May–June 2023


Still Going, Still Joyful

Catching up with legendary Minnesota adventurer Ann Bancroft.

Greg Seitz

One day in May 1986, not long after returning to Minnesota from the North Pole, Ann Bancroft visited the K-8 school in Minneapolis where she had been teaching before the historic trip. She brought along one of the huskies that had pulled her sled for 56 days and 1,000 miles during the expedition that had made her the first woman to reach the North Pole by a combination of sled and foot. The school hadn’t just been following the team’s progress; it had based its curriculum on it in many ways, from art to journalism to math. 

While the North Pole trip changed the trajectory of Bancroft’s life, launching her storied expedition career, she says that a single day at the school provided an epiphany: “I can be a teacher outside of the four walls.”

It was a life-changing moment for a woman who would make a career combining education and exploration. The students and teachers gave her the purpose she needed to succeed.

“It’s the thing that picks you up when you’re in the middle of a hundred-day journey, and you just think it’s all going to fall apart,” she says. “You think about those millions of kids with you. You pull yourself up and get back to work and find that joy again.”

Almost four decades later, Bancroft is still going, and still joyful. In 1997, she created the Ann Bancroft Foundation to help girls achieve their life goals through grants and mentorship. In 1993, she led the first women’s team to ski to the South Pole, and in 2001, she and her expedition partner, Liv Arnesen, became the first women to ski across Antarctica. They subsequently created Bancroft Arnesen Explore to organize expeditions that engage and empower young people to shape a sustainable society.

Q | You recently protected your land in the St. Croix Valley with a conservation easement that will prevent any future development. Why? I have a unique chunk of land. There are a lot of different kinds of water, and that facilitates diverse kinds of plant, insect, and animal species. The corridor that I live in is a high priority for both Washington County and Minnesota Land Trust and the DNR, and it’s a lot to do with the water. There are big ponds with fish and there are ponds that are only there in the spring. And then there is the pond that I am looking over right now from the house that has no fish in it. It has a species of dragonfly that only exists around a certain kind of body of water with no fish. Now I’m learning about what invasive species are here, what I can do about that, trying to be a good steward. 

Q | What expeditions do you have in the works? COVID shut down [Bancroft Arnesen Explore], so we’re just now picking back up again. We’re going to New Zealand next winter—summer there—and will travel the Whanganui River, which has been granted personhood status as a way to preserve it. Then we’re going to get on an ocean vessel with Maori elders and we’re going to talk about what they’ve seen change environmentally in their region. And we’ll talk about their ancestral knowledge and how it’s being applied today. And, of course, we’re going to share this with classrooms around the world.

Q | How does the mission of Ann Bancroft Foundation connect to your conservation work? It’s not focused on the environment per se, but it’s developing the kinds of things that make for an engaged adult woman, and that will affect communities wherever they go because they’ll have confidence, they’ll be courageous. They’ll understand how to find support. We’ve recently added a fellowship and just selected eight girls who have been past grantees. They’re now older and making their next big move and they’re getting a higher amount of money. 

Q | How have you been enjoying this winter? It’s been a great season for skiing because of all the snow. The snow is really key to lifting spirits and allowing you to do lots of different things. I live on a mile-long driveway so there’s also been plenty of work involved, but I actually love that. I even sledded down my driveway. I sort of never grew up. There’s something about all the snow that is just really energizing.

Q | What kinds of outdoor adventures do you enjoy close to home and in Minnesota? You don’t have to go far in Minnesota, it is just so rich. I have the St. Croix River right here, and there’s nothing like it. I used to love skiing on the river but I’m a little nervous because the ice is more unstable now. Paddling in the summer is just a gas, and you can do it in an afternoon—put in at Franconia and go down to Marine on St. Croix, get an ice cream. I typically do a solo canoe trip in the Boundary Waters every summer, so I’ve had the maps out. It’s sort of like planting seeds this time of year.