Famous as the leader of the first teams to reach both the North Pole and South Pole by dogsled, Minnesota explorer Will Steger, 69, is also a photographer, woodworker, teacher, self-taught architect, designer and environmentalist. Over the past 40 years he has designed and tested extreme-weather gear for North Face, Lands’ End, Patagonia, Marmot, Gander Mountain, Gore-Tex and other outdoor suppliers. His Steger mukluks are a favorite footwear for dogsledders, and their huskies are probably wearing Steger harnesses.
On a lake near Ely, Minn., he’s now building a rustic lodge of logs assembled with traditional Finnish dovetailing and brightened by multifaceted windows that peer out over thick forests and deep water. With stone floors, skylights, towers and peaked roofs, it is part castle, part Scandinavian stave church and all Steger vision. When finished, it will house the Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership, a retreat where people can, he hopes, break through the politics that has long stymied action on climate issues, and develop programs to effect real change.
Many of Steger’s designs — including plans for the Ely center — evolved while he was crossing Antarctica by dogsled. His little-known design career is explored in a small, fascinating exhibit, “Inside an Explorer’s Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design” at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design through Oct. 6. Produced by MCAD, it includes samples of Steger’s award-winning expedition photos, drawings and writings, plus clothing and equipment (canoe, harness, clothing, sled), and a video about the Ely center.
Steger recently chatted with the Star Tribune about his design career; excerpts follow.
Q: How did you get interested in design issues?
A: I’ve been involved with them since childhood. There weren’t any REI or outdoor gear stores then, just army surplus, so by 12 or 13 I was designing some of my own climbing equipment. I had a couple of brothers who were into swinging and climbing, too. We’d climb up the Bush Lake ski jump and a Naegele billboard at Hwy. 494 and 35W, put up our hammocks, and sleep for the night. We were just thrilled with heights.
Q: Do you have any design training?
A: In high school my most important class was two years of mechanical drawing. That enabled me to formally put my thoughts on paper. I moved to the wilderness when I was 25 and built a sauna, a cabin, workshop, gardens and was pretty much self-sufficient.
Q: Why did you redesign sled-dog harnesses?
A: When I started racing dogs, I went to a vet and studied X-rays of injured sled dogs. I discovered that the old harnesses pulled at the top of their spines right above their back legs. That strained and crippled them. So I got various native designs, tried them all, and designed a harness that pulls through the sides, like a horse harness. It was all trial and error, and it worked. Our dogs live to be very old.
Q: You use both traditional designs and modern materials in your expedition clothing. Why?
A: You can’t improve on mukluks, the native footwear, and for super cold their beaver mitts are great. But other than that, my extreme wear uses modern materials. I’m always looking at zippers and hood designs, and I was the first to use reflective tape back in the 1980s. In low lighting, like in tents or on polar treks, you can see where everybody is at.
Q: How has equipment evolved since your first expeditions?
A: Satellite radios and GPS have totally changed the game. We used to rely on a 10-watt radio, and with solar activity at the poles, radio blackouts lasted a long time. I’ve traveled over 1,500 miles with nothing but a compass and intuition for navigation, but that’s no longer necessary.
Q: Why does gear design matter on expeditions?
A: It’s pretty simple. Your life depends on it. In super cold, there is no latitude for error. You have to be right in your thinking, your attitude, your awareness and your gear.
Q: Can design save the planet?
A: Yes. Innovation can save our planet. It’s our only hope. Our economy is driven by innovation, and it will come through in the good old American way.