Story by Scott Stowell
Video by Jerry Stenger
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot
At a time when the northland climate is offering a glimpse of easing, Will Steger isn’t ready to call it a winter. On March 21, he’ll begin an expedition that straddles the seasons. It’s a 1,000-mile, 70-day journey through the Barren Lands in the Canadian Arctic. It will be the longest solo expedition of his life.
Nevermind that at 73-years-old he’s going alone. He’ll also be traversing the Barrens during breakup, the transition between winter and spring, a time of treacherous water when no one has considered exploring the region. He said the adventure will present challenges like he’s never experienced before.
But while physical and mental challenges are important to Steger, he said they come with a gratifying tradeoff—the splendor of the Barrens’ country. During the two-plus months he’ll travel the land, he’ll catch the tail end of winter and experience the full breakup of spring, from ice to water to the return of wildlife.
“Spring is the most beautiful time of year in the Barrens,” he said. “When waterfowl migrate back, it’s like the Serengeti.”
Steger will also be taking the pulse of changing climate in the region. He said it won’t be through observation so much as being intuitively immersed in the physical landscape. For that, he’ll rely on predator-prey relationships during migration. He said caribou patterns speak volumes about change and he’ll get a good cross section as a result of his own migration through. “The whole ecosystem follows the caribou, from the wolf to the muskox. I’ll check in with them to see how the herds are doing.”
The Barrens are renowned for inhospitable winds and subzero temperatures. That combination makes it the coldest region in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a stark landscape devoid of villages, mining camps and people.
Steger will depart from the Chipewyan community of Black Lake in northwestern Saskatchewan. He’ll make his way north into Canada’s Northwest Territories, then dogleg east through Nunavut to his final destination at the Caribou Inuit village of Baker Lake near Hudson Bay.
Steger said the initial 50 miles will be the hardest section of the expedition due to its deep snow, long portages and rivers. It’s in the forested area south of the Barrens and will take him across the Chipman Portages. The first is five miles long. His portaging method generally involves four trips, three for gear and the fourth with his canoe sled. That translates to seven treks back and forth, or 35 miles. He’s considered making three trips, but said it’s not wise to carry super heavy loads when he’s alone.
The next 300 miles are populated with large lakes, many as long as 25 to 30 miles. But their points, peninsulas, bays and hundreds of small islands are also complicated to navigate. Steger explained that once he moves into these lakes, he’ll begin breaking out of the forested areas. Within 150 miles of the trip’s start, he’ll be in open territory without a tree in sight. By then, April will have arrived, the windiest month of the year.
About 350 miles into the trip, Steger will enter the headwaters of the Thelon River system. The first is the Elk River with rapids and waterfalls that can be very tricky to navigate and demand caution. The fast-moving upper Thelon River follows, running through gorges and more rapids. Eventually it widens and flows into even larger lakes, sometimes 40-miles long. When he reaches the final 70 miles, the current is swift and hold the biggest mysteries. “It could be jammed with ice. Almost anything could be in there. It makes the trip really exciting to have unknowns at the end.”
With winter closing out, temperatures at Black Lake could range anywhere from 40 degrees below zero to 40-above. Steger said the ideal travel conditions for canoe sledding are daytime thawing with nighttime freezes. “Then lake travel is fast. Some of the portages become solid, too, and you can haul over them.”
Available daylight is another advantage because the Arctic sun returns quickly during the day. Steger said March, April and May are typically perfect for this kind of travel.
The Canoe Sled
Steger’s canoe sled is a modified Kevlar canoe with runners. He can paddle it or haul over snow and ice. In icy conditions, he said he can pull the 220-pound payload with one finger; it’s that easy. Whereas if he gets into thawing snow, he can’t budge it with all his might.
The canoe sled also factors into safety. On thin ice, Steger will straddle the canoe from the rear, grab the gunwales and push it like a scooter. If his feet go through the ice, he’ll fall forward onto his chest into the canoe.
“It’s really quite safe,” he said. “The canoe allows me to cross razor-thin ice. But without it, I just couldn’t be out there.”
The canoe is manufactured by Northstar Canoes from Princeton, Minnesota. Steger has been designing canoe sleds with Northstar founder Ted Bell since 1996. “Ted’s the best canoe designer in the world,” Steger said.
Steger’s specialized tent will be his only shelter on the Barrens and critical to his safety. The real danger is setting up his tent alone in a Barren Lands blizzard with 80 mph winds.
The tent is Quonset-shaped and customized to Steger’s specifications. It weighs about four and a half pounds and features a double wall that captures dead air in between. Its main cover is black with yellow sides so light can pass through. Steger said the black coloring in clear sunshine provides warmth that saves him heating fuel.
The tent was developed by the late Jack Stephenson, a mentor of Steger’s. It’s made by Warmlite and is the one he’s used on most of his expeditions.
Steger’s clothing includes a dry suit, one of his most crucial pieces of apparel. When he’s on thin ice, he wears it with a life preserver.
As a former clothing designer for Montbell, Steger said he continues to wear their gear on expeditions to this day. “I consider it the best outdoors clothing available on the market for serious use.”
Follow Will Steger’s Barren Lands expedition through his daily satellite phone dispatches on this website.
Here are some useful links to learn about the Canadian Barren Lands, Will Steger’s expedition, and more.