Modern Explorers: Will Steger

Santa Claus, penguins, and lots and lots of snow: those are more than likely the images conjured when the word "arctic" comes to mind. But from the North Pole to Antarctica (and everything in between), modern explorer Will Steger has redefined these not-so-tropic extremes for those of us not-so-scientists!

For over 45 years, Steger and his team of scientists and dogsleds have gone where, literally, no man has gone before. From his command of the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without re-supply in 1986, to the first and only dogsled expedition on the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada in 1995, this present-day Columbus has taken us to new heights in the world of exploration and environmental conservation.

FOX Fan sat down with Steger to ask him how he survived the Arctic and, more importantly, what he ate!

FOX Fan: What made you want to become an explore? And, of all places, of the Arctic ?

Will Steger: I think I was born that way ... I always wanted to explore. When I was younger -- in the 40s and 50s -- the pics from National Geographic wrapped my dreams. I also had some great parents. We didn’t have that many rules, so I think it grew out of a combo of wanting to explore and being able to do it.

FF: What would you say is the most common misconception about the arctic?

WS: I think we think of the arctic as cold and brutal, and it is that … but it’s also beautiful and serene. Storms would pass, and then it would clear and be so beautiful.

It’s the paradox of the two extremes – and I think our fear of cold and our fear of the extremes makes us view it as something as something menacing.

FF: What’s one funny, scary, shocking memory that really sticks out in your mind from an expedition?

WS: Only a few times was I really afraid. Once was in 1995, when my three dog teams left the northern coast of Russia to cross the Arctic Ocean. The first 30 miles is called the Shear Zone, and was really dangerous. We left on this 55 degree-below-zero morning that we thought was perfect, but by that afternoon the ice had broken. We had a whole dog team go into the ice -- this was also when we had 17 hours of darkness per day. We also had bears that were stalking us. We got really lucky … everyone was okay.

Most of it, though, has been really, really beautiful.

FF: Did you usually travel in a group? How did you pass the time?

WS: The last 25 years I’ve mostly been working with groups of six… 30 dogs, six people. And each dog sled.

I’ve also done my share of soloing and partner expeditions. It’s the best way and definitely the easiest to organize. Surprises from different personalities, countries and genders -- that’s part of the challenge with a larger group.

I loved to solo. Traveling alone at 60 degrees-below-zero is the ultimate experience. You’re allowed no mistakes; you have to have the right mindset, you have to be relaxed and peaceful. And when you’re in that mindset, you can spot danger a mile of way.

FF: Did you ever feel alone – traveling in these extreme conditions by yourself?

WS: It’s a state of maturity, I think – getting to that state of mind. I remember as a kid in high school I was afraid to be alone. I gradually got over that and got peace with myself. But it is an incredible heightened sense of sensitivity.

FF: You said at one point that what you’ve seen “in the last 15 years is really shocking” -- that there’s an issue here. What has been your saddest realization about the state of our natural world?

WS: What motivates me is mass extinction – animals and species going extinct because of our ignorance. We have technology -- we don’t have to be living this way; we could build a much better way of life and not destroy species of the globe.

FF: This series is about honoring those people breaking barriers through their exploration – do you feel that young people still feel this sense of urgency? Was it generational?

WS: I hate the cliché of “the environmentalist”, but I’ve been very concerned about the planet and life for as long as I can remember. I was part of the 60s generation -- we were going to change the world, y’know? But I do see a change in the younger generation. In those between 16 and 28-years-old, this generation is extremely special -- connected on the internet, socially inclined, and getting active and mobilizing around this [environmental] movement. This generation understands global warming – they understand the science and the fact that exists.

I have a lot of hope in that generation. They’re a galvanized voice and vote. Capable of swinging elections and making things happen. That generation has a whole lot in store for them that they don’t even know about. As this climate keeps swinging out of control, the effect is undeniable. We’re in a state of denial. We know that the polar ice caps – that 2 billion people rely on those for water – and we know that in 20 years they’ll be gone. It’s getting out of control.

The other end of it is that the solutions are at hand, and that’s the direction we need to go. I just gave a talk in Switzerland , and they’re getting off of fossil fuels. They’re self-sufficient and profiting during the recession. We have the ability for that to be us, as well.

FF: When you’re in the middle of the arctic, what do you eat?

WS: Well, on polar expeditions you can’t hunt; there’s no food. You’re relying on your kil-a-day food rations to be dropped off. You might be on expedition for half a year at a time, so we use a lot of very basic starches – oatmeal, spaghetti. Fat is extremely important. I guess you could say it’s monotonous, but wholesome. It tastes alright if you’re hungry enough!

In other places I’m living off of the land – eating seal or fish. That’s an incredible experience, especially when you’re out of food an hunting for your next meal. You become extremely thankful for anything you get.

I’ve always sought out the edge – globally we’re at the edge, we’re loking at a catastrophe but on the other hand we could have a clean life for our environment.