The makeup of Steger's team reflects this mukluks-on-the-ground research: In addition to American educators and expeditioners John Stetson, Abby Fenton, Elizabeth Andre, and Nancy Moundalexis, the team includes three Inuit hunters. Lukie Airut is a Canadian Ranger and internationally known carver who's been running dogs through this area for more than 30 years. Theo Ikummaq is an expert on Arctic ice (he got an early start, since he was born in an igloo). Simon Qamanirq is a noted hunting guide. "Traveling with those guys has made this one of the most incredible trips we've done," says Steger. "To observe their local knowledge, but also to hear them talk about the future up here, whether it's changing sea ice, more—or fewer—polar bears, and to observe simpler things like how they run their dogs and hunt."
Climate change is a now ubiquitous raison d'être for Arctic expeditions, but this trip is unique: For the last leg, most of the expedition's 250-mile (402-kilometer) trek from Clyde River to outside of Igloolik, Steger's team will be joined by mountaineer Ed Viesturs and, tomorrow, Sam Branson's dad, Sir Richard Branson.
Steger, 63, and Branson, 57, two of the world's best-known adventurers, have never met. The pairing makes perfect sense, though. The Baffin journey is the first major undertaking of the Will Steger Foundation, which is aimed at raising "broad public awareness" about the effects of greenhouse gases. Branson is a marketing genius who garners media attention like halogen headlamps attract bugs. Steger has been speaking out on environmental issues for nearly two decades and has some of the best green credentials in the world. Branson is a relatively recent convert to the cause of global warming who's working to reduce the massive carbon footprint of his Virgin Airways—to the extent of putting up a $25 million prize for anyone who can invent a viable process for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The only question lingering in the frosty air as Steger and Sam Branson open the door to the Quluaq School's giant community center is how well Sam's father, a billionaire who works from a hammock on a private Caribbean island, will cope with spending a week in this subzero world of ice and snow.
"Hey, Sam, one thing," Steger asks as they head inside. "At night it's been dropping to minus 15, minus 20. Has your dad ever traveled in cold weather like this before?"
Sam pauses. "I'm not sure," he says. "He did ski down a mountain naked once."