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Bemidji Library Book Festival: Bancroft shares how she achieved her dreams

From left, Paul Ericsson, Bemidji Public Library branch manager; Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson; author and explorer Ann Bancroft; and Barb Treat, Bemidji Library Book Festival coordinator, pose for a photo before Bancroft's keynote address for the festival. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - One question that Ann Bancroft gets almost daily is, "How did you think of the North and South Pole as your dream? Where did that come from?"

Bancroft answered that question to a mixed audience of youngsters, teens, adults and seniors Friday evening in the Bemidji High School Auditorium. The event followed the Bemidji Book Festival's Author Fair, which featured more than 30 authors that was held in the high school commons.

During a recent phone interview, Bancroft said she would start there and then talk about the last 27 years or so of major polar expeditions. Bancroft's early life has been examined from many angles because she had to endure the trials of having a learning disability without the educational measures in place today.

"I have dyslexia, which was diagnosed in the fourth grade, and at a time when very little was known about it," said Bancroft. "I think when talking with others about learning disabilities there is a common thread -- perseverance. I used that ability to persevere when preparing for my first Arctic adventure. You know, finding another way when things don't go according to plan."

Bancroft spoke about living her life with this challenge and in particular about moving forward in the educational system from grade school through college to her dream of being a teacher took tremendous perseverance.

"It's made me a very goal-oriented person, and I've also learned about asking for help when I realized that you can't always get there on your own," she said. "If it weren't for those few extraordinary teachers who saw that spark in me and a coach, I wouldn't have finished becoming a teacher and I wouldn't be doing what I am doing today."

Bancroft went on to say that when things go sour or awry when on an expedition, she tells herself that if she could get through school she can get through anything. She realizes that the thing she does well is express herself physically so it turns out not to be the hardest thing she has to do. Bancroft studied physical education and special education in college. It is important for a teacher to recognize which style best fits the students (visual, aural, tactile) or any combination thereof.

"As a teacher I was very conscious of this because it takes a nanosecond to lose your self-esteem and a long time to get it back," said Bancroft. "It's all about being creative for the teacher and the student."

When asked about her life's philosophy, Bancroft laughed and said she didn't really know about that except that she is always talking to kids and telling them to keep achieving their dreams.

"Our society sort of romanticizes 'achieving your dreams,' she said. "It's really hard work and it doesn't just magically come because you have a dream. I was dreaming of the North Pole when I was a 10-year-old girl, and I didn't cross Antarctica until I was 47. It's a circuitous route often times but, if you follow your heart, even in those hard times, have fun. That's what I do, I have fun."

Bancroft realized that as a result of her polar trips and the focus on her being the first woman to successfully cross both polar ice caps to reach the North and South Poles, she had another platform to speak from. She started a foundation. The Ann Bancroft Foundation mission statement says it supports girls and women to realize their highest dreams and potential by recognizing individual achievement and inspiring courage, risk-taking, integrity and individuality.

And now we get to the part of the story that Bancroft told during her talk on Friday night.

With pictures projected on the large screen in back of her, Bancroft showed slides of her early childhood and close encounters with nature. She warned parents to be careful about granting their children's wishes, because you never know what they will do. She said her mother found every book about polar exploration for her curious daughter.

"She never dreamed that I would someday actually become an explorer," said Bancroft.

In 1986, she saw an ad about an opening in a team. There was one slot open for a woman; she applied for that slot and got it. Then Bancroft had to ask her principal to give her a year off from teaching so she could join an expedition to the North Pole. It was an unusual request from a teacher only four years into the system. The National Geographic Society was sponsoring the trip to verify the journeys of both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, not so much to see who got there first, but rather to get a better idea of how they actually accomplished the journey.

"We set off from the top of Canada onto the Arctic Ocean on March 3, 1986," Bancroft said. "It was minus-75 degrees. It was probably colder, but that was the lowest the thermometer would go. There were eight of us; seven men and me and 49 male sled dogs."

On their first day of travel with sleds, traveling with clothes turned stiff from the frigid air, they managed to go one mile after eight hours of fighting the wind and cold. Bancroft showed slides of how the ocean currents driven by the wind make fractures of cracks. Each crack is different; some may be a narrow as a stream and some may be as wide as the Mississippi River. The sleds weighed more than 1,000 pounds, and a fracture could toss them up like matchsticks.

They traveled with a sextant and a compass to find the top of the world; that was before global positioning systems.

The slide Bancroft showed when they reached the North Pole showed six people with a National Geographic Society banner. Two men had dropped out because of an injury and frostbite. There she was a tiny, 5-foot, 4-inch woman with those brawny men. They were also down to 40 dogs at that point because the sleds were lighter than when they started their journey months before. Not keeping to the tradition of using the sled dogs for food, the group insisted that the dogs be taken back to the starting point by plane.

Bancroft admitted to the "Is that all there is?" feeling when they reached the pole: a barren spot with nothing to identify it.

"We were all tired and tired of each other," she said. "We were homesick and had run out of food and couldn't wait to get back. But, the magic for me," said Bancroft, "was going into my classroom and talking to my kids. I took an 85-pound sled dog with half an ear missing and scars; he was so ugly and he stank. But my kids thought he was beautiful. They helped me put my feet back on the ground."

Bancroft also spoke about her journey across Antarctica with Norwegian skier Liv Arneson.

"We had to pull our own 250-pound sleds because dogs were not allowed," said Bancroft. "We were on skis and made the 11,000-foot journey to the top, the South Pole."

The adventure is detailed in their book, "No Horizon is So Far: An Extraordinary Journey Across Antarctica."