ELY, Minn. – The physical realities of any extreme expedition are grueling for anyone of any age. For more than 50 years, renown polar explorer Will Steger of Minnesota successfully led teams on multiple expeditions to regions like both Poles and a traverse of Greenland. He returned with some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of climate change. After those adventures, anything else could seem trite. But not for Steger.
On March 21, he’ll embark on a new expedition to a place where no one has considered exploring at this time of year. He won’t take anyone with him. At 73, he’ll travel alone on a 1,000-mile, 70-day journey through the Barren Lands, an utterly remote region in the Canadian Arctic with a nasty reputation for high wind. It will be Steger’s longest solo expedition and, he said, it will push him in ways like never before.
“It’s going to be all very interesting,” Steger said. “It’s one of the coolest trips I’ve ever taken in my life for total adventure.”
Steger traversed the region on expeditions in the 1980s. He said he wondered at the time about the difficulty of exploring it more extensively. To his knowledge, this trip will be the first time anyone has attempted to cross the Barrens’ rivers systems during breakup, that transitional weather period between winter and spring.
“I think there’s an opportunity there for me … of discovering a way of traveling that [landscape],” he said.
Steger’s adventure will begin from the Chipewyan Indian village of Black Lake in northwestern Saskatchewan just east of Lake Athabasca. He plans to reach his final destination at the Caribou Inuit community of Baker Lake in Nunavut near Hudson Bay in early June. It’s likely Steger won’t encounter other people in the 1,000 miles between the two villages that bookend the expedition. He’ll be a minimum of three hours away from the nearest human by bush flight.
Steger said the Barrens generate what he calls “supernatural” wind and its windchills make it the coldest region in the Northern Hemisphere. Without natural windbreaks and shelter, he might have to set up a tent in gusts of 60-70 miles per hour. He could lose the tent or his canoe could literally blow away in temperatures cold enough to shatter it. He also expects other unknowns like rapid thawing and fresh snow that could bog him down.
“The conditions can be such that I could do 30 miles a day or it might be so tough that it’s not even worth traveling. I could get stuck along the way for a week or 10 days waiting,” he said.
Steger isn’t normally one to share his personal philosophies. But he opened up recently about how an expedition becomes a spiritual journey for him.
“I need these breaks to regenerate,” he said. “I think every human being should have [them]. Very few people take time out because they’re so busy they can’t afford it.”
Steger consciously challenges himself. He said he pored over Barren Lands maps to find the most challenging route. Until a few years ago, he had a fear of rivers in winter. However, his recent solo expeditions during breakup on wilderness rivers north of Ely have resulted in a whole new skill set, confidence, and loss of the fear.
“What was once terrorizing is now normal routine,” he said. “[The Barrens solo] is an extension of the skill-building I’ve been doing the last five years.”
According to Steger, his optimism is high before an expedition, and driving toward its start is an exciting time. But he’s found that visualizing where he’s headed never quite matches reality.
“The trip is always much harder than you ever think, although there’s no way of understanding difficulty until you’re in it.”
State of mind
Steger admitted that the demands of everyday life, its never-ending commitments and harried pace get to him if he lets it. However, in the wilderness, dealing with expedition challenges adjusts his state of mind. He takes hardships seriously and won’t put his life at risk. If he found himself in a situation that was too dangerous, he’d find a way around it or radio for help. But unless the hardships are life- or limb-threatening, he said they’re inconsequential. Far more often than not, he is able to savor fatigue at day’s end, have a good appetite, and sleep well.
“The hardship on an expedition is nothing like the stress that the everyday person, including me, go through when I’m in that life,” he said. “Your mind never has the freedom to be what it is. Whereas, in the wilderness, your mind is totally free. That’s very peaceful and there’s a lot of strength and power in that. … In that setting, you just get really deep with yourself. It’s intimate to me.”
For all he does on an expedition, Steger indicated he also benefits from what he doesn’t do. Certain behaviors take him out of the moment, that pleasure of escaping into the wilderness. So, he doesn’t bring books other than his journal for writing. He doesn’t set daily mileage goals. He doesn’t get hung up on overtaking lost time. “I’m not driven,” he said. “It’s the opposite of that.”
He tries to travel 10 hours per day. But if the adventure is great, he’ll go 12-14 hours. Other times he has to travel while he’s got the chance. If he’s on a lake for a week and his only concern is hauling his canoe sled, his mind can wander. But not being in the moment can present physical dangers, too.
“As long as you’re in the moment, you’re safe. It’s that simple,” he said. “But most of the time, on rivers especially, you don’t have that luxury of being able to daydream.”
For Steger, the natural world and the season play a role in the intimacy he seeks. Though the journey is the main story, he said the incredible beauty of simply participating in North Country breakup is rejuvenating for him.
“From the last of winter to the time when the ice breaks, a little bit of warmth will come in, and a storm can flip-flop back and forth. It’s a time of big blizzards, too. But the geese start coming and when [the weather] gets warmer, more animals appear. I would have to say spring is the most energetic time of the year.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.