By Laci Gagliano
Feb 2, 2018
Minnesota author, explorer and educator talks about his extreme journeys and his life’s work
Calling a temperature of 54 degrees below zero “ideal” might make a room full of people chuckle, but for a professional polar explorer like Will Steger, that level of appreciation is all about survival.
“You really want cold weather because it keeps the ice solid,” the Minnesota native and renowned arctic trekking guru told an auditorium of wide-eyed students and teachers Jan. 24 at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Robbinsdale, describing the inherent challenges of traversing a frozen ocean – small potatoes to Steger, who visited the school to talk to the students about some of his most well-known expeditions to Polar regions occasionally bearing temperatures of 120-below.
“The problem with the Arctic Ocean is the ice is always moving, so the colder you get, the more solid the ice is,” he explained.
Steger is a self-described educator and explorer who notably completed a 55-day dogsled expedition to the North Pole in 1986 with fellow Minnesotan legend Ann Bancroft, as well as one of the last-ever dogsled journeys to the North Pole in 1995 before climate change rendered it partially impassable by dog teams.
At Sacred Heart, Steger flipped through a slideshow of photos from expeditions in the North and South Pole that he and his teams completed in the mid-1990s while he described the sights, sounds, joys, and trials of trekking the Earth’s poles. Students and teachers alike were captivated by his tales of the Arctic, laughing at his occasional deadpan commentary and gasping in awe at details of his portrait of spending several months in the coldest places on Earth.
Born in Richfield, Steger has made a living of educating others about winter survival and trekking, whether it’s through school visits, speaking to policymakers and businesses, penning National Geographic articles and books about his expeditions, or running a winter skills school of his own. He’s been keeping mostly solitary company with the wilderness since age 25, when he bid friends and family farewell and left to live full-time on a remote piece of land near Ely that he bought when he was 19 to open a dog sledding and skiing school.
Steger delivers public lectures to inspire people and provide a taste of the otherworldly Arctic places they might have encountered only passively in books, movies, and television, as well as to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change he has witnessed firsthand in his travels. His talks feature stunning photography from his expeditions, backed by vivid storytelling about the ups and downs of each mission. He talks about his dog teams, what it’s like sleeping in subzero temperatures (“very comfortable and peaceful” when well-prepared, he said), and how the explorers creatively overcome daunting challenges, like supply plane pilots having a difficult time tracking and spotting the team because of radio interferences during an Anarctic summer.
“Every mile and a half, we would stop and make a snow person, about 6 feet high, (and) it would cast a shadow. Our airplane would take off from the airport, fly over, look down, and follow the line of shadows,” he said, displaying an image of the crude snowmen.
A trek in the frozen wilds is much more than overcoming challenges, though, and Steger especially wants people to share in what he described as the magic of the Arctic. In addition to photos of dog teams, humans, encampments, and resupply planes, there were plenty of portraits of surreal landscapes and of an awe-inspiring night sky, which showed colorful southern and northern lights dancing across the horizon, as well as the constellation Orion turned upside down in the Southern Hemisphere’s orientation.
“There is a lot of beauty in the Arctic,” he told the audience. “A lot of times you’re traveling in a cold, cold world, and it’s almost like you’re on a different planet. You see the sky and the beauty of creation, you feel your heart beating, and you have a really close affinity to your maker.”
Some photos, on the other hand, directly illustrated the trek’s difficulties, such as one showing a team member attempting to step across a moving ice floe, which had broken off from the edge of the ice shelf the team trekked across in the North Pole. The piece of ice was moving away from the edge of the more solid layer of ice, and the man reached for his teammate’s hand to help him make the leap. This image particularly highlighted a larger reality of traveling across the North Pole: climate change’s impact on Arctic ice.
“Sometimes it’s too wide to cross, so we wait, and suddenly the wind will change and it will come together. Global warming has a huge impact on the Arctic Ocean. It used to be fully frozen in the summertime, but now over 50 percent of the Arctic Ocean is open. This is changing really quickly,” he said.
Expeditions can no longer use dogsled teams for the trek, since so much of the ocean, which once churned beneath crevasses and tall, buckled layers of ice for miles, is now exposed. On Steger’s 1995 North Pole dogsled journey, one of the last of its kind ever to take place, a plane had to fly in to pick up the dogs about 150 miles north of the North American continent and drop off canoes in exchange, which were fitted with runners for alternating pulling cargo across snow and ice and paddling across open waters.
“With a changing climate, it’s becoming very dangerous to travel like this,” he said, commenting on the photo of the team member leaping across the precariously shifting ice.
In an effort to address and raise awareness of growing concerns about the impact of climate change on the earth, in 2006 Steger founded Climate Generation, a nonprofit devoted to engaging youth and educators in discussions about climate change, a frontier younger generations will one day inherit.
It’s unfortunate that dog teams can’t make it on every excursion. Steger said they tend to be the center of attention on an trek where they’re present.
“When you’re in a tent with your teammates, you’re almost always talking about the dogs, which is probably safer than talking about people all the time,” he said amid laughter. “On an expedition, the dogs are like everything. You’re dealing with your dogs, you’re loving your dogs, and sometimes you’re hating your dogs. … I would have to say the dogs are the beauty of an excursion.”
In a separate interview, Steger said the dogs have different expectations and relationships with humans than a pet dog, but that like any other pet or human, they respond to “positive vibes.”
“You build this relationship. It’s gonna be a work relationship that’s different than a pet because of these animals, who they are. They put out, always, everything they have for you,” he explained.
Steger said the dogs are a hearty, northern mixed breed, typically consisting of Canadian and Greenland Eskimo dogs, plus a touch of Alaskan racing dog and some wolf, making them a tough stock bred with what he called a “really good spirit” and a natural endurance for harsh conditions.
After concluding his presentation, the explorer answered a tidal wave of questions from students, who eagerly flew their hands in the air.
One child asked what kind of wildlife Steger has seen on his journeys, which prompted him to challenge the students to guess the name of a big, white animal that lives on Arctic Sea ice. A killer whale and “a big, white shark” were offered as guesses before one student victoriously shouted, “polar bear!” He told the audience about the joys of seeing iconic polar bears in the North Pole, and contrasted how their presence makes seals in the North Pole much different than seals in the South Pole.
“Animals in Antarctica are really tame. A seal in the South Pole, you can walk right up to it because (there are) no bears. Seals in the North Pole, on the other hand, disappear if they see anything at all,” he explained.
Steger has also visited a penguin rookery filled with hundreds of the birds, who he said are also quite tame and unafraid of approaching humans.
Wildlife begins dwindling as expeditions reach the interior of Antarctica. It’s too cold even for bacteria to survive, much less plants and animals, which lends to the surreality of the landscape. Thousands of miles of flat, barren land stretch across the poles, and more than once, Steger described it in terms of being on a different planet, especially when the wind chill reaches a negative 120 degrees.
“You’re always covered up with face masks, almost like a space suit. You couldn’t expose your hands or face. It’s almost like traveling through outer space,” he said. Another student asked whether anybody on his expeditions ever got frostbite. Steger responded that frostbite has never been a concern because of how well-protected he and his team members keep themselves. He said they don’t take any risks, and have led relatively safe missions each time.
“The reason for no frostbite and having a good record is that you’re very cautious in what you do. You don’t take a risk that poses a threat. You’ve got to know what you’re doing,” he said.
He continued with some words of wisdom:
“There’s a point in your life where, if something’s challenging, you really have to take on that challenge. Just because something’s dangerous is not always a reason not to attempt to do something,” he said.
Steger’s next journey will be a solo trek across the Canadian Barrens in the Arctic. He said that he’s totally comfortable being on an expedition completely alone, no dog team or humans to keep him company.
“I like being with people, but I’m totally at home in the environment,” he said.
Follow Will Steger’s next journey and others at stegerwildernesscenter.org.