It's a spring night in Northern Minnesota, dark and cold—perfect for Will Steger. He quickly makes his way through the trees down toward a small lake. His destination is a shoreside sauna. He stokes the wood stove that heats the sauna, closes the sauna door behind him and begins to let the pressures of the day drain from him.
He's planning a trip, the trip of a lifetime, and that's saying something, because Steger has become the most famous American Arctic adventurer since Robert Peary, who in 1909 reached the North Pole. In early August, Steger and five teammates will set out from the northwest tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and attempt to mush 42 dogs nearly 4,000 miles across the continent (map, page 47) on a journey that is expected to take seven months. If successful, Steger & Co. will become the first to traverse Antarctica on foot.
In 1986 Steger led an eight-man team overland to the North Pole. Two members of the expedition dropped out along the way—one because of broken ribs, the other because of severe frostbite—but it was the first confirmed expedition to reach the Pole without getting resupplied en route. That trip rated cover stories in National Geographic and Outside magazine, and the latter named Steger Outsider of the Year. He also made appearances on countless radio and TV talk shows.
Now Steger sits motionless in the sauna, his eyes closed. At 5'9", 142 pounds, Steger, 44, looks more like a meditating mystic than an adventurer. When his eyes open, he says, "I don't relate well to the stressfulness of the situation I'm in. I had a dream the other night. I was running on a diving board, and suddenly I stopped to look at where I was. I couldn't tell, but I knew people were watching me. I panicked, but the only thing I could think to do was to keep on running at the same pace. I woke up drenched. I can't think of success or failure, but just of going forward."
July 30, 1989
After sweating for a half hour, Steger emerges into the 30° night and walks to the lake. He stands for a moment before the star-filled sky and takes a deep breath. Then he plunges into the water, which is still covered in spots by ice. After a quick swim, he sits on a wooden bench and drinks in the cool air.
This man who seems so at home in this isolated spot is just as comfortable in paneled boardrooms, talking million-dollar deals. Steger, it turns out, is an individual of contrasts. Taciturn and remote, he is also an inspiring leader and inexhaustible promoter. The holder of a bachelor's degree in geology and a master's in education from the College of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, he has also studied Zen philosophy at a monastery in Southern California. A ceaseless fundraiser for his heavily publicized adventures, he longs to be alone with his dogs.
Steger puts on his boots and walks, otherwise naked, to the cabin he built on land he owns north of Ely, somewhere in the Minnesota woods. Steger, the loner who also revels in fame—he sees himself as the latest in the line of preeminent modern-day cold-weather explorers beginning with Peary and running through Amundsen, Shackleton and Byrd—doesn't want the whereabouts of his home disclosed. He asks visitors not to divulge even the latitude and longitude of his spread, which he calls the Homestead. The last thing Steger wants is a bunch of granola-crunching gypsies—people not unlike himself in past days—showing up, pitching their tents, patting his dogs, wishing him well and distracting him from his plans.
Inside the cabin, Steger turns on a gas lantern. He climbs the ladder to the loft and crawls into his sleeping bag. He always sleeps in a bag. Finally relaxed, Steger falls asleep—hoping he will not dream.
Steger says he doesn't want to be considered a hero or a guru, but he talks in heroic terms, and his speech has a mystic's intensity. "I was born to roam," he says as he sits sipping tea the next morning. "I felt an urge logo when I was very young. I was climbing trees as soon as I could walk to them. I'd never want to come in when dusk came."
The tree-climbing wasn't in the wilds but in Richfield, a comfortable suburb of Minneapolis. Steger is the second of nine children born to Bill Steger, a water-filtration engineer, and his wife, Margaret. The kids were all energetic, resourceful and individualistic. Steger credits his parents with encouraging these attributes. "It was a challenge to find something they might say no to." he says. "It's not accidental that we all turned out different. One of my brothers works in computers, one's a cabbie, one's a commander on a nuclear sub, one's a male nurse in an AIDS ward. And then there's me."
The family's closest brush with the wilderness was a station-wagon trip to Yellowstone one summer. But it was reading Huckleberry Finn that spurred Steger to become an adventurer. "Huck's always been my hero," he says. "I've patterned my life after his."
Steger's first accomplice in acting out his Huck fantasies was one of his brothers, fittingly named Tom. Will, who was 15 at the time, planned to replicate Huck's trip down the Mississippi, using an old motorboat instead of a raft.
Will and Tom, who was 17, set off in the summer of 1960. "We got down the river in three weeks," says Steger. "We were having great lazy fun every day. But when we arrived in New Orleans, we were broke. We met a bum named Sylvester, who was about 65, and he taught us how to live in New Orleans on nothing. We'd sleep on the sidewalks, bathe in Lake Pontchartrain, and at one or two in the morning go to where the trucks dumped their produce. One night we got a watermelon. There we were—two boys and an old bald-headed black guy—sitting on the pier, eating melon, watching the barges at three in the morning, all of us lit up by New Orleans. Sylvester said, 'Boys, life is never better than this!' I believed him absolutely."
Life on the return voyage was certainly a lot worse. The boat that had served them so well kept breaking down, and the still-penniless brothers were busted as vagrants in Vicksburg and Natchez. "The police would find us at the river at night and throw us in jail, thinking we had stolen the boat or were going to steal food," says Steger. "We'd call home, and the folks would explain what we were doing. By the time we reached home, that boat had me $225 in debt, and I had to do some serious caddying. I decided that would be my first and last motorized adventure."
Three summers later, Steger set off for the Yukon River. "I hitchhiked to Alaska," he says. "I've hitched well over 100,000 miles. If there were a frequent-hitcher program, I'd be able to go to the moon. I put my kayak into the Yukon and felt a cold thrill. That was my first taste of what the wilderness is. It's frightening, uncomfortable, lonely. You wish you were home, but it leaves an indelible mark."
Over the next five years, Steger and his hometown pal Jeff Olsen kayaked nearly 8,000 miles on Alaskan and Canadian rivers. Steger began to think about living permanently somewhere at the top of the world. But his gregarious side wouldn't allow such a break with civilization. "I like the city, I really do," says Steger. "For a while, the city was as much a part of my life as the country, and I wouldn't have been happy without it. I was young, I liked to meet people, I liked to have a beer."
In the late '60s Steger settled into a life-style of extremes. Nine months of the year he taught science at St. Richard's school, where he had been a student. But during vacations he went dogsledding, kayaked and also took up mountaineering. In 1965 Steger was part of a 44-man team that became the first to reach the top of two 19,000-foot peaks in Peru. "You could say we succeeded," says Steger. "We reached both summits. But two members of our team were killed in a fall. They fell hundreds and hundreds of feet. I was trying to make a big decision at the time—whether to continue mountaineering or to keep exploring up north. That cinched it. Exploring was for me."
Steger marks the chapters of his life with epiphanies: discovering Huckleberry Finn, listening to Sylvester sing of life, seeing two companions fall to their deaths. In 1970 came another. "Some friends and I had decided to go to Alaska to make a million dollars on the pipeline," says Steger. "I was in my St. Paul apartment, and they were outside, honking the horn for me to hurry. I knew when I closed that door that this was the end of my city life. I knew that as I turned away from that door, I was turning to the wilderness life.
"I went to Alaska, made a little money—hardly a million—and came back to the Homestead. I asked myself, How can I combine my vocation as a teacher and my need to adventure, and stay here in the woods and still be a citizen?"
The Outward Bound program, which was still young, seemed to offer a possibility, and Steger ran an affiliate at the Homestead for three years. After that he founded his own winter-camping school. Named Lynx Track, it drew clients mainly from the Twin Cities. He promised "to show them winter as a beautiful, nonthreatening place." Lynx Track grew beyond tents and cross-country skis. Steger added sleds and dogs, and he became an expert breeder.
Judy Spansberger, who works at the Homestead as a cook, remembers those days. "I used to teach at a canoeing camp on the next lake," she says, "and one day there was this really skinny, grungy little guy with hair down to the middle of his back—he was pretty unwashed. He was using the pay phone at the camp. I asked someone, 'Who's that?' and they said, 'Will Steger. He's kind of a different guy, quiet. Lives in a cabin near here and comes over to use the phone.' Back then, Will was just another broke hippie, like all of us."
Not quite broke. After investing about $2,000 in the Homestead each year—his original 60-acre parcel has grown to 220 acres—he had enough left over to continue adventuring. "Back then, I'd often just go," says Steger. "I had developed a good team of eight or nine dogs, and I'd take off. Once, on a solo trip from Fort Good Hope down the Mackenzie, I was waist-deep in powder with the dogs, and it was hell to get through. But the Indians had told me there was a trail. The thing was, I was 50 miles from where I thought I was. I went three days without food. The starvation and pain are easy to put out of your mind because you must. Panic will kill you sooner than starvation. I've never panicked, and that's why I'm alive. Finally, I met some trappers. They shared their food and pointed the way."
As Steger recounts yet another of his epiphanies, the pace of his delivery increases, and a visitor finds himself becoming an audience more than a conversational partner. "A big part of my life is beauty, and I'm in tune with the beauty of the north," says Steger. "The beauty of those vast stretches is extraordinary but subtle—the subtle beauty of the sun, the colors, the hues, the reindeer, the stars. And you're living in harmony with these desolate surroundings—that's beautiful. It's real Zen, up north, where you're given this sameness of landscape and your mind must work it out. In the cold you maintain an extremely sharp, crisp mind. The north, like Zen, is medicine for the head. The air is charged—this is a fact—and you're energized by it. It's as if the Fountain of Youth is somewhere to the north. You develop a perspective on the earth that's impossible in our day-to-day situation."
Well! If Steger's paean to the north sounds somehow rehearsed, it's not surprising. He has been delivering it since the mid-'70s, when he realized that he could make a buck recounting his adventures. Once he got his spiel down, he began giving slide-and-lecture presentations throughout the Midwest. A show in River Falls, Wis., attracted a particularly enthusiastic listener named Patti Lundsten, who was a seamstress and a dyed-in-the-boiled-wool child of the Woodstock generation.
"I'd always been drawn to visionary people," recalls Patti. "I was attracted to Will immediately. We talked about sewing. We talked about the winter clothing that the Eskimos wear and how we could duplicate it. We began splitting time between my place in Wisconsin and his in Ely."
They married in 1981, and Patti began accompanying him on trips that were no honeymoons. "I had my sewing and a nice tidy little life," she says. "Then I met him and all of a sudden I'm on Ellesmere Island. We were traveling with the dogs over ocean ice in July, and it was breaking up beneath us. We had to keep running around the leads in the ice, and finally we came up against it. Curtains. There was a 50-foot lead in front of us, and there were leads left and right of us. We were stranded. Will said, 'Let's just stay here a little while and see what happens.' We sat for three or four hours. Suddenly, a shelf of ice broke off on the other side and floated right across the lead to us. We got on and sailed it across. Was it magic?"
It's never entirely magic with Steger. First, he has that ability to stay eerily calm under great stress. Then there's his mastery of wilderness techniques, many of them learned from the Eskimos. "One time we were dogsledding at the Arctic Circle in northwestern Canada in winter," says Patti. "We were near Great Bear Lake, which is enormous. When we reached the lake, there was a brutal blizzard, a whiteout condition. The native trail ran by the shore, but Will said, 'It'll be impossible to follow. Let's go across the middle.'
"I was sure wed get lost. But he knew there was a tiny island in the center of the lake, and he said. 'We'll head for that. If we hit it, then we're going the right way.' I was skiing in front, and Will told me to keep skiing so that the wind hit my face at this angle." Patti brushes her right cheek with her hand to show the precise angle Will indicated. "We hit the island dead-on in a whiteout. Amazing. The guy knows the birds by their songs and the constellations by their Latin names, but there's something more, too."
Such tales, when repeated back in Ely around a campfire or over a beer, were beginning to make Steger into a legend. He didn't mind; some say he encouraged it. He certainly used his reputation to good effect when he turned his adventuring career up another notch.
"I had always been going north, and the ultimate extension of that is the North Pole," says Steger. "One day I was stuck in a storm in the Canadian Barren Grounds. The wind was hitting the tent at 70 miles an hour, and it was freezing. At that moment it came to me what a pure trip to the Pole should be: Go with a team of dogs and make it un- supported, without re-supply. You see, when Peary got there, he built way stations a-cross the Arctic ice and kept having food and fresh dogs sent up to him at the front. Then he made his dash from about a hundred miles out. I wanted to go the whole way with one team of dogs and all our food. It's seldom that you perceive an ultimate challenge. I felt that I was the right person at the right time—perhaps in all of history—to do this thing."
But no man could make a dogsled trek over huge pressure ridges of ice alone. Such a quest would require a team, and a team requires money. "I figured, $600,000," says Steger. "You can't raise that as a wilderness hermit."
He got a haircut, and then he got in touch with executives at Du Pont. He convinced the people at Du Pont that if anyone could pull off this feat, he was the guy. He also pointed out the many benefits the company would realize if he arrived at the Pole wearing clothes made from Du Pont fibers. Du Pont became the principal sponsor for the trip.
The Steger International Polar Expedition caught the public's fancy. Paul Schurke, a wilderness instructor who was coleader of the effort, says, "I figured it would interest the folks in Minnesota because it highlighted a lot of things we're proud of here: the frontier spirit, little people doing something big, winter exploring, and adventuring in general. Lindbergh's still our biggest local hero. I was stunned that the whole nation tuned in like it did."
Says Steger, "The way we were doing it seemed natural and attractive, and also dangerous. Plus, it was 1986. After the shuttle explosion and Chernobyl, I think people were eager for something like our mission to succeed."
Success didn't come easy. The expedition—seven men, one woman and 49 dogs—pushed off from the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in early March, but after a month and a half of fighting—70° nights, they had covered only 300 miles, with at least twice that distance still to go. As will not be the case with Antarctica, where the ice never melts, the North Pole mission was a race against time. In spring the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean begins to melt and shift, and it is impossible to reach the Pole after early May.
The expedition passed the halfway point on April 16, 1986, but Steger knew he was still far behind schedule. "Paul [Schurke] and I discussed making a two-man dash for it, and we presented this option to the team," recalls Steger. The team took the news badly, and Steger and Schurke dropped the idea.
Proceeding with renewed urgency, the team zoomed 80 miles in four days. The last week was frantic. Steger, already severely frostbitten, caught a virus and couldn't eat during the final week. To make matters worse, the spring sun was opening leads in the ice every day. Ann Bancroft had to be pulled from the Arctic waters at one point, Steger himself at another.
On May 1 the team stood triumphantly at the Pole—exhausted, elated and with exactly one pound of food remaining. A plane full of reporters flew in a few hours later, and the world learned of the expedition's rush to triumph.
With a blizzard of attention descending on Steger, the Homestead became less a refuge and more a base of operations. Over the next several months, a staff of 10—cooks, sled makers, dog trainers—took up residence in huts scattered through the woods. Steger wasn't much bothered by this intrusion, because he wasn't there much. His promotional work for Du Pont and other sponsors kept him on the run. Says Patti, who was divorced from Steger in 1986, "When we split, it wasn't that I didn't love him anymore. It was just that he was never around Ely enough."
She moved into town and threw her energies into Steger Mukluks, a footwear firm that will supply the Trans-Antarctica expedition. "We're close friends to this day, but I needed someone who was at home," she says. "That had changed, and it wasn't going to change back soon."
In all the appearances, parades, parties and interviews, Steger knew that somewhere along the line he was bound to be asked the question, What next?
Steger knew. One day, in the middle of the North Pole expedition, Steger spotted the ghostly outline of a man on skis in the fog ahead. "Jean-Louis, I presume?" said Steger, paraphrasing the famed Stanley-Livingstone greeting.
"And you're Will, of course," came the reply.
Jean-Louis Etienne, a French adventurer, was in the process of becoming the first person to ski alone to the Pole. Steger had known that Etienne was on the ice, and Etienne had known about the Steger expedition. "But the meeting was fate. It was not accidental," says the epiphany-seeking Steger. He and Etienne shared some tea, and they found that they shared an interest in Antarctica. They agreed that someday they would pursue a joint venture there.
"Once I started thinking about Antarctica, it was clear that this expedition had to happen." says Steger. "It's a critical time for that continent. We'd like to bring attention to the ozone hole over Antarctica, but even more important is the treaty."
In 1959, 12 nations, including the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., signed a pact declaring Antarctica a nonmilitary zone that would remain free of national sovereignty. That treaty expires in 1991. Steger believes it's essential that it be renewed. To underscore his concern, he assembled a team that includes representatives from the five countries that signed the treaty, plus China. Joining him and Etienne as coleaders of the expedition is Victor Boyarsky, 37, a Soviet radio scientist. The other members are Geoff Somers, 39, a carpenter from England; Keizo Funatsu, 32, a Japanese businessman and dog trainer; and Qin Dahe, 42, a glaciologist and cartographer from China.
Whether the expedition draws attention to Antarctic geopolitics remains to be seen, but Etienne and Steger have done a bang-up job of drawing attention to their trip. The 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition's backing comes from two "lead" sponsors (the French insurance company UAP and U.S. fabric manufacturer W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.), five "major" sponsors (Du Pont, Hill's Pet Products, Target Stores, The North Face and SAFT batteries) and more than 100 "support" sponsors and suppliers (including a utility, an overnight courier and an oil conglomerate). There are enough logos on display to make you think you're on the starting grid of the Indy 500. Even the dogs will wear Gore-Tex jackets, which Patti stitched together.
All told, the sponsors have contributed some $10 million. "That's what big-time adventuring is about these days," Steger says. "We need food, we need flights, we need a command boat in the ocean for seven months. That costs money. The problem is, it puts a lot of pressure on us."
Last week, as the expedition entered its final preparations, it suffered its first serious setback. The Soviet Illyushian cargo plane that was to transport the team from Minnesota to Antarctica developed mechanical problems during a stop in Havana, Cuba. A planned 12-hour layover turned into four days of tension and tragedy. After the plane's air-conditioning broke down, it became apparent that the dogs could not stay on board. Arrangements were made to take them to the Havana zoo. During the several hours it took to transport the animals, two died in the tropical heat—one was a standby, but the other was a sled dog named Godzilla, who was scheduled to make the trans-Antarctic crossing.
But Steger, if anyone, knows that setbacks are inevitable in this type of expedition. It was Steger's continued calm in the face of difficulties that may have been the difference between success and failure for the 1986 expedition. Still, Steger says, "I'll tell you very honestly, I preferred it before—solo, no radio, just out there alone."
But then, just as readily, he acknowledges that these mega-adventures can make him serious money. He says that his earnings from the North Pole trip—lecture fees, payment for a National Geographic article and royalties on North to the Pole, a book he wrote with Schurke—have been plowed back into the Antarctic venture. He says that whatever he makes on Trans-Antarctica will go into the Homestead. However, he does speculate that with ABC Sports committed to at least five prime-time specials, this trip could set him up for a long time. "I want to write, not just about adventure but about our environment," Steger says. "I want to lecture. I'd like to build a conservatory at the Homestead and hold environmental conferences there."
Another day is winding down, and Steger is sipping beer by the wood stove in his cabin. The light from the gas lantern flickers on his face, and he's smiling ever so slightly. It's his first smile of the day. "My closest call?" he says. "You'll be surprised. It happened right outside here, on the lake. It was a lovely morning near the end of March. I woke up and saw this beautiful, thick, green fog over the ice. I decided I had to get a picture of it. I got my camera, made my way out onto the ice, and put the tripod down. I was getting ready when the ice cracked. I fell through. I kicked myself up once, and the next shelf of ice broke. I kicked up again, but again the ice broke. I was losing my energy. Under the water, I thought, This is my last chance. I went for it with everything I had left, and it broke yet again. I don't remember what I was thinking underwater that last time, but apparently I kicked full strength once more. Then I was on top of the ice, shivering. I looked up at the sky and said, 'Thank you.'
"I'm not saying I subscribe to any religion. I've been influenced by my Catholicism, by Zen, by the Eskimos' philosophy. I think I have a spiritual sense, but I don't belong to a single religion. This spiritual sense—it's centered on the importance of being in the moment at hand, not in the past or the future. And being as alive as you can be in that moment. I figure, why not press on, try the extremes, try them now? You never know what'll happen tomorrow. You might fall through the ice in the backyard."
START Aug. 1989
Arrive Nov. 1989
FINISH March 1990