It was an honor to host the 25th Anniversary of the Steger International Expedition to the North Pole with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Consulate General of Canada in May.
The Northwest Passage always represented to me permanent ice clogged channels and sounds, and, for the most part, almost impossible ice to navigate thru by vessel. This image was shattered by global warming in the summer of 2001. I was invited to join an expedition led by Gary Comer, a good friend and founder of Lands End Clothing. Gary had been a sailor since a young child and his interest in sailing led him to form the now famous company. Gary's plan was to travel as far north up the west coast of Greenland and then make an attempt on the Passage if conditions were favorable. We traveled on his motor powered yacht Turmoil, which was about 209 feet (63m) long and was not ice reinforced.
In 2001, for the first time, there were live and detailed ice information available on the web, and for the first time, the web could be accessed in the high arctic. This proved to be a powerful tool, because we were able to observer ice conditions for the first time thousands of miles away, along with accurate weather data including wind direction and speed. We watched on the web as the ice east of Cambridge Bay started to break up. It was then that we decided to abandon our plan to go far north on the Greenland coast and to head immediately to Resolute and wait for an opening to make our east-west traverse of the Passage. The ice on the Northwest Passage is especially bad on the southwest side of William Island, just south of Resolute, where it is believed that Franklin's ships were crushed. This area is like a gigantic moving ice plug that blocks passage, but on the web we saw an area that was weakening and starting to open up. We made the decision to go for it and see if we could get thru. It was a dangerous crossing, but we managed to get thru and a half a day later the ice shut fast behind us, so there was no turning back and the only way home was forward and that was westward.
What we saw next astounded all of us. In all directions as far as the eye could see, it was completely open ocean, just water with no trace at all of any ice. So we sailed in the 24 hour light, day and night. The image that will always remain with me is basking in the 70°F (21°C) heat under clear skies drinking gin and tonics on the deck of Gary's boat in the Coronation Gulf. In the land where Franklin's men suffered and died, we laid on our easy chairs in Miami Beach weather. Something was dreadfully wrong with this picture, and it registered like no other event that I had experienced to that date of what global warming means to the Arctic. It affected Gary so profoundly that he dedicated the rest of his life to advancing our knowledge of the science of global warming and it solutions.
The expedition made its way in open water effortlessly all the way to Pt Barrow Alaska. It seemed to me a shallow victory in the face of the reality that climate change is quickly altering the Arctic that I once knew. And now, for the first time, the changing climate is starting to affect the rest of the world.
The Northwest Passage was just one of many first's and last's expeditions that I have been on. All the ice shelves that I have ever traveled on in both Antarctica and the Arctic are now gone. The North Pole is rapidly losing its summer sea ice and is no longer possible to reach by dog team. The land fast ice on Greenland is breaking up and soon will no longer exist. And now soon, the Northwest Passage will be wide open every summer and the ice will no longer threaten those that dare sail across its vast waters.
[Via Pittarak: Northwest Passage Expedition]
No Northwoods winter visit or work day is complete without the wonderfully stimulating experience of a 180º sauna and a corresponding dip in the frigid ice hole. Taking a sauna is an integral part of the routine at the Will Steger Homestead. It caps a hearty work day, cleans and relaxes the body, and boosts camaraderie. The sauna at the Homestead is a handcrafted log cabin that stands on a slope on the shore of Pickets Lake. It is heated by a wood stove and has a deck that is perfectly placed for gazing out over the frozen lake or up at the Milky Way. Most newcomers to the sauna experience are a bit nervous about the hot-cold combo. Well, despite a few icy dips, the experience is overwhelmingly a warm, cleansing hour of relaxation. Here's how it works.
Anyone familiar with winter in Northern Minnesota knows that temperatures regularly dip down into the negative twenties and thirties at night. Having a well-insulated home is important, as well as a reliable heat source. Out of the 24 buildings at the Homestead, 20 are heated with wood stoves. Wood is cut, split and stacked throughout the year in preperation for the cold winter months. During expedition training, cooks get up well before the sun to light the fire in the lodge. This is the only building that is consistently warm throughout the winter. Each person is responsible for splitting kindling and heating their own cabin.
The trees around Will’s Homestead in Ely are part of the southern edge of the Boreal (northern) Forest. The B oreal Forest extends north into the Canadian Arctic. At the Homestead we have conifers (evergreens) like spruce, fir, pine, tamarack and cedar as well as some deciduous trees (that drop their leaves) like aspen and alder. It is fun to know the names of the trees—eventually the trees start to feel familiar, like friends.
Up here at the Homestead, the animals are our neighbors. The most common animals are the deer, wolves and beavers. When Will first arrived here at age nineteen, the timberwolves were close to extinction, but they were still thriving in the rugged areas around the Homestead.
Back then, there were long winters with deep snowdrifts; you could read the relationship between deer and wolf as it played out in their tracks. The wolves would use the deep snow to their advantage in hunting the deer; there were deer carcasses everywhere. But as the heavy snowfalls have disappeared, so has the evidence of the wolves' hunting.
Food at the homestead is organic. Will and the other team members feel strongly about eating food grown without chemicals. We believe organic food production is better for the environment and for our health. We also try to buy local food that hasn’t been transported across the country. Buying local food is one way we try to reduce our carbon footprint (the amount of carbon dioxide pollution for which an individual person or group is responsible). We further reduce our carbon footprint by storing food in an ice house (pictured here) and a root cellar rather than in an electric refrigerator.
Located in the Northwoods of Ely, Minnesota close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Will Steger’s Homestead has been the base camp for several historic expeditions and is now an integral part of the Will Steger Foundation’s programming.
The Homestead is a place where work teams visit to learn and grow, where students spend time to think and create, and where expedition planning and preparations take place, from designing and creating sleds, to chopping wood, to packing food for the expedition and training the expedition dogs.
I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Ever since I was fifteen years old, however, I had a plan to move out of the city when I turned twenty-five. The idea of being a pioneer fascinated me -- going over the mountains in a covered wagon, then clearing some land with an axe and making gardens.
When I was nineteen I kayaked for 3000 miles through Alaska. The Native Americans and trappers I saw there impressed me. I liked how they lived in log cabins and were self-sufficient. I had a lot of time to think as I was hitchhiking back from Alaska about the idea of living sustainably. I've always had a builder's instinct, and hitchhiking gave me time to visualize my perfect situation: two lakes' distance away from a road. Then I could be a few miles away from the nearest road, but not have to walk the distance, carrying my supplies. I could canoe.
Instead of pointing fingers of blame at BP we should first take a long thoughtful and constructive look at our own individual dependence on fossil fuels. We create the demand for the oil that is drilled up from the ocean sea beds. Our individual fingerprints are on the oil in the gulf that is now killing wildlife and ruining livelihoods. We must take action now to ween ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuels, an addiction that is destabilizing our climate, our economy and our national security.
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