“I had my hydroseal outfit on, neoprene socks, gloves and helmet. I shoved off at the bottom of the rapids. There was blowing snow and the water was very black. It was treacherous, stark and extremely beautiful. The danger was the black water because it covered up rocks, and if I hit a rock in midstream it could take my life.”
— Will Steger, from his 2014 solo boundary waters trip during spring break-up.
He was at it again the other day, Will Steger, envisioning the time — soon — when he can clear his head of the day-to-day stuff and live, as he says, in the moment.
This was in Princeton, just north of the Twin Cities, at Northstar Canoe, and Steger’s old pal, Ted Bell, and Bell’s canoe-building crew had just finished modifying an otherwise proper-looking craft, blunting both ends and reinforcing them, as if it were to be used as a ram.
Which it might be, beginning on or about March 23, when Steger angles toward big country, intending to traverse the boundary waters, east to west, during spring breakup.
The expedition will begin on Lake Saganaga at the end of the Gunflint Trail, follow north to Sturgeon Lake, then southwest down the Maligne River, across Lac La Croix and west down the Namakan River.
The trip has become a spring rite of sorts for Steger over the past decade or more, and will be taken, as usual, alone.
Understanding the “why’’ takes some doing — there are, after all, more comfortable, and safer, times to travel the region.
But Steger, who grew up in Richfield and who in 1986 co-led the first confirmed dog-sled journey to the North Pole without resupply, and who also led the first dog-sled traverse of Antarctica, is a cat of a different stripe.
And always has been.
Even in the days long ago when he drove to Ely from his cabin outside of that town, cavorting in an old Cadillac convertible, the top down and his sled dogs splayed in front seat and back, a parade of canines.
“On this trip, I’ll travel mostly at night, depending on the weather,’’ Steger was saying. “The higher sun in spring, and the warming weather, can make travel on top of the snow and lake ice a problem during the day. At night the snow and ice refreeze and the going is better.’’
Steger is older now — 70! — which means everyone who has followed his sojourns over the years must be older, as well. But unlike most of his generation, he hasn’t slowed down. Not much anyway.
At 140 pounds, he’s still fit, still thinking, and still looking for the explorer’s high doubtless known also to Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the other rarefied adventure junkies who, like Steger, have been awarded the National Geographic Society’s John Oliver La Gorce Medal for “accomplishments in geographic exploration, in the sciences, and for public service to advance international understanding.”
In demand widely as a speaker, Steger can dispense experientially based inspiration at the drop of a hat.
Sure, that is possible. Of course, that can be done.
Much of this — like the coming boundary waters trip — is a product of his busy mind’s eye, through which imaginative cinematic meanderings loop continually.
The Will Steger Foundation and the Will Steger Wilderness Center are outgrowths of these considerations. Both address climate change, leadership, wilderness life and other big-picture issues.
But sometimes … sometimes Steger needs to get away.
“In the early going of the trip, I’ll burn about 8,000 calories a day,’’ he said. Provisioned for 40 days, Steger will be able to stretch his food an additional 10 days if he runs into trouble.
An advantage this year will be the relative lack of deep snow. On most of these trips he paddles his canoe only about 10 percent of the time. The remainder is spent pulling the canoe behind him as he breaks trail on skis, snowshoes or on foot.
At times last year he waded waist-deep through slush, staying dry only because he wore a special waterproof suit. This spring, regardless of other conditions, the snow likely won’t be as deep.
“Usually I paddle only on the rivers that connect the lakes,’’ Steger said. “Some of them stay open all winter. Or they’re the first to break up when warm weather comes.’’
• • •
“It will only take until the end of the first day to drive the civilized world away.
“And by the third day, I’ll be there, attuned to the conditions, seeing everything around me, even the ravens that seem often to mock me.’’
To sleep, Steger will pitch a one-man tent on lake ice. Fueling him will be powdered whole milk that is 27 percent protein, also nuts, cheese and organic raw meat.
“From the moment I wake up, I can eat, break camp and be on the trail in 20 minutes,’’ he said.
Paradoxically, Steger insists he’s not a risk-taker. He’ll portage around weak-looking ice, for example, or alter his planned route if conditions warrant, rather than imperil himself.
“In the wilderness, the risk takers and the overconfident are playing the odds,’’ Steger said. “The odds are that nature always wins and you will either get yourself injured or, worse, killed. On a solo trip there is little margin for error.’’
Steger’s last major international expedition, taken in 1997, brought him perilously close to catastrophe, reminding him that above all else, the point is to live another day.
That year, he disembarked from a Russian ice breaker at the North Pole, intending to ski, pulling a sled canoe similar to the one he’ll employ later this month, south to Canada, a distance of some 490 miles.
But bad ice plagued the sojourn from the outset, and about 100 miles into the trip he decided to bail. To do so, he had to backtrack 60 miles to be picked up by another ice breaker.
“Fortunately, I had rescue insurance I bought just before I left,’’ Steger said. “I paid $5,000 for $60,000 worth of insurance, and I was glad I did.’’
Since then, for the most part, Steger’s adventures have been nearer to his rural Ely home, between which he tries to spread the word about climate change, a topic that to him is personal because for a generation now his friends in the high Arctic have experienced the effects of warmer summers, shorter winters and weaker lake ice.
Such problems might be theoretical to some in the continental U.S. But the issue is highly problematic if, for example, warming temperatures have caused the caribou herd you and your family have depended on forever to change its migration route.
Steger will be thinking about some of this as he skis alone through lonely country, kept company only by the occasional wolf, the odd black duck or mallard that returns early to the open rivers, and by the aforementioned ravens.
But mostly Steger will be consumed by the wilderness and by being part of it.
Living in the moment.