Explorer Ralph Plaisted: The Incredible Story Of The Minnesota Insurance Salesman Who Reached The North Pole
This story begins with a post from Milwaukee blogger Michael Plaisted:
My dad’s first cousin, Ralph Plaisted, passed away in Minnesota at the age of 80. Back in the ‘60s, he was drinking in a bar with some friends and they all decided they would try to get to the North Pole by snowmobile. CBS newsman Charles Kuralt went along on their first try with a film crew, resulting in a prime time special and Kuralt’s first book: To the Top Of the World: The Adventures and Misadventures of the Plaisted Polar Expedition, March 28 - May 4, 1967. They failed that year, but made it the next, in 1968; becoming the first explorers to indisputably make it to the Pole (Robert Perry said he did it, but no one outside of his party was entirely sure). So, he got an obit in papers all over the country. Cool.
Ralph came to visit us in New Holstein once after he made it – as I recall he had some speaking engagement in Fond du Lac. He stayed overnight and, actually, I was kicked out to the couch so he could use my bedroom. I don’t think Dad knew him very well; I think he lived a little further north in Minnesota from where Dad grew up in Mora. But he was a nice enough guy, just salt of the earth with a little hard-earned celebrity under his belt.
That’s my family’s little brush with history and fame – a guy, a few beers and some snowmobiles.
Mr. Plaisted got the idea for a North Pole trek after becoming an avid snowmobiler in the early 1960s, not long after the machines were invented. He was such an enthusiast, Tobkin said, that his drinking buddies challenged him to prove their worth. He did -- by blazing a 200-mile snowmobile trail from Ely, Minn., to St. Paul, by entering the International 500 snowmobile race from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to St. Paul and by setting off to the North Pole in 1967.
That first expedition, financed by 87 companies, fell far short when the ice began to break up. His six-man second try, which included a lawyer, a schoolteacher, a doctor and a movie cameraman, relied on four 16-horsepower Bombardier Ski-Doo snowmobiles. The 40-year-old adventurer had backing from 50 companies, which donated $132,000, as well as $70,000 worth of equipment, including synthetic outfits based on Eskimo designs. "He was a great salesman," said [stepdaughter Lesle] Tobkin, of Watertown, S.D.
More from Canada.com:
A year before, Plaisted had been turned back by too many open stretches of water and deteriorating ice conditions. In 1968 he hoped to avoid that problem by setting out a month earlier. On March 7, 1968, the expedition ventured onto the crumbling, shifting ice pack and motored north. It was -52 C. The Arctic's extreme cold wasn't totally unfamiliar to the Minnesotans. They knew what -40 felt like from their experiences racing around the snowswept plains of their home state, immediately south of the border with Manitoba. Day after day they would now battle mind-numbing cold in the -30 to -60 C range.
Even in camp, huddled in their tents beside heaters, the cold got to them, Plaisted recalled when I interviewed him years later in Lloydminster. Their clothing -- cold-weather suits hand-stitched in Grand Rapids, Minn., -- is really what kept them alive.
Helmets were out of the question. Ditto for life-jackets, even though falling through cracks in the ice was a constant worry. Falling into the water would probably be a death sentence anyway. Survival suits had yet to be invented. It was hard to forget the Arctic Ocean was more than 3,500 metres deep, as they travelled, ate, slept and jumped across open leads of water from one ice pan to another
From the New York Times:
Mr. Plaisted, an insurance man by profession, was an adventurer by nature who once uprooted his family to live for 15 months in the Saskatchewan wilderness. The Plaisteds slept in tents until they finished building cabins, and they dined on what they caught, picked and grew. ... “I was 10 when he took me out of school,” Ms. Tobkin said. “We ate blackberries and cranberries and made soap out of lye and bear fat.” ...
He often reminisced about his journey to the pole, Ms. Tobkin said, though it was an adventure he was not about to repeat. “Boy, it’s cold up there,” he said upon his return, as reported by The St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I don’t know why anyone would want to do it again.”
And from the St. Cloud Times:
Plaisted had his own insurance agency in St. Paul and was an avid snowmobiler when he got into a late-night discussion with a new friend, internationally known paleopathologist Art Aufderheide, who was thinking of doing a dog sled trip through the Northwest Territories.
“I’ll go, but why don’t we use snowmobiles?” Plaisted replied.
He said Aufderheide’s answer was, “Ralph, if those snowmobiles are as good as you say they are, they could get you all the way to the North Pole.”
That started the ball rolling.
“One of his favorite phrases was ‘do something — even if it’s wrong.’ He didn’t like to wait,” Pitzl said.
Daughter Leslie Tobkin said he drilled one lesson into his children:
“He always told us, if you really want to do something, you need to make it happen and do it. If you wait for that someday, you might not have the health, and your ideals change.”