Judy Spansberger, who works at the Homestead as a cook, remembers those days. "I used to teach at a canoeing camp on the next lake," she says, "and one day there was this really skinny, grungy little guy with hair down to the middle of his back—he was pretty unwashed. He was using the pay phone at the camp. I asked someone, 'Who's that?' and they said, 'Will Steger. He's kind of a different guy, quiet. Lives in a cabin near here and comes over to use the phone.' Back then, Will was just another broke hippie, like all of us."
Not quite broke. After investing about $2,000 in the Homestead each year—his original 60-acre parcel has grown to 220 acres—he had enough left over to continue adventuring. "Back then, I'd often just go," says Steger. "I had developed a good team of eight or nine dogs, and I'd take off. Once, on a solo trip from Fort Good Hope down the Mackenzie, I was waist-deep in powder with the dogs, and it was hell to get through. But the Indians had told me there was a trail. The thing was, I was 50 miles from where I thought I was. I went three days without food. The starvation and pain are easy to put out of your mind because you must. Panic will kill you sooner than starvation. I've never panicked, and that's why I'm alive. Finally, I met some trappers. They shared their food and pointed the way."
As Steger recounts yet another of his epiphanies, the pace of his delivery increases, and a visitor finds himself becoming an audience more than a conversational partner. "A big part of my life is beauty, and I'm in tune with the beauty of the north," says Steger. "The beauty of those vast stretches is extraordinary but subtle—the subtle beauty of the sun, the colors, the hues, the reindeer, the stars. And you're living in harmony with these desolate surroundings—that's beautiful. It's real Zen, up north, where you're given this sameness of landscape and your mind must work it out. In the cold you maintain an extremely sharp, crisp mind. The north, like Zen, is medicine for the head. The air is charged—this is a fact—and you're energized by it. It's as if the Fountain of Youth is somewhere to the north. You develop a perspective on the earth that's impossible in our day-to-day situation."
Well! If Steger's paean to the north sounds somehow rehearsed, it's not surprising. He has been delivering it since the mid-'70s, when he realized that he could make a buck recounting his adventures. Once he got his spiel down, he began giving slide-and-lecture presentations throughout the Midwest. A show in River Falls, Wis., attracted a particularly enthusiastic listener named Patti Lundsten, who was a seamstress and a dyed-in-the-boiled-wool child of the Woodstock generation.
"I'd always been drawn to visionary people," recalls Patti. "I was attracted to Will immediately. We talked about sewing. We talked about the winter clothing that the Eskimos wear and how we could duplicate it. We began splitting time between my place in Wisconsin and his in Ely."
They married in 1981, and Patti began accompanying him on trips that were no honeymoons. "I had my sewing and a nice tidy little life," she says. "Then I met him and all of a sudden I'm on Ellesmere Island. We were traveling with the dogs over ocean ice in July, and it was breaking up beneath us. We had to keep running around the leads in the ice, and finally we came up against it. Curtains. There was a 50-foot lead in front of us, and there were leads left and right of us. We were stranded. Will said, 'Let's just stay here a little while and see what happens.' We sat for three or four hours. Suddenly, a shelf of ice broke off on the other side and floated right across the lead to us. We got on and sailed it across. Was it magic?"
It's never entirely magic with Steger. First, he has that ability to stay eerily calm under great stress. Then there's his mastery of wilderness techniques, many of them learned from the Eskimos. "One time we were dogsledding at the Arctic Circle in northwestern Canada in winter," says Patti. "We were near Great Bear Lake, which is enormous. When we reached the lake, there was a brutal blizzard, a whiteout condition. The native trail ran by the shore, but Will said, 'It'll be impossible to follow. Let's go across the middle.'
"I was sure wed get lost. But he knew there was a tiny island in the center of the lake, and he said. 'We'll head for that. If we hit it, then we're going the right way.' I was skiing in front, and Will told me to keep skiing so that the wind hit my face at this angle." Patti brushes her right cheek with her hand to show the precise angle Will indicated. "We hit the island dead-on in a whiteout. Amazing. The guy knows the birds by their songs and the constellations by their Latin names, but there's something more, too."
Such tales, when repeated back in Ely around a campfire or over a beer, were beginning to make Steger into a legend. He didn't mind; some say he encouraged it. He certainly used his reputation to good effect when he turned his adventuring career up another notch.
"I had always been going north, and the ultimate extension of that is the North Pole," says Steger. "One day I was stuck in a storm in the Canadian Barren Grounds. The wind was hitting the tent at 70 miles an hour, and it was freezing. At that moment it came to me what a pure trip to the Pole should be: Go with a team of dogs and make it un- supported, without re-supply. You see, when Peary got there, he built way stations a-cross the Arctic ice and kept having food and fresh dogs sent up to him at the front. Then he made his dash from about a hundred miles out. I wanted to go the whole way with one team of dogs and all our food. It's seldom that you perceive an ultimate challenge. I felt that I was the right person at the right time—perhaps in all of history—to do this thing."