Did Peary really make it to the North Pole?

Four hard-muscled young men are going to find out. On foot.

"The idea is to see if men and dogs can do it without air support," said Will Steger. "Every trip to the Pole that is a confirmed success has relied on planes for extra supplies and reconnaissance and sometimes ferrying sleds across open water."

On March 1, 1986, the first day of Polar sun, Steger and three friends will set out from Ward Hunt Island, the northernmost tip of North America, with 24 huskies specially bred for the occasion, two sleds and a ton of gear. They are allowing 60 days to get to the Pole, 475 miles away.

"Actually, we expect to travel at least 800 miles," said Steger. "You have to go over or around pressure ridges piled 30 or 40 feet high, and maybe 100 miles worth of pack ice that's strewn in your path like rubble."

Beyond the pack ice there are still 300 miles to go, with an ever-increasing danger of the ice breaking up as the weather warms. If open water suddenly yawns before you, you make a little raft by roping ice floes together. If there are no floes, you wait for night and hope it will freeze over again in the 50-below temperature, and then you tiptoe across.

"You sleep with all your clothes on, of course," Steger said. "You keep one ear open all night in case the ice breaks up right under your camp. You've got to be ready to move -- quick."

Oh, by the way -- you don't ride on those dog sleds. You load your things on them and push.

"The cold -- you get used to it," he said. "It becomes a way of life, and you seek it out. This six-month shakedown trek I'm doing up through Canada is my idea of a vacation. It's not a threatening environment if you know what you're doing. It's an exhilarating state. You get a heightened sense of awareness at 50 below. Sound travels. You can hear a quiet conversation half a mile away."

The equipment will be a curious mixture of traditional and modern. The dog food, which takes up 60 percent of the payload, is a special concentrated brand, of which each dog will need only two pounds a day, as opposed to four pounds of ordinary dog food. But the men's diet will be pemmican, butter, cheese and oatmeal, the same high-fat, high-protein stuff polar explorers have always taken.

Pemmican, the classic Indian trail food of dried beef or pork plus an almost equal amount of fat, can be eaten cold if you must, and "is real good when you're hungry," Steger valiantly insisted. Freeze-dried food, he said, isn't worth carrying.

There will be no cozy campfires, of course, out on the treeless wastes. What fire there will be will come from a backpacker's white gas stove. No need to worry about accidents with the fuel, either -- at those temperatures you have to stick the lighted match right into the gas and shake it around to stir any interest in igniting.

The travelers' clothes will be a mix of natural and synthetic -- mukluks with moose-hide soles and Gore Tex uppers. DuPont is one of the trip's sponsors, along with the ubiquitous National Geographic Society.

The Kamotik Indian sleds are straight out of the past, with wooden crossbars lashed on -- not bolted -- to make the sleds as flexible as possible, able to take the constant twisting and bumping and wrenching. The runner blades, however, will be made of plastic and not the usual walrus tusk, and the wood is laminated.

And the dogs: They are a mix of the large-framed Greenland husky and some lighter but more spirited Alaskan huskies from Ely, Minn., where Steger lives. "The Ely dog has a racing passion. He lives to pull. And that's important -- he has to want to get up in the morning and pull for another 12 hours."

These are strictly working dogs, affectionate enough with children but aggressive in their relations with each other. They work out their personnel problems with fights.

"There's been a lot of speculation on Peary and the others, but we hope to provide some facts," said Steger. "Peary's mileages have been questioned. He claimed to make 25 to 30 miles a day. He also said he could navigate by dead reckoning, judging direction by the wind on his cheek. Well, we'll find out how right he was. I'm also curious to see how accurate the compass is up there."

Steger will carry a radio for emergencies and for final confirmation of his location via satellite, but until then he will stick to sextant and chronometer, as did Peary, and see if he can find the Pole that way.

About that shakedown hike this December: It will take Steger, mostly solo, 5,000 miles, from Duluth to Point Barrow, Alaska, along the old voyageur waterway route. On the way he will take on various dog teams and sleds for testing ("you need 2,000 miles on a dog before you know if he's any good"), and on the last thousand miles the rest of the expedition will join him for a dress rehearsal trip along the north coast of Alaska.

The second half of next year, the team will train at the base at Ely, redesigning the sleds and picking the dogs. Then, in February 1986, they will fly to a base camp at Resolute, in the Northwest Territories.

"March 1st the plane drops us at Ward Hunt Island, and we make the dash to the Pole. On March 1st there are only about five minutes of sun, but in two weeks there's 12 hours of daylight, and in three weeks it's light all the time."

Steger, 40, has been hiking in the snow for 21 years, estimates that he has trekked 10,000 miles in the Arctic, once took a dog team on a 7,500-mile jaunt lasting 18 months. He supports himself with lectures and articles and his Lynx Track Winter Travel School at Ely. He has a master's degree in education but is a geologist at heart.

His colleague, Paul Schurke, 29, has a master's in journalism and worked for newspapers before taking to the woods. He started a wilderness program for the disabled at Lynx Track and works there with his wife. Other team members are Robert McKerrow, director of the New Zealand Outward Bound school and a veteran of Antarctic dog-mushing, and Robert Mantell, an Alaskan who traveled with Steger on his last Arctic expedition, the 7,500-mile job.

"Actually, the cold is your ally," Steger said, bringing to mind the Polar explorers of old who, once touched by the magic of the snows, kept returning year after year. "What you have to watch out for is when it gets warmer, like 30 below. That's when it's dangerous."