By Hilary Oliver
Stomping Ground: Wilmette, Illinois
Job: Director of Polar Expeditions with Polar Explorers
Polar guide Annie Aggens is in love with the Arctic, and she wants you to fall in love with it, too. To educate people about climate change and inspire them to action, she founded an organization called ICECAP that educates about changing polar conditions. When she’s not guiding in the polar regions or prepping for an expedition, she’s canoeing with her husband, Dirk, and their two daughters.
When did you first become interested in polar expeditions?
I had been guiding summer canoe trips in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and each year they kept getting farther and farther north. And the farther north I went, the more I kept falling in love with it. The tales of early Arctic explorers and their quests to be first to reach the poles had a natural pull on me.
How did you get into polar guiding?
I worked with school programs so I’d have summers off to guide in northern Canada. Eventually, I started working with Northwest Passage and Polar Explorers so I could lead trips during the polar seasons and do some logistical work and help prepare our team members in the interim.
What is a typical day on the job?
If I’m on the trail, it starts with pulling out the GPS to see where we are, because when you’re on the Arctic Ocean, you’re constantly drifting. Hopefully it’s not far, or you’ve drifted north, but sometimes you’ve moved five or six miles off course. Then I light up the stove to melt snow for breakfast and drinks and start getting people out of bed, which can be tough when it’s -40 degrees out. We break camp, and then we’re skiing or dog sledding for six to ten hours a day. Sometimes, especially in the Arctic, the day can pass really quickly, because the conditions are constantly changing and you have to look out for polar bears. But sometimes, on solid ground in Antarctica or Greenland, just putting one foot in front of the other can get downright boring. The evening is spent recouping and keeping up with camp maintenance.
When I’m not on expedition, a typical office day is mostly corresponding with people who are interested in registering for a trip, or have already registered, about things like gear, training, and diet. I’m also working on logistics for upcoming expeditions, maintaining our gear inventory, booking flights, and coordinating travel and menus.
What challenges you at work?
The logistics, like chartering air services, securing dogs for a dog sledding team or getting permitting for a trip. It’s difficult to plan when you don’t know exactly how many people will be on a team, which affects how much fuel and food you’ll need. It’s like putting together a masterpiece puzzle without all the pieces.
What inspires you on the job?
Almost every person we take on an expedition falls in love with the Antarctic or the Arctic. These people develop a real love for this very extreme, very delicate place, and it’s so awesome to see them want to become advocates for the polar regions. Usually the people on our trips have been successful in their chosen careers because they’re driven and charismatic. When they go back home, they’ll be motivated to use their personality to share their experiences, and explain to their friends, families, and coworkers how the Arctic is changing and how their own actions affect it.
What have you learned from being one of the few women polar guides and explorers?
Don’t assume you can’t do something. Just go out there, take the challenges, and rise to the occasions, and you’ll be just as good as anyone else. We don’t always have the brute strength – especially upper body – of a lot of men, so I have to figure out different ways of maneuvering or problem solving. Female guides are often more creative.