Will Steger's castle in the clouds

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

The first book Steger ever read from start to finish was Huck Finn, and he closed it newly imbued with dreams of the Mississippi. By the time he was 15, he had worked his way onto a boat, and with his older brother, Tom, set out to navigate the length of the river. When they reached New Orleans, they turned around and came back up.

"That was my first and last motorized adventure," Steger says.

But he had plenty of muscle-powered trips in front of him. The summer he turned 19, he and a friend kayaked 3,000 miles across Canada and Alaska. By the end of August, Steger was hitchhiking his way home.

The building's west face
The building's west face
The Homestead's root cellar
The Homestead's root cellar


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.

During the week he spent in strangers' cars, Steger hatched a plan to purchase a plot of land like the wilderness he had just crossed. It would be two lake-lengths away from any road, Steger determined, so that he would be remote but still able to paddle in with supplies. He decided to use his as-yet nonexistent building skills to craft a sauna, a root cellar, and a cabin to start, and to live there on the strength of his own innovation.

The same week Will got home, he and Tom brought a collapsible kayak — the same one that Will had taken across Alaska — up to Ely. It was Will's first time in canoe country.

The brothers parked their truck on somebody's land — "we trespassed," Will admits — hopped into the little boat, and started paddling.

About three miles later, the two boys tied up and clambered onto a stone, which has since been nicknamed Pilgrim Rock. They opened and warmed a can of beans, then started walking up the ridge line. The land was so overgrown that Will could hardly see the ground.

"It was just an incredible moment of my life," he remembers. "I came upon this land, and man, it had everything."

By the time the brothers reached the top of the cliff, Will knew that this was the land he'd been looking for. On a large, mostly flat rock, he set down a log to mark the spot. Today, that rock is the midway point between his cabin and the castle.

That same year, he paid $1,000 for the first 28 acres of what would become the Homestead. Six years later, after picking up a bachelor's in geology and a master's in education, he moved north. For the next 14 years, Steger survived on just his land, $2,000 a year, and the dogsled school that he opened in 1972. It was the first iteration of Steger's longtime goal to use the Homestead for teaching.

"As a child I knew I was going to be a teacher and I never questioned it was in me," Steger says. "That was just the first way it played out."

Living up in the north woods, Steger began thinking that his ascetic lifestyle could be a portal into even more extreme wilderness.

"I realized that if I could master this — the dogs, and the cold, and the travel — that there were still unexplored areas," he explains.

He began setting out on treks thousands of miles long, often with little fanfare: Before the first long trip, he loaded up his dogs and sleds into a 1949 GMC truck and drove himself 800 miles to the trailhead.

That all changed in 1983, when, at age 39, Steger decided to attempt the North Pole.

The next decade was a blur of planning and undertaking expeditions, of putting on a suit and tie to fundraise and designing top-of-the-line gear for the most extreme conditions on earth.

But amid the public whirlwind, Steger also nursed an idea for his next school of sorts, a dream to build a wilderness center in the woods.

By 1988, preparations for Trans-Antarctica had reached fever pitch. Steger, though, carved out time for another undertaking. He harnessed three dog teams, and over countless trips through the woods — there was still no road into the Homestead — hauled in 5,000 bags of gravel. Together, it weighed one million pounds.

Using a hand cement mixer, Steger and a team took over the hill above the Lodge and next to his cabin, and they poured the foundation for a massive building. But no one, including Steger, knew exactly what it would be.

In 1989, Steger set out for Antarctica.

"I had the foundation," he remembers today. "But I knew it would take the Antarctica expedition to get my mind so clear that I could come up with the design."

In the long building that houses his expedition gear and his archives, Steger picks up an Arctic uni-suit, its breast stitched with a U.S. flag and the lettering "STEGER."

"This suit is kind of an evolution of designs over 20 years," Steger says. He adapted the neoprene cuffs from Alaskan mushers, and the hood from a hybrid of Inuit and Danish models. The vertical zipper — a feature now found on most mainstream winter gear — was something he created himself.

"To do these seemingly impossible things, we needed innovation," Steger explains. "We wouldn't have survived without the designs."

Steger brushes by a hanging pile of mukluks and beaver-fur mittens, and opens a door into another room. This one's smaller and stacked with paper, from journals to newspaper clippings. He grabs a folder bursting with sketches of even more designs, these ones not of clothing, but of walls and windows: the skeleton of the castle.

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