When polar explorer Will Steger heard the news, he couldn’t believe it, but knew it was real: The 1,250-square-mile ice shelf he had crossed in Antarctica by dog sled had collapsed into the sea.
“It caught me by surprise,” Steger told an audience gathered at the Shoreview Community Foundation’s annual dinner last month. Steger also spoke at an environmental awareness event Nov. 21 at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi.
Steger had been standing on the ice shelf a decade before. It was the moment when Steger knew it was time to focus his energies on education, not just exploration. “That was my wake-up call,” he said.
A portion of the Larsen B Ice Shelf — about the size of Rhode Island — broke up over a month’s time in 2002, during Antarctica’s summer. The ice shelf had been stable for an estimated 10,000 years. Steger believes the collapse is due to climate change caused by increased carbon dioxide levels. The monthly average carbon dioxide concentration has risen from about 310 parts per million (ppm) in 1960 to almost 400 ppm in 2015, according to Mauna Loa Observatory data from Hawaii.
Steger has explored polar regions since the ‘80s. He traveled to the North Pole by dog sled in 1986, traversed Greenland without dogs in 1988 and traversed Antarctica by dog sled in 1989-90. “I became an eyewitness to the changes in the polar areas,” he said. He’s seen the increased melting of Greenland.
Steger, who spent his early childhood in Mahtomedi before moving to Richfield, fell into dog sledding as a young man after kayaking on White Bear Lake led him into kayaking adventures. While in college studying to be a teacher, he kayaked to the Arctic Ocean from Jasper, Alberta, in Canada.
“I was destined to live in the wilderness,” Steger said. One of 10 children, sharing space with five brothers, as well as the influence of his entrepreneurial father, prepared him for a life of adventure. “I never saw barriers,” he said. “If I want to do something, I do it.”
When Steger lost his job at Outward Bound in northern Minnesota as a young man, he started his own dog sled and ski school to make money. In 1982, he began to take expeditions. Most famous of those is the 3,741-mile International Trans-Antarctica Expedition in 1989-90. For four months, Steger dog-sledded across 3-mile-thick ice.
Steger is a descendent of the Schifsky family in Shoreview, the Shoreview Historical Society 2011 Heritage Family of the Year. His great-grandparents, Tom and Anna Schifsky, owned a large portion of land by Turtle Lake, said Bill Conlin, foundation dinner master of ceremony.
He also has ties to Mahtomedi. His mother Margaret was born on a farm near Mahtomedi High School and his father’s family started the Piccadilly restaurant. “Mahtomedi still has wild areas,” Steger told an audience of 550 people at the St. Andrew’s event. “The setting had a big influence on my life.”
Steger is currently building the Steger Wilderness Center near Ely for educational purposes. He still embarks on solo expeditions but spends a lot of time on his Minneapolis-based nonprofit Climate Generation, whose mission is to teach future generations about the impacts of climate change. For more information on Steger and his nonprofit, visit climategen.org.