People expect explorer Ann Bancroft to have some answers when it comes to her newest mission: water conservation. She started out 30 years ago by dog sledding to the North Pole with, as she calls them, “Steger and the boys,” and since then has built a career merging expeditions and education, with fellow teacher and adventurer Liv Arnesen.

So, it was only natural that Indian villagers expected some packaged 1-2-3 fixes for their gumbo-ish Ganges River when Bancroft floated into their villages last October. But no. Bancroft wanted to share stories and ignite conversations.

“We were constantly confronted with why we didn’t have solutions [to pollution], why were we there, are you going to tell us how to fix this river?” Bancroft recalled. “We told them, ‘We’re not experts. We can tell you what we’ve seen, but we’re curious about your experiences, too.’ It became a leveler: We weren’t foreigners coming in with answers. We were just ordinary people, like them, who care, sharing ideas about what we can do, about personal and collective responsibility.”

Still tan and ever smiling, the 60-year-old Scandia resident was dealing with re-entry culture shock three weeks after she’d returned from two months in India, boating with a multinational team of seven other women from the Ganges’ source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. It’s the first leg of an ambitious 11-year, six-continent campaign called Access Water, highlighting the world’s critical shortage of fresh water.

“When I went to the North Pole [in 1986], I found a new platform for speaking, as a woman, as a teacher, as an ordinary citizen. Expeditions have power way beyond my own ambition; power to engage young people to find their own voice. I’d been given this platform, and I thought I’d better not squander it.”

Bancroft and Arnesen have since created curriculum for every expedition they’ve undertaken that allow children to use their adventures as a jumping-off point to study geography, art, music, society and math. She doesn’t lean into the icy wind or paddle the rapids to break records or make history, but rather to get children, next-generation leaders, excited, talking and thinking.

Though the team of eight women launched their rafts in the Ganges in October, Access Water has been 10 years and many partnerships in the making. One partner, the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), translated the water curriculum, created with the help of other partners — scouting organizations and UNESCO among them — into Hindi and held workshops for teachers in India. Teachers adapted it and used the curriculum for a semester. Bancroft’s trip down the Ganges coincided with the culmination of the semester: Almost every school visit involved typically Indian thesis projects — art, music, public speaking and a dance contest.

‘They were curious’

A group of women, only one of them Indian, traveling down the Ganges in rubber rafts drew lots of attention. “Huge crowds everywhere. They were curious, just wanting to look at you and watch what you’re doing, often at very close range,” Bancroft said. “As an introvert, that was challenging.”

In fact, nearly everything about this expedition was different from past projects and monumentally more challenging. Communications (“It was harder to get video, stills and stories out than from Antarctica”); team dynamics (“We did not always agree”); culture (“Discussion about pollution has to be around religious practices and the fact that the Ganges has to serve an enormous population”); and logistics (“One of our ancillary crew, this lovely man — I consider him my third brother — had done the trip via road making arrangements for us. You need permission for everything”).

The Access Water team was up at about 5 a.m. and on the water early to cover 80 to 90 kilometers and set up camp before dark. A “swag wagon”carried extra food and equipment by road to their next stop, usually arriving before the boats.

“People kept saying, ‘If you’ve come all this way to care about our water, we need to put that much effort into caring for it, too.’ They assumed the rest of the world doesn’t care. Our role was to make that human connection, to show we all want the same things, and that the average citizen has power to make changes.”

While Bancroft encountered plenty of despair, frustration and, frankly, garbage on the Ganges, she was also surprised by bright spots: River dolphin sightings almost daily, a poor neighborhood trying to improve by routinely picking up trash, and “the toilet guy.”

“I call him the toilet guy. I don’t know how the idea started, but this man didn’t want people in his village using the river as a toilet, so he built latrines. Very low-tech, not flush toilets — latrines. And people were fined if they didn’t use the latrine! All it took was some leadership and gumption. We had seen so much filth, and you know what? Their little slice, their neighborhood was cleaner, there was less disease. To hear them talk so pridefully of what they’d done — we were so energized, so pumped. And this village with no Internet connection was aware of their place in the world. As they walked us to our boats — I get goose bumps talking about it — they said, ‘Put this on Facebook. Let people know.’ ”

Staying curious

Unswervingly optimistic, Bancroft acknowledged the overwhelming challenges facing the world’s water supply, and did talk about one icy reality.

“Liv and I are teachers. Out of the millions of kids we touch, we hope 5 percent will become morally courageous leaders at some level. Without that, water is over,” she said. Quickly brightening, she told the story of a boy she hopes will be among that 5 percent.

“I think of success as this 12-year-old boy named Aman. He walked into our camp when the documentarians were filming Olfat [an Access Water teammate]. He had some English, and said, ‘I would like to say something.’ He felt empowered to put his voice in mix. He said, ‘I want you to know, we need to clean up the Ganges. We shouldn’t be bathing in it with soap.’ He called it chemicals. ‘We need to pick up garbage, even though the older people think the river is fine.’ To me, he’s a success. He felt the courage to demonstrate he knew something. If kids like Aman get some knowledge, and believe they can make change, then I’ll feel that’s a grand success. If he stays curious about the world, if he thinks that his 12-year-old voice matters, it’s going to grow. He’ll carry that into the world.”

Bancroft and the Access Water crew will spend 2016 on the speaking tour, telling everyone who will listen about what they witnessed in India, and planning for the 2017 expedition through the Oceania region, including Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

 

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.