By Sam Cook
March 18, 2018
When Will Steger goes on spring break, he knows how to avoid crowds. He heads in a familiar direction — North.
Ely’s Steger, who has led successful dogsled expeditions to the North Pole and across Antarctica, will leave northern Saskatchewan on Wednesday for a 1,000-mile solo trek across Canada’s treeless barrenlands. He plans to reach Baker Lake, near Hudson Bay, 70 days later in early June.
Now a fit 73, Steger will haul a custom-built canoe-sled loaded with 200 pounds of gear and food over lakes, rivers and portages. His route passes through no villages. He will be resupplied twice by a bush plane on skis.
Even by Steger’s standards, this journey will offer significant challenges.
He will face temperatures of 40 below to 40 above, he estimates, traveling unpeopled, unforgiving country known for its fierce winds. He will negotiate rivers that could be in spring break-up near the end of his trip. Thus, he tows the canoe, a Northstar design by Minnesotan Ted Bell fitted with runners so Steger can pull it or paddle it.
“This is serious,” Steger said in a telephone interview from Ely. “In these rivers, you could fall in. It can be life and death. This pushes all my skills.” He spent six months trying to find a suitably formidable route across the barrens, he said. For the past five springs, he has made similar journeys closer to home — in wooded country — finishing near his Ely homestead. He’s unlikely to see a tree for most of this trip.
Steger will have to average about 14 miles a day, mostly skiing or walking, to complete his trip on schedule.
“That’s quite a chunk,” Steger said. “But I think I have a good shot at it.”
He will carry two satellite phones and two emergency-locator devices in case his situation becomes dire. He will wear a drysuit when on or near open water. He’s unlikely to run across any fellow travelers.
“I don’t think I’ll see anybody at all,” he said. “It’ll be my longest stretch of isolation.”
He savors that solitude. He has said these solo trips help him reach his “mental and physical baseline.”
“The physical and mental challenge is always interesting,” he said. “That’s important to me. It’s really getting my finger on the pulse of the Arctic again. That includes the migrations — of caribou, muskox, wolves — gauging the changing climate and living intuitively in the moment all the time. That’s a very important part of it.”
Despite the odds of being stormbound for days at a time, he will take along no books.
“I don’t want distractions,” he said. “If I get held up, I’ll just write.”
Freedom to explore
To understand what drives Steger to tackle such arduous adventures, you have to remember that his baseline in expedition travel was set high. And early. Inspired by Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Steger told his parents at age 12 that he wanted to go down the Mississippi River in a boat. He saved for three years to buy a boat. At 15, he and his brother Tom, 17, took a 14-foot boat and a 40-horsepower motor down the river from Minneapolis to New Orleans — and back.
“That was the way I was raised,” Steger said. “My dad was an entrepreneur. We pretty much didn’t have any rules. We could do whatever we wanted.”
That trip — and his upbringing — would come to shape his life.
“As a result of that, I never saw barriers,” Steger said. “That’s why I’ve been able to do what I’ve done — I never saw barriers as a child.”
Ely’s Paul Schurke co-led the 1986 Steger International Polar Expedition to the North Pole and knows Steger well. These spring trips, with their inherent spring break-up elements, suit Steger well, Schurke said.
“Will loves to solve trail problems,” he said. “During ice-out season, routes that go from solid to liquid to solid again while you’re traveling on them offer lots of fun problems. The fact that these are problems no one else feels compelled to resolve doesn’t faze Will in the least — that’s a defining feature of ‘out of the box’ thinkers.”
Former Ely resident Dave Olesen, now a bush pilot in Canada’s Northwest Territories, also has known Steger for decades. Olesen is a dogsledder who has completed the Iditarod eight times and has made extensive solo dogsledding trips on the barrenlands.
“I think it’s a risky proposition to head out that way,” he said of Steger’s latest plan. “I don’t think you can go from Black Lake to Baker Lake by yourself and consider it anything other than a calculated risk.”
Wisdom with age
Steger looks at these challenges differently at 73 than he did as a young man, he said. And unlike his practice on recent trips, he has allowed media coverage for this undertaking.
“I have a different perspective at 73,” he said. “I’m not catering to a younger audience. I hope to speak more to my generation. I’m in good shape, but you’ve got that (age) situation… I’m more aware, more intuitive. I don’t take shortcuts you might take when you’re younger.”
Steger knows how long he plans to keep making trips like the one he’s about to embark on.
“As long as I can,” he said. “I’m planning to always be in the North.”
To follow Will Steger’s barrenlands travels, go to www.stegerwildernesscenter.org.
Will Steger’s resume
- 1960 — Took a motorboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans with his brother
- 1963 to 1970 — traveled 10,000 miles by kayak on northern Canadian and Alaskan rivers
- 1982–1983 — With Ely’s Bob Mantell, made an 18-month, 6,000-mile dogsled expedition throughout Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska
- 1985 — Refining travel methods for the next year’s North Pole expedition, Steger made a 5,000-mile dogsled expedition from Ely to Point Barrow, Alaska.
- 1986 — First confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply
- 1988 — 1,600-mile south-north traverse of Greenland
- 1989–90 — First dogsled traverse of Antarctica — International Trans-Antarctica Expedition
- 1995 — First dogsled traverse of the Arctic Ocean in one season from Russia to Ellesmere Island in Canada
- 2006 — Formed Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, a nonprofit working for solutions to climate change.