This time, Will Steger won’t have to go to the North Pole, Antarctica, the Northwest Territories or the Arctic Ocean to mount an expedition.
Article by Sam Cook in the Duluth News Tribune.
The Ely explorer, now 70, has found a formidable challenge right in his backyard. On Wednesday, Steger plans to embark on a monthlong, 200-mile solo trek by canoe-sled through spring break-up along the Minnesota-Ontario border.
“I feel so fortunate I found something where I could stretch my skills,” Steger said in a telephone interview last week. “The learning curve is really high.”
He will make the journey hauling a reinforced canoe-sled behind him over the ice, paddling open rivers where he can. He has made similar ice-out trips, often solo, several times over the past 20 years, he said.
Steger will leave from Saganaga Lake at the tip of the Gunflint Trail, travel through the heart of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, then down the Maligne River to Lac La Croix on the border. From there, he’ll travel west to Namakan Lake in Voyageurs National Park, finishing either by continuing west to International Falls or traveling east along the border to his homestead north of Ely.
He will share his journey through daily satellite dispatches.
“I had a desire to share a personal trip with people,” Steger said. “What I hope to express is why you do these things and to get beyond the endurance and hardship veneer.”
He had planned to leave about a week later, but the rapid onset of spring pushed him to an earlier departure.
Steger will rely on his vast and far-flung expedition experience in riding the fine line between ice and open water. He co-led with Ely’s Paul Schurke the first confirmed, unsupported journey to the North Pole in 1986 with a team of eight and 50 sled dogs. In 1989-90, he led a team that completed a 3,700-mile crossing of Antarctica by dogsled. He has made several other extended expeditions on Greenland, on the frozen Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada, and around Canada’s Baffin Island.
He started the Will Steger Foundation nine years ago to share his concerns about climate change. Over the past 25 years, he has created and built the towering Steger Wilderness Center near his Ely homestead, designed as a gathering place for leaders and educators.
“Hats off to Will,” Schurke said in an email to the News Tribune. “We tend to associate big expeditions with distant places. But our beautiful Boundary Waters is as wild and woolly as any place on the planet. As Will’s current endeavor so nicely underscores, our Boundary Waters nurtures the spirit of adventure as much as the polar regions do.”
At 70, Steger remains fit, and his outlook is that of someone much younger, said Nicole Rom, executive director of the Will Steger Foundation in Minneapolis.
“Spiritually, he’s like a man in his 20s,” Rom said.
Steger knows this expedition will offer plenty of challenge and risk.
“I hope everything goes well for me,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot different. I was hoping for 20 below and the edge of winter. I’ll be doing mostly rivers. I think they’ll be open by Wednesday in rapids and falls. I’ll just go with it and figure things out as I go.”
He’ll be hauling 200 pounds of gear, including a four-week supply of food that he could stretch to five if necessary. Steger will be prepared to travel over frozen lakes using skis, snowshoes or rubber boots fitted with ice cleats. Where he can, he will paddle, which brings its own set of risks on water barely above freezing.
“You’ve got to ‘be there’ all the time,” Steger said. “It forces you to be in the very moment 24-7. Your survival depends on it. It’s a great place to put your mind. As long as you’re in the moment, you’re quite safe.”
In open water, he anticipates ice jams and the possibility of being swept under that ice.
“It’s your reaction time that’s important,” Steger said. “You have to react intuitively. That’s what keeps you safe, your ability to move really quickly without even thinking.”
His experience on ice and having paddled thousands of miles by kayak tell him when to back off, he said,.
“I’m not a risk-taker,” he said. “If I run into a dangerous situation, I’ll turn back or find another route. You’re playing with the odds all the time.”
Wearing a drysuit offers him a measure of protection. It would keep him dry if he did find himself swimming at some point.
“The drysuit really gives you the edge,” Steger said. “Now you can go in the water. But it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You can get sucked under the ice.”
The canoe he will tow or paddle is a modified Northstar Phoenix designed by canoe maker Ted Bell. It’s 14½ feet long, 37 pounds, built of fiberglass-reinforced Kevlar.
Steger says trips like these allow him to reach his “mental and physical baseline.”
“It’s a kind of check-in with where I’m at,” he said. “I’ve been doing that check-in since I was 17 years old.”
Rom knows that side of Steger.
“Will likes to go to the edges and challenges,” she said, “so he picks the most dangerous time of year to do something like this. It’s how he approaches everything. He likes the edge.”
To learn more
To follow Steger’s solo trip, visit stegerwildernesscenter.org and sign up to receive updates. Or go to the Steger Wilderness Center Facebook page.