This September anyone who sponsors a boat in Wilderness Inquiry’s Great River Race can compete against world-renowned explorer Ann Bancroft. On September 16, Bancroft will take place in the seventh annual event, which starts and ends at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul. The course covers a 6-mile loop on the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Event participants take in beautiful views from the water, get a solid workout, and go home with a story about how they raced one of the world’s greatest explorers in the middle of her longest expedition to date.
A 61-year-old Minnesota native, Bancroft is a former Wilderness Inquiry guide who has notched a host of major adventure feats all over the world. In 1986, she became the first woman to reach the North Pole on foot and by sled after a 1,000-mile journey. Six years later, she led the first all women’s team to ski across Greenland. In 1993, she led a 67-day ski expedition to the South Pole, becoming the first woman to cross the ice to both the North and South Poles. In 2001, she and polar explorer Liv Arnesen completed a 94-day expedition to ski and sail across Antarctica. Two years ago, she and Arnesen began a global quest that will take more than a decade to complete. They call it the Access Water Expedition.
The Access Water Expedition is an adventure that will feature women explorers from six continents paddling down waterways on every continent, with a trip to Antarctica completing the project in 2027. The first leg of the expedition was completed in 2015 with a 60-day, 1,500-mile paddle down the Ganges River in India. The second leg of the project takes place this fall on the 2,320-mile Mississippi, with Bancroft and her crew beginning their paddle in Itasca and then paddling down sections of the river all the way to New Orleans in mid-November.
Along the way, Bancroft and her team will be doing educational outreach. The goal is to lead a conversation with youth about the issue of fresh water around the world. More than 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water and more than 3 million people die each year from water related health problems. The U.S. has plenty of fresh water issues of its own. For example, the Mississippi River contains pollution that spills out into the Gulf of Mexico during the summer and can create a “Dead Zone”—an area devoid of life that may cover 6,000 square miles. That’s a space larger than the state of Connecticut.
On the way down the Mississippi River, Bancroft and her colleagues will be stopping in towns to partner with Wilderness Inquiry’s traveling Canoemobile program. Canoemobile offers local youth and others the opportunity to learn about local waterways by paddling in Wilderness Inquiry’s 24-foot, handcrafted, cedar strip canoes. These are the same canoes Bancroft and crew will paddle down the Mississippi and the same canoes that Great River Race participants will paddle as they take in views of Crosby Farm, Pike Island, and historic Fort Snelling.
The Great River Race helps raise crucial funds for the Canoemobile program. In 2016 Canoemobile reached 30,000 people in 56 communities. Companies, groups, families, or nonprofits can participate in the Great River Race by sponsoring a canoe for $3,000. Larger $10,000 sponsorships allow participants to present at the event. Sponsors can fill their canoe with up to nine paddlers. A tenth paddler provided by Wilderness Inquiry will be the boat’s captain.
Even people who don’t sponsor a canoe can take part in the event. Wilderness Inquiry needs dozens of volunteers to help wrangle boats, fill in as paddlers, and clean up after the event, which starts at 8:30 A.M. and ends at 1:00 P.M. Last year more than 350 people paddled, volunteered, or watched the race. This year, Wilderness Inquiry has 30 24-foot Voyageur canoes ready to launch with energetic teams!