The family's closest brush with the wilderness was a station-wagon trip to Yellowstone one summer. But it was reading Huckleberry Finn that spurred Steger to become an adventurer. "Huck's always been my hero," he says. "I've patterned my life after his."
Steger's first accomplice in acting out his Huck fantasies was one of his brothers, fittingly named Tom. Will, who was 15 at the time, planned to replicate Huck's trip down the Mississippi, using an old motorboat instead of a raft.
Will and Tom, who was 17, set off in the summer of 1960. "We got down the river in three weeks," says Steger. "We were having great lazy fun every day. But when we arrived in New Orleans, we were broke. We met a bum named Sylvester, who was about 65, and he taught us how to live in New Orleans on nothing. We'd sleep on the sidewalks, bathe in Lake Pontchartrain, and at one or two in the morning go to where the trucks dumped their produce. One night we got a watermelon. There we were—two boys and an old bald-headed black guy—sitting on the pier, eating melon, watching the barges at three in the morning, all of us lit up by New Orleans. Sylvester said, 'Boys, life is never better than this!' I believed him absolutely."
Life on the return voyage was certainly a lot worse. The boat that had served them so well kept breaking down, and the still-penniless brothers were busted as vagrants in Vicksburg and Natchez. "The police would find us at the river at night and throw us in jail, thinking we had stolen the boat or were going to steal food," says Steger. "We'd call home, and the folks would explain what we were doing. By the time we reached home, that boat had me $225 in debt, and I had to do some serious caddying. I decided that would be my first and last motorized adventure."
Three summers later, Steger set off for the Yukon River. "I hitchhiked to Alaska," he says. "I've hitched well over 100,000 miles. If there were a frequent-hitcher program, I'd be able to go to the moon. I put my kayak into the Yukon and felt a cold thrill. That was my first taste of what the wilderness is. It's frightening, uncomfortable, lonely. You wish you were home, but it leaves an indelible mark."
Over the next five years, Steger and his hometown pal Jeff Olsen kayaked nearly 8,000 miles on Alaskan and Canadian rivers. Steger began to think about living permanently somewhere at the top of the world. But his gregarious side wouldn't allow such a break with civilization. "I like the city, I really do," says Steger. "For a while, the city was as much a part of my life as the country, and I wouldn't have been happy without it. I was young, I liked to meet people, I liked to have a beer."
In the late '60s Steger settled into a life-style of extremes. Nine months of the year he taught science at St. Richard's school, where he had been a student. But during vacations he went dogsledding, kayaked and also took up mountaineering. In 1965 Steger was part of a 44-man team that became the first to reach the top of two 19,000-foot peaks in Peru. "You could say we succeeded," says Steger. "We reached both summits. But two members of our team were killed in a fall. They fell hundreds and hundreds of feet. I was trying to make a big decision at the time—whether to continue mountaineering or to keep exploring up north. That cinched it. Exploring was for me."
Steger marks the chapters of his life with epiphanies: discovering Huckleberry Finn, listening to Sylvester sing of life, seeing two companions fall to their deaths. In 1970 came another. "Some friends and I had decided to go to Alaska to make a million dollars on the pipeline," says Steger. "I was in my St. Paul apartment, and they were outside, honking the horn for me to hurry. I knew when I closed that door that this was the end of my city life. I knew that as I turned away from that door, I was turning to the wilderness life.
"I went to Alaska, made a little money—hardly a million—and came back to the Homestead. I asked myself, How can I combine my vocation as a teacher and my need to adventure, and stay here in the woods and still be a citizen?"
The Outward Bound program, which was still young, seemed to offer a possibility, and Steger ran an affiliate at the Homestead for three years. After that he founded his own winter-camping school. Named Lynx Track, it drew clients mainly from the Twin Cities. He promised "to show them winter as a beautiful, nonthreatening place." Lynx Track grew beyond tents and cross-country skis. Steger added sleds and dogs, and he became an expert breeder.