The New Frontier
Without much earth left to discover, iconic Minnesota explorers such as Will Steger, Ann Bancroft, and Dan Buettner are cracking open “discovery” to include science, politics, and the future of education
Aaron Doering and his North of Sixty° team “pulking” past Mount Thor on Baffin Island in Canada in April 2013. Thor’s west face is the longest vertical drop on Earth, at 4,101 feet.
photo Courtesy LT Media Lab/University Of Minnesota
On March 7, 1968, the first day of Ralph Plaisted’s second attempt to reach the North Pole, he and his three-man snowmobile team were already gunning the wrong way, toward certain disaster. Luckily for the men, their resupply pilot, passing overhead, tossed a packet of cigarettes out of the plane window with a note: “You’re 45 degrees off course.”
The following week, the team broke through a 40-foot-high ice wall, survived 60-below temperatures, and withstood a blizzard that stranded them in their tents. The team forged ahead until April 20, when Plaisted, a high-school dropout from Bruno, became the first to indisputably plant a flag at the North Pole. Unlike with previous claims by greats such as Admiral Robert E. Peary and Frederick Cook, whom scientists and historians later discounted as never having reached the Pole, Plaisted’s coordinates were verified by a U.S. Air Force plane. His record is an astonishing accomplishment for an insurance salesman whose historic journey stemmed from a dare posed while out having a drink at Duluth’s Pickwick pub.
“Ralph Plaisted isn’t as great as Will Steger, but he is a testimonial to someone who dreams big and says, ‘I’m going to freaking do it,’ ” says Dan Buettner, the Minnesota explorer and National Geographic Fellow whose new book, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People, was the basis for a November 2017 National Geographic cover story.
“In my mind,” Buettner adds, “he’s a real hero.”
Plaisted and his crazy ride mark the beginning of the modern-day canon of Minnesota explorers. He’s the first in a line of polar legends including Steger, who led the first unsupported dogsled journey to the North Pole in 1986 with fellow Minnesotans Paul Schurke and Ann Bancroft, who themselves went on to lead expeditions. There’s also Dan Seavey Sr., who grew up in Crosby and raced the first Iditarod in Alaska; Lonnie Dupre, the Grand Marais-based polar explorer and mountaineer who completed the first winter solo climb of Denali; photographer and climber Jimmy Chin, who grew up in Mankato and made the first ascent of Mount Meru’s Shark’s Fin, the most technically complicated and dangerous peak in the Himalayas; North Shore-based activists Dave and Amy Freeman, who spent an entire year living in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness advocating for clean water; University of Minnesota adventure technology educator Aaron Doering; and the aforementioned, multi-faceted Buettner, who splits his time between Santa Barbara and Minneapolis. The list is impressively deep, and the accomplishments are epic and hard-earned. It begs the question: How did Minnesota, best known for its humble, self-deprecating populous, become such a breeding ground for bad-assery?
“The culture here shaped me into who I am,” says Steger, who went on to lead a 3,741-mile dogsled expedition across Antarctica in 1990. “I grew up in an era where there was a lot of freedom. And my parents, who raised nine kids, never tried to interfere with what I wanted to do. There’s an aura of northern Europe in Minnesota. It’s more democratic and a more open way of looking at the world.”
Buettner, who began his three-decade career by setting three records for cycling across five continents, adds, “Winston Churchill said that we are shaped by our environment. In Minnesota, we have easy access to our own version of exploration, like the Boundary Waters. But more importantly, there’s a culture of exploration here.”
Polar explorer and mountaineer Eric Larsen grew up in Wisconsin but spent years training in Grand Marais. He has since moved to Boulder, Colorado, but is still proud of his Minnesota connection.
“When people used to call me a Minnesotan, I was just psyched,” he says. “There’s a positive, persevering attitude in Minnesotans, and polar travel needs that because it’s so arbitrary. Unlike mountains, there is no summit.”
Minnesota’s legacy is impressive, but exploration’s golden age, the era when it was still possible to be the first to tag the farthest reaches of the globe, is over. It ended right around the time Steger and his team completed their epic Antarctic crossing at Mirny, the Russian science station on the continent’s east coast.
“I was lucky that there were some geographical firsts, some white areas on the map that needed filling,” says Steger. “There aren’t any major expeditions that are possible to do at that caliber anymore.”
Add melting ice caps and the morass of digital connectivity, and it’s tough to find any empty space on the map at all.
“When I started in the 1980s, making it to Fez, Morocco, was an absolute adventure from which you might not make it out alive,” says Buettner, referring to his 11,855-mile cycling expedition from the Mediterranean coast of north Africa to the tip of South Africa. “I caught a wicked case of hepatitis probably eating meat shish kebabs on the street. Now you can stay at a Four Seasons with air conditioning.”
But the same Minnesota explorers who got their start pushing geographic boundaries are now taking their exploits beyond the physical, redefining exploration in an age of Google Maps.
“Being an explorer is different than being an adventurer,” says Buettner. “An adventurer is a thrill seeker. An explorer is in pursuit of knowledge.”
Buettner started his career by bagging miles biking across continents. For the past 15 years, however, he has traveled the globe—mostly by jet—on a quest to discover what makes people healthy and happy. “I’m using exploration to add to the body of knowledge and improve human conditions,” he says. “It’s about living a better life.”
Ann Bancroft, the first woman to cross the ice to reach both the North and South Poles, and now living on the banks of the St. Croix River, uses her platform as a world-famous explorer to empower women and girls of all ages to push themselves to achieve seemingly unobtainable goals.
“In 1992, I led an all-women’s team to the South Pole,” says Bancroft. “It was less about making history for women at the bottom of the world and more about my understanding the role I could play in pushing women into consciousness of what they can and can’t do.”
To that end, Bancroft, along with Liv Arnesen, the Norwegian explorer with whom Bancroft crossed Antarctica 18 years ago, dreamed up a 10-year project called Access Water, aiming to inspire girls through the examples set by a team of women explorers. These women emphasize the world’s fresh-water crisis by exploring a waterway on every continent. The team, comprising a woman from each continent (minus Antarctica) and ranging in age from 28 to 64, started on the Ganges River in October 2015, paddling 1,500 miles in 60 days. They began at the retreating glaciers at the source of the Ganges, paddled through riverside villages and cities, and ended at the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. Along the way, they reported on the science of climate change, met with villagers to share their progress, and documented these residents’ experiences living with the increasing scarcity of fresh, clean water.
“I don’t have words to describe those two months,” says Arnesen. “It moved molecules in me. There was something really powerful about eight women from around the world going down the river and landing on shore. It allowed us to access people in an intimate way.”
This September, the team will launch an expedition down the Mississippi. In 10 years, their project is planned to end in Antarctica, when Bancroft will be 72 years old—a fitting finale for a polar legend.
“We’re working under the umbrella of ‘access to fresh water,’ ” says Bancroft, “but we can talk about environment, global warming, water, economics, politics, and gender. It gives us this wonderful mobility to touch on topics we feel passionate about.”
Activism has played a fundamental role in past expeditions led by Minnesotans. The objective of Steger’s Antarctic crossing was to push for environmental protections for the continent, including a ban on oil and mineral exploration. Largely due to Steger’s efforts, 24 nations ratified the ban in 1991. His journey was a genius media coup, the first of its kind to give followers a vicarious adrenaline rush while simultaneously introducing them to issues that previously felt too far removed from their daily lives. Steger’s firsthand accounts illuminated issues such as melting ice caps and climate change before they reached the mainstream. (Speficially, he pointed to the Larsen Ice Shelf, now mostly gone.)
Dave and Amy Freeman, the explorers who lived for 365 days starting September 2015 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, used their journey to “bear witness” for the Boundary Waters, which are under threat from proposed copper-nickel mining in the area’s watershed.
“When we were in the Boundary Waters for a year, we learned that it’s the basics that matter: food, water, shelter, companionship, and a sense of purpose,” says Dave Freeman, who grew up near Chicago but has lived in Grand Marais most of his adult life. “A sense of purpose is critical. We could be out there for no other reason than to be out there, but the underlying purpose provides so much.”
The proposed mine is still moving forward, so it’s difficult to quantify the Freemans’ impact, but their trip garnered more than 20,000 Instagram and Facebook followers and was instrumental in educating people about the risks of the proposed mines. Sponsored by the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, their journey generated more than 100 stories in the media. The Freemans’ book, A Year in the Wilderness, published last September, is already in its second printing.
Many would argue that the role of technology has become so ubiquitous in expeditions, however, that it’s impossible to get off the grid today. Dave Freeman begs to differ. “Technology is positive,” he says, noting the accessibility it grants people to virtually experience wild places that often require preservation. “We’re still having a wilderness experience with risks and hardships,” he says, “but now we are giving people a view of these places and our experience through a new lens—using that to try and do something good, like protecting a wild place.”
It’s important to remember, adds Bancroft, that just because expeditions can be beamed into classrooms and living rooms in real time, it doesn’t mean they are easy. “I’m always happy when a Skype interview is crummy,” she says. “It makes it feel like it is difficult because it is difficult. It’s hard to talk on certain nights when it’s 40 below and you just want to eat something and go to bed.”
Aaron Doering attaching a solar panel to his pulk during his Changing Earth expedition in the highlands of Iceland in March 2017. The solar panel charges a portable battery tucked inside the pulk as Doering skis 8-10 hours between camps.
Photo Courtesy LT Media Lab/University Of Minnesota
Aaron Doering, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Learning Technology Media Lab, has spent about 15 years perfecting online learning technologies while leading expeditions from the Arctic to Africa. Minnesota explorers have been speaking to school children and creating online curriculum since the 1980s, but Doering has taken those lessons from his precursors’ playbooks and made an online template out of them for future educators. He has combined research-based lesson plans with real-time storytelling methods from the field, including online chats, audio, and videos (think: drone footage of Doering and his crew crossing the Arctic, or a 360-degree, click-and-drag view of what it’s like skiing across the Icelandic landscape). His Geographic Information Systems platform lets users store and analyze maps and geographic data from all over the world.
“I’ve broken it down into a recipe,” Doering says. The result opens up teaching strategies and “adventure-learning” principles to explorers who want to create their own online environment. “One big thing I’ve learned is that students are fascinated by the unknown,” Doering says, “and the buzz around live expeditions gives them motivation to continue to learn.”
One of Doering’s recent projects, AgCultures, funded by Inver Grove Heights-based farmers’ co-op CHS, explores how we produce, process, and transport food around the world. Doering and his team traveled the globe, interviewing veterinarians, farmers, and scientists from the Mississippi River corridor to Argentine cattle ranches, capturing stories about the ways these scientists and farmers influence the future of agriculture—including everything from how to finance a farm to how crops get genetically modified. The accompanying curriculum for grades 5-12 on AgCultures.com is split into four sections: research-based lessons, an online collaborative storytelling space, an online chatroom with the expedition team, and a free classroom management system to track students’ work.
“Do I look at myself as an explorer?” asks Doering. “I look at myself as an educator who has a passion for the cultures where I travel.”
Virtual reality, no matter how lifelike, however, is no replacement for real exploration. There’s nothing like being forced out of your comfort zone to speak bad Mandarin in China, or to eat a rubbery witchetty grub in Australia, or to ride horseback through blinding snow in Siberia. Explorers are, by default, boundary pushers and risk takers. But, as Buettner says, they are also knowledge seekers—striving to learn more about the world and even themselves.
That’s why 25-year-old Ian Andersen, the nephew of Bret Andersen, one of Buettner’s teammates on his 1986 cycling expedition from Alaska to Argentina, struck out on his own last August to cycle a 15,000-mile route similar to the one his uncle took, starting from the same place and ending at the same destination. The trip, “Ride with Ian,” has raised $20,000 for spinal cord rehabilitation over Andersen’s social media channels. (In 2013, one of his best friends was paralyzed from the chest down when a drunk driver hit her Las Vegas cab.)
Almost 30 years later, Andersen is encountering the same character-chiseling elements his uncle and Buettner did, from brown bears in Alaska to sweltering 90-degree heat in Colombia (“It felt like 150,” he says). Two vast differences, however, are the number of cyclists Andersen has met along the way—he estimates 200, whereas the Buettner team ran into six or seven—and the omnipresence of technology.
Andersen near Caleta Tortel, Chile, on the Carretera Austral highway during his “Ride with Ian” expedition.
Photo by Ian Andersen
“I’m piercingly lonely, yet hyperly connected,” says Andersen, who, unlike his uncle, set out alone. “This idea of wanting to show your Facebook friends and Instagram followers how great this life is, is toxic in a lot of ways.” On the other hand, he adds, “You’ve got to consider how useful Google Maps are.”
To keep the technology in check, Andersen abides by a few guidelines: “I make it a point not to rely on my phone, and I ask locals what the best campsite and best restaurants are. I engage them. That’s the whole point of why I’m doing this.”
As for adding his name to the storied legacy of Minnesota explorers, Andersen isn’t even aware there is one.
“To be honest, I don’t know much about Minnesota explorers besides Dan Buettner,” he laughs. “But I do consider myself to be an explorer in that I’m a pusher of boundaries. The purpose of exploration is to synthesize ideas and to see how different communities are living.”
As his journey rolls to a close, Andersen can’t imagine himself returning to office culture and wants to put his architecture career on hold. He’d like to launch another expedition, in the name of something else—maybe climate change.
“If I were to continue this, ‘quote,’ exploration lifestyle, I would do what Dan Buettner did—pick a cause, then go out into the world to research it,” he says. “It was pretty striking to travel through Alaska and learn that something like 99 percent of Alaska’s glaciers will be gone within 100 years. I’ve had such a great time on this trip that it doesn’t seem fair to future generations that they won’t be able to experience it.”
His sentiment echoes that of Will Steger, who, at age 73, has spent a lifetime educating Minnesotans about the effects of climate change. And while there may not be any poles left to tag, Steger always finds a way to quench his thirst for discovery.
“Exploring, to me, has a physical, mental, and spiritual aspect to it,” he says. “There are plenty of frontiers left. I’m doing a solo, 1,000-mile trip to the Canadian Barrens [the tundra in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories] at the end of March, and I won’t see a person for 70 days”—except for, of course, that crucial resupply pilot. “It’s a different way to push the edge,” Steger adds, “and learn a lot about myself.”