Will Steger's castle in the clouds

The world's greatest Arctic explorer unveils his greatest challenge yet

Will Steger's castle in the clouds
Emily Utne

Will Steger has always been someone who can make impossible things happen.

His list of accomplishments spans poles and decades: He and his team were the first explorers confirmed to reach the North Pole by dogsled without re-supply. He spearheaded the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history. And Steger led the first team to even attempt the grueling, 3,741-mile crossing of Antarctica. For each of these, Steger is the first and also the last: Parts of each route have melted away.

"He is our best-known polar explorer, and among our best-known explorers," says Rebecca Martin, director of National Geographic's Expeditions Council. "He's a walking legend."

Steger in front of the castle's Saturn window, which he crafted to reflect his love of astronomy
Steger in front of the castle's Saturn window, which he crafted to reflect his love of astronomy


The Minneapolis College of Art and Design will present Steger's designs, including the Will Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership, in the free exhibit "Inside an Explorer's Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design." Sept. 14 to Oct. 6, with a talk by Steger on Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. and a reception with Steger on Oct. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. 2501 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis; 612-874-3667.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a close friend of Steger's since before either man was famous, puts it even more bluntly: "He's the LeBron James of world exploration."

These achievements are well known. But for more than 40 years, Steger has also led a very private life on his 240-acre compound near Ely, a place he calls the Homestead.

It's here — miles from the nearest neighbor, and scattered among a collection of scrappy, rough-hewn cabins and storehouses — that Steger has been constructing what he says is his greatest effort yet: the castle.

He's trying to get people to stop calling it that, but it's hard not to. "Castle" seems to be the only word for the structure, with its turrets and terraces, its pink granite sides and four-story glass atrium, all rising up six stories high in the middle of the wilderness. It's part treehouse, part ship, and part Tolkien creation.

Steger made it grand on purpose. Much like the architects of old gothic churches, who dreamed that their buildings' grandeur would make worshipers more open to the divine, Steger crafted his castle — formally, the Will Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership — to inspire awe.

Here, small groups of movers and shakers retreat and come up with solutions to the world's problems, and green pioneers gather to study sustainability.

Or rather, they will someday. Because after 25 years of building, the castle still isn't finished.

"I'll be honest, it's exciting and it's scary," says Nicole Rom, the director of the Will Steger Foundation, a thriving nonprofit that exists independent of Steger's work on the castle. "We want Will to get it done, but it's scary because there's the question of, 'Will he be able to finish it?'"

Steger readily grants that the project is coming to a head. "This whole thing could be a white elephant," he says. "If I fell down right now, it wouldn't be completed. It's at a crux."

But as he's learned to do over decades of criss-crossing the Arctic, Steger is determined to plow ahead. After all, few believed he could traverse Antarctica, either.

Now, after years shouldering the burden of the castle on his own, he's opening his private life to the public for the first time and seeking outside help.

On a recent August afternoon, standing out on the castle's highest terrace, Steger wears a torn, rusty-brown Outward Bound Canada T-shirt for the second day in a row. With his gray-streaked hair fanning out around his head, he looks like what some say he is: a mad genius.

"I think from the outside, the perception of other people is the madness," Steger admits. "But for me myself, it's not a madness. It's a vision."

Steger leans over the railing of his cabin deck as a gray-and-white mutt runs over and eyes him. Steger knows what he's after.

"He's a stick person," Steger explains as he grabs a branch off the deck and launches it over the edge of the ridge, tens of feet down into Picketts Lake below.

Though once as many as 50 sled dogs ran the property, now the only dogs on the Homestead are the motley gang owned by visitors and workers. Steger has nicknames for them all. "Very good, Diablo," he shouts as this one scampers down the cliffside.

"He has another name," Steger confides, "but I call him the devil."

Steger turns to go inside. The center of his cabin door is carved like a keyhole — a decades-old trophy of Steger's, from when he was first learning woodwork and finally succeeded in cutting a circle.

Inside the cabin, everything bears Steger's touch: the LED lights he wired through glass wall fixtures he designed, the steps up to a sleeping loft that he built to double as bookshelves, the stained glass windows he created and pieced together using thin wood tines instead of the traditional lead solder.

"My value in life was always to be self-sufficient," Steger explains, as he settles in at his small kitchen table and takes a swig of a smoothie made from blueberries he picked from a patch up the hill.

Steger was born in 1944, to parents who "apart from the war, never camped a day in their life," he says. The second of nine, young Will spent his childhood investigating what wilderness suburban Richfield had to offer.

Steger's early life is full of stories that have become part of his mythology. By the time he was a teenager, he had studied Arabic to learn the ancient names of the constellations, traded his beloved hockey skates for a stack of old National Geographic magazines, and spent his nights tracking the northern lights as a volunteer with the International Geophysical Year.

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