MINNEAPOLIS — Last Thursday morning while trains, planes and automobiles toted Twin Cities residents to their stations of labor, Will Steger began a commute of his own, from Ely to Burchell Lake, Ontario.
But rather than carrying a briefcase or a lunch bucket, Steger loaded his vehicle with a 12-foot-long canoe-sled, two paddles, a single-burner stove and enough oatmeal, butter, cheese, rice and pork to sustain him for a few weeks, or 150 miles through the bush, whichever comes first.
“I’ll be traveling alone in part because it’s safer being alone this time of year,” Steger said. “During spring breakup, when you travel on ice and water, or both, you often have to make decisions really fast, which is easier if you’re alone.”
Thirty-one years have passed since Steger led the world’s first unsupported trek to the North Pole by dogsled. He’s also crossed Greenland by dogsled, the longest such unsupported expedition in history at the time, in 1988, following which in 1995 at age 50, he spearheaded the first and only dogsled crossing of the Arctic Ocean, Russia to Canada’s Ellesmere Island.
Now Steger is 72 and from his encampment outside Ely, he longs still to move on.
In ways he’s done so since he was a kid growing up in Richfield, Minn., when in his early teens he stole down the Mississippi to New Orleans in a small boat. This would be about his last southbound trip. A renowned polar explorer whose ice cred rivals that of Perry or Amundsen, Steger knows for him from which direction the bell tolls:
“I lived 25 years off the grid at my home outside Ely, and had to cross two lakes to get there from the nearest road,” he said. “In spring and fall, I learned how to travel on thin lake ice with a canoe. I used the same skills six or seven times crossing the Arctic Ocean, including on our ‘95 traverse from Russia to Canada.”
To satisfy his wanderlust, Steger has continued sojourning — solo — in recent years, beginning in March and continuing into April, a challenging but beautiful occasion for travel in the north. For conveyance he employs a custom, two-ended watercraft designed, constructed and rigged with runners by canoe maker Ted Bell. The outfit weighs about 200 pounds, including gear.
Over strong ice, Steger will pull the canoe behind him, traveling oftentimes at night, when footing is most assured. Encountering water, he’ll paddle.
On these trips, Steger has seen wolves and moose and otters and the odd fisher. He expects this time in the early going to encounter no waterfowl, or few. Then Canada geese will sprinkle in, followed often at night by mass migrations of ducks and songbirds, the latter exhausted by their extensive flights, descending into the woods en masse too tired to sing.
“I’ll burn about 6,000 calories a day, sometimes a lot more, so I’m really particular about my food,” he said. “I don’t eat any dehydrated foods, only whole foods. Mostly I eat a small bite here and there. I rarely stop for long. My staples are butter and cheese. In the evening, I might have pork and rice and make bannock.”
This year from his jumping-off point at Burchell Lake, northeast of Quetico Provincial Park, Steger will follow the Waweig River, which gathers copious oxbow feeder creeks and rivers before draining into Kawnipi Lake in the Quetico.
“People ask me if I get lonely,” he said. “I’m a social person. I like people. But I also like being alone. Especially in spring, which is such a peaceful, optimistic time. Traveling then I live totally in the moment.”
A thinker, with a bachelor’s degree in geology, a master’s in education and a handful of honorary doctorates, Steger hopes soon to complete the physical structure of the Steger Wilderness Center, built on his homesite near Ely. There he envisions policymakers and leaders in various fields brainstorming for solutions to environmental problems.
“The wilderness is a good place to break down barriers and solve problems,” he said.
First, however, there was last Thursday morning’s commute, Ely to Burchell Lake.
Along for the ride was a satellite phone, with which Steger will report his location each evening and detail conditions he encountered the previous 24 hours.
Here’s a link to those updates: stegerwildernesscenter.org/expeditions/solo-2017.
“On these trips,” Steger said, “I get to participate in spring breakup. To do so safely, I have to be ever-present with the sounds and sights and conditions I encounter. That’s the beauty of it.”