Will Steger's castle in the clouds
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."
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.
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.
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.
"This was my life's dream, and the first step was at least getting it sketched out on a piece of paper," he explains, gesturing over the plans. "I've lived in each of these rooms in my mind."
In Antarctica, a person needs diversions. Faced with seven months of blank white landscape littered with sharp ice, of being trapped in a tent waiting out a storm or skiing the equivalent of a marathon daily, the mind searches for any outlet it can.
One of Steger's five teammates on Trans-Antarctica, the Brit Geoff Somers, preoccupied himself with logistics, with weighing and charting. Another, Frenchman Jean-Louis Etienne, pretended to be someone new each day — a pipe fitter, maybe, or a prime minister.
Steger built his castle in the clouds.
His book about the expedition, Crossing Antarctica, mentions only in passing that Steger spent his space allocation for personal items on pencils and protractors, and that he would pass nights sketching. But his private journals from the trip tell the real story of how he kept himself busy: They're filled with diagrams and musings about what the building — the center — would be.
On day 117 of the crossing, Steger wrote of how, once he emptied his mind out into the landscape, the vision for what to do next would rush in.
"When ... it's real crystal clear inside," he wrote, and "there are no cobwebs anymore because you've washed everything out, then the inspiration will come to me."
Not long after, it did. Two months from the end of the seven-month journey — on January 14, 1990 — Steger recorded the dream he had experienced the night before.
"I was a Samurai ... placed on earth to protect Antarctica," he described. "I built my castle and went out into the world to meet those in power. These people I brought back to my castle —"
It was day 174 of the trek, and Steger's vision had crystallized. Further down in the same entry, he described it.
"My goal in life is to be that cue ball on the pool table that hits the 15 balls," Steger wrote. "That's ... why I'm building the center, to get myself into the position where I can make a lot of balls go into the pocket. I plan to work with small groups of decision-makers in a wilderness setting so I can help make positive changes that will affect humanity and preserve our precious environment. This will be my legacy."
Steger began designing the castle. In order to build it in his head, he conceived of it in modules — compartments that he could add or subtract in neat pieces while he skied across the frozen desert.
He wanted to get above the tree line in order to look at the stars, so he stacked the modules up six floors high. He knew that a full staircase would eat too much space, so he sketched a turret to house it. He created a utility shaft to contain all the building's electrical lines and pipes, then arranged the rooms so that any that required running water were adjacent to the utility module — the easier to locate and fix a frozen pipe.
Back in Steger's cabin, an 8-by-12 framed sketch hangs in a place of honor above his hearth. It's one of the drawings that Steger pulled from his Antarctica journals, and re-sketched when he got back in 1990. Twenty-three years later, it looks remarkably like the actual building that's going up next door.
"The expeditions were a means to an end," Steger explains, his elbows propped on the stack of castle plans. "They were all, and all along I knew it, my stepping stones to do this."
When Steger conducts his grand tour of the castle, his sentences tangle together as though he can't spit his vision out fast enough.
"The kitchen sink's here, and this is a big island for making vegetables, for people getting together to chop," Steger explains, his black Havaiana sandals flopping against the travertine tile floors as he bounces from room to room. "The refrigeration will be all solar, and here goes a beautiful table I'm making, shaped like a bean to seat 12, yellow pine that catches the yellow light in here in the morning."
Nothing Steger describes is in place yet. The pieces are all there — an unfinished kitchen sink sits beneath a two-story, egg-shaped window; a bed for a solar array is built and awaiting the panels; the top of the bean table is stored across the Homestead, in a pole barn filled with salvaged wood and prototypes.
But inside the castle, the scene is still hanging wires, stacks of wood, and holes in the wall where stained glass will someday hang.
"I know I have to be realistic," Steger says. "But this is the golden opportunity."
When he returned from Antarctica, Steger suddenly found himself launched into the position of international hero. He met with the likes of Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev; he traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress on the need to protect Antarctica's wilderness.
Between his new obligations, Steger began to set his private dreams in motion. Carrying his sketches from Antarctica, he approached engineers to turn the drawings into plans.
None of them would touch the project.
"I understood where the engineers were at," Steger says. "This was not a normal building. It did not fit their insurances, their learning, their rules, and the way that they do things."
So Steger decided to take on the planning himself. He enlisted the help of friends in the trades — stone masons and carpenters — and hosted weekends at the Homestead where they shared their skills and figured out how to do what.
Between 1990 and 1995, cranes appeared on and off in the Homestead's wilderness skyline, pulling up the giant beams that would let the castle reach six stories. As the machines erected the building's bones, Steger busied himself sourcing supplies.
Up a trail about 15 miles from the Homestead, Dow Chemical had scraped off the top of a hillside and left it in a rock pile. Steger recognized the rock as pink granite, and convinced the new owners of the property to let him come in with two logging trucks and haul it out. For 17 days, 12 people carried out enough stone to craft the castle's exterior walls, as well as roads and steps throughout the property.
For wood material, Steger turned to warehouses getting scrapped in Chicago, and for stone, he looked to his land itself: Much of the green stone built into the castle's steps was quarried right out of the Homestead's ridges.
After 10 years of work, the castle had its shell. But inside, it remained a blank canvas.
"It was just stone and concrete and timbers and glass," remembers Jim Sullivan, a stone mason who first saw the project in 1999. "Will started telling me his vision, and he drew the scenario of how he sees water flowing and trees growing and lush greenery — he laid it all out. And I said, 'Whoa.' I could see it, but I could also see a tremendous amount of work."
A tremendous amount of work — and a tremendous investment. Year after year, beginning when he poured the foundation in '88, Steger sunk his finances into the project. Each summer — construction season — he accrued "huge debts," he says; each winter, he worked himself out of them, "again and again and again."
He didn't have any other choice. "If I stopped, this thing would fall on its face," Steger explains. "There wasn't any latitude for stopping, so I just kept doing it."
Still, the work happened in fits and starts, starting and stalling as Steger's budget and attention allowed.
"As he had money, some work would get done, and then it would sit still for six months until he had more money to spend again," recalls Jennifer Gasperini, who worked with Steger from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. "We worried, but like anything that Will tackles, he has a vision and nobody can stop it. Just because Will was there, I knew it was possible, and I still have no doubt that it will happen."
Increasingly, though, what it will take for the castle to happen is more money.
Over the 25 years that he's spent constructing, Steger guesses that he's poured about $5 million into the building.
"That's everything I've ever made," he says. "It's nice to say, well, it's all right there, but then again, for a person who doesn't want to own anything, it's a huge ball and chain."
Now, when he has to field the many queries about when the castle will be completed, Steger answers with two figures: three years and $2 million. For the first time, he's decided to begin fundraising in order to finish it.
"It's a great burden right now, because I'm up against the wall almost," Steger admits. "I can't — with my own resources — I can't finish it in enough time."
Steger is used to being in this corner: Most of his expeditions have come through tight spots. Three times in his life, he's come close to losing everything, and many more times he's taken on that possibility. If he and his teammates hadn't succeeded in Antarctica, for instance, Steger would have been millions in debt. "I would have lost this place for sure," he says.
"It's a trade-off right now, a big trade-off," he continues. "But I've lived most of my life where I get myself at that tipping point."
After bounding up six flights of stairs, Steger pushes open the door to the castle's top terrace, a small balcony that overlooks the grander, outdoor catwalk below. Beyond the small clearing that houses the Homestead, the view is nothing but forest and lake clear to Canada.
"There's not enough beauty in our lives," Steger says. He pauses to turn around and look at the castle roof, sculpted to blend in with the white pines that will someday grow tall around it. "That's the problem."
Around noon,Steger and his crew break for lunch.
Slicked with sweat and covered in gray cement dust, they head down the hill from the castle, pick up last night's leftover burgers from the root cellar, and crowd into the Lodge to warm them up.
They're a group of young adults, mostly in their 20s, who are staying at the Homestead over the summer to learn to build. Several of them trickle in late, glistening from a quick swim in the lake.
"I get a lot of college kids up here with a $100,000 degree, and they think they can oil a building when it's wet," Steger says. "But once they get a sense of building a stone wall and see, 'Oh, I can do that,' then they learn that they can do more."
The castle isn't meant to be merely a physical structure. Once it's done, Steger plans to give the building away to a trust and focus on the programming. He wants to formalize his apprenticeships into accredited college courses, and bring out technical students to study solar installation. He wants politicians to see how he manages the forest, and how he heats the buildings without using any carbon.
Above all, he wants the future Steger Center to be a place that inspires people to think differently.
"I believe inspiration is only possible in a wilderness setting," Steger says. "I don't think you can do this in a resort where you have all the amenities and a TV to go back to in your room."
But while Steger is eager to move on to "phase two of this creation," as he puts it, he's also begun to blur the lines between the stages. The building might be unfinished, but it is already a place where people come to learn.
"Will very much understands that the vision is the journey," says Gasperini. "It's funny, I meet people of all ages who have worked for Will at the Homestead. I would be so curious to know the number of people whose lives have been changed working for Will."
Peter Wahlstrom, a philosophy professor, has seen that kind of change in action. "My students come back after one weekend changed in the heart," says Wahlstrom, who has brought about 200 students up to Homestead over six years. "It's like an injection of consciousness for them, and it's immediate. I can't do that in a whole semester."
At the end of August, Steger turned 69. It's the kind of occasion that causes a man to reflect on what he will leave behind.
"You know, I didn't have kids, and I never had this thing that I had to pass on something," he says after lunch, sitting on one of a dozen mismatched old armchairs in a circle outside the Lodge. "But I hope this will work out in this direction."
"I had no idea it would take 23 years, but to tell you the truth, I never thought about it in those terms," Steger continues, jumping up and heading back up the hill toward the castle. "I just did it."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.