Will Steger is a legendary explorer, the leader of some of the most famous and scientifically significant polar expeditions in history. He led the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without re-supply, and the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica. He’s traveled tens of thousands of miles by foot and kayak and dogsled over 50 years.
And he documented all of it.
He took pictures. He shot film. Often, videographer and longtime collaborator Jerry Stenger went along to document the expeditions. Steger knew instinctively that he had a story to tell, and he made sure to capture the raw material, in real time.
The result: thousands of pictures, dozens of video cassettes of varying formats, countless reels of 16mm film and snippets of audio. And for half a century, he’s been doing what we all do with our family pictures and video: he stored it away, trusting that one day he would decide what to do with all this priceless content.
“I had literally a whole room full of stuff,
and I kept it in public storage for 40 years.”
“I had literally a whole room full of stuff, and I kept it in public storage for 40 years,” said Steger. “I always had a rough vision for, you know, my ‘legacy.’ So I always took pretty good care of it, covered it in plastic and so on, because I intended to figure it out one of these days.”
“My concern for the changing climate and the polar regions really started in 2002,” said Steger. “That’s when the Larsen Ice Shelf – a huge ice shelf in Antarctica – disintegrated. We had crossed that shelf just twelve years before on the Transantarctic expedition in 1990. And now something the size of Wisconsin broke up. It was an actual catastrophe that the rest of the world didn't know about. But it happened, and that was my call to action.”
Steger realized he had an opportunity to be something more than an explorer. He could be a powerful advocate for a public reckoning with climate change. A storyteller. And that meant the time had come to figure out what to do with all those boxes and plastic bins of invaluable media. A grant from a supporter allowed him and his team to begin digitizing and organizing the pictures and sound of 50 years of earth history.
It was a daunting project, so he reached out to Aldis. “This isn’t what I do,” Steger said. “I’m just like anyone, an average person who doesn’t know this digitizing world. But with these guys, I was in very good hands, from the start.”
“This is what we do,” said Ellen Henningsgaard, an Aldis digital librarian. “We take in media that’s, you know, chaos. And we give back digital files that are organized, clean and searchable. We make it easier for people to find what they need later.”
The digitization phase of the project has been uniquely challenging. 50 years of polar exploration coincided with 50 years of constant change in film and video technology. “There’s an incredible variety of media,” said Mark Abney, Aldis’ digital delivery specialist. “Stuff from (Steger’s) childhood, 16mm film with no sound, so many stunning arctic landscapes, on so many different formats (Betacam, BetaSP, DVCam, Hi-8, HDV, ¾” U-Matic, VHS, CD, DVD, DAT and audio cassette) covering the changes in media capture over the last five decades. Aldis has been collecting all these decks in our facility, so we have the capability to convert all these formats. We also have trusted partners we work with for film and slide conversions. It’s been a really interesting project.”
“And on all the expeditions, he always had a still camera (or a photographer) with him, and the stills are amazing and endless,” said Abney. “And then, starting in the 80s, when it gets into videotape, they just rolled all the time because… you know, tape is cheap.”
Steger is happy too. “I’m very pleased, working with these guys at Aldis. I’m not just saying this – it was a relief once I saw their professionalism, and understood their ideas about how to organize the whole thing. And on top of that we came in within budget.”
“Every project is important,” said Henningsgaard, “but it’s nice to feel like we’re helping tell a really important story and making sure this content is available and accessible for generations to come.”
The assets will be officially housed at the University of St. Thomas, Steger’s alma mater, with full copies also available through the Steger Wilderness Center in Ely, Minnesota, and Steger’s nonprofit foundation, Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, based in Minneapolis.
At the risk of over-selling an obvious analogy, it’s all about preserving precious assets: the polar regions of our planetary home, and the media assets that reveal how fragile it is. “I look at legacy,” said Steger. “It’s greater than me or any one person. And it needs to live beyond all of us.”