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.

Photo Credit: Scott Stowell - Special to the Star Tribune

Photo Credit: Scott Stowell – Special to the Star Tribune

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 Route

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.”

Travel Weather

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.

The Tent

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.

Learn More

Here are some useful links to learn about the Canadian Barren Lands, Will Steger’s expedition, and more.

Will Steger's Recommended Reading List

As part of expedition preparation, Will does his homework. He’s an avid reader with a personal library that contributes to his education and motivates his spirit. The titles below are his hand-picked recommendations that offer additional in-depth understanding of the Barren Lands and supplement his upcoming expedition.

Check out Will Steger’s Recommended Reading List

Are You An Educator?

Sign up with Climate Generation to follow Will’s journey with your students and receive two emails a week with a link to the Story Map detailing his journey, classroom activities to do, and questions to prompt investigations and discussions in your classroom.

Sign Up Today at Climate Generation

Gear Will Steger Is Using On The Expedition

  MontbellNorthstar Canoes 

As part of expedition preparation, Will does his homework. He’s an avid reader with a personal library that contributes to his education and motivates his spirit. The titles below are his hand-picked recommendations that offer additional in-depth understanding of the Barren Lands and supplement his upcoming expedition.

Nastawgan: The Canadian North by Canoe and Snowshoe

A collection of historical essays edited by Bruce W. Hodgins and Margaret Hobbs.

“Nastawgan” is an Anishinabai word meaning “the way or the route one must take to get through the country.” This is a favorite book of mine and can be found in print on the Internet in the $20 range. It’s also available on Kindle.

Relevant chapters include:

  • “The Quest Pattern and the Canoe Trip”
  • “History Travel and Canoeing in the Barrens”
  • “Women of Determination: Northern Journeys by Woman before 1940”

Tundra by Farley Mowat

I am not a fan of Farley Mowat, but his book Tundra is well done. It’s neatly edited for a popular audience and he amplifies the text with minimal intrusion. This is one of the best accounts of the fascinating and sometimes spell-binding history of land voyages across the Canadian Barrens. It’s available in print on the Internet and on Kindle.

Relevant chapters include:

  • “Coppermine Journey: Samuel Hearne’s Expedition to the Coppermine River, 1769-72”
  • “The Brothers Terrell: Exploring the Interior of Keewatin”
  • “The Spring that Never Came: John Hornby and Edgar on the Thelon River”

Thelon: A River Sanctuary by David F. Pelly

This an excellent read about the Thelon River. It is well-rounded for the naturalist, covering history, culture, geology and the environment. Unfortunately, the book is out of print and existing copies are super expensive. However, if you search the Internet, you can find some copies in the $20 range. It can also be found on Kindle.

The Legend of John Hornby by George Whalley

This 1962 book is a well-researched historical piece about the Barren Lands and a classic must-read. But it’s very rare. You might be able to find it online. Otherwise, libraries could have copies. Googling “John Hornby” might also be worthwhile.

This article has been reposted from Dunwoody College News.

New class of Architecture students help bring previous design proposals to life

A new group of Architecture students visited the Steger Wilderness Center in August 2017 to prepare for their semester project

A new group of Architecture students visited the Steger Wilderness Center in August 2017 to prepare for their semester project

In August of 2016, third-year Architecture students were challenged with one of the program’s largest and most innovative projects yet: to design a brand new dining hall for the Steger Wilderness Center.

The venture inspired the program’s first studio course, Dining Wild, led by Architecture Senior Instructor Molly Reichert and wilderness adventurer and Center founder Will Steger.

Dining Wild

Throughout the studio, students spent their semester touring the site, working with local businesses in the culinary industry, and creating design proposals. And in December of 2016, students pitched three different design ideas to Steger.

But, the project didn’t end there. Instead, those three designs were saved for the next class of Architecture students, who were charged with turning their predecessors’ proposals into one final building design.

Same project, new students

“The second semester of Dining Wild was very interesting in that we were not starting from scratch,” Reichert said. “Typically architecture studios start with a clean slate and students can let their ideas run wild over the course of the semester. This semester required a much more rigorous and focused approach to move the design forward and respond to the client’s needs.”

With help from Steger, the new group of students spent their fall semester combining and refining last year’s schematic designs.

Students meet with Will Steger to flesh out building plans

Students meet with Will Steger to flesh out building plans

“It was good to have a starting point,” Architecture Student Jacob Larson said. “And working with Will is really interesting.

“You know what he likes and you can incorporate that into the design,” he said. “Working with your client is really helpful because you get that clear feedback.”

The process

To ensure their final design would remain environmentally friendly as well as respond to the chilly site conditions of northern Minnesota, students spent several days visiting and exploring the build site. They also received helpful information and building tips from industry professionals.

Last semester, Marvin Windows and the Structural Insulated Panel Association (SIPA) presented on sustainable methods of building and how windows and Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) can contribute to a more efficient construction schedule.

Architecture students learn from a SIPA representative in class lecture

Architecture students learn from a SIPA representative in class lecture

Mechanical Engineer Craig Tarr—who specializes in alternative energy—also shared what mechanical systems and appliances were most efficient and ecologically sound.

Students even enlisted help from Dunwoody’s Surveying & Civil Engineering Technology program. Last spring, Surveying students surveyed the Center grounds to provide the Architecture students with necessary site information to help move the project forward.

The result

Using this information, students worked in separate groups, each tackling different pieces of the final building documents. Groups included a Drawing and Renderings team, a Material and Product Specifications team, and a Physical Model team.

Students then combined their findings and suggestions into one ideal construction plan. This plan was then proposed to—and immediately approved by—Steger and his team late last month.

Students present final proposal to Steger and his team

Students present final proposal to Steger and his team

The Center is expected to break ground later this year.

“It was fun working on a project that is actually going to be built,” Larson said. “It’s an experience I won’t forget!”

Read more about the students’ semester experience by visiting their class news blog.

See the final design proposal.

Steger Wilderness Center board chair Julie Ristau has a proven track record of clarifying a vision and then making it happen in practical terms. Her extraordinary background dovetails well with the mission of the Center.

A few of her start-up projects have included helping launch and lead Utne Reader magazine; serving as co-chair of Homegrown Minneapolis, the local food initiative for the mayor’s office; holding an endowed chair as part of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture; and founding Regeneration Partnership, a strategic problem-solving collaborative for communities in southern Minnesota. As current chief operating officer for The Main Street Project in Northfield, Minn., she’s spent more than two years building a research and demonstration farm.

“I definitely know what it’s like to embark on a very large project that requires concentrated focus, resources and commitment over time. That’s what we’re doing at the Center, too,” Ristau said.

She lives in Minneapolis and has worked closely with Will Steger as a senior advisor for the Center since 2012. During that time, she’s built its nonprofit platform, coordinated its communications strategy and website, assembled a public relations team to introduce the Center’s microgrid, and works with Steger and the board on strategic planning. She became board chair in 2015.

Ristau said the Steger Wilderness Center is important as a place where people can gather to reimagine the future, re-skill and reconnect to the elements. “Our future really relies on us tending to and taking care of the resources that we all must share. Will’s work is a testament to that. His commitment to future generations is inspiring.

“I believe that interacting with the Wilderness Center is life-changing for anybody who connects with it. I am honored to be playing a role to bring it to its next phase of completion.”

The opportunity to work with a hero doesn’t happen often. Wilderness Center board member Melanie Waite-Altringer has admired Will Steger from afar since she was in 11th grade. She blames her social studies teacher. Steger was on his Trans-Antarctic Expedition at the time and her teacher forced the entire class to pay attention.

“She had us follow him throughout the entire year and we were all upset at first. We thought it was going to be boring and horrible,” Waite-Altringer said. “Then we all ended up being pretty big fans of him.”

Waite-Altringer has been a member of the biology faculty at Anoka-Ramsey Community College for 20 years. She joined the Wilderness Center board in 2016. That summer she also coordinated the “Life off the Grid Energy Conference” at the Center. The conference was designed to educate teachers about how to present new material in energy fields with an eye on attracting young people to carry the technology forward.

She said being on the board enables her to connect with more people than just students at ARCC. Holding the conference at the Wilderness Center greatly expanded overall outreach.

“I’m teaching teachers. But they can then reach so many more students every year. So we’re touching and affecting many people,” she said. “This is totally something different than just coming out of a book. These are real-life experiences that you can pass on to others.”

As a result, she has a desire to help complete the Center. “The future hope for me is that it can affect all aspects of anything having to do with the environment, whether it’s a law, whether it’s education, whether it’s just experiences.”

Waite-Altringer, 43, lives in Elk River, Minnesota. She said she grew up in a nature-loving family. Their vacations were nature-based trips, and they hunted and fished. She enjoys those same activities today with her husband and children.

“Almost everything we do for enjoyment is related to the outdoors somehow. I grew up that way and I’m still that way,” she said.

For a nonprofit organization that’s all about demonstrating sustainable energy, having a solar engineer volunteer to take over its energy systems can render a person speechless.

Mechanical and solar engineer Craig Tarr first visited the Steger Wilderness Center a couple of years ago as part of a solar water-heating project. Tarr said he and Will Steger quickly developed a camaraderie that defied words. He soon asked Steger how he could “plug in” to help. After Steger explained his concerns about the Center’s energy systems, Tarr offered to take charge.

“And his eyes got big,” Tarr said. “He knew I was serious.”

Tarr began amassing his 30-plus years of expertise with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and an emphasis in solar. He noted that back in the late 1980s, solar hadn’t become popular.

“It had kind of been back-to-the-land or hippie guys doing it,” Tarr explained. “I had a ponytail and lived in a teepee, so I can say that.”

In 1994, he founded Energy Concepts in Hudson, Wisconsin, a business that develops heating and cooling systems for commercial buildings. At the time, solar systems were a hobby for him. But in 2007, he put his foot forward with solar as an add-on to his company. He said the idea exploded. Within two years, he was recognized by the state of Wisconsin as the renewable energy company of the year. He had raised the bar to a new level of professionalism, design and field execution in the solar industry. Today, Energy Concepts develops both electric and water heating solar systems.

As part of stage two in formulating the Center’s board, Tarr is its newest member. He has developed the Center’s 5-phase energy plan and will work with Dunwoody College of Technology to complete the architectural designs for the new dining hall. He will also oversee its construction.

“When I joined this board, I had very specific tasks and accountabilities, and Will is relying upon them,” he said. “The whole mission is key upon these off-grid systems.”

Tarr, 57, lives in River Falls, Wisconsin.

Steger Wilderness Center board member Kimball Knutson doesn’t soft-sell her obligation. From the Center’s inception in 2014, her name was one of the five on the documents that officially designated the Center as a nonprofit organization.

“We are the people that said, ‘if this thing doesn’t go, we will be responsible,’” she said.

But her commitment to such undertakings isn’t new. She was also a founding board member of the Will Steger Foundation, which later became Climate Generation. She served two terms on the Foundation board.

Knutson has known Steger for about 10 years. She indicated she’s developed a confidence in him and the Center’s mission during that time. “Every day I feel there’s more substance to it,” she said.

She also believes in what she said is his biggest dream—catalyzing change. “Will can do what he says he’s going to do. We’ve seen him do it,” she said. “I think that his place, what he’s trying to create, although sometimes it seems maybe lofty or far-fetched,… that it has more potential to affect people’s lives.”

She added that she finds pleasure in pursuing those lofty goals, especially considering the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. It dovetails with her interests, passions and desire to contribute.

“It’s in my wheelhouse of protecting the planet, protecting nature, environmental education, bringing people together and sustainable energy,” Knutson said. “It’s a wonderful community… and it’s an honor to be a part of.”

Her endeavors include visions of the Center as a powerful organization being run with integrity and thoughtfulness, “a topnotch, squeaky-clean, hardworking, ‘Little Engine that Could’ kind of organization.”

Knutson, 62, lives in South Minneapolis. She is the director of horticulture for Phillips Garden in Minneapolis, an innovative, award-winning landscaping company. She’s worked in the industry for 35 years and operated her own business before merging with them four years ago. Along with providing fundraising assistance at the Center, she helps with gardening, growing and forestry issues.

According to Wilderness Center board member Peter Wahlstrom, his connection with nature, especially wilderness, began with the spin of a steering wheel.

“When it came to going on family vacations, my parents, bless their hearts, turned the car north. I think that’s one of the most consequential things of my life,” Wahlstrom said. “It’s where my passion is. I like to consider myself a wilderness evangelist.”

Tree-thumping aside, Wahlstrom said wilderness has profoundly developed his character and transformed him into a better human being. As a philosophy and humanities instructor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, he feels one the best things he can do for students and family members is expose them to that “wonderful shaping influence.”

“I think serving on the board of the Steger Wilderness Center will allow me to keep doing that in more of a formal capacity. Basically, that’s a shared vision that Will has as well,” he said.

Wahlstrom has worked with Will Steger for 10 years and is one of the Center’s founding board members. He likens the Center to “raw material,” especially for youth, who yearn for meaning in their lives. For many of them, it starts with an interest in the outdoors. But when they see the Center’s sustainability, they’re struck by how Steger has figured out the good life off the grid.

“They become so enchanted by that idea that they want to keep coming back. They immediately glom onto it. It’s like suddenly their lives have purpose,” Wahlstrom said.

He added they also experience a community that not only lives sustainably and serves as a demonstration model, but they’re exposed to occupations that they really latch onto. These include Old-World skills like carpentry and stone masonry.

Wahlstrom, 56, lives in Harris, Minnesota. He said he derives deep satisfaction from his time and service at the Center. “In this one life we have, that might be the best we can do. It’s looking back on what we did and saying, ‘that made a difference’… For the teacher in me, it’s the most uplifting experience I can have.”

When Wilderness Center board member Jerry Stenger first met Will Steger face to face, Steger was a little preoccupied. He was at the Minneapolis airport loading the cargo plane that was transporting him and his expedition team to the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1989.

At the time, Stenger was supervisor for the University of St. Thomas television studio and had taken an interest in Steger’s expedition. Knowing that Steger was a St. Thomas alum, he contacted Steger out of the blue just prior to the expedition and asked for an interview. Steger politely declined, but encouraged Stenger to contact him when he returned.

Seven months later, Stenger got his half hour video interview. Steger later invited him to the Wilderness Center where Stenger shot video profiles for a week. Eventually, he photographed several training expeditions in the early 1990s.

“Then I just sort of became [Will’s] expedition videographer for every expedition from 1990 on,” Stenger said.

Not only was he on the front lines of expedition adventures, Stenger became a founding member of the Will Steger Foundation, now called Climate Generation, in 2005. He served on its board for six years. As the Wilderness Center developed, Stenger became a founder, too.

From a board member perspective, Stenger said he wants to see the Center fully operational. He hopes it will attract small groups of leadership-level organizations, which afford the decision-makers a transformative experience, something that allows them to stop work sessions and spend time in the wilderness.

Having observed Steger’s leadership style and vision on several expeditions, Stenger also emphasized the importance of indefinitely sustaining the Center’s focus.

“One of my biggest concerns is that the place and the environment stays [aligned] with Will’s vision, so it doesn’t become a corporate facility… Really keep the close-to-nature wilderness perspective,” he said.

Stenger, 55, lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He owns In Tandem Inc., a media production firm where he is a television producer, photographer and editor.

This is an excerpt from:
Anderson: Steger, 72, embarks on latest solo canoe/sled adventure

By BRIAN PETERSON, Star Tribune on 03/24/17

For the full article, click below:

Anderson: Steger, 72, embarks on latest solo canoe/sled adventure
Thirty-one years have passed since Will Steger led the world’s first unsupported trek to the North Pole by dogsled. Up next he’s headed from Ely to Burchell Lake, Ontario.
March 24, 2017 — 5:35am

Thirty-one years have passed since Will Steger led the world’s first unsupported trek to the North Pole by dogsled. Up next he’s headed from Ely to Burchell Lake, Ontario.

Thursday morning while trains, planes and automobiles toted Twin Cities residents to their stations of labor, Will Steger began a commute of his own, from Ely to Burchell Lake, Ontario.

But rather than carrying a briefcase or a lunch bucket, Steger loaded his vehicle with a 12-foot-long canoe-sled, two paddles, a single-burner stove and enough oatmeal, butter, cheese, rice and pork to sustain him for a few weeks, or 150 miles through the bush, whichever comes first.

“I’ll be traveling alone in part because it’s safer being alone this time of year,” Steger said. “During spring breakup, when you travel on ice and water, or both, you often have to make decisions really fast, which is easier if you’re alone.”

Thirty-one years have passed since Steger led the world’s first unsupported trek to the North Pole by dogsled. He’s also crossed Greenland by dogsled, the longest such unsupported expedition in history at the time, in 1988, following which in 1995 at age 50, he spearheaded the first and only dogsled crossing of the Arctic Ocean, Russia to Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Now Steger is 72 and from his encampment outside Ely, he longs still to move on…Read More