meet me at Trails End (a now-defunct bar), and I'll show you this place.' "
It was a cold, rainy day. Bancroft, who was living in Sunfish Lake, drove with her fingers crossed, hoping she could make the trip in 45 minutes. "That was the periphery I had set," she said. "I drove like a bat out of hell to Trails End, and then I drove in here with her and started to hyperventilate. It was just like: 'Oh. My. God.' "
Bancroft and Arnold moved in in 1995 after an extensive farmhouse renovation. They start each day at sunrise, listening to the cows mooing in Wisconsin.
"It's such a privilege, even in Minnesota, to live on a waterway," Bancroft said. "I think the St. Croix is really special because of what we're trying to safeguard and keep here. We want it to be a river for everyone and be respectful of all the different communities and entities that intersect with the river and also be respectful of the river itself. It's a tough challenge because there are a lot of different interests that come in contact with the river."
The couple take Scissors, their 130-pound Malamute, on long hikes along the river each day.
"Watching the vagaries of the river from season to season, you become really intimate with it when you live here," Bancroft said. "We walk or run or ski this river every day. That's a real privilege to have that friendship with an environment over time.
"Almost daily, we say this out loud: 'We are so lucky. We are so privileged to have this property around us.' "
The women rent 40 acres to a nearby farmer; discussions lately have centered on their first cover crop, which recently was planted to suppress weeds, build productive soil and help control pests and diseases.
Arnold's latest passion, baking bread, might lead the women to consider planting grains, Bancroft said. "It's a bounty out there," she said. "We're just trying it all on — there are worms in the basement. It's like a big smorgasbord, and we're expert in nothing."
The women met at a friend's party; Arnold, who was in graduate school, said she had no idea who Bancroft was.
"I didn't know she was Ann Bancroft, polar explorer," said Arnold. "It was actually just a comedy of errors in some ways and so lucky because, as a result, I was completely not enamored. Everyone around me was fawning all over her, and I thought: 'What is going on here? People are dripping. Why?' "
It took a few weeks for Bancroft to work up the courage to call her; they've been together ever since.
Although same-sex marriage is now legal in Minnesota, the couple haven't made wedding plans. A basket full of wedding invitations and save-the-date cards sits on a corner table in their living room.
"When would we fit it in?" Arnold asks.
"We're so busy going to weddings," Bancroft says.
"It's probably something on the table to discuss," Arnold says. "We feel like we are married because we've been together for such a long time and have been engaged completely in building this life together. And then there's always the question of what are the advantages and what are the disadvantages? Now that we are able to be legally married, we're just appreciating that it is a civil right."
Bancroft, the second of five children, grew up in Mendota Heights. Her parents, Dick and Debbie Bancroft, moved the family to Kenya for two years when she was 10; the couple served as volunteers for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
"My grandfather died and left my mom a little bit of money, and that gave them the courage," she said. "They had four little kids at the time ... and I think my dad was getting ignited by the civil rights movement, so they just went for it."
That trip changed everything, Bancroft said.
"If you can give a young person a positive experience out of their realm, their eyes open up," said Bancroft, whose eponymous foundation is dedicated to helping girls realize their dreams.
"I felt like Bill (her brother) and I were at a perfect age, where we were old enough to remember smells, texture, people's names and relationships, but young enough to just bound into the woods and not be afraid and not be edited," she said. "There's something wonderful about 10, 11, 12, even 14. That unbridled naive enthusiasm for the world. You add that with a little experience and a little bit of knowledge of something, and it's combustible."
When the family returned to Minnesota, Bancroft, who had been struggling in school, was diagnosed with dyslexia. "To help me keep up, I was taken out of art, music, recess and gym," she said. "Those were the very things that, of course, a learning-difference kid thrives in. They learn by doing and expressing things in different ways, so that just solidified my hate for and dread of going to school."
Bancroft's mother worked hard to ensure that Ann loved books, despite her reading disability, she said.
"She went out of her way to find books that I could identify with," she said. "She always found me books with animals in them or books about the outdoors. And, if she could, she would find a girl in those books doing those things."
When Bancroft read a book about Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole on the Endurance, her fate was set.
"I don't think my mother ever thought I was going to the pole, but she nurtured it when I said, 'This is what I want to do,' " she said. "I saw those pictures, and I said, 'I want to be in those pictures.' "
"I think back on that, and I think, 'What in that book ignited me? What did I see in those pictures?' The ship was frozen, but what came off the pages was adventure, camaraderie, those men playing soccer on the ice, the relationship between the dogs and being out in the hinterland where no one had ever been before. I wanted to make history when I was a kid because of that book."
Although her dyslexia made high school and college difficult, she calls it a "gift" because it helped her develop the strength to handle the hardships of exploration.
"I had this enormous struggle before me that was not going to be solved in an instant," Bancroft said. "You have to learn new skills and how to navigate. It's exactly like an expedition. None of my trips are fast. I mean, 100 days? It's one foot in front of the other. Where did I learn that? I would say I learned that from having a learning disability."
While on expeditions, Bancroft reads poems selected by family and friends. Arnold, a graphic designer who served on the faculty of Minneapolis College of Art and Design for 10 years, has compiled, designed and printed a collection for each expedition.
"Liv and I both like to read, but it's a 100-day journey, so it's, like, what do you bring? And weight is an issue," Bancroft said. "Books are an interesting thing because they actually pull you away, which is partly what you love, but on expeditions, you're full-on engaged, so you have to be careful about how much you pull away because you need to be listening.
"You need to have one ear out there," she said. "Is the wind changing? Is a crevasse opening up? You can't just disappear the way you love to do with a book. With a poem, you can chew on it while you pull, and you can revisit it, and you always get something different from it."
Arnold also designs the covers of Bancroft's expedition journals, using images that have included St. Croix River scenes, a pheasant feather and one of the couple's bee hives.
Homesickness is a given, no matter the length of the trip, Bancroft said. "I can get homesick on a week trip or on a 100-day trip," she said. "I love home. For a wanderer, I love home."
Before setting off on the Ganges expedition, Bancroft hopes the team can explore a river closer to home— the Mississippi.
"It's got some real similarities," she said. "I like rivers because you have many kinds of different communities along the way that are linked by this water. What you do upstream has everything to do with what happens downstream.
"The Mississippi, in my lifetime, has gone through tremendous transformation," she said. "We're intersecting with that wonderful body of water in such a different way than when I went on my first canoe trip on it in the '60s."
That canoe trip ended when Bancroft and her father and brother ran aground. "It was one of the grandest adventures," she said. "You felt like Huck Finn. We didn't get home in time, so my mom had the barges out looking for us ... with the big spotlights."
One of Bancroft's strengths is how she has dealt with failure, according to Arnold.
"She's more than forthcoming about the visions that didn't necessarily come to fruit, and that's just as important a legacy as everything she succeeded at," Arnold said. "The one thing that she has given all of us is a sense that there is no excuse to not follow your own dream."
Bancroft said she tries to live her life the way she does on an expedition.
"You're just so in tune and you're so alive out there," she said. "Everything is so sort of basic: You have to melt ice for water. You have to do these fundamental things. You really don't get anywhere unless you just put one foot in front of the other."