Feature Interview with Renowned World Explorer: Milbry Polk

In honour of International Women’s Day, Adventure Canada speaks with Milbry Polk, an inspirational woman explorer, author, lecturer, board member of The Explorers Club, and founder of the Young Explorers Program, among many other titles. Learn how Milbry ended up becoming an explorer and what advice she has for women looking to follow their own passions. Milbry will also be joining Adventure Canada on the Greenland and Arctic Canada: High Arctic Explorer expedition in July of 2023.
Milbry Polk feature image

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk with a camel on her expedition through Egypt

Milbry Polk is a trailblazing woman explorer, who has never let her sex deter her from chasing after her dreams with a great amount of determination and grit, and she’s spent decades inspiring other women to do the exact same.

An explorer, published writer, photographer, lecturer, passionate rower, and mentor: these are just some of the titles Milbry holds to her name, as she’s dedicated her life to educating others about noteworthy women explorers from different epochs and diverse walks of life.

Milbry was born in England and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her father was a professor at Harvard University. Her experience with travelling began at an early age, moving to Cairo, Egypt for a while as a child, spending her summers there with her Egyptian godfather who built mudbrick houses in the desert.

Milbry daughter pic

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk (left) with her daughter Bree in southern Chile

“I guess, one of the most important things that happened was when I was about four, my nanny would drop me off every morning at the Cairo Museum and then take my younger sister to the zoo and so, I was put in the care of the guards at the museum,” Milbry explained as she reminisced about her unique childhood.

“There was nobody else there except me and the guards because the museum was all sandbagged because of the ongoing war and they let me play in all of the antiquities,” she continued to say.

Milbry declared that her unrelenting love for archaeology started from then on, adding her father was very instrumental in her life and from an early age took her camping, which included rafting down the Colorado River when she was thirteen and camping in the Egyptian deserts.

“We went everywhere, and I travelled a lot with him. So, as I started to get into my later teens, I was travelling in Iran, Yemen, and all kinds of interesting places, sometimes on my own and sometimes with him,” she said.

Milbry Yemen Party

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk standing at a women’s party in Yemen

Milbry describes her childhood as an incredibly active one, but also very academic, overall, a “very good one” nonetheless.

Finding Her Own Way

Then when Milbry was in her early twenties, newly graduated from Harvard with an anthropology degree, deciding what she wanted to do next, her life came to a crossroads. She recalls wanting to work for a year or two and then go on to Oxford for graduate school.

“That was my dream, and it had been my dream for many, many years,” Milbry stated.

Although, when she did get to New York, Milbry said it was a reality check because the job she wanted to get didn’t work out. She adds, it was tough being a woman during that time in the 70s as there weren’t many employment options.

“Most of my friends were all working in banks and that was not for me and so, I cast about. I volunteered, I had a job initially at the National Museum of the American Indian, and then I volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History,” she said.

Milbry says her volunteering job really laid the groundwork for a lot of travel work and expeditions she would later go on to do in places like Egypt, India, Tibet, the Arctic, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Alaska, Nepal, and Greenland.

Milbry alaska guide

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk (right) paddling in a kayak with a guide in Alaska

By this time, as a young adult she was also working as a photographer, publishing in magazines and was interested in pursuing film and anthropology at the museum.

Around that point, she produced the idea of having a film festival called the Margaret Mead Film Festival, as Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, was in residence at the museum she was volunteering at. Milbry acted as the director of the festival. She mentions that her correspondences with Margaret at this juncture in her life would go on to play a pivotal role.

“I was applying to Oxford, and I went up to her office one day and said, “You know, I'm applying to graduate school, and I went through my whole litany of things I wanted to do, and she folded her hands, looked at me and said, ‘Well, it's a really bad idea.’”

“And I said what? This is the whole thing I was going towards. She said, ‘You're going to go to graduate school, you're going to graduate, and you're going to probably do very well, but you'll have a debt. And you're a woman and you won't get a good job offer from any university that you want to go to. So, you'll end up in a second- or third-rate university.’”

Milbry said she remembers “crawling out of her office, devastated” and asking herself what she really wanted to do.

In that moment, she realized there was indeed something she had a fervent desire to do, which involved retracing the southern route Alexander the Great took when he set out for the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Milbry’s two heroes growing up were Alexander the Great and explorer Sir Richard Burton, and she read everything she possibly could about them.

Consequently, that is exactly what Milbry did. Once she eventually received support from the National Geographic Society after contacting them, she went back to Egypt and assembled a team. The group included three individuals from the Bedouin community, her second Egyptian godfather, who was an architectural engineer, an Egyptian scientist, her two cousins that were fluent in Arabic, and ten camels that would assist her on the expedition.

The expedition took two years to complete, due to having to cross a war zone, but created memories that would undoubtedly last a lifetime.

Milbry Western Desert

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk with camels and team members in the Western Desert in 2004

“That sort of sparked the next ten years of putting together my own expeditions and going off to different places, writing about it and photographing it,” she explained. “They were usually based on some historical question, so it was a very interesting time, not very lucrative, but very interesting.”

Milbry Pakistan

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk (third from the left) wearing blue traditional Pakistani clothing in Pakistan

Milbry Qara Oasis

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk (left) in Qara Oasis, Egypt

Breaking Gender Barriers within The Explorers Club

Milbry would go on to accomplish other notable feats, such as joining The Explorers Club as a board member, a club which did not allow women to join up until 1981.

Milbry had already lectured at the club before she was permitted to become a member of it. She also mentioned that Margaret Mead had previously written a letter to get her to become a member after her expedition, which didn’t go well.

“She called me into her office and said, ‘I have this letter from The Explorers Club, and they're not accepting you because you're a woman, but worse is, they're not accepting me as your proposer. So, to hell with them.’”

Milbry said the first time she lectured at the club, the room was packed with men and there was one woman sitting in the front, who happened to be Leila Hadley Luce, an American traveller and writer she became a close friend with from the event. Milbry said she vividly remembers Luce sitting in the front row, looking clearly mesmerized by what she had to say.

“She just looked at me and said, ‘marvellous, marvellous!’” Milbry said. “During my whole lesson, I was so petrified with all these men in the room, so I just focused on her.”

Milbry Explorers Club

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk (back) with Stephen Hawking (centre) and friends from The Explorers Club

Uplifting and Empowering Women Through WINGS WorldQuest

She went on to do much more programming with the club for years and then even founded a women's not-for-profit organization, called WINGS WorldQuest.

Milbry and her close friend from The Explorers Club, Luce, founded the organization in 2003, to shine a much-needed light on the under-recognized discoveries and accomplishments of women explorers, along with promoting women working in field sciences and inspiring the next generation of problem solvers.

The organization has created Women of Discovery Awards and Fellows Programs to provide what they saw as critical, unrestricted grant funding for women explorers and scientists actively out in the field.

“I wanted to pick people that were sort of on the verge of doing the next big thing and this would be the catalyst,” Milbry explained.

According to the organization, these opportunities facilitate the collaboration of women, aiming to ensure their ideas and insights are brought to the public, especially to young women and girls who are seeking inspiration and role models.

Milbry pointed out that she really wanted to provide other women with a strong platform and financial support to be able to share and perform their work in an effective way, since awards may not often be accompanied by monetary assistance.

Milbry said, during that time she raised tens of thousands of dollars to financially support women in the field, did all kinds of lectures at numerous schools, also wrote, and edited a dozen books, focusing on women explorers.

“[It’s] only in the last couple of years that people are even acknowledging that there were so many women explorers and now there are more books coming out on women explorers, which is fantastic,” she said.

Milbry has a library of about 1,600 volumes by and about women explorers. She’s hoping that most likely an academic institution of some type would want to take them and have it become the nucleus of a program on women's contributions to world history and exploration, which from her experience have been both “profound and mostly unacknowledged.”

Milbry Womens Explorer Library

© Photo courtesy of Milbry Polk

Milbry Polk in her library of women explorers

The Formation of the Young Explorers Program

Milbry has also worked with Stefan Kindberg, a fellow member of The Explorers Club and Adventure Canada, whom she founded the Polar Film Festival with. Adventure Canada has been a sponsor of the festival and each year, they collaborate with The Explorers Club to curate and host the event.

The festival showcases a diverse collection of feature-length films, documentaries, and shorts that feature issues and stories relevant to the world's polar regions, including films created by Northern artists. 

Through Milbry’s collaboration with Kindberg and Adventure Canada CEO, Cedar Swan, an idea to start the Young Explorers Program was realized in 2016. Adventure Canada and The Explorers Club partner to jointly offer the program aboard select expeditions.

The innovative program encourages and facilitates the spirit of exploration in young people interested in pursuits of science, art, and conservation.

In addition to providing the opportunity for youth to conduct individual research projects on board, the program aims to encourage personal and professional growth through direct experience, academic study, cultural exchange, and connection with members of Adventure Canada and Explorers Club communities.

Stakeholders say they believe and have even already seen the alumni of the Young Explorers Program go on to become the next generation’s leaders of thoughtful action and communication.

Young explorers

© Michelle Valberg

The 2016 inaugural cohort of the Young Explorers Program, aboard the Ocean Endeavour

Milbry said in their inaugural year, they had twelve members, who were “really extraordinary young people.”

“They've gone on to become board members of The Explorers Club, launching incredible careers. I really feel like it's an incubator, like other things I've done before, but this is a very specific incubator for the northern Arctic regions, allowing young people to have a dream, a vision of what they want to do, and giving them that time and space to do it,” Milbry elaborated.

“A lot of them have taken that and gone on and done the next steps and so, I really feel like - even though it's a short period of time, ten days or two weeks, we've really managed to impact quite a number of our graduates from the program,” she added.

As Milbry continues to inspire others from her own adventures and stories about great women explorers, she shares some advice.

“Figure out what it is that you really are interested in and really love to do, and you would be surprised by how many people can't articulate that,” she stated.

“The first thing to do is figure out what you really want to do and what really makes you want to get up in the morning, because you're so excited to learn more about X or Y or whatever,” she said.

Milbry also shares that she truly believes it is getting easier for newer generations of women to break into the fields they dream about working in and be able to demonstrate their capabilities.

Moreover, she said she hopes things will evolve to the point where everyone can look at others simply for who they are and what they can do, not just what their gender is.

“We haven't gotten to that point yet, but I'm hoping we will.”

Teaming with Adventure Canada, Once Again

Milbry will be joining Adventure Canada on another expedition in July of 2023, this time she’ll be embarking on the Greenland and Arctic Canada: High Arctic Explorer.The veteran explorer says she is once again looking forward to travelling with Adventure Canada, whom she defines as a “unique organization, that really values people above everything else.”

Milbry says it’s clear for her to see that, from the programs she’s seen put together, to the guests that elect to come back and the organization’s commitment to the communities in the north.

“I think it’s unparalleled. What they do is just a model for what all the other organizations like them should be doing and don't do,” she said.

Milbry said it’s been a real privilege for her to be on the expeditions with Adventure Canada and she’s also looking forward to the expedition since she hasn’t been able to travel with the company in a few years, partly due to COVID.

Milbry adds, she’s interested in seeing what recent environmental shifts have occurred in the north.

“I follow all the environmental discussions very closely and I know that there are a lot of changes and I'm very curious to see how that has impacted people and what kinds of solutions they're looking for,” Milbry stated.

About the Author

Taz Dhaliwal

Taz Dhaliwal

Marketing Copywriter

Taz has worked within the broadcast journalism industry across Canada for about five years with various news agencies, such as Global News, CTV News, and CityNews 680. Prior to that, she completed her post-grad in Journalism at Humber College in Toronto.

She has an undergraduate degree in Law and Society with a minor in Criminology and Contemporary Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University.

Taz is always looking to expand her experiences as a passionate adventurer, multi-talented visual storyteller, and professional communicator.