Winter Play: How polar explorer Ann Bancroft finds magic in the winter
It's 10 degrees outside, but this does not faze Ann Bancroft one bit.
“It scares people to be out in this frigid weather,” she tells me when I arrive to her 120-acre property near Stillwater. “But winter is an absolute gas."
“When you just get out and start moving, it's not so bad.”
Not so bad at all. The sun's out. The snow is sparkling. The sky is crisp and blue over the surrounding woods, where she's about to strap my feet into Hok skis. They're a kind of snowshoe-ski hybrid that look a bit like giant tongue depressors.
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“It's an easy entry point for someone who's never cross-country skied, or doesn't really want to, or wants something a little bit more zippy than a snowshoe, because you can go downhill too,” she says.
Bancroft uses her Hok skis every day in winter. She loves them because they're small — at most 57 inches long. They have universal bindings and require no special boots. They get you up hills as easily as they get you down.
“Anybody can come visit me and then hop in these,” she says.
And today that somebody is me. What better way to cap off our Winter Play series than to spend the morning outside with Bancroft. She has a lot of firsts under her belt — first woman to cross the North AND South Poles, and the first woman to traverse Antarctica using skis and sails.
Into the trees
From Bancroft's driveway, we glide into the woods. It's a lot like cross-country skiing at first. It's easy to get into that swishing rhythm on the well-worn tracks meandering through Bancroft's property.
"Beautiful! You've skied before,” she yells back to me.
It's true. I have skied a lot. But when I fall taking that first downhill, it looks like I'm lying.
“It’s the only time that’s going to happen, I swear!” I say this while struggling to my feet.
That's another lie: I'll fall two more times today, once I'm just standing there, and topple directly into a pile of deer dung.
Love of winter
I ask Bancroft why she loves winter so much. Over the years she's repeatedly risked hypothermia, frostbite and even death.
She says to love winter, you need to inhabit your inner child — the one without inhibitions and preconceptions about the cold. (But a child who's properly dressed and prepared for the weather, she warns me.)
“If you can act like you're a kid again — just think of that eight- or 10-year-old girl — and all is well,” she says.
“As soon as I walk out, my energy rises. I think we spend too much time going from the building to the car. And it is spectacular out here. It's quiet. It's hard for me to describe how much it just lifts my spirit,” says Bancroft.
My spirits are feeling pretty lifted too as we continue on.
Hok ski magic
Next, Bancroft shows me what these little Hok skis can do going uphill. A strip of fabric on the bottom that feels rough like a cat's tongue means they are frictionless as the ski moves forward. But push the ski backwards a little, say by taking a step, and the fabric digs into the snow just enough to give traction.
The key to going uphill, she explains, is to step with the skis rather than slide them. Using that technique, the hills feel more like hiking than skiing.
Bancroft and I keep trekking. About 45 minutes in, it's still cold, but the quiet and the snow are refreshing. I get what she means about basking in the electric combination of sun and frigid air. It just makes everything a little brighter, even in the darkest time of year.
As we near her house, Bancroft warns there's one more downhill to tackle before we can head in for some tea.
“Don't end up in the compost pile,” she cautions.
It’s a good incentive to make sure I don’t fall again.
And just like that, I'm at the bottom of the hill, still on my feet.
If you go
Where: The beauty of Hok skiing is that you can do it anywhere, including your own backyard, your local parks or on that barren golf course. While ski tracks make the cross-country skiing aspect of the sport easier, they’re not necessary. Lay some tracks of your own in that freshly fallen snow!
When: Any time there’s snow on the ground. Expect faster conditions on those downhills when it gets a bit icy.
How much: Hok skis run about $250, but some are as expensive as $500. Most sporting goods stores - like Scheels or REI - carry them, but you can also have them delivered by Amazon.
Not ready to commit? Rentals abound, including in Eden Prairie, in Tofte, and Ely.
What to bring: Wear warm clothes as you would downhill or cross-country skiing. And don’t forget your poles! Rental packages often include them, but if you buy, you’ll want to use ski poles you already have or buy a set, too.