A change comes over Will Steger, the legendary polar explorer and climate activist, when he steps out into the cold for an expedition. “Sometimes it’s really scary when you’re on thin ice, but it’s generally really, you’re not in the world of thought at all, you’re not missing anything, you’re just there,” he says. “The moment, to me, that’s where God is. It’s not in your thoughts. It’s not in your past. It's not in your future."
A different rhythm takes over. On solo expeditions, he often moves across the snow and ice under cover of darkness. He only sleeps a few hours a day. The stars are his compass. The Northern Lights guide him, light up the snow.
“It’s such a cliche talking about being in the moment, but it is in that moment when you see the true beauty of everything that’s around you,” he says. “It’s not like you’re riding on a carpet or anything. Sometimes it’s just awe inspiring, the beauty of the present that’s around you.”
Steger has spent his whole life chasing that lightning-strike moment of clarity, of total connection between people and their environment. He pioneered a media-savvy form of exploration that brought the rest of the world to find that inspiration alongside him. He figured out how to split the atom of one person’s experience and unleash a world-changing energy, where a moment becomes a story, a story becomes a worldwide phenomenon, and a worldwide phenomenon becomes a movement, becomes change.
Now, at 75, he’s hoping to give the world that moment of inspiration all over again, and in the process pull off a feat perhaps greater than his history-making treks—the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986, the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history at the time across Greenland in ‘88, the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica in ‘89—or his policy achievements—urging world leaders to bar mining in the South Pole in 1991, lobbying Minnesota to pass its first renewable energy standard. Through Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, his nonprofit, he wants to empower a generation of youth climate leaders to have climate awakening moments of their own using storytelling. He hopes once they harness the power of these stories to change the conversation, they’ll change history in the process.
A good story sent Steger towards a life of adventure. He grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs, one of nine kids in a family that wasn’t especially outdoorsy. Then he found Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The sketches on the cover, of a boy on a raft, captivated him even before he read it. He knew that was the kind of freewheeling life he was meant to live.
“It was the first book I ever read,” he says. “I related to that life on the raft, that whole story, meeting people along the way, all the adventures. That’s how I saw my life.”
At age 15, he and his brother Tom took a motorboat all the way down the Mississippi, just like their hero. They had frequent engine trouble, and friendly people gave them a hand. An elderly drifter named Sylvester in New Orleans showed the boys, broke after a long trip down the river, how to scavenge leftover produce. The trio sat along the banks of the Mississippi, eating watermelon slices at three in the morning, delirious with contentment. This was his first taste of how journeys are more than just a person moving between two points on a map; they're an amalgam of people, communities, shared bonds and deep knowledge.
“Going down the river, the river was boring, but the people were great,” he says.
He started journeying further and further afield, always pushing himself to the edge. He kayaked down the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers in Alaska and Canada. He hopped trains. He hitchhiked to San Francisco and back. He did 10,000 miles by kayak before he turned 26. Eventually, he bought a small plot of land in the North Minnesota woods, and used it to venture even further, snaking through the Canadian arctic with dogsled teams he bred himself.
The destination changed from adventure to adventure, but there was a constant: being outside bonded very different people into something common. It didn’t matter whether they were Canadian trappers, Inuit hunters or skinny, long-haired wanderers from Minnesota with a desire to see what’s beyond the horizon. People who connect with the land connect with people who connect with the land.
“It was just like, we didn’t have to say a lot,” he says. “We had this understanding, almost like brothers, just a mutual respect.”
When he wasn’t slicing across the tundra, he was educating young people about the natural world, first as a middle school science teacher in St. Paul in ‘70s, then at an outdoor school he founded at his homestead in Ely. By the 1980s, he felt like it was time to bring what he learned out in the wilderness to people everywhere.
“The school, after 8 or 9 years, I didn't feel I was reaching enough people,” he says.
He’d need a bigger classroom.
“Being a public person gives you a certain amount of power in a way, and a lot of people misuse that for themselves,” he says. “For myself, it was an opportunity to do education projects. Everything I’ve done with the climate and the environment, if I wasn’t known, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
He started dreaming of a journey that would blow Huck Finn’s mind, and get the world to pay attention to the fragile, fantastic arctic world: the first confirmed dogsled trip to the North Pole without resupply, a pack-in pack-out trip to the top of the world.
Even before the eight-person team set off in 1986, the journey, and the idea behind it—that the human spirit was enough to reach the very farthest, coldest reaches of the planet, and relish the experience—brought people together. They built their sled in the Ely Memorial High School wood shop. Minnesotans bought buttons to support the expedition that says “Zap to the Pole,” named for one of Steger’s huskies, Zap.
As the team progressed through their 55-day journey, enduring frostbite and near-death falls into glacial sea water, people in Minnesota, plus students and reporters across the world, waited for news from the expedition. This was pre-Internet, so updates arrived piecemeal, in scratchy radio logs from the North. On May 1, 1986, they reached the pole, and became legends: magazine cover stars, news fixtures, celebrity speakers.
Now Steger had clout. An idea even bigger than making exploration history would power another expedition, in 1989, the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica. This time, the story he wanted to tell, and the change he wanted to make, was about international cooperation, and maybe even world peace.
At the time, nations like U.S. and Australia still hadn’t joined much of the world in supporting a ban on mining and oil exploration in Antarctica. Steger wanted to change that by giving the quiet continent more PR than it had ever received in its life.
By the end of the journey, a $8 million, 3,471-mile epic, in 1990, they’d done just that. The enterprise got nearly 2.5 billion media impressions. After that, they set off on another tour to reach a smaller, just as vital audience, the heads of state. They’d selected each member of their team—one American, one French, one Soviet, one British, one Chinese, and one Japanese—to correspond with the diplomatic movers and shakers who could get the mining ban across the finish line.
Eventually, much of the world agreed to the ban at a conference in Madrid, but President George H.W. Bush was still holding out, even after he and Steger had a friendly face-to-face meeting.
Bush’s aides had warned Steger that talking about the environment would be a non-starter. Steger realized he’d have to tell a different story about his story if he was going to lobby the most powerful man in the world. He tried stressing international cooperation, not climate change. With the help of Senator David Durenberger, a Republican from Minnesota, and some friends inside the White House, Steger got Bush to see a letter he’d written about the expedition.
“It wasn’t making points on him,” Steger says. “It wasn’t a put-down at all. It was a kind letter, diplomatic, and he understood it.”
An aide told Steger that he watched as the president read it. He was so moved that once he finished reading, he stood up out of his chair. A few weeks later, at a ceremony in front of Mt. Rushmore on the eve of the Fourth of July, Bush sounded like a new man. He announced the U.S. would support the ban, saying “the protection of the Antarctic environment is an important international responsibility, and I believe the environmental protection measures included in this protocol will ensure the protection of these natural resources for generations.”
Since his days as a school teacher, Steger had been talking about climate change, though back then they called it the greenhouse effect. But even after he became a worldwide celebrity, shook hands with Bush and Gorbachev, became a literal brand name with a line of camping gear, he still felt he couldn’t talk about climate change with the urgency and specificity needed to stop it.
Arctic expeditions require millions of dollars and numerous sponsors, and companies don’t hitch their name to an idea, no matter how inspiring, unless they think there’s an audience. Climate change hadn’t tipped over into the popular conservation yet. Polar exploration, fundraising, presidential lobbying, real conversations about science—to overcome these challenges, Steger relied on a skill he’d been honing for years in the wilderness: how to push himself to the edge of the possible without risking so much he couldn’t continue.
“It was too early to talk about climate change at that time,” he says. “There wasn’t an audience for it quite then. You couldn’t do it. The world wasn’t ready for that right at this point.”
Instead, as he readied a new dogsled expedition, a 1995 trek across frozen Arctic Ocean ice between Russia and Canada, he settled on high-altitude arctic pollution as his climate change Trojan horse. Due to atmospheric patterns, pollution at lower latitudes winds up lingering at the poles. Sounds familiar, no?
“My philosophy of education has always been, draw out the curiosity and then you add the content, and the content is almost automatic once students are motivated,” he says. By making himself, and the feat he was about to perform, the curiosity once again, he could hopefully educate people about the global threat. “There was this cause and effect that you could understand what’s going on here affects there.”
And with the recent advent of a new telecommunications process called The Internet, he finally had an educational tool to match the scale of the problem and his ambitions to fight it. By the time he finished the trek at Canada’s Ellesmere island, over 2 million students had followed his journal entries. As part of the trip, he sent the first digital photo from North Pole. Exploration and activism were now officially plugged in.
But after a decade of life and death moments, media coverage and big-money negotiations, Steger was burnt out. He hit a wall many activists are familiar with. The deeper you go into protecting the environment, the less time you get to spend out in it. He retreated from his old life of swashbuckling around the extremities of the planet and returned to The Homestead, his compound in Ely.
Ever since he had laid a concrete foundation there in 1988, he’d poured every spare cent and even risked bankruptcy to build a wood and glass castle in the Ely woods, where he imagined leaders and activists could hammer out novel ways to protect the planet. He’d been chewing over the idea since the ‘70s. During his Antarctic voyage, he had a dream where he was a samurai who lived in a castle, and invited leaders back to the fortress to talk about saving the continent.
“I saw the power of the wilderness in a group situation,” Steger says. “Although your group might have totally different ideas for approaching it, but having a mutual goal and mutual cooperation to try to solve problems, I’ve seen it over and over in groups, that people build off of each other’s inspiration.”
A quiet man, Steger was happy toiling on his passion project in seclusion, growing his own food, walking through the woods. Will Steger the giant, the charismatic wandering scientist, was always a character he played to advance his goals for the movement. The project, what is now The Will Steger Wilderness Center, is set to launch in 2021, but he’d have to reprise his role as adventurer-ambassador sooner than he planned, when the Larsen B ice shelf disintegrated.
The Larsen B shelf is—was—a massive crescent-shaped ice formation on the northwestern coast of Antarctica. In the beginning of 2002, scientists watched in horror as satellite images showed 1,255 square miles of ice splinter, then ooze into the sea between January and April. It was the first of many entire masses Steger had once encountered sent into watery oblivion by climate change. His records all now have an edge of grief. They’re monuments to adventures across places that no longer exist.
“It was a major event that predicted some very serious problems,” Steger says. “It shocked me. It woke me up. I knew about the climate, but all the scientists, we didn’t know it would happen that fast. This huge area disintegrated.”
He emerged from nearly a decade of quiet in the wilderness and moved to a houseboat on the Mississippi in St. Paul, so he could be near the seat of power. It was time to really talk about climate change now. He couldn’t wait any more. Neither could the planet.
“No one was talking about it,” he says. “All the environmental groups, no one had a clue what was going on. And I’d seen it, I was starting to see it in the polar regions. When that broke up, Larsen B, that was my call to action.”
He knew that to make change, he needed more than just expeditions, press coverage, or even policy change. He needed a movement. A big one.
“Talking to the choir only gets so far,” he says. “In order to start the movement, in order to move the politicians, you needed to build a constituency, you needed numbers. In particular, you needed conservative people to get onboard.”
So he gave nearly 150 presentations at congregations in conservative areas. He used every tool he had learned in his decades in the public eye to bring even more people into the fight, and used some new strategies, too. He returned to high-profile exhibitions with the latest tools. In 2004, Steger and Askov Finlayson co-founder Eric Dayton went on a six-month expedition through the Canadian arctic to highlight climate change. A 2007 trip to Baffin Island used online videos to highlight how climate change was affecting the culture of native peoples in northern Canada. He kept finding ways to thread the needle when talking about climate change with diverse groups. When he was with Republican lawmakers, he framed renewable energy as a jobs-builder. When he spoke in front of conservative congregations in rural Minnesota, he explored it as a moral question. He kept his long-term focus on education, helping train young activists via his Yea! MN initiative.
And there were real signs of progress to match, even in purple Minnesota. In 2007, after years of stalling, the Minnesota legislature passed a renewable energy mandate.
After decades of being the rogue explorer, sharing his riveting stories from the pole, Steger realized he needed to be just one voice among a massive crowd in the streets, each sharing their own personal connection to climate change. So Climate Gen began hosting workshops, trainings, community events, all focused on getting people, young people in particular, to share their climate stories.
“How we got traction was I gave my eyewitness account,” he says. “But everyone has a climate story.”
First, stories inspired Steger. Then Steger became the inspiring story. His final act has been to convince the world that all of us are as connected, as affected, as responsible for the climate story as he is. Because of the way Republicans and the fossil fuel industry have so successfully caused people to doubt the reality of climate science, stories may be the final ground the movement has left.
“They undermined us with science. You can’t win the science argument with them. They were so clever in doing that,” he says. “A story, a touch, that’s what causes people then to look at, what can I do? That’s when you have behavior change.”
The boldest thing Steger ever did was not climbing mountains or crossing frozen oceans. It was taking his fame and building a movement that says we are all the same, equally affected by and responsible for our one world. Once you have that thunderclap moment of realization, whether it’s from Huckleberry Finn, Will Steger, or the story of the person in the mirror, you are never the same. You start to live in the infinite present. You see the beauty of everything around you now, the fragility of its future, and you have no choice but to protect it.