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Black Explorers Connect to Shared History in Polar Academy: ‘You Can’t Be Something if You Can’t See Something’

Participants in the free winter training plan to bring back the skills they learned and share them with their communities.

bipoc polar academy 1(Photo/Eric Larsen)
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In 1909, a long-forgotten American explorer named Matthew Henson stood on the top of the world. Henson had traveled for months across Greenland’s frozen landscape to reach the North Pole with Commander Robert Edwin Peary.

Most members of the expedition turned back during the arduous journey, but Henson — born in Maryland to sharecropper parents — was largely forgotten for a simple reason: He was Black. Historians continue to argue if Henson and Peary were actually the first people to reach the North Pole. But there’s no doubt that Henson’s contributions were sidelined.

“When the first human footprints were pressed into the snow at the most northern point on the planet all that remained of the original corps were Peary, 40 dogs, four native Inuit hunters and an African-American man who would be forgotten by history for almost half a century,” National Geographic wrote in 2014.

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Polar explorer Matthew Henson, who became the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909; (photo/Creative Commons)

That history became a source of shared connection for nine athletes who traveled to Minnesota this January to learn from polar explorer Eric Larsen. With the backing of German brand Jack Wolfskin, Larsen offered free training to modern explorers who are also community leaders for Black Americans, indigenous tribes, and people of color (BIPOC). A celebration of Henson as a co-discoverer of the North Pole was at “the heart of the course,” organizers said.

“You can’t overestimate the power of being around people you have so much in common with,” said academy participant and outdoor educator Lizelle Jackson. “It opened my eyes that there’s a ton of people of color doing this.”

bipoc polar academy
(Photo/Polar Academy)

Confidence to Tackle the Cold

Even among serious mountaineers or backcountry skiers, polar exploration can seem like a strange pursuit requiring arcane skills and a willingness to embrace prolonged struggle.

But that attitude comes from a lack of access, Larsen told GearJunkie in November while gathering applicants for his polar academy. After years of building his own career, Larsen is “focused now on lifting others up and making this style of travel accessible to everyone.” Larsen also helped the participants understand how to pack and plan for prolonged winter expeditions.

So for nine freezing January days in Lake of the Woods, Minn., athletes like Jackson learned how to survive in the extreme cold. The talented surfer and co-founder of Color The Water now feels entirely different about tackling winter exploration.

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(Photo/Eric Larsen)

“Going into freezing temperatures before? I wouldn’t have gone,” she said. “Now I feel comfortable even if I don’t have the best gear. I know how to bring in a hot bottle to help keep me warm in the sleeping bag.”  

It wasn’t quite as new for Marcus Shoffner, an experienced mountaineer and founder of the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition in Pittsburgh. Shoffner already teaches a winter camping workshop, and will likely add a new class for polar exploration, bringing even more outdoor knowledge to his community.

Unlike some instructors, Larsen now feels like a friend that Shoffner can call on for help. As more explorers of all colors build connections with each other, it allows all athletes to find new reasons to get outside. “I can tell my students: You should go and do this, and there’s a network to help you do it,” Shoffner said.

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Marcus Shoffner; (photo/Eric Larsen)

Building on History

Celebrating the accomplishments of Matthew Henson isn’t just about honoring the past. It’s a reminder not to repeat the same mistakes with modern athletes building on his legacy, the workshop’s participants said.

Shoffner, for example, will use the skills he gained in the Polar Academy in his quest to complete the Explorers Grand Slam. This lofty goal requires ascending the highest mountain on every continent, as well as reaching the North and South poles.

“This course that I completed is really the impetus of me being able to accomplish all these things,” he said.

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Lizelle Jackson, left, with Emily Ford, middle, and L. Renee Blount; (photo/Eric Larsen)

For Jackson, experiencing a platform for athletes of color was just as important as the skills themselves. She got to share her time in the snow with other talented adventurers, like climber and storyteller L. Renee Blount or long-distance longboarder Miles Kipper.

“It was really special to hear from my co-adventurers about how they felt,” Jackson said. “Maybe this gets more total newbies out into this world.” 

Shoffner put it even more simply. “You can’t be something if you can’t see something,” he said.

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