30 years ago, Steger and Schurke led historic dogsled trip to North Pole
Ely polar explorer Will Steger says he has trouble reading “North to the Pole” these days. The book, co-authored by Steger and expedition co-leader Paul Schurke of Ely, was written after their team’s successful 55-day dogsled expedition to the top of the world in 1986.
Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the eight-member Steger International Polar Expedition team’s departure for the pole from northern Canada.
Reading the account of the trip is almost too painful for Steger, now 71.
“It was so difficult,” Steger said in a recent interview in Duluth. “It was moment-to-moment all the time. There was a specific time, about 30 days in, that I thought we weren’t going to make it. I actually thought I had made a mistake on the logistics.”
But after negotiating 40-foot-high pressure ridges of ice, leads of open water and temperatures that plunged as low as 70 below zero, six members of the original team reached the pole on May 1, 1986. Navigating entirely by sextant, the team became the first dogsled expedition confirmed to have reached the North Pole without outside support or resupply. National Geographic magazine chronicled the trip in a cover story later that year.
The expedition, conceived in a tent on one of Steger’s previous Arctic trips with team member Bob Mantell and based out of Schurke’s garage in Ely, captivated Minnesotans. The team built its sleds in the Ely Memorial High School shop. At fundraisers, Minnesotans bought “Zap to the Pole” buttons, named for one of Steger’s polar huskies. In those pre-Internet days, Minnesotans waited with anticipation for periodic media updates based on radio transmissions from the team.
When the team returned to St. Paul by charter aircraft after the expedition, four Twin Cities television stations ran half-hour special programs on its historic accomplishment.
Minnesotan Ralph Plaisted’s team had reached the pole by snowmobile in 1968. But no other expedition has captivated Minnesotans as Steger’s did, said team member Ann Bancroft of Scandia, Minn., the first woman to reach the North Pole.
“Timing is everything,” Steger said. “The pole was still new to exploration, and we took on this challenge that everyone said was impossible. It was real homespun, is what it was.”
The dogs were a big part of the appeal, Bancroft said. So, too, was the epic struggle of the team in the early days of the trip, with brutally cold weather and nearly insurmountable pressure ridges.
“We had all these turning points that could have turned the other way, and the thing would never have happened,” Steger said. “But we had this great magic that was with us. Minnesota caught the fire of that magic.”
Springboard to success
The expedition’s success launched the careers of several team members, including Steger, Schurke and Bancroft. Steger and an international team went on to complete a dogsled crossing of Antarctica in 1990. He traveled by dogsled across Greenland and made several other successful Arctic expeditions. In 2006, he founded Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy (formerly the Will Steger Foundation) to educate the public about climate change that he had witnessed in the Arctic and elsewhere. All of that was made possible by credibility he had established on the North Pole trek.
“It basically made my career,” Steger said.
Schurke, 60, and his wife, Sue, used the polar trip as inspiration to start their Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge and Wintergreen Northern Wear businesses in Ely in 1989, both of which are still operating. Schurke subsequently made five more trips to the North Pole with clients on shorter expeditions and has traveled widely in the Arctic.
“The North Pole trip defined my life and my livelihood,” Schurke said. “Tackling a monumental challenge was daunting and fearsome for us. But our success is now the quiet voice I hear, every time I face new challenges, that says, ‘Yeah, you can pull this off, too.’ ”
After becoming the first woman to reach the North Pole, Bancroft used her experience to complete several other major expeditions and to devote her life to empowering women. In 1993, she skied to the South Pole, and later skied across Antarctica, gaining her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She had been an elementary schoolteacher before the trip.
“That trip gave me the platform from which to speak about things that are important to me,” said Bancroft, 60. “It took me a while to figure that out when I got back — the whole ‘first-woman’ thing. Then I thought, ‘I can’t squander this opportunity.’ I didn’t go back to the classroom. I made my classroom the outdoors.”
Steger expedition team members plan no gathering to mark the 30th anniversary of their North Pole trip departure. Steger will depart Monday on a 50-day, 350-mile solo trek by ski and canoe-sled from Ontario’s wilderness to his homestead near Ely.
The same day, Schurke and a team from Wintergreen will start a dogsled and ski trip across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Traveling over the pack ice on the Arctic Ocean has become more and more difficult for recent expeditions. Although several more teams have reached the North Pole — including the Northland’s Lonnie Dupre, Eric Larsen, Tyler Fish and John Huston — a warming climate has melted much of the polar pack ice floating atop the ocean.
“Actually, almost all the expeditions I did in the polar regions, you can’t do anymore,” Steger said. “Now you can’t reach the pole by dog team ever again because of the water on the Arctic Ocean.”
Challenges the Steger team encountered on its 1,000-mile zig-zag route to the pole were monumental. Team members Mantell, then from Ely, and Bob McKerrow of New Zealand both were airlifted out — Mantell with frostbitten feet and McKerrow with broken ribs suffered when a sled careened into him. They flew out on chartered planes that came in to take out sled dogs that no longer were needed as loads diminished.
The team started the expedition with 49 dogs, and 20 reached the pole. No supplies — or even notes from loved ones — were brought in by those chartered planes.
On day 38, Bancroft fell into the ocean as she approached a lead.
“I shivered for three days,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of dry clothes. I was really vulnerable. The team kept me safe and warm and moving.”
Do or die
At one point more than a month into the trek, the entire team could see that it would have to make faster progress or risk running out of food.
“We made a plan that we had to get to a certain point,” Steger said. “We had 17 days of food, and if we didn’t make it to that point, the others agreed they’d be flown out, and Paul and I would go forward.”
That prospect caused predictable dissension among team members. In one team meeting, characterized in “North to the Pole,” Canadian team member Richard Weber is quoted as saying, “The plan stinks. No way will I get on that plane.”
“Three or four days later,” Steger said in his recent interview, “we hit good ice, and all of a sudden we were in the game again.”
Each team member has images that remain from the arduous trek.
“I never remember being cold,” Schurke said. “We were working so hard that we were often too warm and worried about sweating out our clothing systems, even at minus 70. Mostly I remember the beauty of the frozen sea and the poetry that our New Zealand team member Bob McKerrow often shared during tent time. An experience that was probably pretty brutal now just seems ethereal and sublime.”
Bancroft, too, recalled a sublime moment.
She was riding a sled with Steger near the end of the trip after shuttling part of their load ahead.
“The sled no longer has handlebars,” Bancroft said, “It’s evening. We’re not with the rest of the group. The dogs know where to go. We just hopped on this sled, which is really rare. We’re leaning on each other, back to back, bumping along in our sealskin pants. I just felt like a little Inuit woman, this bony back next to mine, this canopy above us. In all of that work, you have these little moments, a little bubble of loveliness. I’ve got a treasure trove of those.”