Blowin’ a Hoolie


Mark Sealy, the great meteorologist with MPR and the University of Minnesota, has a rag-bag of interesting and colorful weather terms and names from around the world. One of his favorites is “Blowin’ a Hoolie,” I believe he said it was Irish, an expression or description of a particular kind of a forceful wind that blows so hard it rattles your windows, shakes your shutters and walls. A hooligan wind.
It has been two weeks since the storm of a half-century blew down a forty foot Jack Pine that lived up the cliff behind the one-man tent where Jasper and I live and damn near died. IMG_5542

It was three in the morning when the hoolie hit us from the northwest. It was a hammer made of 80 mph wind, sideways rain and constant lightning. The sounds were terrifying. Great large trees, thousands of them, were popping, snapping and crashing. Howling, tearing and ripping sounds roared in the night as people yelled for each other to get to safe places.

The breath taking sound of that big tree smashing down on hard ground three or four feet from our heads was terrifying. It scared the hell out of us. I threw on my headlamp, leashed Jasper, unzipped the mosquito netting and rain fly, got out of the tent and glanced at the branches of the tree that hit us. The pulsing lightning made it easy to see we had had a very close call. Like Dylan said in one of his songs, “I didn’t know whether to duck or run, so I ran.” Jasper and I ran for our lives.

We did not have far to flee to reach the shelter of good old Boat House on the shore of the Wilderness Center’s lake, beyond reach of any falling trees. Meanwhile there was chaos up on top of the ridge and in the woods where three residents had set up a tent camp called Bum Town. All three tents had been crushed. Leif, Nick and Big Jake made the decision to run for their lives just in time.

The great group of city people from Summit Academy were all camped in tents too. Most had never camped a day in their lives before arriving to set up their eight tents on the clover and grass field near the pond and Pond House cabin. The Hoolie utterly wiped out their camp and sent their tents flying wildly in the wind and into the woods, lightning, crashing sounds and rain. Again, no one was injured. It seems everyone one was running for his or her lives that night. The Summit crew reached Pond House safely though two large trees crashed on its roof.

Happy Acres, Logan Smith’s beautiful new cabin, was impaled. A large tree behind the cabin blew down with such authority one of its branches smashed through the metal roof, through the three quarter inch plywood below the metal and then on through the sheet rock ceiling. The branch came down like the Sword of Damocles, thrusting through, head high, at astonishing speed. Had Logan been standing in that spot, the jagged branch would have skewered his head like a shiskabob. Fortunately for him, he was standing a few feet away. IMG_6262

The next morning dawned bright, clear and windless. None of us had slept for more than a couple of hours, if that. Everyone was dazed. A strange silence took over our group as we came together for breakfast… a mixture of gratitude for simply being alive and vivid memory of recent terror. Now that’s a Hooligan Wind.

But there was work to do. Trees of all sizes, hundreds of them, were down on the Center’s mile long driveway. The Cloquet Line headed towards Ely looked like a direct hit. Miraculously the new solar array held its own, suffering no damage at all. What a test! IMG_6698 By noon Logan and a crew had made the driveway passable. Another crew cleared the tree that missed Jasper and I. IMG_6761-2
At this point in time I was still a bit shocked by the whole experience and got the yipps as I looked up the hill behind my tent and the new Grand Hobo Lodge and spotted two large trees dead trees still standing in dangerous positions if they were to fall. I was still scared and asked Will if the two trees could be cut down. Will took a look and agreed they needed to go. He and Logan assessed the situation and made a plan. The breezes had picked up by now. Its direction was favorable to the direction of the desired drop and crash target. IMG_6500

The first tree to go was a very tall, very dead Jack Pine located half way up the cliff behind the fire pit in the middle of Hobo Village. Will and Logan agreed on a strategy for the cuts and Logan dropped it very near the center of the fire pit. Perfect. IMG_6502

The next tree, a big dead Birch, was located only six feet behind and even with the back wall of our brand new Grand Hobo Lodge. It had been a eye sore near the shore of Picketts Lake for years and Will was happy at the thought of getting rid of it for both aesthetic and safety reasons. Again Will and Logan made a plan to drop the tree about three feet behind and parallel to the back wall of the structure. A tricky proposition.

“The best laid schemes of mice an’ men often go awry.”
– Robert Burns 1785

The heavy Birch tree fell directly on the top of the lodge. IMG_6513 IMG_6514 IMG_6515 It crushed many of the ceiling timbers and bent the top of the wall supports badly. It was a mess. But the tipi canvass survived with only a few small tears. IMG_6527

Thirty six hours later we cooked, served dinner to eighteen people as we celebrated life and told each other storm stories GABRIEL Screen shot 2016-07-24 at 2.46.52 PM IMG_6418 in the completely rebuilt and improved Grand Hobo Lodge.
Now that’s resilience.

Will Steger has been living and working on this land for fifty one years. IMG_6146 Yesterday he told me that the storm at the wilderness was the largest and most violent he had ever seen there. It was a huge storm, stretching from southern Ontario to Duluth and even further south. One hundred and two mile per hour winds were clocked in Duluth that night. Two boy scouts were killed by falling trees in separate locations in the BWCA. Power was knocked out for days in wide spread locations. Gas stations were shut down. Thawing meat began to rot in grocery store freezers and coolers. Even 911 emergency communications were knocked out for days.

Will estimates cleanup and harvesting the blow downs will be a four-year project which will provide fire wood for the entire Center for at least that long. In addition, the harvest appears it will be quite large, yielding enough free milled lumber to completely build the new Dining Hall two summers from now. There is a bountiful side to all the destruction.

According to the meteorologists at NOAH, this storm “ had the fingerprints of global warming written all over it.” It is a good thing the Saturn Window in the Center is built to withstand wind speeds of over two hundred mph. It is going to need such strength as our planet continues to warm and as freak storms become both more frequent and more powerful. IMG_6703

It is good to be alive.

John Ratzloff
August 3, 2016

Story and Photos by John Ratzloff.

It was about five years ago when the area directly below the Steger Wilderness Center on the shore of Picketts Lake revived its’ name from the great master stonemason Jim Sullivan. Screen shot 2016-07-06 at 12.14.42 PM He called it “Irish Hobo Village” after his all Irish crew pitched their tents on the nice flat sand and grass on the north shore of this private, blissful lake. IMG_0311 IMG_9689 The village has been occupied every summer since.

The word “Irish” was dropped when the village experienced its own form of immigration, as people of many diverse ancestries discovered the charms of hobo living and migrated naturally to the shore. IMG_9483

In early summer 2014, Will Steger, The Fire Marshall of Hobo Village, appointed me Mayor. This is my third term of one hundred and ten days living in the village as mayor and resident photographer of the Steger Wilderness Center. IMG_4644

It has always been Will’s way to work with diverse crews. For example, his historic dog sled crossing of Antarctica consisted of explorers from Japan, China, Russia, England, France and the U.S. The work crews at the Center also follow this example of planning. Will believes in the power and wisdom of diversity.

We have age diversity, race diversity, gender diversity and cultural diversity. The age gap between our youngest and oldest resident is 54 years. We have people from many nationalities and racial lineages.Screen shot 2016-07-09 at 5.13.16 PM We also have gender diversity consisting of gay people, straight people and trans people. And guess what? No one has any problems figuring out which outhouse to use. Diversity works.

In this year of a peculiar presidential candidate on the GOP ticket, it is easy to see Trump has no clue about the dynamic potential of diversity.

When the children and grand children of residents and master stonemasons or carpenters visit, the median age of our population drops quickly. Last summer, Jim and Roxanne Sullivan’s grandson, Preston, painted the official flag of Hobo Village. IMG_0329

The State of Hobo Nation is strong. IMG_8734-2

In my first term as Mayor, we fashioned a kitchen space using an eighteen by twelve-foot tarp, a couple hundred feet of rope, some poles and boulders. We made shelves of old wooden boxes with recycled doors used as tabletops. Café Hobo opened in early June 2013.

Café Hobo is a delicious, fascinating place to cook and dine. IMG_8224 IMG_8220 Beachside diners are often treated to the sight of Bald Eagles flying low over the lake right past the seating area around the restaurant’s fire pit. A clear night sky reveals the depth of the Milky Way, as very little light pollution clouds the view here. Sometimes Goliath, the restaurant’s hundred-pound snapping turtle show up for a handout. IMG_9706We even have a baseball bat and stones ready to be launched across the lake. IMG_4340 Loons call. Wolves howl…. all for “no extra charge,” I would say light-heartedly to the community.

This spring when I arrived at Hobo Village, I set up another tarp and rope kitchen that was blown to shreds within three weeks. The place looked like a direct hit. Will took a look at the mess and decided an upgrade was needed. When I asked Will what he had in mind he took a minute and sketched out his idea. IMG_5792

A week later it was built by resident carpenters Mike Debour and Leif Larson, who used some canvas from an old tipi liner I had given to Will four or five years ago to cover the roof. IMG_4778 tipi 4And now the Grand Hobo Lodge stands proudly in rain, sun and wind on the beautiful shore of Picketts Lake IMG_5813

Tonight’s menu is grilled BBQ ribs, fire roasted corn on the cob, an organic summer salad from our gardens and hot Hobo fries. IMG_9687 Seating is limited to 65 people so make your reservations early. Valet parking of canoes coming in from the BWCA is also available for $600.

Life is good

Story and photos by John Ratzloff


It is hard to sleep while dreaming of wolves killing, tearing apart and eating your dog. This grim possibility and that dream kept me restless and sad for three nights after my great Inuit sled dog, Jasper, went missing from The Steger Wilderness Center last week. IMG_8396 Will told me Jasper would head North. He was right.

Two months earlier I adopted Jasper from Ely Outward Bound. He was being retired at age ten after attaining lead dog status for the last six years. He has been all over Quetico, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Hudson Bay. On March 22, 2016 Jasper arrived back at Outward Bound’s Homeplace from his last winter sled dog expedition. The next day I picked him up and our relationship together began.

My daughter Gracie and her guy Ed are veteran mushers at Outward Bound who know Jasper well. When Gracie learned Jasper was being retired she told me he was a smart, sweet and funny Husky. IMG_3948 She also told me I was spending far too much time alone. She was right and I knew it.

Jasper had never been off a leash or a lead in his entire life. He had never been in a car or climbed a set of stairs. Our learning curve was steep. I had no idea what to expect from him if I were to simply let him go to experience the freedom of self-determination for the first time in his life.

When we arrived at The Center, Will suggested we bring Jasper, on leash, to the various construction sites IMG_4911 IMG_4534 going on at the time, to give him a sense boundaries — where he would receive tons of affection and attention from the work crews. IMG_5329 IMG_5337 This routine we followed for two weeks.

Then one early Sunday morning while Will and I were drinking hot tea down in Hobo
Village (where I am Mayor), IMG_5284 Will said, “Let’s let Jasper go and see what he does.” I agreed and set him free to go where no one else would decide his path for the first time in his entire life.

Freedom made Jasper euphoric. He wandered, ran and pranced while walking the residents back to their tents in the woods. In the morning he would go up to the apprentices’ tent campIMG_4840-2 to wake them up in time for breakfast. One afternoon he even crossed the immense bog below the cliff near the edge of the rim where Big Jake’s tent is pitched. IMG_5538 Each night Jasper returned from his travels down to the lake and Hobo Village to find a place to sleep close by my tent. IMG_4255 All was hunky dory like this for four days and nights.

The sky on the fourth night was as clear as I have ever seen. The Milky Way showed billions of stars. Awe was in the air. Jasper and I were sitting side by side on the newly built floating barge IMG_4875 used to haul tons and tons mined stone from the quarry on the west end of Will’s lake over to the outskirts of Hobo Village, where it could be transported to the three masonry projects currently under way IMG_5386 IMG_4504. We had been sitting together star gazing for about an hour when, far to the East end of Pickett Lake, a pack of wolves began howling their lonely, lonely chorus. Jasper perked up, cocked an ear towards the sound and listened. Next, on the other end of the lake a second pack cranked up their howling response. Jasper tilted his head so far backwards he could see behind himself and added his deep voice to the wolf packs’ choir. I was only a foot away from him. The sound was thrilling. I remember feeling blessed to simply exist on such a night and in such a spectacular Universe sitting with my great howling Husky.

The next morning Jasper was nowhere to be found.

Around noon two days later I called the Ely police to report my missing dog. The woman who answered told me someone had called to report a stray Husky somewhere up the Echo Trail. But the Echo Trail runs all the way up to Orr, so the information was of little use except to help raise my sagging hope I would ever see Jasper again. Meanwhile Will was calling WELY radio with daily reminders to get the word out and ask listeners to help find and return Jasper. I called the Ely Veterinary Clinic to advise them of the situation and posted an 8×10 photo of Jasper on their bulletin board that afternoon. IMG_3406

Now my own schedule became a problem. An important photo assignment and wedding in Minneapolis required me to leave the Center for several days. I was heartsick. At home, two days later, I received a phone call from the Ely Vet Clinic; they had Jasper, safe and sound.

Jasper had wandered twenty miles North, all the way up to Angleworm Lake, where he walked into the camp of a man and woman just as they had finished eating their evening meal. They spotted his dog tag, welcomed him to their camp, tied him to a tree, cooked him a meal and went to bed. The next morning they shared their bacon and eggs with him, broke camp, returned to their car, put Jasper in the back seat and delivered him the clinic. I was overjoyed at the news.

People are good.

Written by John Ratzloff

Photos by John Ratzloff and Leah Nordquist