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Don Shelby interview: Adventurer Will Steger

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My most recent expedition took me into the aisles of the local grocery store stalking the elusive Greek yogurt and truffle oil. I approached the Greek yogurt downwind and captured it. An indigenous woman in a blue shirt and nametag told me that she had never heard of truffle oil.

As I was about to check out, a magazine at the cashier’s register caught my eye - a special issue of the National Geographic magazine with the collected accounts of the greatest explorers and risk-takers in the Society’s 125 years. It cost $13. I bought it, quietly reflecting that I had saved as much by not finding the truffle oil.

When I got home I began reading the magazine. Here were accounts of Marco Polo, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, polar explorer Robert Peary. There are even accounts of ocean bottom explorers. Then I happened upon the name Will Steger, dogsledding the length of Greenland, crossing Antarctica, unsupported over the ice to the North Pole on the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Ranked as one of the greatest explorers of all time, Steger is listed with Amelia Earhart, Peary, Jacque Cousteau and Roald Amundsen as one of the greatest explorers to have ever lived.

And, he’s my buddy - a Minnesotan living part of the time in Ely, and part of the time on a houseboat on the Mississippi River. Comes over to the house for dinner. And, it dawns on me that I have a very special friend. What a big deal I would make of it if Marco Polo had dropped by the house.

So, I call him and sort of apologize that I haven’t been treating him like one of the greatest explorers in history, according to the National Geographic. I ask him, “What does it feel like to be mentioned in the same breath as Marco Polo?”

“There’s a kinship, I guess. And, I have a long relationship with the National Geographic. When I was a kid in Richfield, I loved to play hockey. But I traded my hockey skates to a neighbor for a wagon full of National Geos. They changed my life.”

“When I was a boy, there were lots of unexplored places on the planet. Now, not so much. Except the oceans. I lived at the right time.”

I ask him the simple question, “What is exploring at your level?”

Steger says, “It is going to the frontier, to the unknown. You have a drive to go to a place where humankind has never gone.”

“Ever get scared?” I ask.

“Well,” says Steger, “You see your death very clearly. If you are scared of that, then you’ll be scared a lot. If you are competent, you are really safe. But, mostly it is really humbling. Out there in the middle of nowhere is like traveling in a mobile Zen monastery.”

While Will was a kid reading National Geographic, I was reading pulp adventure comic books. There on the cover was a guy on a cliff falling backwards misfiring a Winchester at a charging grizzly. I remembered reading the words of the explorer Vihjalmur Stefansson. He said real explorers avoid “adventure.” Adventure means getting out of ugly situations.

“Is that true, Will?” I ask Steger.

“That’s absolute nonsense!” he nearly shouts. And, this coming from a man who reveres Stefansson. “If you are completely planned out, you are not exploring. You have to be able to respond to the unexpected. In other words, you’ve got to have a lot of tricks up your sleeve. I don’t know where Stefansson got that. He forgot his matches on an expedition.”

And maybe that’s why Vihjalmur was called “Windjammer” behind his back.

Then Steger turns serious, which is not a sharp turn for him. He wants to talk about what he is doing now, which is, in fact, what he has always been doing – teaching.

What most people don’t know is that Steger taught kids in school and even started one of his own. And, now, Steger is exploring ways to bring young people to the science of global climate change. He’s been using the internet to involve young people, take them places they may never see, show them things he’s seen that few people may ever see again – like the polar ice cap.

“It’s disappearing,” Steger says. “And, it is disappearing because the planet is warming. And, the planet is warming because of the CO2 in fossil fuels.”

Steger tells me a story he doesn’t tell everyone.

“In 1987 I was let in on some secret research. Scientists studying the ice shelves in Antarctica pointed out to me what they thought was the coming disintegration of the Larson B ice shelf. Then they whispered so no one could hear but me, ‘It is going because the planet is warming.’ I crossed the Larson B ice shelf on one of my Antarctic journeys. Then, in 2002 I was reading the Minneapolis Star Tribune and there it was on page nine – a satellite photo of the Larson B ice shelf of Antarctica just falling apart and floating away." The Larson B was the size of Rhode Island.

“I’ve seen the effects of climate change.” If the Larson B died because of CO2, I guess he has a point.

Steger says, “I’m not a political person or a negative person, but what I’m seeing bothers me. One party just won’t look at the science, and so we never get anything done.”

He’s talking about Republicans. I tell him that Republicans would tell him that it is pointless for the U.S. to take a giant economic risk to go carbon free while China and India are producing, together, more CO2 from fossil fuels than the United States. And China and India are showing no signs of limiting the burning of coal, the chief contributor of CO2 to the atmosphere and the largest forcer of warming.

Steger says, “That’s hogwash! I thought we were leaders. The world has been waiting for us to take the lead, and now most of the world has given up on us. What happened to the greater America?”

I ask Will about the new finds of oil in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and the drilling in the newly opened ice-free areas of the Arctic Ocean.

“It is utter insanity!” he says. The polar ice is melting because of fossil fuels, and now they are drilling for more fossil fuels in an area they couldn’t reach before, were it not for global warming.

Then this: “Honest to God, it seems to me that the only thing that will actually change their minds is if things get worse faster. No. The faster things change for the worse, the better it will be. I don’t want it to happen, but it seems like the only thing the politicians will respond to.”

But, Steger is still an optimist. “This is a time of opportunity. We can stop poisoning the planet. We can develop a new energy system and forestall massive changes. Humanity will not disappear. We are like weeds. But we will have to adapt. Evolution will speed up as we change as a species to cope with the forced changes in our environment. Or, we could develop new technologies, create a healthy environment for our children, put people to work in these new fields and create a new economy.”

Another of Steger's most recent projects is his fifth book, which is about The Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership. It is the story of the energy efficient, earth-friendly castle in the woods Will has been building near Ely and the BWCA for 20 years.

The photographs of this remarkable wilderness center were taken by John Ratzloff, the essays are by Steger, and the stories are of the countless men and women who helped build Steger's dream. The photo below was taken by me in the midst of construction 10 years ago. The Moon Press book will be available at bookstores soon.

Steger hopes to invite everyone from students to national policy leaders to the center, spend some time in nature, and then discuss the critical question of how to preserve and respect nature, live sustainably, while moving the country forward economically.

Meanwhile, Will Steger is not done exploring. In a couple of years he’ll be taking a long, cold trip through the barren grounds of Canada. He’s particularly interested in what is happening with the permafrost. He says, “In 10 years, give or take five or six, the permafrost will melt and that will release huge amounts of methane.” I know methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“If the permafrost melts,” says Steger, “we’ll have a runaway climate.”

When Marco Polo came back from the distant lands and reported on the remarkable things he’d seen, nobody believed him. Steger understands how Marco Polo must have felt.

Don Shelby is a veteran Twin Cities journalist and a contributor to BringMeTheNews. He worked for 32 years as anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and for 10 years as a radio personality for WCCO-AM. He has won numerous professional awards, including two George Foster Peabody awards. You can hear him on Mondays and Wednesdays doing BringMeTheNews reports on the Tom Barnard podcast.

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