North Shore Vibe Presents with Annie Aggens (Polar Explorers)










Interview Transcript:  

Hey, everyone, welcome to North Shore Vibe presents, where we interview incredible people within the Chicago North Shore community. My name is Jay and I am the lucky owner of North Shore by an eco friendly apparel brand that is here to protect, represent and give back to Lake Michigan, the shoreline in the North Shore community. I encourage you guys to check us out at that can follow us on Instagram at the North Shore vibe. You guys might be able to hear the lake in the background.


That is what we're here to protect. Five percent of our proceeds are donated to nonprofits that do their best to keep Lake Michigan beautiful for future generations. Thank you for your love and support. This is our first show, and I am over the moon to have our first guest. This is someone that I originally met at a beach cleanup this fall. She and I have had a couple of phone conversations over the past few weeks. And in my opinion, it's someone that really epitomizes the North Shore vibe mission someone that protects and gives back to our planet, someone that represents this community so well.


So without further ado, I would like to welcome Ms. Annie Aggens. Welcome to the show. And thank you for joining us. Oh, our pleasure. I wish we could get a little more people out of the snow, but we might be waiting, be able to get those going again. How are you doing? I'm doing really well, enjoying this Saturday. We got a little bit of sky and some snow on the ground. I think this is the first sunshine we've had about this.


Probably that means this interview is going to look good. So let's go ahead and dive right in. I want to hear a little bit about yourself. Talk to me about your connection to the North Shore and let's see where we go from there. Well, gosh, I was born just a few blocks that way at Evanston Hospital and I was raised here and I'm sure it will not. And I went to neurosurgeon today for elementary school, junior high and high school after I didn't leave.


My father had been a teacher there and really was committed to the mission that they have their excellent school and and have lived here mostly my whole life, So you liked it enough that you determine this is where you want to raise your family and spend time as an adult? You're not really in that order. How did that work? Did you ever want to live anywhere else? Yeah, I sure did. I never thought that I would be here.


Is thought surely I'll go out west or somewhere more interesting than the suburbs of Chicago? And I did. I lived out in Montana with my husband to be kind and ended up coming back here so he could go to art school. And we lived in Evanston and we just you know, you can settle down and your roots go a little deeper and my family's here. So this is really knows what the future will bring, right? Because we're going day by day.


Twenty, twenty one for only a week. What's next? And I think you probably have one of the coolest jobs of anybody I've probably ever spoken to, especially when you look through the lens of adventure outdoors and helping nature. Tell me a little bit more about what you do, how you got into that and why you're so OK with doing an outdoor interview the first week of January. Um, well, I'm the director of Polar Explorers, which is a small company that organizes guys polar expeditions.


And it's really unique and it's really exciting and challenging and fun and all the things I hope to get out of the job rewarding. We meet some absolutely incredible people. And it's a sister company of the Northwest Passage, which has been around since nineteen eighty four here. And we're not funded by Rick. And how did I get into it? Well, I had I had always been interested in wild places in the wilderness, going back to my parents, my grandparents on both sides of the Colorado River.


My dad is a geologist and and protector of all places, and my mom. So you were you were bred for adventure. So that's kind of what you're telling? Yeah. Maybe from their younger years, they both became more sedentary, but it was their spirit of adventure. And and so when I started doing things like working for the YMCA and wanting to spend more and more time leading outdoor trips, and they never said that was a crazy idea or no, you really should work in a consulting job.


They sort of encourage not ended up with me leading trips and for a variety of places, including the Northwest Passage. Where I work for a number of years before I started working with polar explorers, which we sort of split off with. So when you started doing these expeditions, that young was it running through your head that this is pretty cool? I can see myself doing this forever? Or did you have a vision of going to school and doing something like an office job?


Well, the thought process was I love summer breatk who does how to extend summer break so that it's your full time so that you can have these awesome summer jobs extended. So, you know, I do look into places like Knolls and Outward Bound we do have those opportunities here in different environments. And I did become an instructor. But no, I was you know, I was looking at the teachers and doing all sorts of other things and just followed that.


I was working my way on my way and eventually. Now, you said your first and your first professional adventure was with the Northwest Passage. No, I would say that my first my first meeting as a as a wilderness guide or leader was with a camp in Wisconsin, northern Wisconsin, Boulder Junction. And those were some pretty phenomenal steps that we were going to some very wild places with small groups. And I don't think there's anything better than getting to be a camp counselor or a leader or in some way in charge of youth when you have limited resources, basically yourselves and in the wild, and because you're never going to have more responsibility taking care of other people's kids and you're never going to have to be more resourceful, more creative and more flexible and resilient.


You know, all of the things that you as a parent help your kids get to learn those things that you you absolutely have to be. And not only that, it's fun to be doing those kids, and they're that way naturally. And how old were you when you first when you were 17?


So were you told you it was legal? How old were the kids you were leaving? And were you nervous going into taking a group like that and having that responsibility on your hands, or was that just the way you've grown up and you felt natural being out there? Well, I was the environment at the camp where you feel very much like you're part of the larger community and you have a lot of support. I wasn't nervous. I was leading kids who I think were probably 13 or 14, actually just a few years older that were not far enough, far ahead.


But but I had quite a bit more experience in them and took the position really seriously, as most of my colleagues did when we were, you know, in our first year of college. But but it was it was it was phenomenal. And I was put in situations that I had to really think fast on my feet and all these things that that really have served me well later. Even today, I tell my kids like there's no better job than that.


You know, I sure hope my kids get a chance to do that, even though the pay is paltry. The amount of experience that you put in your your your memory bank and your experience, I think is really significant. I just I can't imagine me telling my parents 17 of those 14 year olds out in the woods with no resources except relying on myself. I think we had some extended family members thought my parents were a little bit crazy. It worked out.


So talk to me. You mentioned Northwest Passage, which is also out of Wilmette and started by a Wilmette resident. Yeah. So what do what is the Northwest Passage in Northwest Passage started out as a fun fact for people like Rick, who had an adventurous spirit and he wanted to meet like minded people. This is back in the 80s. So there was really no Internet yet, I don't think or certainly no websites on a regular basis had. But he started outing club and they would have monthly meetings at a bar in Chicago.


And and it was just like minded people getting together in the boundary waters or trips to the to go climbing or rafting or skiing in the wintertime. And it was really successful. It was the only thing like get around. And and so that's how the Northwest Passage started. And it's just sort of stayed around as outdoor recreation has become more and more popular and there are more opportunities for people to go out and do it. It's much easier to find an outdoor adventure these days, but that's what that is.


And and Rick Sweitzer himself as a family. There's also some on your show. I will. I'll follow up with Rick. How did you get into that circle connected? Was that something just growing up that you knew Rick did these things? You know, it's funny that you should ask that.


There is a connection between my family and Rick's that was back to the 60s with his school, and he went to Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Wilmette, my parents happened to be involved in the youth programs there. Now, I didn't know any of that. And my parents had long since not really kept in touch with it. And and then one day out of the blue, when I was in my 20s, I got a phone call and it was Rick and I didn't really know who he was.


And he said, well, listen, either we need to know what this is, who I am and as and aside this is this is my connection to your parents a long, long, long time ago. And anyways, I run this company and that and we are in this position and we should be interested. And he knew that I was in the area and that I had just come back from a long trip because one of the interns at Northwest Passage at the time knew me as well.


And so I went with him to his position because, let's face it, I wasn't doing this. And so this is no big deal. Well, I had seen a van in Wisconsin. That said, the Northwest Passage, Wilderness Excursions and Outdoor Adventures, Wilmette, Illinois. And I thought to myself, well, I'm from there. That's why. Unfilmed. So it kind of feels like, OK, you're that guy. I've seen your van. I've seen your van.


I see the company. OK, all right. I know what I know what this is very cool.


So then the evolution of to Polar Explorers. So then so then I was working with the Northwest Passage, getting interest right here out of this park, a lot of trips in the Midwest, climbing and paddling and hiking, and also some of their signature trips in Greece, a couple of other places, which was fabulous. But, you know, my trips and my experiences in the Canadian north really were drawing me back there. And one of the things that makes the Northwest Passage so unique is that and it's it was one of the first companies in the world to organize.


And guide a North Pole Expedition once you start going to the north, I guess if you're like you just kind of want to keep a little bit further north and have or a little bit longer doing a little bit something different than the previous ones. And and so working at the Northwest Passage was amazing because we had this expedition and it was sort of like, this is crazy, this company, the small company in Illinois, just guided a North Pole expedition.


Not only that, but it was the first company in and organizing guided the first North Pole dogsled expedition for amateur adventures that anybody could train for. It's like you right at the time. And so so in two thousand, I had the opportunity to help organize and guide an expedition. And of course, I jumped at that. And so at that point, you said you enjoyed the Canadian wilderness. I think you had this inclination that these colder weather adventures was something that was up your alley.


And then you go to the North Pole and now this is kind of your full time gig that you start to more expeditions up there. Yeah. What about that place? What about that trip for the series of trips up north? Really just connected what was said. Screw the warm weather that everybody else likes. This is where I'd like to go and I'd like to share that. You know, there were there are a couple of things. One of them was its history.


And I have to say that on the way up to one of my summer canoe trips for the we at the Museum of Man and Nature, which is the Natural History Museum in Winnipeg, and I took this book called Two Books. One of them was the Company Adventures, which was the first in a trilogy. About the other one was the Arctic Rail, which is a history of the exploration of the high north by the is to the to the time when the North Pole was first reached.


And I read both of those on that trip and it just fascinated me what was going on in the high Arctic, what adventures and misadventures and amazing people were exploring these really remote and far places and how they got their names and the stories behind the names of these bays and these capes and these islands and the significance of the North Pole or in some people's minds, the non-significance of it. Where do you guys start from that starting point on average, because I know you mentioned the ice drifts, which I imagine can change the duration of the trip.


Yes. How long does it normally take for you guys to get there and back? How is that? Very great question. So we have a couple of different expeditions are most popular. And the one that I'll refer to is the last degree from eighty nine degrees north to 90 to the last degree of latitude as opposed to skiing all the way from Canada or Russia. Yeah, and that one usually takes us about 10 days on the ice, maybe a little bit less if we have great conditions.


It never seems that we get to north north drift. Sometimes we might go to bed and we might wake up a mile or two closer to the pole sometimes, but much more often seems that it's either to the east or to the west or to the south. So you go to bed and you wake up a couple of miles further away from the pole than when you start and it when it's bad, you can spend all day skiing your dog, sledding to the North Pole, go to bed and wake up further south and where you started the previous day.


So you're just getting a net negative all the time. And then when that happens, you you can't make it. How do you manage that message to the people that are everybody knows great job, guys. We skied six miles or two miles further than we are. It's really tricky when you are on, you know, from day seven to 10 of the expedition, you cross the same line of latitude three different times. You know, you begin to feel like Groundhog Day and is actually really tricky to keep the team morale up in instances like that.


And I'm not sure that you have to, because this is one of the things that makes the North Pole unique. And it's fun to experience it or I'd say it's interesting for everybody to experience it. And you just hope that you get to experience a taste of it without, you know, without getting dragged south too much. But it is what it is. We're not in control. And that's that's a really beautiful thing about it. I love when we talk on the phone.


We talked about how preparation and the mindset and you mentioned, unlike Everest, this is really a it can be a solo expedition. You've got to put one foot in front of the other. You might have a little pod you guys are part of the day. That mental preparation is this. So it is. It's absolutely important. You have to prepare yourself for it to live spontaneously, to live in the hour, sometimes in the minute, and that each day is a fresh day and that it might be you know, it may be really challenging and it might feel like Groundhog Day, but you just have to not only take each day as it comes, but you also have to relish in those hard moments and relish in the fun moments.


Because as I said earlier, this is one trip unlike any other where it is about the journey. And so if you just put your nose to the grindstone and you don't think about anything about reaching the pole, then you get to the pole and you realize that was an amazing trip. But I didn't really appreciate all the things along the way. That's that's what we try to that's something that can be hard to teach people, you know, say, hey, guys, today's going to be an amazing day.


Let's really make the most of it, because getting to the North Pole is nothing more than putting one step further. Now, I've got to ask just because I'm curious and I'm a sucker to Hollywood depictions of the cold but, Polar Bears. Yeah. . Yeah. Yeah, not many. We went a good almost 25 years without any polar bear sightings for sure. And then in 2017 on an amazing expedition with a really great team.


I was telling a story actually about a previous explorer in my tent and I heard a crunch outside and it didn't sound like somebody walking around. It was just one strange crunch and there was no wind, so it wasn't nylon flapping. And I said to my team, hang on a sec. And I kind of sat there. Well, I don't know, I don't think. Yeah, right, but I'm just going to just keep my head out.


So I got out of the vestibule, opened up the door and my head up. And sure enough, about about 12 feet away was a pretty good sized Polar Bear. Yeah, really close. What was your what's your reaction on that? What's what's protocol when that happens? The protocol is to make noise, to try to scare it, scare it away. I you know, and I reached quickly from our flare gun, which is a noise maker, which we have for this purpose and use that.


And that scared the bear away. But you know that there was not aggressive. It was it was curious and it was and it stuck around for a little while. And it also visited one of our other teams that we found out later, just making the rounds, making the rounds, smelling all the the pee and pope holes and and just checking us out. Yeah, but it was it was an adrenaline rush for sure.


It was a cool interaction, cool interaction, but it led to several sleepless nights. You just had to kind of monitor because does a bear when you're traveling like that, it just kind of follow along. Well, if it does, then it's a little problematic. But yes, it showed it's curiosity it didn't come by the next night or the following night. But, you know, we certainly had to watch out. Yeah. And we are prepared with both lethal and importantly non-lethal deterrents.


But you have to be on guard for a while and not being on guard is it's a big drain on your energy. Yeah. And there's limited you know, you have to you can always regenerate your energy by eating, drinking and sleeping. But if your sleep is taken away from that or any one of the other parts of that equation and, you know, your your reserves to go downhill, talk to me about climate change.


That's something at North Shore Vibe we're very passionate about. We're about a hundred yards away from Lake Michigan here, and that is what we work to protect. I know you are very active with polar climate change, which I would imagine as the weather severity is so different that the recognition of climate change becomes that much more obvious for your duration of going up to the poles, have you visually have felt changes to what's going on up there. What's that like for you?


So the Arctic in general and certainly the North Pole is ground zero of climate change. It is this really, as I said, fragile place that's covered by a thin blanket of snow and ice over a deep, dark ocean. And and it's changing rapidly. In fact, it's changing much faster than any models predicted. And so we are seeing changes. We're seeing changes at sort of a global not I don't mean global level, but like a satellite level where we can see the whole Arctic in one picture and we can see how the extent of the ice up there is shrinking every year.


And it grows back during the winter to a certain extent. But every year it shrinks more and more and more. And we also know from other studies that the depth of it is shrinking as well as the extent of it. And then we go up there and we see some of the effects ourselves with our own eyes. And if I were just to explain them, they might not seem so big. You know, there's not a lot of snow on the ice.


Why is there not a lot of snow? Because that ice just formed. It melted during the summer. It just formed back in November. And it's only been around for four or five months, you know, so it's very it's first year ice. It hasn't had time to have snow accumulate on top of it. Now, what does that mean for us guiding expeditions? Well, one, it's it can be harder sometimes for us to find our water because we're melting snow for our water.


So we have to walk further to a place where it's drifted and kind of quarry that snow but to we used to use snow sticks, you know, big stakes that are about this long and they're really easy. You just go in, your tent is up. And now we'd actually stop carrying snow sticks because it's so common to find ice that's much younger, that doesn't have as much snow on it. We now use ice screws and those actually take a bit of time.


Your are burning that energy, you're out of energy and you're sitting around on your knees with your hand out of your mitt and you're screwing that in and then you've got to take it out in the morning. And so those are two little things that we've seen that are that seem small, but they're very, very telling about the state of ice. And so you're right, I am passionate about it. We all are everybody who works in the high Arctic.


I can't say everybody who works in the high Arctic, but all of my colleagues who guide polar expeditions understands the severity of it. And we understand that this profession of ours, my guiding expeditions over the ice by sky or dogsled to the North Pole might not exist, you know, in a generation which is wild to think, which is crazy. I would love my daughters to be able to ski over the pack ice and hear the sounds that it makes when it's forming a pressure ridge or see what it looks like to have the ice open before you or see the footprints of a polar bear as it searches for food.


And I'm fearful that they won't have that opportunity because the Arctic will have changed so much. What if you want to tell somebody that lives in the North Shore community one thing that we can do? So the one thing is that our actions here outside of Chicago absolutely affect the Arctic. And there is a really strong connection between what we do here and what we what we do up there, you know, asking yourself. Would this decision of mine today to either drive here or there, would it be good for the Arctic?


You know, you people might not know the specific reasons why it would be good for the Arctic, but they might say, you know, I should probably ride my bike by these organces that came from Japan or by trying to find something local what would be better for the Arctic. You know, it's going to be better for you in the end, too. But the small things and then also the big things we need drastic climate legislation changes.


So thinking about your elected officials and contacting people and letting them know what's important to you. All of these things are going to are going to make a difference. And we all need to embrace them. We all need to make these changes and we need to encourage others too. It's really a moral discussion. It's not political anymore. I know at once it seems that way. But this is a moral discussion about the planet that we're going to leave to our children and to their children.


And, you know, if we accept it as normal right now and if our children accept it as normal, the risk is that if we as each generation accepts what they inherit as normal, then we're just on a really slippery slope to a planet that you and I will recognize. And, you know, if we were to survive a couple generations, that goes for wild places to our public lands, our wilderness. If we each and if each generation accepts as normal what it inherits, then it's then it's just going to go down.


So we need to improve it, not just maintain it. We need to improve it and work in the opposite direction. And I think I've met a lot of people here that feel that this community can make their own normal. Yes. Which is encouraging because government legislation to a lot of people here, I think it seems like that's minimum, but we have the opportunity to do so much better by example. And if we as a community can start doing that and six billion people catch on in the next ten years, now we are doing something and we have you know, we have a lot of privilege in this community.


And with that privilege comes great responsibility. Know we are able to to to do things that a lot of people find really difficult, even if it's just deciding what products we want to purchase and what what food we're eating and this and that. And we have the we have the ability to influence the decisions that are made on a grander scale by our politicians. So you mentioned. Yeah, and it's a summer day. What do you and the family are doing to get that adventure kind of feel that thrill that you might feel on a pole expedition?


We live in a great place and we we do. I can not agree with the way we live in a wonderful place. So we wake up and we probably go to the beach, take our dog there, and then maybe go for a bike ride up north or maybe down to the city along the lakefront. Everything really evolves around the lake forest for us live and die off and go swimming and maybe go sailing or Supping. And if there are some winds coming out of the north and the water's warm enough, we might go surfing.


And I saw some people surfing this morning. at Dempster Beach. Yeah, Dempster's a good spot, about thirty two degrees and I imagine the waters by thirty six or thirty seven. Yeah. But there were probably a dozen people out. Yeah. Yeah. Well yesterday we we had 10 to 20 miles out of the north and so today it's nice and calm and those waves are nice and clean. Um so yeah we also go to the forest preserves and play with friends.


Yeah. Things like that. It's awesome. So I got two more questions for you to kind of in the segment if you could pick one destination to go. You have not been to before all your travel experience. What's on your bucket list. That would be your next trip. Wow. I have two that are on my bucket list. We can do, but I really want to go to Lake Baikal because is that it's in Russia. It's, um, a massive lake.


And I'd like to either ski or state. Which it's one of the places where you can go and have an experience of pulling across big frozen body of water. So to some people it might sound crazy, but in my profession it's a it's a regular expedition location. I haven't done it yet. I'd love to do that. I also love to explore Mongolia. What kind of weather? I don't know.


You just Mongolia. I have seen pictures of it.


I see the Yerts and I see the people out on these vast open expanses of land and it just kind of speaks. That looks awesome. And that works. What was your what's your favorite warm spot to go to or explore? Relaxing vacation? It could be hiking, whatever you want to do. What's your favorite? I love the canyon country of southeast Utah, um, and my my daughters really want us to take them to Greece to see that I can see why they're into Greek mythology.


But but the Northwest Passage also has a fabulous sea kayaking trip in Greece. So I know we've got a fleet of kayaks over there. Can they be young adventure explorers on the Northwest Passage trip? They could be experiencing really nice warm water right on the Mediterranean Great Lakes. I can see us. I'm dreaming in my head. I said, yes, you should. Really, really. My wife and I went to Santorini. OK, yes. We almost didn't come back.


We thought that was amazing. Yes. Yes. But we take you kayaking. I will take you up. I've been out on the lake with Northwest Passage, with the sea kayak. It was such a treat. Now you've got to paddle around Fira. That's right, Well. Lake Michigan to Fira. That's right. Last question is favorite coffee shop or restaurant place to grab a bite to eat on the North Shore? Oh, um, really great question. OK, so right after this, I'm going to the pancake house to pick up a frozen apple pancake for my dad.


We celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday. I asked him congratulations to you. He always celebrated his daughter's birthday by having an apple pancake at the pancake house. And, um, and, um, let's see where else. Um. Wow all sorts of places? Yeah, we had Thai food for dinner last night, I picked up a bundle of popcorn from the movie theater for those that are looking for an adventure.


I encourage you to check out Northwest Passage. Check out Polar Explorers, they do great stuff on the lake and all over the world. So thank you, everyone.