“This is the suit I wore for the Trans-Antarctica expedition”, Will Steger says nonchalantly as he flops an insulated onesie covered with sponsor patches on the crude table, his breath visible in the unheated gear shed. Snow covers the skylights and it’s dark inside. Steger is comfortable in the dark and cold; this is the man who led the first dogsled expedition across the Antarctic continent.
He continues rummaging through a closet of expedition jackets with a decidedly 1980s color palette. “We were the first to use reflective patches on our jackets for visibility in whiteouts”, he says without a hint of boastfulness. Of course! And now they’re on every rain jacket you see on city sidewalks, along with the vertical zipper chest pocket, another Steger innovation.
This stuff belongs in a museum. In fact, Steger’s gear shed is a museum of sorts, a place where expeditions were outfitted and groundbreaking gear was designed; it is a tangible timeline of some of the greatest feats of polar exploration in history. On the wall hangs a crude pair of pants made from fur-covered seal skin. Leaning in the corner is a quiver of fat skis. Steger grabs a pair of yellow Epokes from the pile and looks at them like he would an old friend. “This pair has been through everything. I’ve even used them to break up dog fights.”
In addition to his 1990 crossing of the Antarctic continent (the long way) as head of an international team of men from six countries, Steger’s curriculum vitae reads like a history book of polar exploration. In 1986, his unsupported dogsled journey to the North Pole was history’s first verified of its kind. His 1988 south-to-north unsupported traversal of Greenland, which was done as training for the Southern Continent attempt, was also the first such journey. And in 1995, he became the first to complete a dogsled crossing of the Arctic Ocean, from Russia to Canada, a trip that will probably never again be possible given the rapidly melting sea ice on top of the world. This fact is something that profoundly troubles Steger.
Minnesota is a perfect breeding ground for polar explorers. The state’s long, cold winters are the stuff of legend and its huge expanses of frozen lakes and forests provide ample training space for the long journeys to the Poles. And after you’ve grown up on winters here, a trip to the Pole feels like just another snow day. In addition to Will Steger, here’s a short list of other notable Minnesotan polar explorers.
St. Paul’s Bancroft (not to be confused with the actress who portrayed Mrs. Robinson) accompanied Steger on his historic 1986 North Pole expedition and then in 1993 trudged to the South Pole, thus becoming the first woman to reach both Poles. She was also the first woman to reach the North Pole by dogsled and again on foot and was part of an expedition that saw the first women cross Antarctica.
In 2006, Grand Marais-based Larsen reached both the North and South Pole and summited Mount Everest, the first person to do so in a single calendar year. His trip to the North Pole was the first done during the summer months, when sea ice is sparse and the journey more difficult.
In 2006, Dupre accompanied his pal from Grand Marais, Larsen, to the North Pole on their record-breaking summer expedition. And just this past January he became the first person to summit Alaska’s Mount McKinley solo in that cold and stormy month, considered by many to be one of the greatest mountaineering feats in history.
Back in 1969, White Bear Lake insurance salesman and snowmobile enthusiast Ralph Plaisted hatched a plan to ride his machine to the North Pole. By succeeding, his expedition became the first verified one to reach the North Pole in history, since all previous claims have fallen under suspicion.
“In 1989, we crossed the massive Larsen Ice Shelf at the start of our trip across Antarctica”, Steger says, “and 13 years later, the section that we had crossed slid into the sea. That’s when I knew things were getting really bad.” He has been something of an ecology bellwether for much of his cold career. In 1988, his book Saving the Earth was one of the earliest to sound the alarm about global warming, and his eponymous foundation has focused on lobbying and education around environmentalism since 2006. For his efforts in public service, as well as his polar firsts, Steger was given the National Geographic Society’s John Oliver La Gorce Medal, a prestigious award that put him in the company of Earhart, Cousteau, Amundsen and Peary — and no one else since he was given it in 1995.
All of Will Steger’s feats make him seem like a larger-than-life figure. But in reality, he is a small-framed, septuagenarian introvert who spends much of his time on a 280-acre swath of wilderness in far northern Minnesota that Steger and his acolytes call “The Homestead”. He bought this tract of land in the late 1960s, when no roads accessed the dense forest and lake on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. And Steger liked it that way. In the past four decades, he has slowly built a compound of stone and wood buildings, painstakingly by hand, with supplies he quarried or cut locally or pulled in by ski, canoe or dogsled, often as training for expeditions. A handful of rustic, wood-heated cabins dot the woods and a central expedition lodge is a low-ceilinged building that used to be Steger’s woodshop but then served as expedition headquarters, where most of his great adventures were hatched and planned.
On the hill above it all sits a sylvan cathedral, Steger’s magnum opus, a towering wood, stone and glass building nicknamed “The Castle”, which will soon become the centerpiece of the Steger Wilderness Center. Designed with pencil and paper in his tent during the Trans-Antarctica expedition and built by hand over the past 25 years, the building is Steger’s legacy, a place intended to educate, mediate and reconnect students, business and community leaders and educators away from the busy urban world. While he is a man who covets his privacy and only reluctantly put in a road to his Homestead a few years ago, Will Steger is ready to open it up to a world that needs nature now more than ever.
“Through my expeditions, I realized that great things happen in small groups and that my role is one of organizer and facilitator”, he says. Unlike so many modern explorers with Instagram accounts and energy drink endorsements, Will Steger is a man who prefers to let his actions do the talking. Despite his accomplishments, he is eminently humble and only when asked do his amazing tales come out, and even then with a matter-of-fact delivery. This humility, combined with a quiet confidence, have made Steger a magnet for followers who are drawn to him, like a boreal Buddha, and the Homestead bustles with people of all ages who come to help with chores in exchange for a little bit of his wisdom.
Back in the gear shed, Steger, who turned 70 last August, unfurls a map and points to a tangle of rivers and lakes that form the border between Minnesota and Canada. He is planning a six-week solo outing across this region in late March, towing a fortified canoe filled with gear down frozen rivers and waterfalls that are just breaking up in the springtime thaw. “It’s dangerous but it’s something I try to do every spring. It’s my relaxation.”