Story on arctic explorer blazes a trail of its own

  • Article by: SCOTT GILLESPIE MANAGING EDITOR
  • Updated: January 12, 2007 - 5:01 PM

A new feature, Minnesota Profile, will look deeply into the lives of people who help shape our world.

There's something uniquely powerful about a well-written profile.

Skillfully done, an intimate portrayal of an interesting life leaves you feeling richer. The story doesn't fade from memory. Its themes stay with you, sometimes for the rest of your life.

That's why the Star Tribune is introducing a new feature, called the Minnesota Profile, with today's Page 1 story on explorer Will Steger and the newest mission in his extraordinary life.

We do dozens of profiles in the paper over the course of a year, but last fall we decided to commit to doing two deeply reported profiles every year -- one in January and another in July -- on a Minnesotan who's shaping our world in unexpected ways. You might think of these signature profiles as our version of Time magazine's Person of the Year.

Projects Editor Laurie Hertzel and Deputy Managing Editor Nancy Barnes coordinated the effort, which started last fall when we asked for nominations from the staff. At least 50 people were considered, including familiar celebrities such as Bob Dylan and Joe Mauer and many lower-profile artists, entrepreneurs and political leaders.

Steger came up late in the process, after Sunday Editor Rene Sanchez noticed a short news story that said the explorer had turned up in an Apple Valley classroom talking about global warming. Steger was in the news a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s because of his many polar expeditions, but he'd been relatively quiet in recent years.

Sanchez did some checking and found that Steger's growing fear about the impact of global warming had driven him to leave his cabin in the quiet woods near Ely and move to the Twin Cities, where he could reach more people with talks at churches and community centers from Lake City to Eden Prairie.

Without much debate, we'd found our first Minnesota Profile subject. "This sea change in his life is what tipped the balance in his favor," Hertzel said.

Sanchez, who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor, said he wanted to write the story. Veteran Marlin Levison joined the team to do the photography that appears in today's paper and in a multimedia presentation you can find at www.startribune.com/mnprofile. As his reporting continued, Sanchez was struck by how much of the Steger story had not been told before.

"A lot of readers know him in only one context, as a wilderness guy way up in Ely, and now he's living in the Cities, getting stuck in traffic, facing all kinds of struggles even as he draws big crowds," Sanchez explained.

Although Steger was a cooperative subject, it took Sanchez several months to fully understand his motivation, deeply rooted in a love of nature and fueled by an almost obsessive energy. This is not so much another global warming story, although climate change is what drives Steger. It's really a tale about one man's quest, at age 62, to fully commit to a crusade to try to solve the most intractable environmental issue of our time.

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

That's just one of several themes that are likely to stick with readers long after they've finished the piece. We're already considering candidates for the next Minnesota Profile, and we welcome your thoughts at lhertzel@startribune.com.

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