Published: December 2007/January 2008
In Virgin Territory
Polar novice Sir Richard Branson is the swami of publicity. Iceman Will Steger is the don of the Arctic. But can the dynamic duo join forces, traverse Baffin Island by dogsled, and help divert an impending climate catastrophe? Jon Bowermaster reports from rapidly thinning ice.
Text by Jon Bowermaster

Earth Day in Clyde River, Nunavut (pop. 820), one of the northernmost towns in North America, passes like most days in this remote Canadian province due west of Greenland. Even though it's technically mid-spring, everything is still in deep freeze and won't thaw out until sometime in late June. Heating exhaust pours out of the trailer homes and one-story government buildings scattered on the low, snowy hill overlooking frozen Baffin Bay. At around 10 p.m., polar explorer Will Steger and his newest crew member, 21-year-old Sam Branson, walk slowly through town in the perpetual dusky sundown of the northern latitudes, heading toward the community center.

Steger and his team have spent the past two months dogsledding nearly a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) across Baffin Island. But instead of plunging through the cold behind their dogs in pursuit of another spot in the history books, the group is conducting a stop-and-go listening tour. They're pausing at five villages, including Clyde River, to hear how the locals feel about rising temperatures. "We wanted a firsthand look at how the ice is changing," Steger tells me as he trudges down the main street, "but also how the Inuit, who have lived in this region for 5,000 years, are adapting to these changes."

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."

Will Steger became an adventure superstar in 1986, after making the first unsupported dogsled trip to the North Pole. He is in many ways a throwback to the golden age of the gentleman explorer, one of the last of that peripatetic breed. I've known him for most of his career and am continually amazed by how a guy who presents such an absentminded-professor aspect most of the time can turn on the wit and charisma when he needs to. He's met with world leaders, testified before Congress, and charmed millions of dollars from corporate sponsors over the years—as well as thousands of hours from volunteers who empathize with his overriding cause: educating people about the Earth's fragile frozen lands.

Adventuring has always been at the core of Steger's life. At 13 he volunteered to help chart the northern lights as part of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year project. (His job was to write a report every third night on what he saw in the skies over his home in Minnesota and send it on to IGY headquarters in New York.) When he was 15, he and his brother, Tom, took a small motorboat down the Mississippi. In 1964, at age 19, he kayaked 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) from southern Alberta to northern Alaska; the next year he made three first ascents by new routes of peaks over 18,900 feet (5,761 meters) in the Peruvian Andes. In 1969 he led a 4,000-mile (6,437-kilometer) kayak expedition on the MacKenzie, Athabasca, and Slave Rivers, taking time off from his job teaching elementary school science in St. Paul. Once a teacher, always a teacher; to this day, Steger is a hero among students and educators due to his classroom curricula and the sophisticated expedition websites he pioneered, which today reach millions of children.

Like a lot of men his age, Steger has been thinking lately about his legacy. In 1964 he started buying land on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness outside Ely, Minnesota. In 1970 he moved there and began organizing winter skills trips for juvenile delinquents out of the Twin Cities. He initially built a small cabin by hand, miles from the nearest road. Over the years what is known as the Homestead has sprawled to 240-plus acres (97-plus hectares) and more than a dozen structures, including a five-story "castle" that he imagined while traversing Antarctica. (It was built mostly with licensing fees from Target, which sold Will Steger–branded clothing, lunch boxes, and fire logs.) One day he'd like the Homestead to serve as an enviro-educational think tank. These days, while he's getting the Steger Foundation up and running, he splits his time between the Homestead and a houseboat on the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

The foundation's goals are ambitious. Projects like this one, called Global Warming 101, seek to educate people about a worldwide environmental crisis at a moment when they're growing more detached from their local environments. "I first started coming up to the Arctic in the 1960s as a teenager," Steger told me in Clyde River. "I would arrive at a camp in my kayak, and most of the men I would meet had considerable Arctic experience. I would sit up all night listening to tales of adventure." Thirty years later when I joined Steger at a gold mine deep in the Northwest Territories, we met men and women who had never been more than a hundred meters from camp. "To me that represents the typical way of life for most Westerners today," Steger continued. "We're losing touch."

The Quluaq school's community center is packed. Hanging out here—at the gym, hockey rink, and Ping-Pong tables—is among the only forms of entertainment in this remote, cold place. Benches filled with elders and young mothers and their babies line the walls. The floor is chaotic with running, screaming kids and teens.

A young Inuit woman greets me excitedly. "Welcome to Clyde River!" she says, with a big smile. Another woman approaches and greets me, then another. What a friendly place, I'm thinking.

Then smaller kids start coming up, a little bolder. One introduces himself as "Little Man," known around town as the best hip-hop dancer. "What's your name?" he asks. "Are you the billionaire?"

Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson (SRB to the press, Ricky to his mother) arrives the next day via chartered jet from Chicago, where he'd flown on the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight between London Heathrow Airport and O'Hare. His 85-year-old mother and 89-year-old father had accompanied him. His friend and personal photographer of 20 years, Thierry Boccon-Gibod, has come north to document the entrepreneur's first day on the ice. Suffering a badly sprained arm from flipping an ATV on a recent holiday in Mallorca, where he owns a small luxury hotel, Branson can barely shake hands, extending a pinkie instead. "So sorry," he says. "I know it looks sooo British, doesn't it?"

His reputation precedes him: part Warren Buffett, part P.T. Barnum, ever ready for a good time and the opportunity to make a spectacle of himself if it aids his cause. Today his Virgin empire of more than 200 loosely connected companies includes air and train lines, mobile phone and health care networks, a soda pop brand, music and bridal shops, nightclubs, and a fashion label. He employs 55,000 people, doesn't drive, and often travels carrying only a toothbrush. He now runs Virgin from his sunny compound on Necker Island, which he bought as a 22-year-old record company owner and now shares with wife Joan, daughter Holly, and Sam. When the family's away he rents it out for $46,000 a night.

Like Steger, Branson was something of an adventure prodigy. Unlike Steger, he had it thrust upon him. Branson's mother, Eve, is a former flight attendant who served with the RAF during World War II. One day when Ricky was four, she left him in the countryside with a sack lunch and told him to find his way home. A neighbor eventually discovered him chasing butterflies. A few years later Eve dropped him 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home with his bike. "I'm sure you'll find water along the way," she told him, waving goodbye.

If Steger is the prototypical methodical old-school adventurer, Branson is the very model for the modern one—rich, daring, and easily bored. His nickname could be "Lucky." In 1974, when marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles (three kilometers) from a storm-crippled boat to shore. In 1977 he volunteered to pilot the maiden voyage of a sort of tricycle with wings and managed to land the contraption after soaring hundreds of feet in the air; its inventor was killed a week later after attempting the same thing. Branson once took skydiving lessons and inadvertently unhooked his own parachute mid-flight; a jump instructor rescued him before he hit the ground. Records set crossing the Atlantic by speedboat and hot air balloon were preceded by failed attempts that ended with Branson and crew stuck in the freezing sea. (Not long after Branson's trip to Nunavut, he was battered by high winds while rappelling down Nevada's Palms Casino Resort, promoting Virgin America's new San Francisco to Las Vegas route.) All told he's been plucked from the ocean by rescue helicopters on five different occasions.

Branson's next major project will be his most audacious. In 2004, under the name Virgin Galactic, he licensed the technology behind SpaceShipOne, aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan's low-altitude spacecraft. Virgin has already collected its $200,000 round-trip fare from 175 passengers who will blast off from the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico and travel 68 miles (109 kilometers) above the Earth—a two-and-a-half-hour flight. The first launch is slated for 2009.

Though his environmental credentials were always fairly solid—he was knighted in part for his work as "Litter Czar" during the Thatcher era—Branson was a latecomer to global warming. "Until four or five years ago I subscribed to the theory of Danish academic Bjørn Lomborg, whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist challenges the idea that man is responsible for global warming," he says. "It provides a sort of balm for big business, maybe especially airline owners. And then I read Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers and met with Al Gore and realized that the truth is that CO2 is like a brush fire that gets bigger every year. All of us who are in a position to do something about it must do something about it." To that end Virgin is investing $3 billion in alternative fuel research in the next ten years, including, Branson says, a top secret kind of ultraclean fuel.

A few hours after arriving in Clyde River, Branson's been fitted in his dog-mushing gear: a one-piece Virgin-red suit, with fur-ruff hood, that bears a shoulder patch promoting the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge—the largest philanthropic prize in history. During the sorting of gear he recounts how on one of his transoceanic balloon flights they'd run out of toilet paper, and he started eyeing the fax machine's freshly replaced roll.

Outside on a cold, clear night Sam Branson, Steger, and I are again walking to the community center—this time with SRB and Ed Viesturs. We've been invited to a send-off feast of raw caribou and halibut, which the local hunting committee has spent the afternoon sawing and heaping onto blue tarps in the middle of the gymnasium floor. As we walk, I ask Branson if he'd done any research on Arctic travel before arriving. "Not really," he admits. "But I have been reading about my relative, Sir Robert Scott. He was my grandfather's cousin. Of course everyone knows him for being the second to arrive at the South Pole, but did you know he died attempting to become the first man to walk to Antarctica?"

Inside the gym children swarm. "What's your name?" they ask Branson. "Are you the billionaire?"

Branson laughs and pulls out his empty pockets. "My name is Rich, that's true," he says. "But I have a big family, more than 50,000 people working for me, so I have a lot to take care of, I'm afraid."

Standing next to the compact Steger and Viesturs, the six-foot-one (about two meters) Branson looks most like a swashbuckling adventurer. The three men chat in the center of the gym, Steger explaining the frantic feast to come. He knows these scenes well from his years of Arctic travel and warns Branson to keep clear of the knees-and-elbows "race" for the meat that will begin in a few minutes. Amid the crowd Branson seems almost shy, an unusual thing for a man who recently hung from a crane in Times Square dressed in a nude suit, a cell phone covering his privates, to introduce Virgin Mobile to the U.S.

Before the meal, speeches are made. Steger and Qamanirq talk about the Global Warming 101 expedition. The mayor of Clyde River thanks everyone for coming and requests that the visitors carry back to Washington the message that putting polar bears on the Endangered Species list will ruin a vital piece of the local tourist economy. (Though threatened elsewhere, polar bears are still plentiful on Baffin Island and are often spotted during tours.) Branson and Steger thank their hosts for dinner and what Branson calls the opportunity "to see firsthand the impact of global warming on this part of the world." Steger promises to pass along the message on polar bears.

Mealtime is announced, and attendees of all ages attack the raw buffet. Right in among them is Steger, happily scooping up chunks of just thawed caribou. Off to the side, the man who once unleashed the Sex Pistols on the world looks as if he's wondering what he's gotten himself into.

The next morning the sun is shining brightly for the first time in two weeks, and the whole town has turned out at ice's edge for the send-off. Branson, decked out in his bright new red suit, wades through the circuslike atmosphere. He approaches the sleds seeming, uncharacteristically, a bit lost. As Steger and the dog teams race away from Clyde River, excited to be back on the trail, Branson is left standing alone, silhouetted momentarily against the Arctic horizon like a gigantic, solitary Elmo. Running to catch up, he jumps on with Ikummaq and Qamanirq.

The day is spectacular, and the dogs run fast over the flat ice, past 500-foot (152-meter) rock and ice cliffs. Ten miles (16 kilometers) out of Clyde River we stop to untangle animals and slurp warm soup. Despite his bad arm, Branson wants to get off the sled and ski alongside. I ask him where's the coldest place he's ever been. "Right here, maybe. But after crossing the Pacific, we crashed the balloon 400 miles (644 kilometers) north of Yellowknife. We called on the radio and told the guy who responded that we were on a frozen lake surrounded by fir trees. He paused a minute before saying, 'Well, this is Canada . . . You could be in any of 10,000 places.'"

A few weeks later Branson calls from his hammock on Necker Island for a recap of the journey. The evidence he saw of global warming's impact was conclusive. "Theo showed us how the warmer winds and temperatures are changing the ice formations that Inuit hunters have used as landmarks for hundreds of years," he says. "The Barnes Ice Cap—60 miles (97 kilometers) long, 100 feet (30 meters) deep—is shrinking. Theo said they used to be able to see it from the village at Foxe Basin. Now they cannot."

In the end he survived the cold, despite temperatures so low that "inside the tent my face and beard froze. Even the two pairs of pants I was using as a pillow were frozen in the morning." He and Steger shared a tent for a few nights; Sam bunked with Viesturs. "I think Ed was encouraging him to climb Everest," Branson says, approvingly. Now that he's experienced the Arctic, would he be tempted by the climb himself, if he could drum up more publicity for global warming and the sherpas wore red? The man who's spent much of his time on Earth risking his life, and who's now wagering his company's future to save the planet, pauses on the other end of the line as if the flight for Kathmandu were now boarding.

"I'm afraid the days of big mountain climbing have passed for me," he finally says. I almost believe him.