Friday, July 31, 2009

The First Time She Met Will Steger

Jennifer Kimball Gasperini, a good friend and former employee, was inspired by my book You Want to Go Where? (Skyhorse Publishing 2009) to write her own account of when she first became immersed in the world of polar exploration. That's Jennifer with Will Steger's Resolute Bay base station manager, Jim Gasperini (see rugged looking dude in beard and cap), who she would later marry. That's Will Steger during one of the rare moments he wore a tie.  


Just two weeks on the job as a PR account executive for a firm on the 66th floor of the Empire State Building, I walked into New York's prestigious Explorers Club with an air of confident sophistication.  On this cold January day, I would make my debut to both the New York media and my sole client at a press conference.  As the crowd gathered, my boss introduced me to our client representative, Wayne.  After welcoming me to the team, he asked for a favor.  I was in a position to please; whatever it was, I would do it.

"Our model didn't show up today.  Are you willing to be our clothing model for the conference?"  Of course there was only one answer:  "Sure."  In minutes, I was handed a dark garment and set off to the ladies room.  I changed out of my stylish linen skirt and pressed white blouse and slipped into the first item of the fashion show.  My nose detected a terrible odor but I kept my composure and walked out to face the audience:  photographers and writers from  Sports Illustrated, Vogue, USA Today, The New York Times and others. 

There I stood, cameras flashing from every direction, in a full suit of Thermax thermal underwear.  I soon learned that the synthetic underwear,

made of high-tech hollow fibers produced by Du Pont, had recently been worn on a training trip, a dogsled journey in the high Arctic, led by Will Steger, the featured guest of our press conference.  I'm certain it had not been washed since.  Will Steger lived in a remote cabin in northeast

Minnesota, just miles from the Canadian border.  He had no running water or electricity.   His life-long goal was to recreate Admiral Peary's famed 1909 dogsled expedition to the North Pole.  Despite National Geographic's endorsement of Peary, many experts disputed his claim that he had actually reached the geographic North Pole.  

Will, who ran a wilderness training school in the deep woods, had logged hundreds of  miles of dogsled travel in the high Arctic.  If anyone could put this journey to the test, it was he. He had gathered a select team of six experienced team members, trained 42 sled dogs, and raised enough money for flights to start and finish.   

Du Pont had agreed to be the lead sponsor of his 500-mile journey.  Their goal: to demonstrate that if their fibers, woven into thermal underwear, sleeping bags, socks, and jackets, could keep a team of polar explorers safe and warm, they were certainly good enough for the average outdoors enthusiast.

On top of the the long underwear, I donned layer upon layer of insulated clothing:  an insulated jumpsuit, a hooded jacket with a fur ruff made of

coyote, insulated socks and beaver mitts.  As I dressed, Will Steger regaled the crowd with the benefits of each item.  Despite the cold outside, the pre-war building was over-heated and I broke out in a sweat.   Just when I thought I might faint,  I was asked to climb into a huge sleeping bag, demonstrating how the team would sleep, fully dressed in frigid temperatures well below zero.   In the nick of time, I was released to the ladies room to reclaim my more shapely, and sweet-smelling attire. 

I had never met anyone like Will Steger.  A small, wiry fellow, I couldn't imagine how he would survive the demanding trip over floating sea and rubble ice for 500 miles by ski and dogsled; but, his charisma immediately captivated me.  He stayed close by my side through much of the press conference and, time and again calling me by my childhood name, Jenny.  Only close frends and family called me that.  He acted as if we had known one another for years, yet we had just met that day.  It later became clear to me that he saw in me the key to his future.  If I could generate enough media coverage of his journey, his role as a world-renowned explorer would be set in stone. 

The press conference was a huge success.  Over a white lunch of Arctic char with cream sauce, rice pilaf and white asparagus, with Baked Alaska for dessert,  I be-friended many key media contacts.  As everyone departed, they were given large plush polar bears.  A few hours later, our staff and client met with Will and his co-leader Paul Schurke for dinner at the famed Oak Room Restaurant.  When asked how he wanted his steak cooked, Will answered, "just walk it through the kitchen."  At a large round table in the dark wood-paneled restaurant, I was seated next to Will and had the opportunity to ask many questions about his life, expeditions, dogs and the Arctic.  This information I stored away, drawing on it over the next four months as I cold-called media for front page coverage of a remarkable story.

Later, standing outside the restaurant, Will took me aside and told me that I would be in regular contact with his base camp manager, Jim Gasperini, during their training and 50-day journey.  He gave me a phone number and a sideways hug, then disappeared into the maelstrom that is  New York City at night.  I would not see or talk to him again until May 1, when his team returned triumphant after 56-days of hardship, many pounds lighter and skin blackened with frosbite.