Three decades after their greatest triumph, Paul Schurke and Will Steger still have the itch to explore.
Both marked the 30th anniversary of their famed trek to the North Pole this week by launching new adventures, albeit a bit closer to home.
Schurke, who still operates a dogsled adventure business near Ely, left Tuesday morning with one of the original 1986 sleds for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where he was to meet up with adventurers Dave and Amy Freeman – who are in the midst of their own yearlong trek in the BWCAW.
Meanwhile Steger, who has become a leading and persistent voice in raising awareness about climate change, set off the same day on his own 30-day trek that will take him from Ontario’s Wabakimi Wilderness, across the Quetico Provincial Park and into the BWCAW, finishing at his Steger Wilderness Center off of the Fernberg Road.
The current adventures come 30 years after the Ely duo, together with fellow Minnesotan Ann Bancroft and five others, made history with a 1,000-mile ski and dog sled quest across the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole.
It was the first confirmed trek to the top of the world without resupply, the subject of a National Geographic cover story, a television special and best-selling book, and an adventure that even caught the attention of the White House.
They may not have known it at the time, as they prepared for a 1,000-mile mission in temperatures that at times exceeded minus-70, but their North Pole triumph would set the stage for careers in adventure.
“The North Pole trip defined my life and livelihood,” Schurke remembered in a written submission to the Echo. “Our home and businesses evolved around the skills, resources and adventure passions we gained from that expedition… Tackling a monumental challenge was fearful for all of us. But our success is now the quiet voice I hear every time I face new challenges that says ‘yea, you can pull this off too.’”
Schurke has traveled to the Arctic every year since the initial trek and together with his wife Sue, launched both the clothing business that is now Wintergreen Northern Wear as well as Ely’s Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.
Just four years after the North Pole triumph, Schurke led the Bering Bridge Expedition from Siberia to Alaska, hailed as a diplomatic venture that helped reopen the US-Soviet border and reunited native people on both continents.
In addition to operating his businesses, Schurke has focused on wildlands preservation and received the Environmental Hero award from the national Wilderness Society for his efforts.
It’s an evolution that began with the North Pole venture, one that Schurke looks back on with affinity, even with the extreme cold temperatures.
“I never remember being cold – we were working so hard that we were often too warm and worried about sweating out of our clothing systems,” he said.
It also was a trip that relied on dogsledding systems and navigation techniques that were decidedly traditional.
“They were much like those Robert Peary used starting with his first expedition in 1886, exactly 100 years before ours,” said Schurke. “All expeditions since ours have relied on high-tech superlight gear and electronic navigation.”
Like Schurke, Steger was only beginning his adventures when trekking to the North Pole, and he too has spent 30 years making an impact both in exploration and environmental advocacy.
In 1990, Steger completed a dogsled and ski traverse of Antarctica.
Other adventures have taken him across Greenland, as well as the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada by doglsed.
Steger has received National Geographic’s Oliver LaGorce Medal and is a leading spokesperson on climate change through the nonprofit Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy.
According to Steger, “lots” has changed about the North Pole in 30 years. The polar ice pack is 30 percent smaller and thinner and the team’s launch site is gone.
“Climate change has disintegrated our staging base, which was Coastal Canada’s Ward Hunt Ice Shelf,” said Steger. “It’s no longer possible to depart from there for the Pole. Arctic ice, which helps stabilize global weather systems, is rapidly diminishing.”
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