Polar explorer Will Steger traces the inspiration for a 30-year career raising awareness of climate change to a chance meeting in the middle of nowhere. It was 1986 and the Minnesota-born activist was part of a team crossing the Arctic on the first unsupported expedition to the North Pole.
“I was driving my dog sled and for no reason they veered right,” Steger, now 76, remembers. “Suddenly there was a guy right in front of us.”
It was Jean-Louis Étienne, a French doctor chasing his own exploratory milestone—the first person to reach the North Pole solo. That night the two explorers sat in a tent together and dreamed up the International Trans-Antarctica Expedition.
“It was the most influential expedition of my life,” Steger says.
It inspired dozens of more expeditions, many of them solo, and decades of work raising awareness about polar issues, particularly the threat of global warming. The new documentary After Antarctica tells the story of that influential expedition and how it set a course that the 76-year-old continues to follow.
The film premiered at the SF Film Festival in April and is streaming in conjunction with various film festivals, including the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, May 13 to 23.
The bio-doc weaves footage from the Trans-Antarctica expedition with personal archives, interviews with Steger at home at his northern Minnesota cabin, and from solo expeditions in 2018 and 2019. Beautifully filmed, smoothly paced and intimately detailed, it is a portrait of a man who is a contradiction. Steger is both a loner and a public figure who has changed presidents’ minds. He’s a mental and physical beast who has struggled with addiction and suicidal thoughts. And he is someone who is happiest at his off-the-grid cabin, but is also motivated to share his passion with the world.
“If it wasn’t for climate change I’d have lived a quiet life alone in the woods,” he says.
He’d first heard about the idea that human actions were warming the planet as a teacher in the 1960s. But it was on that Trans-Antarctica expedition that he saw what was at stake. Over 220 days in 1989 and 1990, he and Étienne co-led an international team on the longest possible crossing of Antartica, 3,741 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula near South America through the South Pole to a Soviet base closest to Australia. They endured temperatures below –100 degrees, a 50-day storm, crevasse falls and almost losing a team member in a whiteout.
The goal of the expedition was to raise awareness for the fight to protect the continent from resource extraction. The team’s lobbying led to the signing of the Antartica treaty in 1991. That was also when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere tipped Antarctica and the Arctic into a melting phase.
The shift motivated Steger to start raising awareness about the polar environments. He set off on both annual grueling expeditions and (almost as tough) months on the road raising money, speaking and lobbying.
“I was the lone voice for a long time,” he says.
It’s an image captured in the film. Beyond playing the lead, Steger had little input. Director Tasha Van Zandt and her partner spent several years sifting through more than 700 pages of journal entries, 180 hours of archival footage, and many more hours of taped meetings from the Trans-Antarctica expedition. Then they followed Steger around his home, to the Arctic and back to Antarctica for the first time since 1989.
It was worth the effort. Van Zandt captures the raw, desolate beauty of the north and the agony of expedition, while teasing out rarely seen emotions and quirks of a well-known personality. On camera, Steger shares everything from why he still loves nothing more than dragging a canoe across the ice of northern Canada all by himself, to how a stint in a Zen monastery in his 20s saved his life and prepared him for the mental and physical challenges of polar exploration.
“I’m really impressed with what they did,” says Steger. “I think they built a really fine stone wall that’s an honest portrayal of me and my motivations. I don’t see a need to take a stone out. It’s remarkable.”
Ideally it will inspire viewers to take up a cause of their own, he says.
“I hope they see the possibilities in themselves and the world around them,” he says. “I hope they see the power they have as an individual and how wonderful it is to be part of creating a legacy.”