SUNFISH LAKE, Minn. — Polar explorer Ann Bancroft is a master of social isolation.
Bancroft, 64, of Sunfish Lake was the first woman to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole. In 1986, she and Will Steger and six other explorers spent 56 days driving dogsleds to the North Pole; seven years later, she led the American Women’s Expedition on a 67-day trek to the South Pole.
Bancroft made history again in 2001 when she and her polar-trekking partner Liv Arnesen, 66, of Norway, became the first women to cross Antarctica. During their 94-day, 1,717-mile trek, each pulled a 250-pound sled loaded with food and equipment.
Bancroft's tips for how to handle social isolation:
1. Spend time outdoors.
Bancroft hikes on the trails near her house in Sunfish Lake for at least an hour every day. She hunts for feathers, bones, animals and insects. “Sometimes I walk really fast, and sometimes I’m following deer trails, just opening my eyes to things,” she said. “I like to leave the path a little bit, and I mean that metaphorically and figuratively. Suddenly, the day moves along a lot faster than when you’re muddling on about all the things you’re missing out on.” Her parents purchased about 40 acres on Sunfish Lake decades ago. “I call it Disneyland out here,” said Bancroft, who has a flock of wild turkeys in her backyard and chorus frogs singing nearby. “It’s just this little paradise tucked away.”
2. Stick to a routine
In the Arctic, everyone is beholden to a strict schedule — getting up at the same time every day, going to bed at the same time every night. “That’s what I’m trying to do now,” she said. “Routine is really important. Getting up and eating well and exercising. I’m usually up and at ’em about 7. Don’t read until 2 just because you can and then sleep in.” Little things like making your bed each morning are key, she said, because “it’s so much more enjoyable at the end of the day to go to a made bed rather than a messy bed.” Other routine activities while on an expedition: writing in her journal every night and brushing her teeth. “Make sure you brush your teeth,” Bancroft said. “It’s so silly, but it takes effort out there when everything is frozen. I’m still trying to do that.”
3. Maintain a sense of humor
Bancroft said humor is the strongest tool that she relies on “no matter the length of the journey.” “I don’t take myself too terribly seriously,” she said. “The ramifications of the expedition are pretty big for us: We’re beholden to organizations and individuals, and we’re going after something that is really stretching us physically and mentally. With all that seriousness, it’s very much like now: you have to cut through that and give yourself that opportunity to find the humor. It’s a way of getting some perspective so that you can keep on going when it is really hard.” During one particularly rough stretch during the Antarctic expedition, Arnesen and Bancroft lightened the mood by playing the mouth harp and dancing. “We were shuttered in because of the storm, unable to control the elements,” she said. “The altering of our psyche was to say, ‘Get out of your pity bag.’ If you’re down in the dumps, and you’re letting everything go, you don’t have the ability to see an opportunity that you can seize. It changed for us after that. We lightened up; we took better care of each other.”
4. Do something for others
Bancroft volunteers each week with the Sheridan Project in Roseville, packing meals for children in need. “If you can think of others in your darkness, if you can pull yourself out just enough to think of what the other person needs, it can keep you going,” she said. “Going out and volunteering is the best day of all my days. I’m an introvert, so I’m pretty happy being by myself, but when I go and pack lunches for schools, I’m on cloud nine. I like to say, ‘I have to take care of my extroverted friends in these times’ because we introverts have the better end of things, perhaps.” She said she and other friends rotate cooking dinner for longtime friend Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, “because she never gets home anymore.”
Reading is a “great way to pull inside to another world for a bit — an active awake distraction, perhaps,” said Bancroft, who is currently reading Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.” While on expeditions, Bancroft reads poems selected by family and friends. “Weight is an issue. It’s too much to bring books; they’re too heavy,” Bancroft said.
6. Manage conflict
Bancroft said she and Arnesen knew they weren’t going to get along every day. “We had to come up with a plan about what we were going to do about it, because it can really change everything,” she said. “It comes down to what it comes down to for everyone, and that’s communication. We had moments where we had to hammer it out and hash it out and get back on track. The energy that you expend on being upset … is just enormous, and you really notice it out there when you’re trying to put all your energy into your skis and forward motion. You can’t waste it on being angry at the other person. For us, and for family members who are cooped up together, it’s usually you’re grumpy because you’re tired, or you need a little space, and you just don’t know how to ask for it directly. The plan was to speak it out loud. You can’t really let it go beyond two days because it gets to a place where it’s pretty hard to bring it back. … Until somebody has the courage to say something to break the ice, so to speak, it just festers.”
7. Appreciate the little things
The best days on trail are the ones when you “look up and think, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is so beautiful,’ ” Bancroft said. “It could be as simple as Liv turning around and handing you a mug of hot coffee or mocha. They’re not big sweeping days. They’re vignettes sprinkled throughout the expedition.” When she returns home, she looks forward to “a fresh apple, a slice of cheese and a good glass of wine,” she said. “Because we’ve been doing this most of our life, we don’t feel the same hardship that everybody is focusing on. We don’t go into a 100-day expedition thinking we’re going to have food fantasies all 100 days. We got in with a mindset that is, ‘This is what we chose to do, and it’s a privilege, and yes, it’s hard work, and there are some hardships,’ but it’s not where the rest of people go — which is sort of interesting during this whole time of quarantine.”