This past weekend the Steger Wilderness Center came to life with a community rallying around clean energy. Will Steger and a group of friends gathered to cut ice from Homestead lake. Every year the ice harvest is different. This year’s Ice Ball turned out to be an unusually wet one. Steger said, “Two years ago we had over twenty four inches of ice, it was a record thickness for us and this year was a record thin. We only had about eight inches of clear ice maximum.” Despite having to work in about ten inches of water, the gathering was a success. By the end of the evening the ice house was full.
I have been cutting ice since 1967. Back then I lived two lakes from the nearest road and I had just finished building my log cabin (which I still live in today). I remember how comfortable it was having shelter in the wilderness for the first time.
My next biggest need was refrigeration. My solution? Digging out a primitive ice house down by the lake and covering it with a log roof and 4 feet of soil.
In Ely, MN there were still plenty of ice saws and thongs remaining in old sheds used before the advent of electricity when ice was the only source of refrigeration . The old timers willingly parted with their tools knowing that they were going to be put back to good use. I spent many afternoons around their kitchen tables, drinking coffee and soaking up their stories of horse teams pulling sled loads of ice from lakes to huge ice houses that would be used by the community throughout the summer.
Cutting ice at the Homestead since then has not only been a tradition but it is a necessity. My goal when I moved into the wilderness in the late 60s was to be self-sufficient. I wanted to build all of the structures from the rock and wood from the surroundings, clear land for the gardens and forage and fish to meet my needs. And, I needed ice to keep our food fresh.
I have never used fossil fuels for refrigeration, I have only cut ice.
Today we have a first class ice house build from cement blocks with a reinforced concrete ceiling covered with ten feet of soil that nourishes the virgin pines above. The mini-forest above the ice house shade the ground and keeps the earth cool so our ice will last throughout the summer. It works so well that as we start cutting ice this year we much first throw out the left over ice from the winter before.
Ice cutting is labor intensive and our annual event has grown to a what is now known as the Ice Ball or the annual Homestead ice harvest. Lisa Ringer’s four work horses that haul tons of ice out of the lake are the central Spirit of this 60-person operation and celebration.
The day is brisk and busy as scores of people cut and form teams to haul the ice out of the lake and ready to be loaded on the sled. Then there are the stackers who tightly pack the ice blocks in the icehouse. Later, the full icehouse is covered by dry sawdust from the shop. Sawdust provides an effective layer of insulation that dramatically slows the melting. The ice will last from the first week of February, when it is cut, to well past October.
In the end, the tools are put away for the another year, the horses are bedded down and the party begins.
There are cooks and helpers in the kitchen that feed this working mob.The festivities start with a feast. A string of smiling red cheeked people holding empty plates weaves its way to the counter and the steaming food. Corks from wine bottles are popped, the keg is tapped, conversations flow. Later the music starts, most listen some dance.
As the evening progresses a bonfire is lit once again drawing the grows into the cold air.
In the early AM, when the spring constellations rise, the fortunate sleep in beds while the remaining sleep on mats and cots in the heated wood shop.
At first light the local wolf pack howls.