Will Steger Foundation, Canadian Consulate and Minnesota Historical Society Hosts Team Reunion Events in May Polar Time Capsule to be Unveiled
Twenty five years ago this May, a team including team members from Canada, New Zealand and Minnesotans Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Ann Bancroft, reached the North Pole after enduring 56 days and a thousand miles across fractured, shifting sea ice in temperatures that dipped below -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Their epic ski and dogsled trek with an 8-member, 49-dog crew was a deliberate throwback to the days of the early explorers that captured the imagination and riveted the attention of people around the world. Their accomplishment, the first confirmed trek to reach the Pole without resupply, was deemed by National Geographic “a landmark in polar exploration.”
To commemorate this achievement during this anniversary year, the Will Steger Foundation together with the Canadian Consulate and Minnesota Historical Society, are hosting two public events at the Minnesota History Center. These include an “Expedition Family Day” 12-4 pm, Sunday, May 15 with team members, a sled dog and arctic clothing and equipment (open to the public with museum admission), and at 7 pm Tuesday May 17, a “Team Member Reunion” slide/film presentation (reservations required 651-259-3015 or tickets.mnhs.org). In addition to Will, Paul and Ann, team members attending the reunion include Richard Weber and Brent Boddy from Canada, Geoff Carroll from Alaska and Bob McKerrow from New Zealand.
In the early 1980s during the team’s training and preparation, public intrigue mounted rapidly for this home-spun project which was based from a sod-roofed log “homestead” near Ely and supported initially by sales of buttons and t-shirts. Then, during their two-month traverse of the Arctic Ocean in spring 1986, television and newspaper updates from sketchy radio communiqués kept Minnesotans appraised of their progress – as well as their many setbacks which included Ann’s plunge through thin ice, a tent fire triggered by a faulty stove, the devastating loss of a lead dog, a team breakdown over diminishing supplies and a malfunction of their sole navigation device just days from their goal.
Their ultimate success triggered a collective cheer across the state and resulted in a National Geographic cover story, a best-selling book and film both titled “North to the Pole,” and commendations from President Reagan and the World Center for Exploration. Thousands greeted the team upon their return to Minnesota on a sunny spring day when the temperature was over 150 degrees warmer than most of their days spent on the Arctic Ocean. Hailed as a “triumph of the human spirit,” their success reflected the conviction of Will’s diary entry the day the journey began, “The faith that moves mountains would take us to the Pole.”
The accolades were deeply gratifying for the team members. Now 25 years later, stories from this trip continue to be remembered and will be shared by team members at the upcoming Minnesota History Center anniversary events. They will also be unveiling the “Polar Time Capsule,” a sealed container they left at the North Pole with mementos of their trip. They never expected to see it again, but against all odds it was found years later washed up on a beach in County Donegal by an Irish carpenter and is now on its way to Minnesota to be displayed at the May events (see story below).
THEIR CANINE COMPANIONS
Many of their other stories involve their sled dogs on whose herculean efforts the expedition depended. Their team mascot Zap, distinctive with one blue eye and one black, was remarkably personable and worked the crowds at pre-trip fundraising events.
As Paul recalled, “Folks would chant ‘Zap to the Pole!’ as he made his way up and down the aisles greeting everyone and as I attempted to give my speech. But I could just as well have been reading from the dictionary. No one would have noticed since Zap kept them completely engaged.”
On one of the teams’ fundraising trips to New York, US Air gave Zap his own first class airplane seat and hotel room. When the media spotted Will and Paul walking him in Times Square, a photo of Zap made the wire service titled “Publicity Hound Hits Broadway.” On the way to the Pole, Zap sported a red velvet cape emblazoned with a big gold “Z” that team members draped over him on cold nights to supplement his thin coat.
Another favorite was a dog named “Sam.” A wild dog who had taken up residence at a radar station in the Canadian Arctic, he followed along with the team when they sledded past there on a 1985 training trip. Team member Richard made it his mission to befriend the timid animal and when, just for fun, he slipped him in harness, he found to the team’s amazement that Sam was a voice-command lead dog, probably a long-lost member of a Yukon trapper’s team. A year later Sam was on his way to the North Pole with the team and, in 1989, he was part of Will’s South Pole expedition as well, thus making canine history as the one and only dog on expeditions to both ends of the earth.
Sadly, another one of the team’s lead dogs, Critter, did not make it the Pole. He was the loyal companion of team member Bob Mantell and led Bob’s team with power and precision. But Bob was one of two team member who sustained serious injury – frostbitten feet– and was evacuated by airlift. (The other was Bob McKerrow whose ribs were broken when he got caught under a run-away sled.) Upon departing, Mantell opted to leave behind his dog team in hopes they would help the team, and a part of him, reach the Pole. But in Bob’s absence, Critter immediately went into a slump and soon was so despondent that team members cradled him in a dogsled as his rigor faded. His death, the team surmised, resulted from a broken heart.
THE TOP OF THE WORLD
Burying Critter behind an ice block seemed the darkest moment of the journey, but more difficulties followed. After a month on the trail, an inventory revealed the team had used up well over half their supplies but had covered only a third of the distance. “Desperation Camp,” as the scene was referred to in their diaries, brought some tears, some prayers and some heated arguments about their options. In the end, they opted to lighten their loads by jettisoning every ounce of gear not necessary for survival. Out went extra jackets, camera tripods, covers off diaries, handles off tooth brushes and several of their sleeping bags which now weighed over 50 pounds with accumulated ice and frost. For the remainder of the trip some slept snuggled two or three together in the remaining drier bags.
The lightened loads helped. Their pace quickened. They soon topped 20 miles a day and one day, traveling ’round the clock to make the most of clear weather, topped 40 miles. Momentum built so rapidly that they almost felt unstoppable. But just a few days from their destination their sextant, their only navigational device, malfunctioned and they were essentially lost at sea among millions of miles of drifting ice. With nerves frayed to near breaking point, team members disassembled the delicate scientific instrument with their only tool, a Swiss Army knife, and with incredible good fortune were able to get the sextant and their trip back on track.
Having departed Canada’s northernmost shore on March 7 with three tons of supplies and equipment, they arrived at the Pole on May 1 with just a few pounds of food left. There they were rewarded with clear, calm weather and their one and only day above zero – a balmy eight degrees. A happy crew of six and happy, howling dogs posed for a team photo with the American flag, an iconic picture that later became a popular poster.
THE TIME CAPSULE
Their celebrations while awaiting the arrival of ski planes to airlift them home included the ceremonial tossing of a special plastic tube off into the sea ice. Dubbed the “Polar Time Capsule,” it was a piece of plumbing pipe capped on both ends in which team members whimsically placed keepsakes including a Boy Scout scarf, a beaded Indian belt, a letter to Santa Claus from a school child and a small lace prayer circle. After the trip executives with DuPont Corporation, the expedition’s main sponsor, hatched a plan to enhance international media coverage of the expedition. They announced a $5,000 reward for recovery of the time capsule. It was all meant ‘tongue in cheek” and the media loved it. The story ran worldwide although no one expected anything to come of it.
But three years later a carpenter named Peader Gallagher was walking a beach near Dublin when he spotted an odd bit of flotsam. He took it home, cracked it open and found one identifiable item inside: a Polaroid picture the team had taken of themselves at the Pole that referenced “National Geographic.” Perplexed but assuming his discovery might have some significance, he sent the photo to National Geographic in Washington D.C. Editors there were astonished to realize that, a year and a half after being deposited at the North Pole, the time capsule had been found. They alerted DuPont executives who in turn made plans to alert the man of the reward and surprise him with an all-expense-paid vacation to New York where they would issue him his check on live network vacation. But the surprise was theirs because when they called him with the big news, he refused the invitation to New York, insisting that a trip to the “Big Apple” wasn’t his ‘cup of tea.’ He never did come but they sent him his check and the time capsule captured worldwide media attention again with the story of its unlikely recovery. The capsule, which survived a 2,100-mile ocean journey to reach Ireland, now resides at the Explorers Club in New York City and will be displayed at the May 15 and 17 Minnesota History Center events.
MAY REUNION EVENTS AT MINNESOTA HISTORY CENTER
The Sunday afternoon May 15 events at the Minnesota History Center (open to the public with museum admission) include family activities, games, and resource tables. Team members will be present with a sled dog as well as an actual sled, camp gear, clothing from the expedition and the “Polar Time Capsule.” At the Tuesday evening May 17 program (reservations required), team members will share stories, slides and film footage from the expedition. Will will share also the latest updates on climate change. Ironically, the Arctic Ocean is being impacted by climate change more dramatically than any other region of the globe and, as he will explain, this has huge implications for the entire planet. On Wednesday, May 18, team members will attend a public luncheon reception in Ely, Minnesota, where the trek was based.
The team members who are reuniting from around the world for the May events and whom the public will have a chance to meet at the Minnesota History Center include :
- Will Steger, Ely & St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1989-90, he led the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica with a team of 7 from 7 countries, another milestone in his 45-year career of leading some of the most significant polar expeditions in history. He has become a formidable voice on the issue of climate change and a global environmental leader through his Will Steger Foundation. [www.willstegerfoundation.org]
- Paul Schurke, Ely, Minnesota. In 1989 he co-led the Bering Bridge Expedition from Siberia to Alaska, a journey that Presidents Bush and Gorbachev credited with hastening the opening of the US-Soviet border following the 40-year Cold War. He and his wife Sue operate Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge and founded Wintergreen Northern Wear, an outdoor apparel business based upon designs Sue developed for the 1986 North Pole trek. [www.dogsledding.com]
- Ann Bancroft, Scandia, Minnesota. In 2001 she (with colleague Liv Arnesen) skied to the South Pole, securing Ann’s place in history as the first woman to trek to both ends of the earth. Her Ann Bancroft Foundation promotes the potential and achievements of women and girls. Ann is planning another expedition to Antarctica in 2012. [www.annbancroftfoundation.org]
- Geoff Carroll, Pt. Barrow, Alaska. A wildlife biologist living in the northernmost community of the U.S., Geoff is an expert on arctic ecosystems and sea ice and maintains a dog team to enjoy life on the land.
- Richard Weber, Alcove, Quebec. Canada’s top polar explorer, he has lead over 50 arctic expeditions, in 1995, he completed the first and only trek from Canada to the North Pole and back with no outside assistance, and with his wife, Josee operates an eco-lodge on Lancaster Sound in the Canadian High Arctic. [www.weberarctic.com]
- Brent Boddy, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Granted the Order of Canada award for his polar endeavors, Brent continues his love of arctic adventuring in his retirement from overseeing public works for a native village in Canada’s western arctic.
- Bob McKerrow, New Zealand. A mountain climber and polar explorer who was a member of one of his country’s first teams to winter in Antarctica, he works with the International Red Cross. Since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Bob has been coordinating relief efforts and public health projects in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia.
- Bob Mantell “Ironman Bob,” as he was called for his dogged perseverance and legendary stamina on the 1986 expedition, is the one crew member among the eight who the team has not been able to locate to invite to the May reunion events.