World class salesmen Ralph Plaisted ‘talked’ his way to the top
of the world–after second attempt
By Paul Gubrud, Special Correspondent
An insurance salesman and a doctor walk into a bar….
You might think this is an old joke, but it really happened.
It was 1966 in Duluth. The bar was the 100-year-old Pickwick Pub near the harbor.
The insurance man was a high school dropout with a Master’s degree in salesmanship. He is in the history books as leading the first verified overland expedition to the North Pole in 1968. His name is Ralph Plaisted. The doctor’s name is Arthur C. Aufderheide, who was crazy enough to join the adventure.
The two men were old friends and wanted to plan a hunting trip. They were talking about a seal hunt to northern Canada. In planning their trip, Plaisted was promoting the use of the new Ski-Doo snowmobiles, but Aufderheide thought traditional dogsleds would be better. Plaisted insisted on the snowmobile. Aufderheide grew tired of Plaisted’s boasting about the Ski-Doo machines.
After another drink or two, Aufderheide made a challenge in jest. “Why don’t you just ride one of the damn machines clear to the North Pole if they are so capable!”
Not being a man to back down from a dare, Plaisted said, “Hell, why not?”
And so the story begins…
They needed to plan and raise money to finance their expedition. Plaisted studied everything he could find about Arctic exploration as well as Admiral Peary’s expedition log of his journey to the North Pole by dogsled in 1909. Plaisted concluded that Peary could not possibly have reached the pole, a fact that other analysts have also concluded.
Plaisted put his salesman skills to use recruiting sponsors. He pitched his trip to potential benefactors as only the second trip to the North Pole since Peary, and the first by snowmobile. His golden tongue was at its best. Plaisted was supplied with everything from food to Scotch whiskey, as well as custom-made Arctic clothing and camping gear.
He also approached The National Geographic Society for financial assistance, but they politely avoided any commitment. They served him a fancy casserole for lunch that he said was just a mediocre hot dish. Plaisted felt he was being laughed at.
“They said nobody could just take a few cronies from Minnesota and go to the North Pole,” Plaisted told CBS reporter Charles Kuralt, who wrote a book about the 1967 trip. “I told them they could just sit there and watch me.”
Ski-Doo snomobile company “signs on” to journey
Armand Bombardier, the founder of the Canadian company that manufactured the Ski-Doo, agreed to supply the outfit with a handful of the machines, as long as a member of the family could join. His 29-year-old nephew, Jean-Luc Bombardier, a snowmobile racer, thus came along as the lone Canadian on the expedition.
Plaisted twisted the arms of his friends to sign on for the trip. None of them were Arctic explorers, but there was something about Plaisted’s charm and sales pitch that enticed them.
Walt Peterson, a Ski-Doo dealer from St. Cloud, agreed to go along as a mechanic. His friend Don Powellek, an engineer, agreed to be the radio operator. Blair Woolsley, a dentist, experienced in navigation and communications would join them. A geography teacher named Gerry Pitzl would be the navigator, and Dr. Aufderheide could deal with any medical issues.
Plaisted tested the durability of the 16 hp Ski-Doo machines by driving from Ely, MN to his home in White Bear Lake, a distance of 252 miles in 13 hours, which was a record at the time. He also participated in the St. Paul Winter Carnival, St. Paul to Winnipeg snowmobile race.
They also needed to test their custom made Arctic clothing, camping gear, as well as practice Arctic camping techniques. That is how they came to Pelican Lake in 1967.
Plaisted’s team tested equipment on Pelican Lake in 1967
Pelican Lake resident Len Thompson, the owner of Minnekota Underwriters Insurance, was a business associate and friend of Ralph Plaisted. He was also one of the sponsors of the expedition.
Thompson suggested the expedition team spend a weekend at his place on Pelican Lake to test their machines and equipment. They would practice Arctic survival, maneuvering the snowmobiles over rough terrain pulling gear-laden toboggans, and various emergency techniques such as open water rescue.
The Pelican Rapids Press issue of Feb. 9, 1967, covered the story, inviting the community to Pelican Lake to observe the polar expedition’s training exercises. The weather was unseasonably cold that weekend, which was a benefit for the team, but most likely discouraged very many onlookers.
They set up camp on the northwest corner of Pelican Lake to test their gear. The temperature dropped to minus 25°F that night, but they stayed warm camping on the ice. Plaisted declared they were prepared to begin their expedition.
For Press readers that remember the event, or may have been there that weekend, please give the Press office a call and share your recollections with us.
The 1967 polar attempt abandoned
The expedition set out from Ellesmere Island for the North Pole a month later. They traveled 300 miles in 30 days but were forced to abandon their mission after being snowbound by a two-week blizzard. When they resumed their trek, they were confronted by the Arctic ice breaking up while still several hundred miles south of the North Pole. They were forced to return to their base camp in disappointment.
Being an eternal optimist, Plaisted was not fazed. He was not going to give up but instead immediately started planning a second trip for the following year. He would need to raise more money and find better equipment. At the time, Pillsbury was developing freeze-dried food for NASA. Plaisted convinced them that he could test the food under Arctic conditions.
Success in 1968; with shorter route to the Pole
The expedition set out again in 1968, but this time with a different plan. Plaisted realized they had to travel lighter and faster, and with fewer snowmobiles. The non-essentials would be left behind.
They flew from Montréal to an abandoned 1950s Canadian military outpost on Ward Hunt Island to establish their base camp. Unlike the 1967 attempt that started 700 miles from the Pole, they were now only 425 miles as the crow flies from their goal.
This time their expedition party would be smaller, carrying only essential equipment and with only a few days of supplies. Less weight on the sleds would enable them to travel faster.
Every few days when weather permitted, they would be resupplied by air with gasoline and food, as well as whiskey and cigarettes. They could travel as much as 65 miles per day, but it was never in a straight line. They often had to take detours around ice ridges that were as tall as a two-story building and stretched as far as the eye could see.
Rumbling Arctic ice was frightening experience
Plaisted recalled listening to the ice rumbling at night, “I was scared the whole time. One time, I remember, we camped in the middle of an ice pan. It was night, and the ice roared and rumbled. No one said a word. In the morning, navigator Gerry Pitzl went out of the tent first and told us the whole south end of the ice pan was rubble. That’s when our mechanic, Walt Pederson, said, ‘We don’t care what’s going on to the south. We’re going north.’ That’s all that was said about the incident.”
But Plaisted had not anticipated the constantly moving Arctic ice. Their journey was becoming longer. The expedition would log over 800 miles to travel the 425 miles to the Pole.
One day they came to open water between them and the Arctic ice pack. There was no way in sight to get around it. Then they noticed another ice flow on the horizon. They waited for it to drift closer. They were able to use it as an ice bridge to reach the other side and resume the trek.
They thought they must be close to the 90° latitude, but they couldn’t be sure. It was cloudy all of the time, so their sextant did not work for navigation, nor did their compass so close to the North Pole. On April 19, 45 days after leaving Ward Hunt Island, the sun was shining and an Air Force plane began circling them. The pilot radioed to them, “you have nowhere to go except South.”
Plaisted was right. His ragtag team of cronies from Minnesota had done the impossible. They were the first team to reach the North Pole with actual evidence of their arrival. Most likely, they were the first to travel overland there at all.
The Plaisted Polar Expedition didn’t make any scientific breakthroughs like previous Arctic explorers. Plaisted often said, “About the only scientific achievement was that we found that Scotch freezes at -65 degrees.”
Plaisted died in 2008. In his obituary, the New York Times reported a quote Plaisted had given years earlier about his trip. “Boy, it’s cold up there. I don’t know why anyone would want to do it again.”
Authors note: Pelican Rapids Press reader David Langseth, a 1958 graduate of Pelican High, Huntley, Illinois brought this forgotten story to our attention after reading a feature length article in the National Geographic History magazine, January-February 2020 edition. The subject of the Nat. Geo. article was North Pole expeditions, and Langseth astutely remembered that the 1968 Ralph Plaisted entourage selected Pelican Lake for part of its pre-expedition training.
Special correspondent Paul Gubrud credits these various sources in preparing this article: Pelican Rapids Press, Feb. 9, 1967; Adventure Journal, Dec. 14, 2018; Everything Snowmobile, Aug. 21, 2008; New York Times Magazine, Mar. 17, 2016, National Geographic History, Jan./Feb. 2020.