Water links us all

Top photo: Liv Arnesen, left, and Ann Bancroft;
Middle: The Ganges Project Team;
Bottom: Explorers Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen and their all-women team will travel the length of the Ganges River in India to raise awareness of the world water crisis.
Photos courtesy of Ann Bancroft

Ann Bancroft became the first woman to arrive at the North Pole on foot and by sled in a 1986 expedition with Will Steger, six other men and 49 male dogs. After that, she tallied other firsts, including being the first woman to cross both polar ice caps to reach the North and South Poles and was part of the first group of American women to ski across Greenland.

After these and many other expeditions, you’d think Bancroft would view herself as an adventurer, explorer or professional trailblazer. Instead, she says, “I think of myself, first and foremost, as a teacher.”

Ganges River expedition

It’s not about bagging another first. She now uses expeditions to create a worldwide platform for education and inspiration, especially for girls. Those are the goals for her next project, Access Water, a 60-day journey through India along the Ganges River, from the source of the river in the Himalaya Mountains to the Bay of Bengal.

The expedition sets off this month with Bancroft, her frequent expedition partner, Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen, and six other women – each from a different continent with its own unique water crisis.

Along the way, they’ll connect with 50 million children around the globe via the Internet in a dialogue about access to clean water, emphasizing the power of teamwork to foster change and address the crisis of fresh water.

She says that from previous experience she knows, “people follow us because of the adventure.” But they engage with the group’s tailor-made curriculum that she hopes will raise awareness of water-access issues, and promote resource efficiency and cooperation on the problems of pollution and climate change.

The Ganges expedition is just the first phase of Access Water, which will visit all seven continents over ten years, cruising waterways that are the biggest environmental hot spots. The project ends with a journey to Antarctica in 2026.

Adventure educator

As part of an outdoorsy family of risk-takers, Bancroft has been adventuring since she and her brother scaled a waterfall in their Mendota Heights backyard as kids. Her parents packed up their four young children for a two-year stint volunteering in Kenya, which completely changed her life and worldview and kindled her adventurous outlook.

In addition, she says her learning “differences” (including difficulties with audio retention and word inversion) contributed to her success as an explorer. “It was actually a gift because I had to learn to persevere and slog through things, qualities essential for arduous expeditions.”

But the Ganges trip offers challenges dramatically different from her previous adventures, where cold temperatures, isolation and sheer physical endurance were among the major challenges. On the Ganges, by contrast, she’ll travel along the world’s fifth most polluted waterway. Four hundred million people rely on it for food, water, bathing and worship.

Consequently, Bancroft anticipates crowds, noise, polluted water and other conditions that give her the shivers far more than sub-zero Arctic temps, requiring preparation more mental than physical. Logistics are also a challenge – everything from equipment and where to sleep to Internet access in places with no electricity.

Yet, she says, water makes the perfect subject with which to tackle a multitude of issues. One in eight people lack access to clean water and more than three million die each year from water-related health problems.

“Water links us all,” she says. “It’s a multidisciplinary topic with issues of economics, ecology, history, engineering and gender. Who is it that carries the water? Often it’s women and girls.”

Passing the torch

Bancroft enjoys traveling in mixed-gender as well as women-only groups. Her main criterion is simply that they must be good people. When there are conflicts, she says, men let things roll off their backs while women require a longer effort to make amends.

But in outdoor endeavors, she says, traveling with women takes away the need to be so focused on physical strength and stamina. “You don’t have to prove yourself with women,” she says.

She’s looking forward to traveling with a larger team than in recent journeys. “We want to move away from ‘Ann and Liv’ and develop a new generation of leaders. The other women in the team are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. In a way it’s our legacy work.” Bancroft is 60 years old; Arneson is 62.

Bancroft challenges women of all ages to discover or dust off their dreams. “You don’t have to go to the Arctic or India. We’re all on a journey; it doesn’t have to be outdoors. What’s your expedition? Where are you going?”