Arctic explorer faces a local obstacle
Across the yard, his female counterpart, Rubi -- so named for her thick, deep-red coat -- looks on with queen-like serenity among the group of 22 dogs preparing for their February Arctic adventure. It will be shared over 16 weeks by 3 million K-12 students in 4,500 schools in 30 countries.
Although Mille Porsild and her dogs have survived what the Arctic has thrown at them in their many trips, they might not be able to get around the Afton Planning Commission and a city ordinance.
The city only allows private kennels to have up to five dogs, said Barbara Ronningen, chairwoman of the Planning Commission, which has discussed the issue over the past two months. "Clearly, she's out of compliance with the ordinance."
A woman who has been pushed to the limits of physical and mental endurance, Porsild is hopeful of finding a resolution with the city so that a mission to which she has devoted so much passion is not undermined.
A veteran of 17 trips to the Arctic since arriving in Minnesota from her native Denmark in 1992, Porsild began working with polar explorer Will Steger. She's executive director and expedition leader of GoNorth! Adventure Learning, an organization tied to the University of Minnesota that teaches students by drawing them into the exhilarating experience of exploring the Arctic. She's also a renowned explorer, Web developer and writer.
Inspired by older relatives who explored the Arctic and two parents who were educators, Porsild has helped pioneer the idea of using Arctic trips as a platform to teach. Starting with hand-cranked generators to power often-unreliable computers at first, she and her team now use Internet video conferencing and satellite feeds.
"I probably know these guys better than I know my own family," Porsild said. "I mean, they are my family. And they're not just my family -- they're my companions and my partners in what I do.
"I have stood in numerous situations where my life is on the line and they're the ones pulling me out of it. When you have faced a polar bear and these guys are the ones who've made the polar bear go away ... when you have stood on thin ice and the sled is going in and you know it's not a situation where they can pull it out ... It's the most unbelievable experience to see them just come together as this machine. And then off we go."
Those situations seem to make a battle with Afton city officials seem trivial. But it's serious.
Ronningen and Fritz Knaak, the city's attorney, said the ordinance is meant to protect neighbors from potential problems. "There's a reason for these types of regulations -- that's a lot of dogs," Knaak said. "One person's hobby and passion is another person's nightmare."
Ronningen said the only option is to change the ordinance, which has to be requested by a Planning Commission or City Council member or a resident landowner (Porsild rents her acreage). "At this point, there's nothing on the table" to change the ordinance, Ronningen said.
For her part, Porsild said when she arrived in Afton in 2008, it was her understanding she would be given a variance that would allow her to keep the dogs on the property. Because she doesn't board or sell dogs, she also doesn't regard herself as having a kennel.
"The neighbors have been absolutely amazing about it," Porsild said. She is unaware of any complaints, and has worked at training the dogs not to bark or howl. At least two neighbors have come to her defense before the Planning Commission.
"There's rules, and you have to be respectful of the rules and you have to be respectful to the people who made the rules and why they were made," she said. As for the ordinance, "not much needs to be changed if you want to allow something like this, and that's what it really comes down to."
It also comes at a time Porsild and her nonprofit organization are looking to expand their educational mission and the adventure learning concept. Porsild envisions it as an umbrella organization to teach people of all ages.
Before each mission north, Porsild pulls together a phone-book-thick curriculum that follows each journey every step of the way.
"Our job then becomes to literally bring this to life from the trail," she said.
The curriculum draws together lessons on the sciences, math, economics, anthropology, language and literature. The Arctic has much to teach, and students respond enthusiastically, she said -- thanks in no small part to the charms of the dogs, whom she calls "the superstars."
"It's about bringing together all the different perspectives into the picture, because that's when students really start learning" she said. "Because what they're really learning is that decisionmaking is hard, and that you have to try and understand all the different aspects to make decisions."
Despite the situation, Porsild remains upbeat and determined. It's a lesson she's learned from her dogs.
On the trail, her dogs don't respond if she doesn't have a positive outlook, Porsild said, citing an example.
"And if I start feeling like we can't do this, they'll literally sit down and look at me."
Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999