Will Steger didn’t need Al Gore to open his eyes about the dramatic effects of global warming.Steger’s eyes have always been wide open. Among his many expeditions into the lands of snow and ice was the first unsupported expedition to the North Pole by dog team in 1986. He calls the ecologically fragile regions around the Poles his home, and he is deeply affected by the changes he has seen over his forty years of exploring the Arctic and the Antarctic. Steger believes that without action, life in the Arctic will face extinction. Luckily, Steger is willing to take action. With the recently formed Will Steger Foundation, he has committed himself both personally and professionally to the preservation of our threatened planet. His goal is to engage everyone through a public education campaign. However, Will Steger would not be Will Steger if his campaign did not involve an expedition to the top and the bottom of the earth Steger-style: by kayak and dog team.MK: You have launched a series of expeditions for the years 2007 – 2009. This year you went on a four month long dog sled expedition across Nunavut’s Baffin Island. How did you get prepared for this journey?WS: This trip was a joint venture between our project [Global Warming 101] and Nunavut. Our preparation for the trip started the summer before by going up to Baffin Island to get the commitment of the two Inuit teams that traveled with us. Once we got their commitment, we started training in Minnesota with the U.S. team members, their dog teams, and our staff [from the Will Steger Foundation]. While training dogs in the wilderness, we also developed the [educational] program, right there in the wilderness with solar power and satellite phones and so forth. MK: Where did the dogs in your teams come from?WS: The dogs were a combination of the two Inuit teams from Nunavut [who trained on Baffin Island.] We also had two teams from John Stetson [from Duluth, Minnesota]. John’s dogs were the offspring of the Polar Husky we developed in the 70’s.MK: What do you mean by Polar Husky?WS: In the 70’s I put together a combination of dogs. These were first Siberians, then some Alaskan racing dogs from Ruby, Alaska (the larger Iditarod dogs), then the McKenzie Husky from the McKenzie River Delta and the Canadian Eskimo Dog. We bred together a large dog with thick fur and a good attitude, a racing attitude. We lengthened the dogs’ legs a little bit. You know how some of the Eskimo Dogs are kind of short? The McKenzie dogs gave us the longer legs we were looking for.MK: I noticed that you travel by qamatik and fan hitch. Why did you choose this style?WS: First of all we used the qamatik, because it’s traditional, and pretty well adapted. But it’s also the only sled that really works above the tree line, when you get into pack ice. John’s dogs run in a tandem hitch; that’s what they were used to. The Inuit guys run in a fan hitch. The fan hitch is actually superior in that kind of situation. It’s just that our dogs weren’t trained to run that way.MK: What makes you believe that the fan hitch is superior?WS: You get more overall power, more pulling power. The dogs were happier to run in a fan hitch, generally. They can move more freely, they get the opportunity to fight more, but when crossing leads of open water [the fan hitch] gives them a little bit more freedom to kind of back off and rebound for [the jump]. MK: What else did you learn on this expedition from your Inuit team members?WS: What we saw was basically what science is predicting. The sea ice is melting, the freeze-ups start later each year, and the break-ups are generally earlier. This year was an exception. The break-up was later this year, but they have a shorter ice season. We were told by most of the communities that the freeze-up is a little bit different now. In some areas we get a lot of clouds, and where [the temperature] used to drop to minus 40 this time of year [beginning of October], you get the clouds and temperatures rising above average instead. It slows down the freeze-up process. There are all sorts of regional phenomena. Global warming is not uniform all over the Arctic, but people noticed that they had stronger winds in the fall, which [caused] packed snow, which in turn affected the caribou feeding and so forth.MK: In what way are these changes affecting the lifestyle of the Inuit on Baffin Island?WS: It’s affecting their hunting, mainly. They are fairly traditional people. The communities and the outpost camps rely 60% or more on food off of the land. It’s changing the migration and patterns of the animals and hunting patterns. There’s maybe less food in some areas. And in some areas where they could build igloos [in the past], they can’t [now]. It’s an all-around change. We have been told that in some areas there has been a change in the wind directions. The rules that the people play by and live by are changing. They have to adapt.MK: You said the Inuit are a fairly traditional people. Are dog teams still used for means of transportation and hunting on Baffin Island?WS: The snowmobile is predominant, because of hunting [grounds] being a distance away from their villages. But there are still teams. In fact, there are more teams now then there used to be. In the central Arctic the dogs almost died off in the 70’s and early 80’s. Iqualuit and Eskimo Point [now Arviat] are examples of this, but now there are many teams there.MK: For recreation or hunting?WS: Hunting. They can only commercially hunt bear by dog team and that restriction really helped hunters to sort of resume their teams.MK: Your expedition route led you through many remote villages. What was the people’s reaction to your expedition coming into their communities by dog team?WS: This time they knew we were coming. Most of the communities I used to travel to never knew we were coming, and it was always a surprise to see a dog team. The people were friendly to begin with, and they were very open to us. The elders opened up the community and shared their knowledge with us. We are always interested in learning from them and [being there with the dog teams] was a good situation for us; they were open to teaching us.MK: What did they teach you?WS: Throughout the last 40 years of my life I have learned from the Northern Canadian Eskimos about their way of life, how they trap, and how they live. I am always interested in the past and in the traditional ways from when they used to live with dog teams. I have a lot of questions about weather and patterns and ice. I always try to figure out the weather and currents and so forth. They always have a lot of local information.MK: You said that you are always interested in the traditional lifestyle. Did you actually hunt to provide food for you and your dog teams during the expedition?WS: On this last expedition we did have commercial dog food, Science Diet. They have been my sponsor for 24 years now. The Inuit guys were hunting seal. Their dogs were adjusted to eating country food like seal, but they were quite impressed how well [our dogs] did on Science Diet. They were impressed by the dogs’ energy level. Their coats remained really oily and they maintained their weight well. MK: What about yourself? Is butter and pemmican still your number one expedition food?WS: If there is an area where there is caribou I eat as much caribou as I can. I eat that every day if I can. If there is enough, I eat fish. I prefer to live off country food and 70% of my diet would be that way if I had a choice. I have oatmeal, a lighter lunch or lighter breakfast. I eat a lot of meat raw – that’s really the best way to get the most energy out of it. MK: Your sleds seem to carry a lot of weight. What are your essential items and how much of that is dog food?WS: About 60% is dog food, and then there is people food, fuel, and actually less than 20% is tents and personal gear. We might be loaded with 1000 pounds when we are starting out and generally we have a range of about 600 miles that we can do without re-supply. When you are two or three weeks into the trip you are much lighter and the dogs travel lots faster.MK: You traveled 1200 miles by dog team in an environment where I imagine survival would be your main concern day in and day out. What was the toughest day for you during the Baffin Island expedition?WS: It wasn’t anything like Antarctica where you personally had hardships. We had mountain passes and some days where we had a little bit of a struggle, hard winds, stormy weather. The Inuit don’t travel when the weather is bad; they travel really hard when the weather is good. They don’t really like short cuts; they stay on their traditional routes. Generally, we didn’t push ourselves that hard.MK: What about your dogs? Did it get tough for them?WS: There was always a lot of wildlife around. That really motivated them; they were really happy about that. Tough for the dogs? Not really, not on this last expedition.MK: They are used to sleeping outside all the time?WS: That’s the advantage of having Eskimo-type dogs. Unlike the racing dogs, these kinds of dogs are made for tough conditions. If we get really bad blowing wind, the snow covers them up and they have snow for shelter.MK: So they don’t burn much more calories than if they would be sleeping in a dog house? WS: They do [burn more calories]. That’s the advantage of Science Diet dog food – it’s so high in calories. They burn about 6000 calories a day. That would be about two pounds of dog food.MK: What about water? Did you melt water for them or were they just fine with eating snow?WS: Just snow. There are fine. I never melted water ever for a dog. Again, we are not racing, where you go all out. When they eat snow, it actually cools them off. It’s a cooling mechanism for them.MK: What draws you back to the polar regions, expedition after expedition?WS: This last round? Global warming. Definitively. I didn’t think I’d be doing this again. I am happy doing it. But my real concern in what’s going on is the fact that nobody is seeing what’s happening. Our main goal is to drive people to action. We can talk about it, but what we really need is some action.MK: Why did you pick the Arctic for your expedition? You could be on an island in the middle of the Pacific that’s sinking right now.WS: I lived in the North all my life and that’s the area that’s changing the fastest. I am doing something I am personally good at, like expeditions, and I am educating and outlining education. That’s where I am most effective. MK: Where will your next expedition lead you?WS: We are going to Ellesmere Island next year. We have an international team of 6 explorers. We are going to dogsled about 1400 miles to northern Ellesmere Island where the ice shelves are breaking up. We will dog sled there and see what’s left, eyewitness what’s happening there. MK: Good luck, and I am looking forward to hearing about your upcoming adventures.For more information on global warming, Steger’s Expeditions or to support the Will Steger Foundation, visit www.globalwarming101.comMiriam Körner is a freelance writer and photographer. She lives with her sled dogs at Potato Lake, Saskatchewan and guides dog sledding and canoeing adventures for Paws-n-Paddles Wilderness Tours.
Dog scootering involves having your dog(s) pull you on a wheeled scooter whilst attached via