Ann Bancroft is a schoolteacher and an explorer, a role model for women and her fellow dyslexics. And she's about to become a sky diver, with the 50-plus women's group Aging But Dangerous. But a recent game of phone tag unearthed another Bancroft role:
"I was out feeding my chickens," said the first woman to reach the North Pole by dog sled and the South Pole by skis. "I spend a lot of time trying to say I'm an ordinary person. What I do sounds exotic and off the charts, but I'm just a chicken farmer who is drawn to these places people don't want to go."
Although she expressed some trepidation over the Saturday sky-dive, the 55-year-old Scandia resident said she's been focusing on preparing for a 2012 Antarctic expedition. Six women, each representing the key water challenge on their continent, are hoping to reach 2 million classrooms during the trek.
Turns out that children have been motivating Bancroft in any number of ways.
Q What are your hopes for the Antarctica trek?
A The mission is to do what we know, and what we know is that we can get, for 70 days, the attention of educators and students around the world, talking about fresh water on this remarkable continent that's covered with water.
Q Now that you're over 50, have you had to make physical or mental adjustments to prepare for this kind of journey?
A Certainly physically you have to adjust to differences and have a little grace with yourself and patience. The thing I love is I have more presence in the experience than I ever did when I was younger. I'm now enjoying every grain of the ice because I know I might never see this again. And I know I'm not invincible anymore.
Q Do you think you've gone from being regarded as "the first woman who did this" and become "a person who does this"?
A On one hand, I'm delighted. As a child I always wanted to do something first, and lo and behold I was able to do it in 1986. On the other hand, I'm really frustrated that here we are in 2011 and those lines are still there. I just watched Diana Nyad try to swim from Cuba to Florida, and there was a lot of stink about her age and gender.
Q You've been a role model not only for women, but also for dyslexics. How do you feel about that?
A I grew into both positions, in a way. And I would say I was pretty resistant about both. The North Pole, at first I was uncomfortable about it. And I never talked to anybody even as a teacher about my learning disability. But then I started to reframe that because kids came up to me, they outed me, and they were aligning themselves with me. I started listening to their stories and hearing the courage they had to deal with this.
Q Have you noticed any pronounced effects of climate change over the years?
A In 2005 and '07 I went back up into the Arctic. We packed what looks like a wet suit and had sleds that could float, and we would actually swim across fissures. I'm not a scientist, I'm a teacher, but anecdotally the differences are stark.
Q If a young girl said, "I want to do exactly what you do," what would you tell her?
A Well, rock on. There's plenty of room. I'm always thrilled when a young person is excited enough to articulate a dream. My advice would be to start small and work big. I don't want them to think that in 1985 I blinked and did this thing.
Q Who would you like to be for a day?
A Joan Baez. I would love to be a singer and musician, and there's no chance of that. She mixes her passion and activism with her musical talent, so I would get a full plate there.
Q What's your idea of a good time?
A Farming. And if my nieces and nephews are joining me, it's even better.
Q What do you want to have as your epitaph?
A I think of what some kids told me when I was kind of down in the dumps because we didn't finish an expedition. A whole bunch of them just said the same thing: "Don't feel bad. You tried. Most people don't try."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643