Expeditions are where I get a lot of my vision and my energy.  I hope to share this approach and these experiences more broadly.  Expedition thinking is central to the thinking and work of the Steger Wilderness Center I’ve been building in Ely, MN for the past 25 years.  Because expedition thinking can help us address many of the serious challenges facing us.

 

 

 

Thank you to Tasha Van Zandt and Sebastian Zeck for producing the Solo 2015 Expedition video series.  http://tashavanzandt.com   

On March 3, 1990, I along with five other explorers from six different countries and our 42 sled dogs completed the first-ever dogsled crossing of the Antarctic continent.

I, along with Jean-Louis Etienne from France, led this expedition, traveling 3,741 miles in seven months, enduring temperatures as low as -54F and winds as high as 100 mph.

This expedition had an important mission – saving Antarctica.

Following the expedition, the team members met with heads of state in France, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. calling for the ratification of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty was ratified in 1991, protecting Antarctica from oil and mineral exploration and preserving it for science.

The Trans-Antarctica Expedition could not be replicated today: not only have dogs been banned from Antarctica, but the Larsen A and B Ice Shelves, on which the team traveled for a month, no longer exist, their demise a major indication of the impacts of climate change.

The first hand witnessing of this devastation and my life-long calling as an educator led me to found the Will Steger Foundation to educate and empower citizens and policy makers to engage in solutions for climate change. The Foundation is celebrating it’s 10 year anniversary.

On a parallel path, I have continued to build my homestead in Ely, Minnesota as the place where I plan and prepare for all of my expeditions. Created out of this long history and in its final stages of completion, this now named Steger Wilderness Center is the place where I put my expedition-based thinking and work to practical use. Over the years it was built by master craftsmen and student apprentices that gathered every summer and were inspired by the wilderness setting.

My method for connecting the expedition way of working to others is simple: a lofty aim, pure intention, planning for every extreme, dogged resilience, and belief in the team.

 

Canoe

Good gear is critical to any wilderness expedition.  Quality, weight, performance…these and other factors are carefully considered before each piece is selected, reviewed and packed.  Some of my most important gear, such as my canoe and portions of my clothing, are handcrafted to meet the demands of each expedition.

This video is the first in a series telling the story of each piece of gear going with me for my 2015 Solo expedition.

The Canoe: A Canoe Custom Built by Northstar Canoes

 

“I had my hydroseal outfit on, neoprene socks, gloves and helmet. I shoved off at the bottom of the rapids. There was blowing snow and the water was very black. It was treacherous, stark and extremely beautiful. The danger was the black water because it covered up rocks, and if I hit a rock in midstream it could take my life.”

— Will Steger, from his 2014 solo boundary waters trip during spring break-up.

He was at it again the other day, Will Steger, envisioning the time — soon — when he can clear his head of the day-to-day stuff and live, as he says, in the moment.

By Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune, February 28, 2015
http://www.startribune.com/sports/outdoors/294520871.html

Continue Reading…

Solo 2015

In late March 2015, I will begin a 200-mile canoe-sled solo over the northern rivers and lakes along the Minnesota/Canadian border. This expedition during the spring break-up is a personal journey to experience the beauty of the season and to expand my knowledge and skills. Through daily satellite dispatches, I will be sharing my adventure along the way. As I travel, I will attempt to answer just what goes on inside an explorer’s head, the ‘why’ behind my fifty-years of expedition experience.

 

The route that I have chosen is most challenging. I will travel through a string of rivers and lakes. It’s a varied country of waterfalls, rapids, and steep narrows, ranging from small gem-like lakes to large complex bodies of frozen water. There will be danger and hardships, but beneath this veneer is the beauty of the moment. In fact, survival depends on being ever-present and spontaneous rather than moving passively along a pre-determined course.

2014 quetico leadimageThe ice, too, will vary as the spring break-up moves along. As I start off on the last edge of winter, most of the rivers will be frozen, except for dark ribbons of fast moving current that wind through the thin ice. As the spring sun intensifies, the current will begin to erode the river ice, making it unpredictable. There will be a thaw/freeze cycle where the temperature cycle takes wild swings with highs above freezing and lows that plunge to the sub-zero. On these nights a crust forms allowing me to travel using the stars as my guide. Sometimes there are deep snowfalls; even blizzards or I might hit temperatures without substantial night freezes. These warmer conditions with the deep slushy snow at first bring on tough hauling, forcing me to relay to make forward progress. Once the snow melts down on the lake ice, these friction free surfaces allow me to travel 20-30 mile days.

Next, the rivers will open, as long shore leads form on the lakes. The hauling season will soon come to an end as I will switch to paddling my canoe through the open water. This complex break up process can take anywhere from three to seven weeks. I will travel with four weeks of food and fuel that I can ration down to last five weeks or more, if necessary.

It is going to be a great adventure and I hope you can follow along with me to explore the spring break-up in the north country.

 

The Route

My route will take me through Ontario’s, Quetico Provincial Park and the border lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. The expedition will begin on Lake Saganaga at the terminus of the Gunflint trail. I will follow the Falls chain north to Sturgeon Lake. At Sturgeon, I travel southwest down the Maligne River, across Lac La Croix and then west down the Namakan River. If I reach Lake Namakan successfully, I will either take the large border lakes west to International Fall, or travel east, following the border lakes and rivers back home to my cabin north of Ely, Minnesota.

 

What is a Canoe Sled?

A canoe sled is an amphibious craft that enables me to haul through snow or over ice, or paddle in open water or down rivers. Canoe sleds have enabled me to travel when the spring ice is breaking up in the polar and arctic regions as well as in northern snow country. The canoe sleds that my expeditions have used on the rough pack ice on the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay had runners. In the deep snow country runners are unnecessary. For my expedition this spring, I will be using a canoe with a reinforced bottom but without runners.

Ted Bell and I have designed canoe sleds for almost two decades. His present company is Northstar Canoe. I consider Ted to be the best designer/builder of both solo and tandem canoes. He has been in the industry for thirty years.

In the mid 1990s, we designed a series of prototypes that led to the canoe sled that I used on my 1997 Solo from Pole Expedition. This year, Ted customized a special canoe sled based on his Phoenix Solo Canoe. The 14-foot Phoenix is designed with rivers in mind, yet it handles comfortably on lakes. My specialized Phoenix weighs in at 40 pounds, and features a reinforced haul with a ‘snubbed’ bow and stern that enables the canoe to toboggan through deep snow.

 

Safety Rules

The amazing thing about my fifty-year career of polar and northern expeditions is that I have always stayed safe. There are some basic reasons why. First, I know when to back down. I have turned back on four major expeditions in my career; each took years to plan, to train and to fundraise for. It was hard to turn back, but evaluating the risk and acting responsible is why I am still around. Three of the four times, I was able to reorganize and go back to successfully complete the original expedition.

On this Solo, if conditions are too dangerous, I will either retreat or wait until the conditions become more favorable.

Second, I travel with humility and respect, which I consider the core values of the northern cultures and the basis for their survival. In the wilderness, the risk takers and the over confident are playing the odds. The odds are that nature always wins and you will either get yourself injured or, worse yet, killed. On a solo there is little if any margin for error.

Traveling in the wilderness is a continual learning experience for me, even after fifty years. Constantly adding to my knowledge base, in turn, helps build my intuition. Most of my decision-making is intuitive or spontaneous. Because I often need to act immediately, I seldom use a conscious thinking process, which is too slow and clumsy and can be dangerous. I have traveled on thin ice for most of my life.

However, there is always more to learn and rivers at spring break up are good teachers.

 

Follow Along

This year, I am taking a big step by opening up my personal day-to-day adventures to those who are interested in following me online. Before the expedition, I will post entries to explain the preparation process, the area I will be traveling through, the weather conditions that I expect, the canoe sled, my strategy, safety, and I will share details about two areas critical to success: t my equipment and diet.

 

“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.

“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.”