“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” — T.S. Eliot
Earlier this week, Will Steger was thinking about the canoe-sled he lashed to the nether reaches of a spruce tree in the Canadian Barren Lands. That was last May and the tree was part of a small oasis in a region that is otherwise a sub-arctic prairie devoid of trees, and whose tundra is permanently frozen to within a few inches of the surface.
Steger had constructed the makeshift canoe hammock in advance of the arrival of his pilot friend, Dave Olesen, a onetime Ely, Minn., resident who now resides about 250 miles from Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
A kindred spirit of Steger’s, in addition to making extensive dog sled trips across Canada’s far north, Olesen has run Alaska’s famed Iditarod race eight times. Now for a living, he flies a bush plane, and last May, to help Steger, his longtime friend, he plucked him from the Barrens when Steger aborted a planned 1,000-mile solo expedition that started in northern Saskatchewan and was destined for Baker Lake in Canada’s Nunavet Territory.
In his two-seater, ski-equipped plane, Olesen will return Steger to the canoe tree in March.
“A lot of large grizzlies inhabit that area,” Steger said. “I’m hoping that by storing the canoe in the tree off the ground, the bears didn’t get it.”
Steger, 74, remains as he always has been: a dreamer whose compass points north. An All-World adventurer on a par with Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Amelia Earhart, among others, he successfully led a 1986 unsupported dog sled assault on the North Pole, a 1988 Greenland expedition, and a 1989 crossing of Antarctica.
But during his solo Barren Lands adventure last year — his sixth consecutive springtime journey during which he alternately skis, hikes and paddles — warmish weather came extremely late, and what was supposed to be an expedition during which many of the Barrens’ multitudinous rivers would be run in his canoe, instead morphed into a 2 ½-monthlong portage.
“I ran out of time,” he said. “In some ways the trip this year will be a continuation of last year’s trip. But this time I’ll take a gun, a Remington .30-06. It’s a pump-action, which will work well for me because I’m lefthanded. I was charged last year by a grizzly and was lucky not to be mauled. The rifle will also come in handy if I have to kill a caribou or otherwise hunt for food.”
Custom-built by his friend Ted Bell of Northstar Canoes in Princeton, Minn., Steger’s double-ended craft has runners on the bottom to make it easier to pull and to provide protection from the Barrens’ countless rocks.
The canoe’s stability also will help Steger navigate some of the Barrens’ major rivers, such as the Coppermine, the Back, the Dubawnt, the Kazan and the Thelon, which in places can be wild and fast as they flow to the Arctic Ocean.
Inside the canoe will be Steger’s 200 pounds of supplies, all of which during the monthslong trip must be pulled or paddled.
“I’m in good enough shape, no aches or pains,” Steger said. “I don’t go to a gym or work out or anything like that. But on Sundays I might take a 15- or 20-mile hike.”
Ultimately, the question arises … why?
At 74, even many active Americans are on the cusp of dotage, with a hundred channels on the flat screen and a remote in hand.
Steger himself struggles sometimes to explain what drives his incessant wanderlust, except to say that it started early. As a boy, growing up in Richfield, he read and reread “Huck Finn” and soon, as with Huck, coursing his veins was a vague feeling that eventually manifested itself as a need to move on.
Steger was just 15 when he and his brother, Tom, piloted a 14-foot boat from the Twin Cities to New Orleans and back. A few years later he hitchhiked to Alaska, and in subsequent years kayaked some 8,000 miles of Alaskan and Canadian rivers.
Wanting, in time, a grubstake somewhere near Minnesota’s northernmost outpost, he bought land near Ely, and in that wilderness town in the 1970s he occasionally could be seen tooling along the main drag in a vintage Cadillac convertible, the rag top down and his sled dogs crowded in both seats, back and front.
At the time, Steger’s shock of unkempt hair and patchwork clothing lent him the appearance of ne’er-do-well North Woods hippie on the lamb.
Far from it. All along, Steger was thinking — and dreaming — big.
He still does. With bachelor and master’s degrees, and several honorary doctorates, in 2006 he formed the nonprofit group Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. And his Ely encampment now is also home to the Steger Wilderness Center, which he envisions someday will be a “demonstration center for devising new solutions to the seemingly intractable issues we collectively face.”
First, though, is Barren Lands 2.0.
“I’m really happy with the challenges this trip will present,” he said. “Adventures like these are an American value, whether they’re one- or two-week vacations or longer trips like I’m taking.
“I don’t see the same thing elsewhere in the world, in France or New Zealand or Britain or even Canada. I encourage people to do it.”