Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen

MINNEAPOLIS (WOMENSENEWS)–Minnesota’s Ann Bancroft, the first woman to ski to the North Pole, was spending Women’s History Month trying to gain another first.

Along with Liv Arnesen of Norway–with whom she sailed and skied across Antarctica’s landmass in 2001–Bancroft was attempting a 100-day expedition across the Arctic Ocean, that ice-packed realm between Russia and Canada that cuts across the North Pole.

But then, on Thursday–the 19th day–as they were expecting a plane to resupply them, a Russian military plane landed instead and evacuated them. “They learned their journey was finished because of an unresolved dispute over which air company would operate the Borneo Ice Station airfield near the North Pole this spring,” reports the Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda.

Both the pair’s France-based expedition-travel company and their Minneapolis expedition coordinator agreed to evacuate them because of concerns that there might not be a way to evacuate them in an emergency.(For the full story, go to the Star Tribune’s Web site at

Had they completed the challenge they would have been the first women to ski across the Arctic Ocean alone.

As many as 10 million people–mostly girls and young women in the Girl Scouts and other global girls’ organizations–were following the expedition via photos and dispatches the explorers were posting to organizations via satellite phone. The expedition was making news headlines mainly in the United States and Norway, the home countries of the explorers.

Women’s History in Tundra

As Bancroft and Arnesen made their attempt they were extending women’s 20-year history of tundra exploration, which started in 1986 during Bancroft’s first expedition to the North Pole on the Steger International Polar Expedition.

Bancroft was followed by Helen Thayer, who in 1988 pulled her own sled without re-supply or support of dog teams or snowmobiles, and became the first woman to travel alone to the North Pole.

And just last year, Anoushka Kachelo, 24, became the youngest known woman
–and first Pakistani–to walk the last degree to the North Pole. After eight days of hauling over 55 kilos across about 50 miles of the frozen continent, the London lawyer achieved her goal of reaching the North Pole on April 24.

Many more–including Canada’s Denise Martin, who in 1997, along with American Mattie McNair led the first-ever all-women’s expedition to the pole–have paved women’s way in polar exploration.

The contributions and footsteps of such women are measured and celebrated by Wings Trust, Palisades, N.Y., which researches, promotes and celebrates female explorers of all varieties in realms ranging from “earth” to “sea” and “sky and space.”

Important Stories to Tell

Former Women’s eNews 21 Leader Milbry Polk, co-founder of Wings Trust and author of a book about female explorers, says it’s important to know their stories because they play a part in our collective consciousness, shaping what many believe to be the roles and capacities of women.

Historically, Polk says, women were excluded from exploration because funding came mainly from military and scientific organizations. “And those institutions,” she says, “excluded women.”

Richard Wiese, president of the Explorers Club in New York, concedes that the club–founded in 1909 and the prime gathering place for professional explorers–only began admitting female members in the 1980s, far later than real contributions by women.

campsite from 2001 expedition

“Women have been making significant contributions to science and exploration for hundreds of years,” says Wiese. “I cannot apologize for the past but can only promise that the Explorers Club is ensuring a more equitable future in the sciences and exploration for all.”

These days, he says, both women and the club have been making up for lost time.

“More and more,” he told Women’s eNews, “our women members are making as many contributions as men.”

Sharing Spirit of Adventure

Polk’s interest in women’s exploration comes from her own spirit of adventure. She’s traveled with Bedouin tribesmen in Jordan and Egypt, kayaked throughout Alaska’s Prince William Sound and led a camel expedition across Egypt.

In her 2001 book, “Women of Discovery: a Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World,” Polk covers a surprising collection of early female explorers, going as far back as the 10th century’s Unn the Deep Minded, a Viking colonizer of Iceland.

“Women were always going out and doing this kind of work, but it was institutions that were collecting data and they were exclusive to men,” she says.

“The book still only scratches the surface,” Polk says. “I’m currently researching and writing a sequel that will tell the stories of modern-day women explorers.” She expects to complete this book in the next two years.

Eagerness to Push Frontiers

With its annual Women of Discovery Awards, Wings Trust recognizes a broad range of explorers, with the net casting far beyond the Arctic Circle.

The 2005 crop includes: Sue Hendrickson, who dives off of wrecks in the Philippine Islands and Cuba to research the submerged ancient city of Herakleon; Sabriye Tenberken, blind since age 12, who translated Tibetan into Braille and traveled to Tibet to establish the only school for the blind in Llasa; Ana Pinto-Llona, an archeologist and paleontologist in Spain who has explored a remote cave in Northern Spain and come up with evidence of the first arrival of modern humans into Europe; and Marianne Greenwood, a writer and photographer who has lived with and written about indigenous people in the Americas, the Pacific Islands, in Papua New Guinea and other areas of Asia.

“She’s done a remarkable job in what she’s been able to pull off,” Polk says about Bancroft. “Women have a hard time getting funding and she’s raised a lot of money; albeit not the same amount of money her male counterparts are able to raise.”

With half-a-million in funding, the Bancroft-Arnesen expedition had more than 70 donors, including car maker Volvo; Target, the Minneapolis-based retail giant and Philadelphia’s Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Beyond paying for the expedition, the money will also be used to pay for educational programs in the future.

Explorer Helen Thayer agrees that raising money is easier for women these days. “I find that I, and many other women, no longer have to beg for sponsorship. Sponsors now ask to be included,” she said in an e-mail.

Polk says women such as Thayer, Bancroft and others are helping to ignite female interest in all kinds of exploration and adventure. “There is a whole new generation of girls and young women who are envisioning this for themselves too,” says Polk. “We are on the edge of the most exciting age of exploration ever.”

Karen Louise Boothe is a writer living in Minneapolis, who has reported for Minnesota Public Radio, NPR, CBS, CBC, BBC and a number of publications. Her own travel interests have led her to studies and hikes in South America, Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

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