The Minnesota Profile

Will Steger: Out of the Wilderness

  • Article by: RENE SANCHEZ
  • Updated: January 14, 2007 - 1:05 PM

Will Steger is on a mission to make Minnesota a leader in the fight against global warming. He has left the North Woods to campaign nonstop around the Twin Cities.

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Will Steger will speak to any group willing to listen to his pleas on what climate change in the Artic portends -- how it could wipe out the polar bear and alter the rhythms of life in Minnesota. He uses slides and scientific data to support his claims. (To learn more about global warming, check out Steger's website globalwarming101.com.)

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Before dawn, on the big river where he first found a taste for adventure, Will Steger wakes up tired and alone.

Another 18-hour day rushing around the Twin Cities awaits, more stops on a new quest unlike any other in his career.

The famed Minnesota explorer has forsaken his solitary home in the North Woods, his refuge for decades. Now he's navigating crowded freeways and blitzing churches, schools, Rotary clubs -- any group willing to listen to his pleas to take the growing threat of global warming seriously and rethink how we live.

Can one man going flat-out for a cause somehow change the world -- or at least his home state? Steger is upending his life to find out.

And so here he comes through the clanging gate outside his houseboat docked near downtown St. Paul, looking ragged but resolute, in faded jeans and muddy clogs, his wild heap of hair blowing in the wind as he lugs a backpack bulging with a banged-up laptop, old books, loose files and lord knows what else.

City lights twinkle over the Mississippi. "Let's go," he says.

He drives a rusting Toyota wagon with a missing hubcap and a radio he rarely uses, preferring silence.

He packs oatmeal into a 32-ounce water bottle for the road some days because he gets too busy to stop for meals.

He brought a kayak when he settled on the river a year ago, hoping to stay connected to the life he left. But he has only had time to put it in the water once.

Rugged and graying at 62, and with his historic expeditions to the North Pole and across Antarctica more than 15 years ago now distant memories, Steger is on a single-minded mission he has had to start from scratch.

"I've never worked in Minnesota like this before," he said. "I had no idea what to expect."

Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, an environmental group in St Paul, remembers the Sunday afternoon two years ago when his cell phone flashed with a call from someone in Ely: "He said, 'Hi, I'm Will Steger, and I've decided to dedicate the rest of my life to raising public awareness on global warming.' "

The two had never met. But their talk set in motion the roughly 200 events Steger has headlined around the metro and the state in the past year, appearances that often draw overflow crowds of hundreds of people.

He speaks to groups awed by his exploits and alarmed by his eyewitness accounts of what climate change in the Arctic portends -- how it could wipe out the polar bear, alter the rhythms of life in Minnesota and harm the American economy. He also stands before audiences that hardly know who he is and sound puzzled by or doubtful of what he says.

"Are we all going to die in 20 years from global warming?" a student at Lincoln High School in Lake City asked him after he concluded a recent talk there.

The school auditorium fell silent as Steger thought for a moment on stage.

"No," he gently told the teen. "Human beings will always adapt. But our lifestyles will be changed." Then he added, "This problem will dominate your life as long as you live."

Even where he gets a hero's welcome, Steger sees signs of the struggle ahead. When he spoke at Pax Christi Catholic Community in Eden Prairie last fall, a crowd of 1,000 people gathered inside the gleaming church gave him a standing ovation. Then some hopped into their gas-guzzling SUVs and drove away.

"Some people still don't believe this is happening," Steger said a few days later. "And the even bigger danger is that some think we can't do anything about it."

His next step to fight that mindset will be more dramatic. In February, for the first time in years, Steger will embark on a four-month, 1,200-mile trip by dogsled through villages in the Canadian Arctic. Along the way, he'll post video on the Internet showing the hardships global warming is imposing. Then, near year's end, he plans to kayak around masses of melting sea ice in Antarctica. After each journey, he intends to get back to giving sermons on the subject around the state.

Steger, who is organizing the campaign through his nonprofit foundation, says he believes his message is taking hold. But sometimes, stuck in traffic or facing more skeptics, he has to summon the same fortitude he relied on during his trips to the polar ends of the Earth.

"I can get a bit depressed some days," he said. "But I just keep moving."

One friend, Chuck Dayton, said Steger's conscience has left him with no choice but to come out of the wilderness and fight for his beliefs.

"Time is of the essence," said Dayton, an environmental lawyer. "He knows that."

 

• • •

 

For nearly 40 years, Steger found solace in the wild of far northern Minnesota. He bought land near Ely for $1,000 when he was a student at the University of St. Thomas and has lived almost ever since in a cabin 3 miles from any road, planning expeditions, writing books and building a conference center that he hopes one day will draw environmentalists from around the world.

A purposeful life, lived on his own terms.

Then his mood began to change.

Steger, who is divorced and has no children, had turned his attention away from the epic expeditions that put him in the pantheon of 20th-century explorers. One of his last big adventures, a 500-mile solo walk to the North Pole in 1997, did not go well. Six days into the trek, mired in fog and ice, Steger gave up and called for help. Seventeen days later, he was rescued by helicopter.

"I didn't think I'd get back to doing major expeditions," he said.

Instead, he began spending quiet days woodworking at his Ely homestead -- he is building chairs and tables for the unfinished conference center -- and designing winter clothing for an outfitting company.

"But I was restless," he said. "I was feeling very negative about our country. It was really weighing on me."

He began fearing the consequences of global warming. But all he saw was public and political apathy toward it.

Then one day he came across a book called "Bowling Alone," which created a national stir in the late '90s. Written by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, it details and laments the demise of social ties in America. "It was very inspiring to me," Steger said.

The book got him thinking: Maybe he could build a community to confront climate change. But that meant leaving Ely.

John Stetson, who has known Steger for 20 years and will be part of his expedition team next month, said he was surprised by Steger's decision to move. "He lives in paradise -- beside a cliff, overlooking a pristine lake," Stetson said. "To leave that and force himself to do what he's doing now in the cities shows how driven he is."

Steger has returned only a few times to his old place. "He knows that in Ely, no matter how good the Internet is, he is not capable of producing his vision," Stetson said.

Before Steger packed up, some friends suggested that he try to take what's left of his celebrity to the national stage. But he says he decided to stick to Minnesota, in the hope that he could help make the state a national leader in the fight against global warming.

He began that work with two vows: He would not preach just to like-minded audiences. And he would not let rip with any partisan screeds.

"That kind of negativity would be self-defeating. I wanted to take the politics out of it," Steger said. "I see global warming as a unifying issue, something that's going to affect all of us and our children and their children. And I think people are tired of being divided."

Stetson said Steger's determination is rooted in sorrow. "He's watching the places he loves melt away," he said.

Steger concedes that's true.

"The reason I came down here," he said, "was to get some hope."

 

• • •

 

'The shrubs! Will, the shrubs are stressed!"

It's lunchtime inside the Rhythm and Brew cafe in Lake City, and Steger is listening to a local landscape architect offer fresh evidence of climate change as she leans over a bowl of chicken dumpling soup.

Steger has come by for a quick cup of tea. But now he's drawing a crowd.

An old potato farmer in a rumpled flannel shirt ambles over holding a coffee mug to say that heat and drought are hurting his crops. A merchant from down the street rushes in; she closed her shop to meet him. The cafe's cook comes from behind the counter and pulls up a chair.

Suddenly Steger is sitting at a makeshift table for 10. He tells them global warming is not just a weather cycle. And that simple steps -- using energy-efficient light bulbs, buying higher-mileage cars -- can make a big difference.

They listen with reverence. "It's interesting your presentation is not all doom and gloom," one woman tells him. "It's like we can do something."I noticed that you managed to avoid talking about our fine president," an elderly man who heard Steger at Lincoln High School says with sarcasm.

"It's hard," Steger murmurs.

Someone at the table pulls out a camera.

"Picture time!" she shouts.

"Ya, OK, ya," Steger says hesitantly and smiles for a few snapshots with his new fans.

Then he checks a clock. Time to get to his next gig.

Outside the cafe, one of the women at the table who praised him the most is marveling at the chill in the air.

"Here we are talking all about global warming," she chuckles, "and yet we're having such a cool fall. Isn't that something?"

Steger doesn't hear her. He tosses his backpack over his shoulder and says he feels energized by the little gathering -- maybe they will spread the word to friends. Soon he's rambling back up Highway 61, gazing out at the gleaming Mississippi as the miles go by.

 

• • •

 

"There was so much I was going to tell you. Oh ya! I hope the phone bill isn't high, get Mickey's hair cut, say hello to Bruce and tell him I would write him but I lost the book that I had his address in. And tell him the stars are bright here."

-- Will Steger, at 15, in a letter home to his parents during a trip he and his 17-year-old brother, Tom, took alone down the Mississippi River in a 14-foot motorboat.

 

• • •

 

His kayak trips through Alaska, his ascents up mountain peaks in Peru, the dogsled crossing of Antarctica that took months and brought windchills of 80 below zero -- all of it began with another book.

"Huck Finn," Steger says.

He was a boy growing up in newly suburban Richfield, one of nine children in a close-knit Catholic family crammed inside a modest corner house with one bathroom.

Steger's father, Bill, ran a water-softening business. Neither parent made much time for the great outdoors.

"Our father would always say that for him roughing it was turning the electric blanket down to medium," said Tom Steger, 64, a software developer for IBM who lives now in North Carolina.

Young Will had other ideas. He traded his hockey skates to a friend for a stack of National Geographic magazines. Adventure beckoned.

He wanted to explore the world in Mark Twain's novel, by boat.

Steger started mowing lawns and caddying to earn money. Then he spent about three years buying, sprucing up and selling a succession of old, cheap little boats.

"By the time I was 15," he said, "I had a good boat."

The trip was on.

Tom Steger recalls his brother spending months on the planning -- checking weather patterns, even getting his hands on Mississippi River maps made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Will Steger said his parents, now deceased, gave him and his siblings great freedom in their youth, as long as they earned good grades and obeyed family rules. So, to the dismay of some friends, the Stegers let their two boys set off down the Mississippi. Or at least his father did.

"My mother said the rosary," Steger said.

The two teenagers left in the summer of 1960, bound for New Orleans with big dreams.

And, they soon found out, with a faulty motor.

"About the motor, we have not had one good day with it. It has acted up every day," Steger wrote in a letter home. "To tell you the truth it ran for 5 hours good above Memphis and that is the longest it has run. It has kind of wrecked our trip a little."

They carried on, running short of cash and relying on the kindness of priests and other strangers they met.

In some towns, they talked car salesmen into letting them sleep inside station wagons on their lots. Other nights they unrolled sleeping bags and lay under the stars.

After a couple of weeks they reached New Orleans.

They bummed around the French Quarter for a few days, then turned the old boat around, braved rough currents, and returned home.

Steger smiles now at the memory of the fateful trip. "Boy, after I read 'Huck Finn,' that was really where I wanted to go -- down that river," he says. "Adventures around every corner."

 

• • •

 

A cold morning on the same river, 46 years later.

Clear blue sky to the west. Birds streaking low over water that's turning to ice. Wind whistling through the bare branches of trees along the banks. Then silence.

"It's almost like living in wilderness," Steger says.

He is puttering around his creaking one-room houseboat, working on logistics for the upcoming expedition, which will have a team of eight people and 40 dogs. A map of his route across Baffin Island in the Arctic is pinned to a wall of the cramped cabin, which is Steger's office and bedroom. A stuffed toy huskie is propped beside a pillow.

On trips to the Twin Cities over the years, Steger bunked with his parents. But the family sold the Richfield house after they died. Moving from Ely, he needed somewhere else to stay.

The river was the only place he looked.

He had heard through an acquaintance that someone was selling a houseboat, and he agreed to buy it without asking the price. "I needed somewhere to keep my spirit alive, my creativity alive, in the city," Steger says.

He pours a cup of tea and starts talking about the latest chapter of his life.

There's a spiritual shift emerging in the country, he says, a growing movement of people treating the care of the Earth as a moral imperative.

"I really want it to take root and grow here," he says. "I have such a pride for Minnesota. We can lead this."

But he's also realistic. "I lived through the '60s and '70s, when we thought everything was going to change," he says. "But it didn't change."

On one point he is certain: He will be fighting for the cause for many years.

He mentions that architect Frank Lloyd Wright did not produce some of his masterworks until long after he was 65.

"Your 60s," Steger says, "are when you can really start blooming."

 

• • •

 

On the altar of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Steger is finishing his usual hourlong speech and slide show. More than 800 people have come to hear him on this misty Monday night in November.

He has just stressed to the crowd packed in every pew that there's big money to be made for businesses in Minnesota from new forms of energy production that don't spew heat-trapping gases.

Now he shifts focus to make a moral case for confronting global warming.

Unless climate change can be curbed in the next decade or so, Steger says, "We will lose some of God's creatures."

And as glaciers melt and sea levels rise, he says, poor coastal communities around the world will suffer the most.

He invokes a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: "Jesus said that what you do to the least among you, you do to me."

He steps off the altar to rousing applause. As a minister offers a closing prayer, Steger grabs his backpack, pushes up the sleeves of his sweatshirt, and charges up a side aisle to the lobby to sign books and posters from his expeditions.

People swarm around him -- fathers whose hands rest on the shoulders of their adolescent sons, retired couples, an old classmate from Richfield, even former Twins pitcher Jack Morris, who invites him to speak on his radio show.

For an hour, Steger is besieged with compliments and questions.

"You are a legend in our home."Have you talked to Amy Klobuchar about this issue?"Will global warming wreck our fishing at Bird Lake?"

By 10 p.m., most of the crowd is gone. Volunteers are starting to close up the church for the night.

Steger is bent over a folding table, signing autographs for about a dozen people still waiting in line to meet him.

He thanks each one for coming. And on every book and poster they hand him, he scribbles the same three-word creed before signing his name.

"Follow your dreams," he writes over and over, paying no mind as the lights around the church grow dim.

 

Rene Sanchez • 612-673-1731 rsanchez@startribune.com

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