Soul on Ice

updated 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

WILL STEGER AND HIS SLED dogs, out for a training run among the snow-laden pines of northern Minnesota, are heading downhill when Steger shouts "Gee!"—meaning "Turn right!" The dogs have other ideas, though, and turn left, capsizing the sled and plunging America's premier polar explorer into waist-deep snow. Whoops! Aren't these the canine members of a dangerous, $1.5 million expedition to cross the Arctic via the North Pole? And shouldn't they know their left from their right? Not to worry, says the former teacher. "Dogs are like kids in a classroom. Sometimes they're perfect, and you're so proud. Then they get rambunctious, and you spend the night baffled."

Steger, 50, had better not be baffled too often as he seeks to lead the first dogsled traverse of the Arctic Ocean in a single season. The 2,000-mile trek—which was to begin last week on the Siberian island of Severnaya Zemlya and should end in late June in Resolute, in Canada's Northwest Territory—will be, Steger promises, the last of his firsts. "I love being out on the ice," he says, "but I want a quieter life now."

Slender and wiry, with a mop of tangly curls, Steger has already blazed plenty of trails. In 1986 he helped lead the first unsupported dogsled trip to the North Pole. (Adm. Robert E. Peary's 1909 expedition there—which according to historians was either successful or a near-miss—was aided with fresh supplies and dogs.) In 1989 he headed a five-man crew on an unprecedented 3,741-mile dogsled ride across Antarctica—a seven-month jaunt. "I never feel healthier, physically or mentally," he says of his condition on the deep-frozen marathons.

There's plenty to stimulate Steger and his team of five—three men and two women, including Julie Hanson, 41, Steger's sledmate—on their current adventure. Much of the Arctic is a frozen ocean, and sections of it, which begin to thaw in early June, can be treacherous. With 33 huskies, the team will traverse the first three quarters of their route by sled, taking air and water samples to show how pollution affects the environment. On April 22, the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, they plan to rendezvous with a Good Morning America camera crew. Along the way, Steger will bring his own bit of civilization—eating his meals on a gingham place mat ("You have to have a touch of elegance," he explains) and occasionally burning incense. "In the Arctic there is nothing to smell," he says. "The incense—just a whiff—is a big luxury." On about June 1, the dogs will be flown out, and canoes with runners—for floating and ice-running—will be used over the last 500 miles through a wash of thin, breaking ice.

Steger doesn't need a compass to plot his journey in life; since childhood he has hewed to the same intrepid course. The second of nine children of Bill Steger, now 76, former owner of a water-conditioning business, and Margaret, 75, a homemaker, he showed an early taste for adventure while growing up in suburban Richfield, Minn. At 15, he and his brother Tom, then 17, navigated the Mississippi River a la Huck Finn, in a motorboat. ("They were responsible kids," explains his father, "and they wanted to do it. We didn't try to put any of our children into a mold.") Three years later he went kayaking in the Yukon. Though he suffered from a minor learning disability, he earned a bachelor's degree in geology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, then a master's degree in teaching.

At 19, Steger began buying land outside Ely, Minn., and organizing winter outings for city dwellers. Then in 1981 he made a foray into matrimony. But because of his traveling ("He'd either be planning an expedition or on one," recalls Patti Steger Holmberg, 43 and remarried), the pair divorced after five years. Still, they remain close. "He thinks so big, has so many plans," says his ex, "so many things he wants to do to make this world better. He has these grand schemes for teaching children about the environment."

Schoolchildren, in fact, will accompany Steger on his polar jaunt via the Internet. The team will radio its findings each day to given bases, where the news will be posted on the Net to an estimated 20 million schoolchildren and adults. "It's a whole new part of the world, and this is one way of going along," says Mary Kay Cooney, a kindergarten teacher at St. Paul's Highland Catholic School.

Steger welcomes the company, but after three years of fund-raising and planning, he's ready to return to the expansive solitude of the Homestead, his 400-acre tract of wilderness in Ely. There, over three decades, he has built a hand-hewn cabin home, about a dozen outbuildings and a 50-foot-high treehouse-like retreat that he hopes some day to use as an environmental and educational think tank.

But for now, he looks forward to calm days on the Arctic, where the ice is smooth, the dogs are running well and he can do what he does best. "I dream," says Steger. "I plan projects, and I think of all the stories I want to write about my adventures. It's the most peaceful time I know."

KEVIN GRAY
MARGARET NELSON in Ely

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