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‘I’m hoping to put a human face, a cultural face, on global warming’
By Sam Cook
Duluth News Tribune
Published February 18, 2007

In the beginning, he went to the ends of the Earth for the sheer challenge of exploration.

In subsequent Arctic expeditions, he began to wed exploration with education.

Now, Ely dogsledder Will Steger is set to embark on a three-month expedition with Inuit hunters to drive home the consequences of global warming.

John Stetson runs a team of sled dogs through the woods north of Duluth as he trains for the Global Warming 101 Expedition led by Ely’s Will Steger. Stetson is providing 20 of the 44 dogs that the team will use in a 1,200-mile traverse of Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic starting Friday. (Bob King/News Tribune)
Steger and six others, including three Inuit men, will depart Friday on a 1,200-mile trip across Canada’s Baffin Island, stopping to interview Inuit families in five villages. An education arm of the expedition will provide daily online updates to students and others.

Afterward, Steger plans to bring Inuit hunters and their families to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress on global warming.

“My main goal is bringing about education, and using that to drive policy,” Steger said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a golden time for that with the politicians we have in office.”

All of these efforts are part of a three-year commitment by the 62-year-old Steger to increase awareness of global warming and effect policy changes. He has moved from his remote homestead near Ely to live in a houseboat on the Mississippi River in St. Paul for three years while he conducts his grassroots campaign. He is spearheading the efforts through his new Will Steger Foundation and through his Web site, www.globalwarming101.com.

Steger and his teammates are now en route to Iqaluit, Nunavut, a community at the south end of Canada’s Baffin Island. Joining him from Minnesota will be Duluth musher John Stetson and Ely Outward Bound instructors Elizabeth Andre and Abby Fenton. The expedition will travel by dog team from Feb. 23 to about May 10.

Team members will be joined on the last leg of the trip by two high-profile adventurers who also are committed to curbing global warming. Sir Richard Branson, record-breaking hot-air balloonist and founder of Virgin Airways, will accompany the team from Clyde River to Iglulik. So will Ed Viesturs, who has summited Mount Everest six times and appeared in an IMAX film about his 1996 ascent.

THROUGH INUIT EYES

The trip will focus on changes that global warming is causing in the Arctic and how those changes have been detrimental to wildlife and the Inuit families who live there.

“I’m hoping to put a human face, a cultural face, on global warming,” Steger said. “If we can touch people heart-to-heart, when people have a sense for it, then that will change them. It will change their habits.”

Steger has experienced the effects of global warming firsthand. Ice shelves he once traversed by dog team in the Arctic and on Antarctica have broken away and fallen into the sea. A former science teacher, he has involved students in his expeditions since the advent of the Internet.

Steger conceived the idea for this expedition while visiting Inuit villages on his six-month Arctic Transect expedition from Yellowknife, Northwest Terrorities, to Baffin Island in 2004.

“The Transect was a fact-finding mission, in a way,” Steger said. “I wanted to see how people of the Arctic would respond to a project like what we’re doing now. We were really well-received.”

Steger started his foundation and committed to working on global warming after that expedition. With his scientific background and his firsthand experience on the ice, he is emerging as a respected voice in the global warming discussion. He testified along with University of Minnesota scientists before the Minnesota Legislature on Jan. 30 about the issue.

STORIES FROM THE TRAIL

While traveling through Inuit villages in 2004, Steger met people whose lives were being affected directly by global warming.

“Everyone had a story about how it was affecting their hunting and their lives,” he said. “The ice is forming later and later and breaking up earlier. A lot of them are not able to get out for a lot of their hunts, especially for walrus. In a lot of these villages, 80 percent of their food comes from the land.”

Other changes affect the Inuit, too. Warming currents have changed prevailing wind patterns, and Inuit often navigate by knowing the wind’s direction, Steger said. Those same currents are melting ice from below.

Arctic adventurer Lonnie Dupre of Grand Marais, who also has been active on the global warming issue, supports Steger’s expedition.

“Will tying into the Inuit people is perfect,” Dupre said. “Global warming is impacting the polar regions at an alarming rate. The Inuit have been living off the land for centuries. They don’t need scientists to tell them something has run amok.”

Dupre, too, spoke with many Inuit people when he made a circumnavigation of Greenland by dog team and kayak from 1997 to 2001. Now the Greenland ice cap is shrinking rapidly.

“The Inuit elders are devastated,” Dupre said. “The elders are highly respected for their views on the environment and the animals. When they can no longer predict when caribou are coming or how many days of good weather they’ll have, they feel their purpose in life has been undermined.”

GRASSROOTS EFFORT

Both Dupre and Steger see a greater acceptance among the public that global warming is real and that humans are partly responsible for it.

Over the past year, since Steger has been in St. Paul, he has been speaking to any group that will have him. He’s been to churches and schools all over the state. He is equally comfortable in a church basement or the state capitol. Small and wiry, he seems tireless, say those around him.

“Will definitely has a celestial force,” said Linda Nervick of Duluth, his marketing and public relations coordinator. “Things just work out. He has a knack for attracting the right team, the right timing. He never gets upset or stressed or frustrated. It just kind of flows. It’s wonderful to work around his energy.”

“Will is a visionary,” said John Stetson of Duluth who has worked and traveled with Steger intermittently since 1987. “He doesn’t see things like we see things. He’s not constrained by our social parameters.”

As successful as he and others have been at getting out the message about global warming, Steger says it may be too late for some species.

“Things don’t look good for polar bears and walruses,” he said. “Regardless of what we do, we’re going to lose a portion of the Arctic biome.”

But he remains optimistic.

“We’re making big progress,” Steger said. “The science is overwhelming. There are still some skeptics, and we need to get these answered. But we have great solutions. We have 10 years to act on this to prevent a catastrophe for our kids.”

 

 

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