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Steger: Climate change 'Eyewitness'

He had them at "sled dogs." More than 400 students streamed into the gymnasium Monday at Valley Middle School to hear renowned polar explorer Will Steger talk about his polar huskies and about sleeping on ice and "showering" in the snow of Antarc...

Will Steger
Explorer Will Steger talks to Valley Jr. High School students about his historic expeditions and climate change several years ago in Grand Forks. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

He had them at "sled dogs."

More than 400 students streamed into the gymnasium Monday at Valley Middle School to hear renowned polar explorer Will Steger talk about his polar huskies and about sleeping on ice and "showering" in the snow of Antarctica.

Scampering onto bleachers, the students were as jazzed and noisy as ... well, as teams of dogs, fit and fed and straining to begin the day's sledding. But the soft-spoken Steger -- showing slides and recounting his 220-day crossing of Antarctica in 1989-90 -- claimed and held their attention.

It helped, probably, that the 64-year-old Steger began by telling about his first expedition, a boat journey with his brother down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and back.

"I was 15," he said, and you could sense more than a few of the students starting to make plans.


Steger's appearance at the school was a warm-up for an evening lecture and slide show in Grand Forks on global warming, kickoff to a three-day, three-city swing meant to build support for environmental causes and pressure the congressional representatives of "coal state North Dakota" to back tough legislation on greenhouse gas emissions. About 300 people attended.

Steger, who takes his "Eyewitness to Climate Change Tour" to Fargo today and to Bismarck on Wednesday, said he also has arranged meetings in North Dakota this week with aides to U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

"What I have witnessed in the Arctic over 45 years, and more importantly, in the past 10 years, is alarming," he said. "I've seen really incredible changes" in ice bridges, glaciers and sea ice.

But he is "optimistic," he said, that "here in North Dakota, you're in a very good position ... to lead in the transition to a clean energy economy," citing development of wind energy and other renewable sources.

"Educate yourselves," he urged the students, "and, when you get a chance, educate your parents."

Greg Taylor, a math teacher, said the students at Valley "have been studying global warming, both sides of the issue," and he has been trying to bring Steger in for a talk for several years.

Cindy Grabe, who works with technical equipment at the school, said that she overheard one student complain before Steger arrived "that global warming is crap" and climate change is "just cyclical," so there's certainly a range of student opinion on the subject, just as there is in the larger population.

"The teacher responded, 'It's fine that you have that opinion, but you should listen to others,' " Grabe said. "That's what we ask of all students, that they listen to differing opinions."


An incredible spirit

Steger has led teams on historic polar expeditions, racking up tens of thousands of miles by kayak and dogsled, but he recently has turned his energies toward campaigning for greater public awareness and action on climate change.

He has taken his "eyewitness" tour throughout his home state of Minnesota and into other surrounding states, and he said Monday that he plans a return trip to North Dakota in the fall.

At Valley Middle School, though, Steger didn't so much preach as describe his adventures in a bleak and beautiful place.

He told about the food he ate and the clothes he wore to survive punishing cold, about crossing deep crevasses and repairing sleds on the go, and about how the dogs hunker down "in tight little knots" to sleep "nose to nose" and by morning may be buried in several feet of snow.

"But, as soon as your foot hits that snow, the dogs pop up and are ready to go," he said. "They have this incredible spirit, howling and barking so loud."

Sometimes, Steger said, a lone skier or a short sled will be sent out ahead into the vastness of the Antarctica plain, to give the dogs something to look at, much as a mechanical "rabbit" gives racing greyhounds a reason to run.

"One of the problems is the dogs get bored," he said, "like you do in school." The adults sometimes toss around a Frisbee, but that's more to get their blood circulating after a half-hour lunch stop when the temperature is 50 degrees below zero.


He invited questions. Dozens of hands shot up.

What about wildlife in Antarctica?

Imagine an apple cut in half, he said, with wildlife aplenty in the thin "red" edge but nothing in the white center.

How did he and his team members wash?

"We washed in snow -- quickly," he said, and the students laughed.

Is it dangerous, traveling across Antarctica?

"Rush-hour traffic in Minneapolis is much more dangerous."

Steger's presentation "was really good," Brianna Vondal, 13, said later. "It taught me about how climate change can affect my life."


And Jeanna Drake, 13, said she agrees that people "should think about climate change more" because of the risk to animals. "I love animals," she said.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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