Thirty years to the day after Ely’s Will Steger and seven others left northern Canada for the North Pole, Steger will begin a different kind of trip. He’ll make a 350-mile solo expedition, traveling over lakes and rivers from a remote drop-off in Ontario back to his homestead near Ely.
Steger, 71, has made similar solo trips several other times, including a 21-day, 200-mile trek last year from the end of the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais to Rainy Lake during the spring breakup.
This year, too, Steger will catch the spring breakup, pulling or paddling a specially designed canoe. But he’ll start the trip far to the north, on skis and pulling a toboggan, after being dropped off by train in Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park.
“I wanted to do a longer trip this year,” Steger said in a recent interview in Duluth. “I was hoping to catch some 30-below weather — which I doubt I’ll get this winter — and then catch the end of winter, moving into spring and the breakup.”
These spring breakup trips can present dicey travel conditions on slowly decomposing ice and rushing open water in places. As he did last year, Steger will wear a drysuit when breakup is imminent to protect him from an accidental dunking. On the last half of the trip, he will tow or paddle a 13-foot Kevlar canoe reinforced with runners on the bottom.
The News Tribune interviewed Steger last month in Duluth and asked him about the trip.
Q: What went into your decision to choose this spring’s route?
A: I wanted to go farther into Ontario … just because there’s nobody there. I wanted to do a longer trip. The first half of the trip is totally unknown to me.
Q: You devote much of your time now to your new Steger Wilderness Center near Ely and working on climate change through your foundation, Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. You’ve talked about how these extended and challenging solo trips help you reach your “mental and physical baseline.” What does that mean?
A: I wanted something that would really challenge my skills 100 percent and challenge me physically 100 percent, too. Just to go up against it all and see how I fare. For myself, in a way, it’s sort of like an ultimate personal best. It’s a big enough trip that there are lots of unknowns. I’m sure I’ll make it through OK, but there are some major challenges.
Q: You talked about wanting “to catch some 30-below.” You’ve done many Arctic expeditions and your 1989-90 Trans-Antarctica Expedition, all in severe cold weather. What is it about the cold that attracts you?
A: (Laughing) I just feel so at home in it. I feel very comfortable there. I just wanted to get back to the north country in winter and experience the beauty of that.
Q: And doing that in the wilderness is important to you?
A: I need the wilderness. In the challenging conditions, you get more into the present moment. It gets you much deeper in the wilderness. More than anything, I need my shot of wilderness each year. The more challenging, the better. It’s a paradox for me. Yes, it’s hard doing these things, physically, but I don’t look at it in terms of hardship.
Q: After last spring’s trip, you encouraged others to get out and do challenging things. Why do you say that?
A: First, I think it’s very important for anybody to get into the wilderness, to revitalize themselves and their spirit. And I think it’s important for most people to push themselves physically a little bit. It doesn’t have to be extreme, but whatever you can think of that is pushing your limit a little bit. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at yourself and your performance.
Q: You’ll be carrying about 150 pounds on your toboggan at the start of the trip and about 200 pounds in your canoe-sled during the second portion. At 71, how are you feeling?
A: I think I’m in pretty good shape. My knees — everything checks out. The vital moving parts are all in good shape.
To follow Will Steger’s 350-mile solo expedition from Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park back to Ely, go to stegerwildernesscenter.org. Steger will be sending back daily satellite phone reports, and a GPS device will plot his position on a Google map on the website.