Old-fashion Horse Sense

Story and photos by Scott Stowell

Video by John Ratzloff

Video editing by Jerry Stenger

Logs raced across the forest floor at the Steger Center last summer like anacondas in overdrive. Will Steger was exploring again. This time it was with a type of logging new to the Center but old in its method. Machines were not part of the process. The timber was being pulled out by horses.

“I was curious to see how I could use horses to clear downed trees. It’s a different mode of working in the woods where it’s quiet,” Steger said. “For me, it was a test balloon.”

He explained that horse logging has one big advantage over modern technology. “If you’re logging in a sensitive area, you can selectively choose timber and you don’t trample the woods. Horses can get into places where machinery can’t and won’t ruin a whole area with logs and roads.”

Lisa Ringer (left) supervises the process as another log is hauled from deep in the woods.

Over the past 51 years, Steger has harvested lake ice at the Center for refrigeration. However, for the last 10 years, he’s hauled that ice with horse teams. It’s led to a partnership with horse owners Mike Berthiaume and Lisa Ringer who also provided the teams for his logging experiment. The teams consisted of shire horses, an English cousin to the Scottish Clydesdale. All of the horses have had experience at Steger’s ice harvest in past winters.

Berthiaume, 71, and Ringer, 65, have worked with horses since their childhoods. However, neither had done much horse logging. According to Berthiaume, his closest experience was having horses drag out firewood for heat and lumber on his family’s farm.

“As a kid growing up at home, we would refer to that as ‘snaking’ firewood out of the woods,” he said.

Mike Berthiaume guides the horses toward the timber yard.

The horse logging at the Center took place over two days in July and the experience became an outdoor classroom in unexpected ways. It began with site preparation and accommodations for the horses’ welfare. When Berthiaume and Ringer assessed the proposed logging areas, they found some locations had been torn up by machinery that had cleared brush prior to logging. That operation left behind thumb-thick saplings about two or three inches tall. It wasn’t an acceptable work environment for horses.

“Horses cannot step on those things. They would go right up through the bottom of their feet,” Berthiaume said.

Steger said he appreciated the learning curve. “Originally, I thought we could haul logs out with horses way back in the woods. But the horses needed a relatively unencumbered path, something that’s easier going with good footing.”

Making turns with long logs and huge horses require a wide berth and steady hand.

Ringer noted that the horses had to be physically fit for the work and rest breaks were important. But she also addressed a comfort factor. Black flies were thick during the days of logging. She and Berthiaume fitted the horses with ear covers and used bug repellent.

“It’s all about making sure the horses are comfortable and competent during their work,” she said.

Come hauling time, they had developed a system. It started with Berthiaume, Ringer and a team of two horses positioned on a road at one end of a hauling chain. At the other end of the chain, 400 feet into the woods, a crew of humans cleared a path of least resistance by hand and with chainsaws.

“You need one main trail, then a feeder trail into that,” Steger said. “We also tried to haul on level ground or downhill. The first day of logging was up over a hill and it’s something we wouldn’t do again.”

The logging horses were fitted with ear coverings as protection from thick, voracious bugs.

He emphasized that logs ripping through the forest is a safety concern not to trifle with. All participants involved with hooking the chain to the logs followed strict safety procedures. The last step in the process was to connect the line from the horses to the line from the log. It required precise communication at both ends of the chain.

“That’s like lighting the fuse on dynamite; it’s taking the safety off the gun,” Steger said. “It’s not like a big tree falling. It’s coming at ground level.”

Ringer and Berthiaume also had safety responsibilities on their end. When one of them was driving, the other would spot, looking for obstructions and keeping the horses calm.

“[We] keep an eye out for what’s going on. If there’s a photographer in the way, we yell at him,” Ringer laughed, but acknowledged, “The horses are really dependent on us to guide them.”

Berthiaume and Ringer said the horses performed amazingly well for their first experience with logging. If a log got snagged in the woods, they had to stop and readjust, but they never balked at starting again.

“They were really patient, especially when they didn’t understand when a log was going to stop,” Ringer said. “They developed their own sense [and] became really educated about how to move in the woods and how to move logs.”

With the first day under their harness, the second day was a demonstration of smoothness and efficiency. The logging took place at a different location where skid roads were flatter, smoother and straighter. But beyond that, Berthiaume said they had special help on the second day. Ed Nelson, a retired logging instructor, came to the Center and imparted some wisdom from his wealth of experience. Years back, during Steger’s first ice harvest by horse, Nelson provided the horses.

Berthiaume said they used a logging arch, a four-wheeled device that elevated logs so only its rear tip dragged the ground when moved. Nelson also taught them to wedge the fronts of logs so they would deflect off of stumps and rocks, and avoid hang-ups when they were hauled out. “Once we did that, that was the end of the problems,” Berthiaume said.

The success of Steger’s logging experiment was also due in large part to years of training Berthiaume and Ringer had given the horses. Even conditioning to noise, like train whistles near his farm, helped prevent the horses from becoming startled.

“It would have been a little testy driving horses that weren’t use to noise,” Berthiaume explained. “But being they’re broke the way they are, something new doesn’t necessarily cause a big problem.”

Ringer lives in Long Lake, Minn., with Berthiaume’s farm west of hers in nearby Rockford. She credits him as being one of her mentors and they work well as a team.

“I learned Mike’s system and know it well, from harnessing the horses to how we drive the horses to how we speak to the horses. Consistency is so important for a horse,” she said.

Berthiaume and Ringer agreed they gained a lot from the experience and they look forward to doing more at the Center.

“You never quit learning,” Berthiaume stated. “Every day can be a new experience, if you keep an open mind and want to learn it.”

Story by Scott Stowell

A new thread began a tapestry 55 years ago at the University of St. Thomas. Will Steger showed up for his first day of class. Since then, teachers and students, mentors and friends, institutions and organizations, have woven into that fabric through generations of partnerships.

“The reason I went to St. Thomas was because I wanted a close relationship with my teachers. That really paid off for me,” Steger said.

Having received a master’s degree in education, Steger acknowledges the importance of classroom education. But he favors cultivating relationships outside formal settings. It’s an approach he learned from the teachers who became his mentors. “Mentorship is really the core of my teachings. Educational programs are good. But the most powerful is the one-on-one,” he said.

From teacher to mentor
Steger carried a double major at St. Thomas in biology and geology. He said two professors stepped up at the outset and took him to levels of learning and knowledge beyond classrooms and grades.

Will Steger points out basic woodshed operations to Sustainability Club members. The sawdust is used to insulate ice in the Center’s ice house and root cellar. Photo: Scott Stowell

Will Steger points out basic woodshed operations to Sustainability Club members. The sawdust is used to insulate ice in the Center’s ice house and root cellar.
Photo: Scott Stowell

The late Jack Brownstein was a first-year geology professor when Steger was a freshman. At the time, geology was so new academically that St. Thomas didn’t offer it as a major. But he said Brownstein helped him discover ways to combine his two passions: the environment and education.

According to Steger, attaining good grades in college wasn’t the least bit easy. The school had high academic standards and he had to learn how to learn. He remembered one test from Brownstein at a time when his grades were getting hammered. As was Brownstein’s custom, he met with students individually after the tests were graded.

“He told me I got the highest mark in the class,” Steger said. “I liked him anyway, but that’s where I really connected.”

Steger said he also appreciated Brownstein’s enthusiasm and how he created peer relationships with students. The two would spend time outside the classroom studying maps, checking out unexplored places and debating global issues. As time progressed, their friendship grew.

“We didn’t hang like friends, but I’d go over to his house and visit and talk about things other than academics,” Steger said.

Window-Two Girls 4945(C2)

Karleen Kuehn (left) and Cari Monroe position a log on the sawmill. Photo: Scott Stowell

Rick Meierotto, now 86, was a biology professor at St. Thomas from 1961-1995. He first noticed Steger when Steger was on the St. Thomas wrestling team in a lightweight class. Meierotto was also a St. Thomas wrestler as a student, so he attended matches as a spectator after joining the faculty. He said Steger was very tough for his size.

Meierotto became aware of Steger’s adventurous spirit when Steger took an ecology class he was teaching. He also recalled Steger’s independent research projects and summer junkets to remote locales.

“I can remember him coming in the office and talking about the trip he took during the summer…, an amazing kid. I shouldn’t speak of him as a kid,” he chuckled. “I still couldn’t get over that a 130-something-pound guy… had a vision and a goal, and was sort of addicted to the Arctic kind of climate.”

As Steger’s planning turned toward polar expeditions, Meierotto became even more impressed. “He could do something that was daring and adventurous, but not reckless. He fully intended to return from any trip he took with everybody intact.”

Meierotto also noted how his teacher-student relationship with Steger is an example of how teachers eventually learn more from their students than they teach them. “We went through the evolution of me teaching, then talking as peers, then (me asking), “Gosh, Will, how did you do this or that?”

Partnership for the microgrid
Steger and St. Thomas engineering professor Greg Mowry began a partnership in 2013 when Steger was looking for a power system for the Wilderness Center. Steger described their relationship as one of trust and mutual assistance that benefitted both the Wilderness Center and St. Thomas.

A St. Thomas contingent at the microgrid project completion in 2015 (left to right): Will Steger, engineering professor Greg Mowry, electrical engineering student Katelyn Jacobsen and vice president Doug Hennes. Photo: John Ratzloff

Along with his teaching responsibilities, Mowry has designed and deployed microgrids for humanitarian outreach around the world since 2004. He offers his services for these energy systems at no cost to qualifying agencies, organizations and nonprofits.

Mowry explained that his role was to make certain the microgrid system met Steger’s energy needs. However, since this was a humanitarian project, one of the requirements was to engage students. He said it afforded students not just engineering education, but the realities of getting their hands dirty, digging trenches and pounding nails.

“It’s meant to be a cradle-to-grave kind of learning process on how you show the steps that one actually goes through in designing and deploying a power system,” Mowry said.

Students were also involved in technical discussions with Steger.

“The students are in the meetings because part of these things are about how you listen. (It’s turning) the requirements in the common language that Will might have, into the engineering specifications that are necessary for actually making a power system,” Mowry said. “That’s not done in a text book or class environment.”

He added that the microgrid project also dovetailed with St. Thomas’s mission.

“It’s more than just education. It’s helping individuals and companies succeed,” he said. “Will has needs. We help. Will has guest lectured (for us). It’s very synergistic.”

A multitude of participants in the microgrid project stand in front of the completed solar panels. Contributors included: the University of St. Thomas, Sundial Solar, Cummins Power Generation, TenKsolar and BAE Batteries. Photo: John Ratzloff

The Sustainability Club
The St. Thomas Sustainability Club is more than a name derived for its mission. Though the club is in its early years, it’s part of sustaining the relationships that Steger and the university began building over half a century ago. Last April, club members arrived at the Wilderness Center to clear brush, load wood, stack lumber and generally perform any chore that helped the Center.

Maddie Hankard, 21, is a Sustainability Club president. She explained that along with service projects and team-building experiences for members, the club features an educational component complete with guest speakers. Steger has been one of them. But getting to know him on his own turf offered first-hand opportunities to learn about an abundance of lifestyle choices. She used those loads of wood as an example.

“Nothing goes waste. We can apply that to our own lives,” Hankard said. “It’s a little tricky, when you live in a city and live in an apartment with three other roommates, to have a woodshop. But I think (it’s) a good way for us to start conversations with our friends about the kind of lifestyle they can live, and give our members an idea of what their future after college can look like.”

Dina Lenz (front), Jack Duggan (rear left) and Matt Endres (rear right) help Will Steger stack finished lumber. Photo: Scott Stowell

Dina Lenz (front), Jack Duggan (rear left) and Matt Endres (rear right) help Will Steger stack finished lumber. Photo: Scott Stowell

While the club was at the Wilderness Center, Steger spent informal time responding to club member questions. Hankard said talking with him instilled a sense of hope and a deeper sense of urgency to take action for the environment. She emphasized that the setting for their project directly impacted her motivation.

“It’s our generation that’s going to address climate change and that’s going to figure out a way to fix what we’ve been doing to our planet. It’s really important that students get hands-on experiences in a beautiful place like this to remind them why they’re working so hard,” she said.

The group effort
Steger said mentoring and building relations reflects the real mission of the Wilderness Center and he expressed his desire to help. “Being my age, when you get to the top of your field, when you’re mentoring, you can open doors for others because people did that for me.”

However, institutions, organizations and communities are also threads in the tapestry. Steger highlighted how his partnerships with Summit Academy and Dunwoody College of Technology have been integral to the progress of the Wilderness Center. Students from both schools have contributed countless hours of carpentry or architectural skills. In return, they’ve received hands-on experience toward their personal futures.

Claire Spangenberg (left) and Courtney Eickhoff wait for the first slab-cut to come off the sawmill. Photo: Scott Stowell

Claire Spangenberg (left) and Courtney Eickhoff wait for the first slab-cut to come off the sawmill. Photo: Scott Stowell

In January 2008, Steger wrote an article for St. Thomas Magazine, one of the school’s news publications. In it, he addressed the urgency of reducing fossil fuel consumption and emphasized the importance of group partnerships:

“I am confident that if we educate ourselves and reconnect with our communities—whether it be at an institution like St. Thomas, a church, a synagogue or a neighborhood—we can reduce our fossil fuel consumption… I believe that the efforts at St. Thomas are just some of many examples of the ways we can actually practice what we teach.”

The micro-grid in the middle of nowhere has generated more than electricity for the Steger Wilderness Center. Phase 1 of the Center’s island-mode power project received worldwide recognition through the annual “Environmental Challenge Award” from Cummins Power Generation. Will Steger said the prestigious award is an affirmation that the Center is on the right track.

Energy Team

The Phase 1 energy team.

“Our mission is being recognized as sustainable and as a demonstration model. We’re doing what we say we’re doing. Plus, it’s early on. We’re just beginning and we’re drawing this sort of attention. It reflects the importance of the Center,” he said.

Cummins is the largest manufacturer of diesel engines in the world and among the top three in generator production. Wissam Balshe, from Cummins in Minneapolis, Minn., explained that the Environmental Challenge competition is open to Cummins employees. It’s an incentive for them to develop new ideas that will reduce carbon footprint, encourage environmental sustainability and assist community partners with technical and funding components that turn ideas into realities.

Of the 88 projects that competed globally for the award, Balshe said the ideas took many forms. Along with the micro-grid at the Wilderness Center, examples included: wood recycling in Brazil; lake cleanup in Indiana; environmental sustainability and climate change education for students in India; and beautification projects in remote towns that suffer from an abundance of garbage and pollution. Each project is awarded points at progressively larger regional levels. Phase 1 of the micro-grid project continued to win and ultimately topped all others at the global level.

According to Balshe, one of the biggest challenges for the Wilderness Center was succeeding with a project that had never been attempted. It was a hybrid power system that tied a mix of energy sources together so they worked seamlessly as one integrated system, not as separate components. The innovative brainpower required to pull off this lofty goal gave birth to the micro-grid concept.


The structure for the solar array and the generator building were aerodynamically situated to protect the panels from strong winds. The design prevented wind damage during the blowdown that swept through the Center last July.

The project began by assembling a diverse energy team of industry experts. Balshe and his colleague Sha Mohammed led the Phase 1 energy team of engineers from Cummins. He also networked with energy team members, companies and schools, including Jon Kramer from Sundial Building Performance who spearheaded Phase 1 of the project.

University of St. Thomas professor Greg Mowry was another energy team member. Early in Phase 1 of the project, his students from St. Thomas contributed to the design phase. The design work and feasibility analysis took place in summer 2014 and was implemented in 2015.

Generator Room

The generator building (right) houses the batteries that store 10 kilowatts of solar power at the Steger Wilderness Center.

Primary Phase 1 components included a generator donated by Cummins; insulation and an inverter from Sundial; batteries provided by BAE; and solar panels from Ten K Solar. Though the new generator is much cleaner than previous generators at the Center, Balshe said the team goals went even farther. They wanted to exceed EPA requirements and educate the community on the benefits of integrated energy sources.

“We don’t think that there’s one technology that’s going to be the best technology. It will be a mix of different technologies. That’s how we envision the future of energy,” he said.

Lodge & Panels

The solar array is positioned to provide 10 kilowatts of power to the lodge and workshop (foreground), and other buildings in the compound.

Innovation was a significant criterion for judging the competition and the strongest area for the Center’s energy team. Their engineering capabilities earned points for the “most innovative and technically complex project of 2015.” But high scores were also awarded for the project’s ability to serve as a model.

“You get a lot of points if you actually educate others on how to do this,” Balshe said.

He later emphasized the impact of the Center’s energy education for everyone.

“[The Steger Wilderness Center] is very important because you have a lot of students, sometimes community leaders, policy makers visiting the Center to… participate in environmental sustainability and climate change discussions. So, we wanted to have an energy solution, a power plan, that’s actually reflective of the mission of the Center,” he said. “We had to think of ways to use renewable energy without sacrificing reliability or availability.”


Todd Yurk (left) from Sundial Building Performance fields questions about the new generator donated by Cummins Power Generation.

Steger expressed his gratitude to Cummins for more than just the award. Their engineers were important advisors on the project.

“They gave us their expertise. We had their technicians working right beside us on the project. It was hands-on for them,” he said.

In looking to the future, Steger said Phase 2 of the energy project will incorporate wind power, increase the Center’s use of solar energy and bring in a director. “Our newest board member, Craig Tarr, will be the Wilderness Center’s ‘energy czar.’ He will coordinate all energy systems, which include electrical and heat.”

The Center’s new dining hall is also being designed in partnership with architecture students at Dunwoody College of Technology. The facility will be another model of energy use and conservation.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff


Youth Undergrowth

When the gales of this summer’s big storm blew beyond the Steger Wilderness Center, it
seemed to have trailered in its own recovery crew. A team from Summer Youth Corps (SYC)
rode in just days later to help wrangle the aftermath.


The Summer Youth Corps with Will Steger: (back row, L to R) Laura Pratt, Will Steger, Sam Lancaster, Kristi Yang, Hannah Weiss, Charlie Reber; (front row, L to R) June Roettger and Yang (James) Deng.

SYC is a youth development program of Conservation Corps Minnesota (CCM) geared toward high school age students. It provides hands-on work and personal growth experiences in natural resource fields, among others. For many of those youth, the opportunity is their first paying job.

Crew leader Hannah Weiss is a senior at the University of Vermont where she’s studying environmental science. She described the SYC work as physically demanding. It started with basic training at base camp in St. Croix State Park along the St. Croix River. Afterward, the crew departed on what CCM calls “spikes,” a variety of environmental projects often involving manual labor. The crew was on the move, traveling to projects that typically lasted from one to three weeks.

Weiss said the crew at the Wilderness Center focused primarily on cleanup from the July 21 blowdown. They hauled trees, brush and lumber, stacked wood and lopped branches. They also cut saplings from the hillside adjacent to the lake to encourage pine growth and expose the underlying greenstone.


SYC member Kristi Yang clears branches and brush as part of the cleanup at the Wilderness Center.

Kristi Yang, 17, lives in Brooklyn Park, Minn. She said she’s lived in a city environment all her life. But she heard stories from two friends who had participated in SYC and she decided to sign up. Other than helping her grandparents cart vegetables to a farmers’ market, she hadn’t had much exposure to manual labor. Previously, she was a cashier at a supermarket. Though the work for SYC was far different, she discovered something about herself.

“I really like it. I feel I was born to do this,” she said.

Charlie Reber, 16, is from St. Joseph, Minn. Four of his brothers have worked for SYC and one of them is currently on the staff at CCM. He said his brothers always told good stories of their experiences and he wanted to be part of it. Now that he’s had an intensive chance, he appreciates the work ethic he learned.


SYC members Charlie Reber (left) and Yang (James) Deng haul lumber at the center.

“The hardest part for me, was the [physical] work…[But] being here is not about the work. You don’t have to be physically able to perform on the job site…Just keep a steady pace. Keep quality over quantity,” he said.

According to Weiss, the crew normally resided at campgrounds, lived in tents and used camp stoves for cooking. But she said they were living in the lap of luxury at the Wilderness Center with kitchen facilities and sleeping accommodations—with beds—in the guest house.

“They love this place. They really enjoy having access to a full kitchen because that is an incredibly unique privilege,” she said.

Weiss also explained that the SYC hiring process mindfully selects a broad range of students with diverse personalities and backgrounds. She said this particular crew really stepped up and had few complaints. “I’m very proud of them. It’s not always the case with crews.”


The entire Summer Youth Corps crew spent hours lopping branches and cutting away saplings on the ledge wall beside the lake to encourage pine growth and expose the greenstone.

Samantha “Sam” Lancaster, 17, is from Somerset, Wis. She said she’s not a particularly social person, but intentionally joined SYC to leave her comfort zone. She didn’t know any of the other students and was nervous at base camp. She didn’t talk much at the time, but opened up afterward and she loved the work. She said the lopping sessions and time in the field allowed them to talk, get to know each other and become closer.

The Wilderness Center complex and the philosophy behind it also made an impression on the crew. Lancaster indicated an historical and physical appreciation for the setting.


“I like to think that I’m a little bit a part of that now, the hillside and clearing the brush,” she
said. Then she added, “I actually really like that it’s far away. You can see the stars at night.”

For Reber, the wilderness location and opportunity to work in it were second to none. “I’ve heard some spikes are weeding parking lots. Can you imagine that? So I think we’re really lucky,” he stated.


Evening offers a chance to rest and sing around the campfire.

Each crew member noted they had stand-out moments. Reber said he was amazed at how he learned to interact well with people who were from such different places. “Everyone’s got a different story. That’s what I think I can use the most. It’s being able to work with all different types of kids and everyone’s got a different personality.”

Likewise, Yang said the teamwork will stick in her memory. But she also won’t forget the
surroundings. “I’ll take time to appreciate the little nature we have in the Cities. People [there] don’t really pay attention to it.”

Lancaster said SYC was instrumental in helping her learn about working in environmental fields. She’d like to return to the Wilderness Center for one of the summer apprenticeships. “I really like how [Will] is so forward about the environment.”

For more information on Conservation Corps Minnesota, visit online at conservationcorps.org
or call 651-209- 9900.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

A pilot program that began two years ago at the Steger Wilderness Center has become a foundation and training ground for carpentry education, self-reliance and community. A crew of adult construction students from Summit Academy arrived at the center in July and a second team came in August for hands-on experience as part of their 20-week curriculum.


The construction crew takes a lighthearted breather: (standing, L to R) Hassan As-Sidiq, Bronson Sjolie, Terrance Neal and Gabe Corbesi; (sitting, L to R) Mike DeBoer, Will Steger, Courtney Harris and Beth Halverson.

Summit Academy instructor Beth Halverson led the week-long training programs for both crews. She explained the original program began as a collaboration between Will Steger and Summit Academy President Louis King. The first project involved constructing a cabin at the Wilderness Center. When it was completed, she and Steger liked the result so much they continued the program.

But rather than build more cabins, students now engage in a variety of maintenance projects to upgrade the grounds and refine carpentry skills. Projects included roofing, decking, woodshop work and detailing railings. The hands-on component of their curriculum had only begun two weeks before they arrived at the Wilderness Center. Halverson said some students had used carpentry tools before their schooling at Summit Academy, while others didn’t have a lick of practice.


Live at Hobo Village—Gabe Corbesi on guitar.

She noted that the overall experience teaches students a different way of working with raw materials and offers a better appreciation of carpentry itself. It’s on-the- job training like a typical day at a job site. Plus, working in a natural setting creates awareness of waste within the ecosystem.

Toward the end of their classroom education, students are also taught how to write resumes and cover letters. What’s more, Summit Academy brings in contractors to conduct mock interviews with the students.

All of the students participating in projects this summer live in the Twin Cities area. Some had never experienced outdoor life. Halverson called that opportunity a fantastic bridge between
urban and rural. It ran the gamut from the beauty of pristine wilderness to a violent wind storm. She’s found that when students return to the city and other Summit Academy students ask about the Wilderness Center, those who participated don’t hold back.

“Chests were pumped out,” she said. “They couldn’t talk enough about it.”


Rainey Lott detailed railing spindles in the woodshop.

Loretta “Rainey” Lott, 38, is originally from the south side of Chicago and now lives in St. Paul. Until she enrolled at Summit Academy, she had no construction experience. Until she arrived at the Wilderness Center, she had never been camping, fished or used an outhouse other than in a public park. Table saws, routers and recycled two-by- fours were on her to-do list at the Wilderness Center. She fashioned replacement spindles for railings at the center.

“Bringing that wood back to life, that was amazing to me,” she said. “Being able to see my work, I’m proud of that.”

She also knew very little about Will Steger. According to Lott, she was used to a fast life, living in the city, not even subconsciously caring about environmental concerns and her impact on it. Since her time at the Wilderness Center, she’s questioned herself. “What could I do as an individual to at least be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem?”


Eric Woods (left) and Carlos Hernandez align cedar shakes on the rooftop.

Gabe Corbesia, 35, lives in Minneapolis. His only prior experience in construction came when he was a kid and helped his dad who was a carpenter. But he said he didn’t remember much of what he learned. He’s also camped a little, but not like at the Wilderness Center. That alone has been a bonding experience with his classmates.

“Working with them and having to take a bath in a lake… they haven’t done it either. That brought us closer,” he said.

According to Halverson, exposure to teamwork and instilling a work ethic is perhaps the biggest benefit students derive from the Wilderness Center. It’s another bridge with far-reaching effects.


Terrance Neal works on the deck railing outside the center.

“It leads to their families. It leads to their friends,” she said. “There’s some beauty that’s
happening with people working together as one, as opposed to separating themselves.”

Lott described the experience as one big family. “I love that feel of it… Everybody is
approachable,” she said and added, “I can’t learn enough here. I need more time. I have to come back.”

Corbesia explained he’s made significant changes to turn his life around. His past included unproductive time mired in drugs. But he’s cleaned up and said the hands-on training at the Wilderness Center will help him attain his goals of union work in construction, and peace and stability in his personal life.

Lott said she never envisioned herself going into the construction field. However, her reasons for attending Summit Academy extend beyond carpentry. She’s started the “Bigger than You” foundation. It’s an advocacy nonprofit against gun violence with a focus on misled teens. Her proposed court divergence program includes teaching the construction trade to troubled youth. Eventually she hopes to purchase property as a site for their hands-on training like she’s received at the Wilderness Center. She’s closely observing Summit Academy as a curriculum model.


Bronson Sjolie (left), Hassan As-Sidiq (center) and Gabriel Corbesi secure roof panels.

Summit Academy President Louis King said the school’s mission is to help people get the skills, education and social networks they need to enter the economic mainstream. The partnership with the Steger Wilderness Center gets students out of the “concrete jungle,” helps the environment and allows them to practice their craft.

“We believe the best social services program in the world is a job,” King said.

For more information on Summit Academy visit online at saoic.org.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

To reach a bunch of students start with teaching the teachers. Such was the guiding principle for the first-ever convening of the “Life off the Grid Energy Conference” at the Steger Wilderness Center. A diverse group of middle school and high school teachers, college and technical school professors and deans, and specialists in the energy industry gathered as participants or presenters at the Center in June. The resulting enthusiasm spread like electricity through a web.

The group paused for a photo during a tour of the Wilderness Center (L to R): Chuck Cooper, Megan Heitkamp, Jack Kleumpke, Will Steger, Aaron Barker, Scott Randall, Bruce Peterson, Ivan Maas, Donna Andren and Charlie Cannon.

The group paused for a photo during a tour of the Wilderness Center (L to R): Chuck Cooper, Megan Heitkamp, Jack Kleumpke, Will Steger, Aaron Barker, Scott Randall, Bruce Peterson, Ivan Maas, Donna Andren and Charlie Cannon.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College biologist Melanie Waite-Altringer coordinated the conference. As an environmental science instructor, she explained the importance of educating teachers about how to present newer material in energy fields and attracting new people to carry the technology forward.

“Within a few years there’s going to be a big turn-around. A lot of people are going to retire in the industry. So we really need to get a lot of people, a lot of kids interested in this, things that they wouldn’t normally even think about,” she said.

Those attending the conference heard from a variety of industry experts and were given hands-on experience. Waite-Altringer said the activities and lectures prompted deep questions conducive to spirited education. It was more than just listening to someone’s Power Point presentation.

Will Steger gave a personal and detailed tour of the entire Wilderness Center. Joel Cannon from 10K Solar explained the center’s solar micro-grid. Doug Renk of BIOFerm Energy Systems demonstrated an anaerobic digester, a device which composts organic matter, captures methane and produces electrical or thermal energy. Other topics included thermal imaging and biofuels.

Megan Heitkamp and Donna Andren take a soil sample for a biomass energy activity.

Megan Heitkamp and Donna Andren take a soil sample for a biomass energy activity.

Phil Anderson from the Neighborhood Energy Connection performed an energy audit on one of the cabins at the Wilderness Center. The cabin tested well with the exception of a small air leak from a hidden attic door inside a closet.

Teachers also engaged in a windmill competition. Contestants were given miniature experimental windmill kits. The assembly component of the contest was identical for all. However, the competition came from differences in blade design. Whoever generated the most voltage won the contest.

Jack Kluempke and Aaron Barker assemble their windmill kit for the Windmill Challenge. All participants received a kit for the competition to see who could produce the most electrical energy from their unique blade design.

Jack Kluempke and Aaron Barker assemble their windmill kit for the Windmill Challenge. All participants received a kit for the competition to see who could produce the most electrical energy from their unique blade design.

In addition, every teacher received curriculum, lesson plans, and soil and windmill kits at no charge to take back to their classrooms. Megan Heitkamp teaches seventh-grade life science at Salk Middle School in Elk River. She said she has a passion for alternative energy, but an even greater passion for facilitating student learning experiences in areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“One of the best benefits of the conference was gaining important classroom resources such as lab kits for student use,” she said. “The relationships between teacher-energy experts is another resource that will come in handy as I try and build curricular units around the topics discussed at the conference.”

Megan Heitkamp (2nd left) uses thermal imaging to detect air leaks for energy efficiency in one of the Center’s cabins.

Megan Heitkamp (2nd left) uses thermal imaging to detect air leaks for energy efficiency in one of the Center’s cabins.

Jack Kluempke is the solar business advisor for the Minnesota Department of Commerce. He said the conference was valuable not just for the knowledge he gained, but in developing a network to advance the energy industry overall.

“I gained a deeper understanding of wind and anaerobic digestion processes, not areas of expertise for me. I also found the people involved to be very informed and enthusiastic about the conference, which helps boost my resolve to keep working at it,” he said.

Waite-Altringer also noted that the setting of the Wilderness Center also had an overpowering effect of its own on the teachers. “You can describe it, [but] you have to be here to feel it and I think that’s what really brings this to a whole…different level of education.”

The evening campfire at Hobo Village featured (L to R): Joel Cannon, Jenna Pollard, Aaron Barker, Chuck Cooper and Charlie Cannon.

The evening campfire at Hobo Village featured (L to R): Joel Cannon, Jenna Pollard, Aaron Barker, Chuck Cooper and Charlie Cannon.

The Minnesota Energy Center funded the conference through a grant that also funded all eight “Energy Education for Educators” (E3) workshops in Minnesota. Life off the Grid was the first of those this year. Waite-Altringer said the other conferences don’t necessarily focus exclusively on sustainable energy. They can include other forms of energy such as nuclear, hydro and coal. Teachers can choose the field they’d like to know more about. For more information, visit energycareersminnesota.com.

Story by Scott Stowell.

Photos by Melanie Waite-Altringer.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Smoke billowed from old coffee cans, smudging the work site at the Steger Wilderness Center where seven apprentice stonemasons were deep into their training program. From a functional perspective, the smoke thwarted black flies and mosquitoes. Aesthetically, it offered a sensory complement to the projects at hand.

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Instructor and master stonemason Ian McKiel explained that the stonemason apprentice program at the Center is specifically for job training. It’s an intensive, month-long seminar focused on stone, masonry and dry stone laying. Apprentices receive hands-on experience working with concrete and mortar to shape various types of structural and ornamental walls.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

As a warm-up project, the apprentices constructed a random-rubble style sitting wall. They mixed and poured concrete, reinforced steel footing, then switched to mortar to build up the wall, capping the top with decorative bluestone. It’s a lot to learn in the first week.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

“This type of work and this type of learning doesn’t really lend itself well to sitting in the lodge and going over things. So basically I get their hands moving and then talk as everybody’s moving,” McKiel said.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Their second project involved structural work under the deck that surrounds the Wilderness Center’s convention center. McKiel said apprentices constructed a stone wall beneath the outer edges of the deck that bear the deck’s weight. The wooden supports which previously held up the deck along that edge were removed. For an add-on project, the apprentices created an arch doorway at one of the storage locations within the stone wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

According to McKiel, the early stages of learning how to look at stone is a matter of imagining it going into place. “When you’re setting a stone, think about the space above it… Think about the stone that’s going to go on top of the one you’re actually setting, because that stops you from creating problem spots that only a very specific stone can get you out of.”

That type of anticipation and thoughtfulness would appear to serve anyone well whether they’re stonemason apprentices or global leaders. Jess Nimmo, 23, said she participated in the program because masonry seemed like a good fit with the type of career she’s seeking. She’s worked in residential construction, done some welding and blacksmithing, and is currently employed in a custom finishing shop for products like furniture. The program increased her interest in stone masonry.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“I fully intend on going home and doing a little bit of it myself over at my mom’s place. I’m sure she would love it,” she said.

She also explained how the functional and aesthetic elements of masonry are similar to her number one passion.

“I’ll be a welder, for damn sure. That’s my dream job and I’m going to make it happen,” she stated. “I don’t just want it as a job. I would love to be able to use it as a hobby. I’ve got that blacksmithing experience…[the] more artsy form of welding, being able to form the metal any way you want.”

Milo Payne, 21, said he loved the masonry work and could do it for a lifetime. He has an interest in art and views stone masonry as art in another form.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“There are so many different stones you can choose from, so many designs and shapes,” he said.

He added that the convention center building inspires his dreams. “[It’s] phenomenal. I want to hopefully, down the road, with this experience that I have right now, build something from the ground up like this.”

Steger said the Wilderness Center is about hands-on learning and self-reliance. While apprentice programs are offered at a variety of locations in numerous fields around the world, he addressed how the Wilderness Center stands out.

“Learning to work with mortar, concrete and stone is a skill as important as learning the alphabet; it will be with them all of their lives. But the transformational power of the wilderness gives these young people opportunities to see possibilities they haven’t before,” he said.
end of june group

Payne called his time at the Wilderness Center a “fresh, exciting experience” and contrasted it to his life in Elk River, Minnesota. “Many people have to know this experience to know the difference from city life and a life of working to provide for somebody else, or provide for yourself, or just providing in general.”

Along with spending weeks in the wilderness, Nimmo said the best part of the program was being within a community of like-minded people who also accomplished basic chores such as gathering water and taking turns doing dishes. “It’s really great how everybody here works so well together. I feel like this setting definitely brings that out in people.”

The Steger Wilderness Center, Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services, Inc. (CMJTS) have formed a three-fold partnership to offer the stonemason apprentice program. CMJTS is dedicated to serving young and emerging adults, up to age 24, and preparing them for the workforce. They provide employment and training services that connect young people with careers and assist them in achieving success. For further information, visit online at cmjts.org or call or 800-284-7425.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff