By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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By CP Staff
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Polar explorer Will Steger's closest brush with death came on a dogsled trek across the Arctic. It was 1995, and Steger and a team of five other men and women were attempting to become the first expedition to cross the surface of the Arctic Ocean, from Russia to Canada, in a single season. But their 2,500-mile trip almost ended as soon as it began.
For the first 40 miles, the dogsled teams had to traverse a "shear zone," an area where the Arctic Ocean's floating ice pack can scrape against shore and create pools of open water.
"We left real early in the season," Steger says. "The goal is to get across before the shear zone breaks. It was 50 below, an ideal temperature. It keeps things frozen. And it looked like we were going to cross it okay."
But within days of leaving land, a huge storm rolled in at midday, so intense that it began to break up the ice, setting the crew adrift.
"We were just being pulled out to open ocean," Steger remembers. "When it broke up, two of the guys and one dog team went in. We were thawing them out in the tent. They were very hypothermic. But we had to move."
Steger and his teams made a mad scramble in search of a way back to solid land, but in the cold and dark of polar night, with only six hours of light each day, his dog teams lost sight of one another. "And we were being stalked by bears," Steger says. "It was almost out of control."
The group traveled for two days nonstop, skirting open water and searching for a path off the constantly moving ice.
"We were so exhausted," Steger says. "But you just had to keep going. Your spirit just pushed you to keep going, because it was survival."
Finally the teams reached shore—and were immediately hit by another intense storm that kept them pinned down for nine days. When it was all over, Steger and his team emerged from their tents, regrouped—and started out again, finally completing their epic journey to Canada four months later.
No one can say Steger hasn't earned his place in the record books. In his 40-odd years of adventure travel, he has racked up a long list of firsts: the Arctic crossing, the first confirmed dogsled trip to the North Pole without resupply, the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history—a 1,600-mile, north-to-south trip across Greenland, and the first dogsled crossing of Antarctica, a grueling 3,471-mile trek that took more than seven months.
Along the way, he's endured temperatures as low as -70 degrees, wind chills of more than 100 below, and legions of aggressive polar bears.
But by 1997, after an aborted solo trek to the North Pole, the 63-year-old Steger had all but retired from major expeditions. That changed a couple of years ago, however, with his growing concern over global warming, which has become both a threat and a boon to a bona fide arctic explorer. Steger has said he plans to devote the rest of his life to raising awareness of the changing environment. Lured to the Twin Cities from his home in Ely, he has made hundreds of speeches and appearances throughout the state and has joined Minnesota's Climate Change Advisory Group. But restless to make a bigger impact, he is also hitching up his dog teams once again for a series of major expeditions.
For Steger, one of the few souls on earth to have set foot on both poles, global warming isn't just an environmental imperative—it's personal. He is watching the polar frontier, and in some sense his livelihood, evaporate before his eyes.
"We lost last year 50 percent of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean," Steger says. "The entire Northwest Passage for the first time in history was wide open."
Environmentally, he says, "we have a catastrophe on our hands. The climate could spin out of control—and it will—if we don't take action soon."
The United Nations released another report last month emphasizing that the world's carbon dioxide emissions must stabilize by 2015, and then decline, to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Steger believes the next two years will be decisive in determining whether the world meets that goal. Reenergized by the threat, he created the Will Steger Foundation and embarked on a new public awareness initiative, Global Warming 101. The centerpiece of the initiative is an ambitious schedule of four major expeditions in three years: two in the Arctic, plus trips to Antarctica and Greenland. Through the Global Warming 101 website, the public can follow the expeditions through daily audio and text transmissions, download classroom lesson plans, and develop community action programs.
Next March, about the time most Minnesotans begin to thaw from their long, frigid winter, Steger will be heading north on the second of those treks, chasing winter to one of the coldest, harshest environments on earth.
"We're going as far north as you can go," Steger says, to Ellesmere Island, a frozen expanse far inside the Arctic Circle, the last remnant of land before the North American continent gives way to the Arctic Ocean and sea ice.