Minnesotan adventurer returns from Barrens

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After 70 days crossing the Barrens, Minnesotan Will Steger is already planning his next trek, from the spot where he cached his canoe between the Thelon and Back rivers.With his feet on pavement for the first time in weeks, Steger, 73, recounted his solo expedition on June 1 and shared his new plans to carry on to Cambridge Bay come spring.

Arctic adventurer Will Steger, 73, skied 1,000 km from Black Lake, Sask, toward Baker Lake, Nunavut, in his latest solo expedition. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

Battling high winds, whiteout conditions, deep snow and a delayed spring, he travelled 1,000 kilometres to the Nunavut border from Black Lake, Sask.

“The Barrens is such a harsh area, it’s paradoxical. The price of admission is high because you have to be really skilled and you pay a price,” he said. “It’s a difficult but very subtle beauty.”

Across the Barrens, Steger encountered herds of muskox, wolves and caribou.

He planned to travel by water for the tail end of the trip.

“I expected spring to come,” he said, though it never did.

With unfavourable conditions, he reached the Nunavut border on day 70. He travelled with a Kevlar canoe on runners, which, in ideal conditions, can easily cross 40 km per day over frozen thaw, he said.

“Whatever you get, you get,” he said of the conditions. “But it was unusual and as a result I had a tough trip because I had to haul in the snow with this canoe.

“There are a lot of hardships involved in the Barrens. I’m travelling for the 10th day in a whiteout and my mood doesn’t get down. I don’t succumb to that, it doesn’t matter.”

Late in the trip and without a gun, a large grizzly approached him in the Thelon Game Refuge. He scared off the grizzly with bear bangers.

“I didn’t have any negotiating power anyway,” he laughed. “I always travel with a gun, but I thought I would just deal with it if it came up.”

With many Arctic and Antarctic expeditions under his belt, Steger’s intended destination of Baker Lake would have made it his longest solo yet.
Steger led the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986.

Two years later, he traversed Greenland from south to north in the longest unsupported dogsled expedition on record.

One year later, he led the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica over seven months.

While travelling along the rivers on the cusp of spring, he had to read them to avoid any spots that might be vulnerable to swift current.

“Rivers in the spring like this are like playing with a bomb,” said Steger. “You could travel 100 miles without seeing any openings and then bam … so you’re on all the time,” he said.

In his daily dispatches by satellite phone, Steger revealed that on day 55 he had a near miss during a whiteout on a patch of fast-moving water on the Thelon.

“I hugged the shore and if I would have went around, I probably wouldn’t be here. I would have walked right into that opening,” he told News/North.

In spite of bad weather, Steger was able to maintain his mood and optimism, he said.

“Managing the solitude is very easy for me,” he wrote in one of his dispatches. “It’s pretty much like a Zen monastery. I’m in this absolutely perfect rhythm.”

Much of the work is psychological, he said.

“When the sun comes up you wonder where all this energy comes from. Sometimes this energy went on for days,” he said.

By the seventh week of Steger’s travels, his deadline to return to Minnesota for a fundraiser fast approached. He followed plan B to cache his canoe between the Thelon and Back Rivers and head north again next spring.

“I never got the break in the weather. At night I’m shaking in my boots about what I’m doing, but it’s all about being in the moment and taking each moment as it goes,” he said. “I get a great deal of inspiration from the Barrens, where you are challenged and really intimate with your surroundings.

“When you’re bored you want to be somewhere else. I don’t get in that frame of mind. It’s monotonous and that’s kind of a luxury, as long as there’s a gameplan to get out of it,” said Steger.

Rarely did he miss the company of others, he said.

“Some of that I almost sometimes wished I could share that with someone. It was such beauty that the moments were overflowing. It’s that experience of living through the winter here and the spring comes back and the sun is coming back,” he said.

Steger, with hands battered and healing from frostbite, sat on a park bench in Yellowknife, almost nonchalant about his latest journey.

“I had my fill,” he said. “I didn’t miss anything. I’ve got great friends, a great society and a really good social life. But on solos I don’t think much beyond where I’m at. I don’t bring a book to distract myself. I write every day. In storms I just sit, I don’t mind that.”