Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

Architects don’t view the world like everyone else. Somehow, they have an expanded perspective of relationships, whether with places or people. They’re fascinating and were especially welcome at the Steger Wilderness Center in 2016.

Fourteen architecture students from the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis participated in a week-long “studio” at the Center last September. They had designs on—and for—constructing the Center’s new dining hall.

Will and Molly review roof design with Dunwoody architecture students during their week-long site study at the Center last September.

Will and Molly review roof design with Dunwoody architecture students during their week-long site study at the Center last September.

According to Dunwoody architecture instructor Molly Reichert, a studio is to architecture what a lab is to science. Students work on one project over the course of a semester and they move through several phases of design. This in-depth process involves site analysis, schematic design, and design development. Their week-long study at the Wilderness Center was an extended site analysis component of a studio project. They also got to camp in tents on the site where the hall will be built.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for the students to be in contact with their site for an entire week and really look at it under a microscope in so many different ways,” Reichert said.

Their learning objectives were to develop an understanding of site and precedent, i.e. the relationship between the site and its existing buildings, so they could make informed decisions about their architectural designs. At the Wilderness Center, that meant considering the relationship of the wilderness to buildings, the land to buildings, and conversing with the staff for their take on how the current design works, doesn’t work or could be improved.

Dunwoody architecture students Kyle Huberty (left) and Ben Sherman give their presentation for the “Dining Wild” project.

Students observed the site throughout the days, noticing how light passed overhead at various times. They began determining how a building might best function in relationship to the site. They took note of pedestrian circulation.

As for documentation, each student had separate assignments. One student photographed window and door frames from inside each building to understand framed views, that visual relationship of building-to-building and building-to-nature. Another student documented how structures met the ground by photographing and diagramming foundation conditions, noting whether it was on slabs or pilings, and the grade of the landscape. Further individual documentation included geology and masonry on the site, roof lines and architectural details made by a router, among others.

“All of these different documentation strategies are feeding into the ‘hive mind’ of the studio and understanding of the context for [the dining hall],” Reichert said.

Will Steger offers a suggestion to architecture students at Dunwoody College of Technology.

Having the Center’s original designer beside them didn’t hurt. She said Will Steger spent close time with the students. “They’re so impressed by Will, his work, his vision and his philosophy. He’s given a lot of wonderful advice that young people today need to hear.”

Kyle Huberty, 25, photographed multiple structures at the Wilderness Center and compiled profiles of their various functions. He later created a site map with a description of each building and its corresponding images. But he said he became immersed in more than the physical place. He described Steger as fully present when engaging people and “a force of nature that keeps building.” The experience motivated him to change the way he lives life.

“I’ve always wanted to model myself after someone or something that values what I value in terms of nature and the environment,” Huberty said. “The quality of life and the ways [Will] has chosen to be wealthy, in terms of skills and freedom, show in his demeanor… He’s kind of like a friend to all and I really aspire to be that.”

Architecture student Aaron McCauley, 32, said he found the community effort involved with bringing the Center into reality as particularly humbling.

“Regardless of the dream you set out to do… you can’t do that without other people. And you wouldn’t want to do it without honest intentions, without humility. I think that this place in general highlights that,” he said.

Three groups of students worked on three different schematic or preliminary designs for the dining hall throughout the semester. In December, they presented their designs at the “Dining Wild Final Review” at Dunwoody College. The event included critique and comments from building industry professionals, architects, architecture professors and Steger Wilderness Center board members.

Will Steger and Molly Reichert (front left), enjoy an evening campfire with Dunwoody architecture students and Wilderness Center staff.

Will Steger and Molly Reichert (front left), enjoy an evening campfire with Dunwoody architecture students and Wilderness Center staff.

For this project, Steger is a unique blend of client, designer and teacher. He now has a smorgasbord of choices to consolidate into the final hall. He explained it will be modeled after the current lodge that has served since 1976. It was where he planned all of his expeditions, developed educational programs and tens-of-thousands of people have passed through.

“It has worked so well over the years. Having the architecture students meet, eat and hang out in the lodge, did more than I could have said in any words. They caught on right away,” he said.

As the Center expands, it needs a more formal gathering place. The versatility of the new dining hall will encompass five modules. One will be the utility area, an insulated building within a building that’s heated year-round to house plumbing and running water. The other modules include: a kitchen; a side nook/library; a three-season room to accommodate overflow; and the dining/gathering area which will double as a classroom.

“We tripled the space, modernized it all on one level so it’s handicapped accessible and has bathroom and washing facilities,” Steger said.

He added that the next steps involve technical drawings and structural materials through Dunwoody. Plans also include building a team of partners to oversee construction of the new hall.

Dunwoody College of Technology offers a 5-year Bachelor of Architecture degree. For more information, visit dunwoody.edu/architecture.

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Mike DeBoer lives in Stark, Minnesota, when his summer residency as a master carpenter at the Steger Wilderness Center is over. When in Stark, Mike makes a living bartending. He doesn’t consider bartending or carpentry his career, however, because he holds a degree in Nursing from Anoka Ramsey Community College. Having graduated in 2014, Mike needs to pass his final exam and then he will be fully certified.
During his first semester back to school in 2009, Mike took Peter Wahlstrom’s ethics course to meet his general education quota. During class, Peter required all students to complete a service-learning project. There were many opportunities in the Twin Cities metro that were not of interest to him.
Then, he heard about an opportunity in Ely with Will Steger at the Steger Wilderness Center. His eyes lit up at the chance to help build the center. “I know that guy. I watched him when I was in school on the TV screens when they would broadcast his adventures and he would be on talk-shows,” Mike said.
After coming up the center a few times, Peter created the Environmental Club, and Mike was one of the first members. Since 2009, Mike has been a regular visitor and resident.
Mike thought Will would be bigger when he first met him. “You meet Will and he’s 5’8”, 140 pounds,” he said. Mike had the idea that Will would be more of a burly, lumberjack-type build. “Big guys need a lot of energy to move around, so it makes a lot of sense when you think about the harsh conditions he’s had to overcome during his expeditions with limited supplies,” Mike said.
Mike brings strong leadership, carpentry knowledge and an ability to teach well. “Being able to teach goes along with a nursing degree, because as a nurse, you’re the bridge between the doctor and the patient,” he said. “I like to take my time to teach and do,” preferring to teach a few people rather than larger groups.
One of the things that Mike is looking forward to gaining lasting friendships and building a fire escape from the third floor of the center. “There’s so much carpentry work to be done here that a carpenter could live and work up here doing maintenance and building new projects year round,” he said.
There is no one particular moment that stands out for Mike. “I just don’t see one particular thing that stands out. The little things add up to the one big collective, and that makes the whole summer experience,” he said.
Mike wishes everyone knew the center is not a resort. “It might seem like a resort at first glance because there’s a bunch of buildings here, a big center and people will come here,” he said. “But it’s our job to communicate to the public what the purpose of this place is.”
When he’s not working on carpentry projects around the center, Mike can be found in town on Tuesdays at the Ely Steakhouse playing nine-ball.

Story by Kayden Nordquist. Photos by John Ratzloff.
“One of the best groups to ever come”~ Will Steger
group photo

They say time flies when you are having fun. But I can tell you this — time howls past when you are working hard together to achieve the same goal. As apprentices in the last 30 days, we have completed four huge stone masonry projects that involved moving and setting millions of pounds of stone and natural elements. We couldn’t have done it without the help of the masters, Ian McKiel and Jim Sullivan.

Nothing can compare to the sense of accomplishment I get when I see the projects we have started and completed in such little time. From the first week I think people in this group worked themselves into a funk. We worked our backs off building the sitting wall so quickly that we all were fairly worn out and in funky moods due to our newly acquired sunburns.
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Towards the end of the first week it seemed as if everyone was starting to become irritated with each other. The anger quickly passed when we realized it was from wearing ourselves down, and we had three weeks left to work with these people, so being irritated with anyone wouldn’t work.

The more I look at what we’ve done here in 30 days, the more it blows me away. Construction here at the Steger Wilderness Center has been ongoing since 1989. The longer I am here, the more I am realizing our mark on this historic building by being apart of one of the many construction teams that has worked on building the Center over the last 27 years.
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I noticed a lot of changes in the apprentices in the time we spent together. The apprentices have grown in many different ways in just 30 days. Even not knowing who these people were in the beginning, I see that most have taken the time we have had here to reflect and really find their true selves, being that everyone this summer is fairly young, and I feel this is one of the first opportunities they have had to do so, including myself.
end of june group

As the apprentices are bidding us farewell and beginning their next journey wherever it may be, I am also beginning mine as a resident here at the Will Steger Wilderness Center.
Farewell Apprentices.
Until next time~
Kayden Nordquist

Independence Day at the Steger Wilderness Center
Story and photos by Nick Sallen
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As the morning sun rose into the clear skies, my father, brother, his girlfriend and I broke camp in preparation for our final day of paddling in the Boundary Waters. Our plan was to canoe through Pipestone Bay, Newton Lake and leave Fall Lake before noon in order to drop off our rental equipment, and head back home before the Independence Day parade in Ely.
I was dropped off at the Steger Wilderness Center and said farewell to my family. The entire weekend had marvelous weather, and today was no different. As I went up the trail to set-up my tent, I noticed specks of green, red, blue and even violet hanging from a few low brush plants alongside the path.
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I couldn’t believe my eyes, even after closer inspection! Blueberries are typically harvested towards the end of July, not the beginning. As I made it back to my tent site on the cliff overlooking the marsh in Bumtown, the density of blue and violet berries hanging from the low brushes increased greatly.
After setting up my tent, I started to collect ripe berries by the handful. Everywhere along the lichen and mossy rich rocks was thousands of antioxidant filled small berries ready to be consumed.
My mind started racing with all the new edible possibilities- blueberry jam, pie, pancake and fruit salad! Then I remembered what Will said earlier this year as we walked to collect rocks at the quarry, “In late July, this area will have many blueberries,” he said, pointing at large rocks to the east of the path.
After collecting a couple of cups of blueberries, I thought the other residents here would enjoy berries from the first harvest. So I went back to the lodge, grabbed an empty 800mL mason jar, and went up the path to the quarry.
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By this time, I had been collecting berries for over an hour and the mosquitoes had already lapped up enough blood to start a new generation of blood-sucking pests. If I collected five cups of lowbrush wild blueberries, I could give some to the community and keep some for myself. After two hours, I met my goal. It was time to escape the swarm, enjoy the fruits of my labor and relax for the rest of the day.
The sunset led to explosions of light and sound in the night sky. Shortly after 10pm, I sat up in my tent as a symphony of bangs illuminated the southern part of the sky. I unzipped my rain fly to catch a glimpse of the firework show that was coming from Ely. As I stood there soaking up the moment, I noticed fireflies glittering around the marsh. The moment was perfect.
With a handful of sweet berries, I crawled back into my tent after the show was over. This was my first Independence Day celebration away from Minneapolis, and I think it’ll be memorable for how beautiful and blue it was.
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Mitchell Bentley already has a memorable story to tell. One evening in Hobo Village, he watched as Jasper the retired sled dog was barking at a turtle as it ambled back to the lake after laying eggs in the sand. As the turtle submerged in the water, Jasper went in after it and chomped down with his jaws. But what he came up with in his mouth was a rock, which Jasper carried off shore and dropped in the sand. Then he sat down next to it watching and waiting for it to move. For Mitchell, this is just one of many interesting and enjoyable episodes that comprise his experience of the Steger Wilderness Center. He is here primarily to learn the skill of building with stone, but he loves being in nature, even if it means jumping in cold water to get clean (but only after a hot sauna). Mitchell hails from Becker, where he grew up with fellow Apprentice, Jake. On or off the job, they are inseparable and do good work. Mitchell already sees himself getting stronger both physically and mentally.

Hometown? Occupation? Other background info?
Becker, MN. Jimmy’s Pizza pizza delivery. Enjoys hanging out with friends and playing lay Lacrosse

What are some strengths you bring to the group?

Work hard and well with others. Complete the job.

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?

Learning in building stone walls. Being in nature. Getting stronger both physically and mentally

Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices
Genuinely nice people, friendly and easy to get along with

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center
Jasper barking at a turtle then when the turtle went into the water, Jasper went after it and pulled out a rock, carried off shore 20 yards and sat down and watched it

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?
Jumping in the cold lake to get clean – only on sauna days

What are some things you miss?
Miss family and cats. Girlfriend

What do you wish everyone knew about the center?
The Castle

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?
French Toast

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?
Walk around enjoy Nature; fishing

3 words to describe yourself
Fun loving, Caring, Curious

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Michael Payne goes by the nickname “Milo.” He lives in Elk River where he likes to D.J., play music, run track, fish and draw. As an Apprentice at the Steger Wilderness Center, Milo is intent on learning the craft of stone masonry, and acquiring as much knowledge as he can to one day build something like this for his own family. He greatly values the self-reliance that characterizes the Center and the way everyone takes care of each other. “There is always someone there to help. Everyone helps everyone else constantly.” Milo is a thoughtful listener who soaks up the words of Will and Johnny Ray because he values their intelligence, experience and wisdom. He has taken to Johnny Ray’s retired sled-dog, Jasper, whom he gladly watched after while the Mayor was away on a photo assignment. He got Jasper howling in response to his nearly perfect wolf howl. Milo also likes to hang with fellow Apprentice, Karl. As Milo puts it, they make a ‘power-packed team’, whether it’s on the job site, canoeing, or on the epic hike to Ely and back.

Do you have a nickname? What’s the story behind your nickname?

‘Milo’ derived from Michael

What was your first impression of Will?
Very smart man. Has a lot of wise things to say and to learn from.

What are some strengths you bring to the group?

Friendly, cool person to get along with. Very positive. Don’t jump to conclusions; search for reasons behind situations

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?

As much knowledge as I can to hopefully build something like this for your family. Recreate self-sufficiency as a way of taking care of your family or anyone in need. Learn the craft of stonemasonry.

Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices

All pretty cool. Get along well with each other. Work well with Karl making a “power packed team”. Fun to hang out with after work day. Everyone here is really positive.

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center

Sitting down in Hobo Village around the campfire talking with ‘The Mayor’, aka Johnny Ray. Much to learn his intelligence and experience; same goes for Will.

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?
Working the cement mixer. Fear of messing up. But I’m facing it and getting better at it.

What are some things you miss?

Nothing except hanging out in downtown Mpls. Showering daily.

What do you wish everyone knew about the center?

How positive the place is, not just a place of hard work. The hard work is very rewarding. There is always someone there to help. Everyone helps everyone constantly

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?

Hot ham sammies

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?

Canoeing, hiking, hanging out with Jasper

Fun fact about yourself?
An awesome wolf howl.

3 words to describe you.

Chill, Calm, Collective, Friendly, Thinker

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For Matt Wente, this is the first time he’s been away from his home in Glencoe for this long. Although he misses his parents and his cats, he is adjusting well to life at the Steger Wilderness Center. “M.C,” as he is called by the others, recounts how the first day on the job was very demanding, as Master Stonemason Ian McKiel had the Apprentices hauling tons of rock by hand. But his great physical strength allowed him to rise to the challenge. Matt appreciates knowing that he can do a trade and he also likes getting acquainted with others. He is already known for being loquacious. In his free time Matt likes to read, take naps, and talk with Johnny Ray, the Mayor of Hobo Village, whose dog Jasper is a “real live sled dog”.

Hometown? Occupation? Other background info?

Glencoe, MN. Enjoys relaxing, playing video games.

Do you have a nickname? What’s the story behind your nickname?
“Up here they call me “M.C” because some of my friends call me that, and it stuck.

What was your first impression of Will?

“A really nice guy. He knows his stuff and has an amazing outlook.”

What are some strengths you bring to the group?
Not exactly sure; came in with an open mind. Physical strength. A good talker.

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?

Some physical strength. Knowing that I can do a trade. Getting acquainted with people

Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices

A lot of joking around with each other, helps keep everyone amused and even motivated.

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center

The first day: putting down the footing for the first wall. Listening to Johnny Ray’s stories and meeting Jasper, a real live sled dog.

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?

Getting along well with others, not knowing how far to go with others.

What are some things you miss?
My parents and my cats

What do you wish everyone knew about the center?

How nice it is visually. Not very many have heard or seen it.

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?

Beans

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?

Just hanging out; going to Hobo Village, taking naps, reading

Fun fact about yourself?

Only know two people in Canada so far

3 words to describe you
Open minded, friendly, loquacious

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Karl Beachem takes a lot of pride in his work. Back home in Mora, he worked at Plastech in Rush City, and in his free time worked on cars and liked to hang out with his Dad. At the Steger Wilderness Center he is “having fun while bustin’ ass”, building walls around The Castle. Although he can do without the bug bites, he says that he is going to keep coming back until The Castle is complete. That kind of determination underscores everything Karl does, even in his off time. Because of his love of hiking and exploring, Karl made a hike to Ely and back on his day off, about 20 miles round trip, to see the wolf pups at the International Wolf Center. Because he didn’t realize that admission was not free and he didn’t bring any money, he did not get to see the wolves, but Karl didn’t complain. He was happy with the journey itself.

Hometown? Occupation? Other background info?

Mora is my homewotwn, I work at Plastech in Rush City. I enjoy working on cars, walking in the woods and hanging out with Dad

Do you have a nickname? What’s the story behind your nickname?

CK, which stands for “Crazy Karl” or “Snow Cheetah” because of my speed

What was your first impression of Will?

Interesting for all the things he’s done and the places he’s gone

What are some strengths you bring to the group?

Hard worker, have fun at work while busting ass, set example and spur others to the task

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?

Coming back after the Apprenticeship. Refreshing stone masonry skills

Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices

Get along with others, enjoy activities with other. Everyone’s nice and fun to hang out with

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center

Seeing and then working on the Castle. A lot of Nature to explore

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?

Bug bites

What are some things you miss?

Close friends

What do you wish everyone knew about the center?

That it’s a good place to be if you want to get away

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?
Hot hammies

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?
Canoeing, Walking (took a 20 mile walk on your day off), Exploring

Fun fact about yourself?

Like to work hard and easy to get along with

3 words to describe you.

Hard working, laid back, friendly

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Kayden Nordquist, who also answers to ‘Lilo’, brings a lot of good energy and a contagious smile to the Stone Masonry Apprenticeship program at the Steger Wilderness Center. Kayden calls Polk County home, where he worked in printing and fabrication before coming up to the Center. As a young adult who identifies as transgender, he revels in the wilderness community which he is now an integral and welcome member of. He reports that everyone here has left a good and lasting impression on him: “It truly is a Homestead that really brings people together into a tightly knit group.” Kayden will continue as a Resident for the rest of the summer. He aims to come back next summer as a full-fledged Resident. Kayden considers his most memorable moment so far to be looking down from the third tier of the Roman Road at the stone wall he helped build. In his free time, Kayden likes to hike, fish, write and draw. He is making the most of his experience as an Apprentice and will be Johnny Ray’s assistant photographer.

Hometown? Occupation? Other background info?
Hometown= Polk County. Printing and fabrication (quit before coming up here)
Hiking, fishing, camping, writing and drawing (likes art)

What was your first impression of Will?
Busy trying to keep the community going, down to earth and level headed. He’s calm and collected

What are some strengths you bring to the group?
Work well with others, especially in a small group dynamic. Good energy and contagious smile

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?

Hopes to become a full Resident for the remainder of the summer. Currently seeking skills that will lead to future employment in trade and then come back next summer to the center.


Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices

“They all have really good energy”, everyone here is someone I would like to have as friends, all making good and lasting impressions

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center

Standing on third tier of the Roman road looking down at the completed wall

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?
Handling the bitter cold of the lake and keeping the bugs out of the tent, spiders in particular


What are some things you miss?

Clean clothes and a hot shower


What do you wish everyone knew about the center?

How much of a community it is; it truly is a Homestead that really brings people together into a tightly knit group

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?
Jenna’s bread


What do you enjoy doing during your free time?

Hiking and fishing, exploring the castle, photography


3 words to describe you

Energetic, caring, free spirited

IMG_1077“Living the dream”, that’s how Jess Nimmo, aka ‘Nemo’, describes her Stone Masonry Apprenticeship at the Steger Wilderness Center. Before arriving here, Jess, who hails from North Branch, lived in Des Moines and Arizona, where she worked construction and went to school for welding. Coming up to the Steger Wilderness Center allowed her to obtain new skills in the trades while experiencing a wilderness setting. She said this is something she has always wanted to do – to live simply and locally, in a self-sustaining community. As she puts it, this kind of living makes it easier to keep a clear mind and live in peace. Because of her deep admiration for what Will has accomplished and the way he chooses to live, Jess hopes she can stay on as a Resident after her Apprenticeship. She has demonstrated the positive attitude and work ethic to make the move, but sadly there may not be enough funding to keep her longer.

Hometown? Occupation? Other background info?
North Branch. Worked at a Custom Finishing industries. 24 years old. School for welding. Moved up here from Arizona a month ago. Two years in AZ. 1 year in Des Moines working construction.

Do you have a nickname? What’s the story behind your nickname?
Nemo. Derived from movie and similarity with her last name.


What was your first impression of Will?

Thinks he’s crazy in a good way. Pretty insane for someone to do expeditions he has and build the Steger Wilderness Center. Great admiration for his accomplishments and for the way he chooses to live. “I think he’s living the dream”

What are some strengths you bring to the group?
Good at mediating situations – interpersonal skills and communication. Cheerful disposition – generally a happy person. Get along well with others. Avoid negativity especially in the work place.

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?
Obtaining new skills, both in the trades and in wilderness survival. Even though this is not roughing it, there are a lot of conveniences that we learn to live without. Working as a close knit team and producing quality products. Always wanted to do something like this; wants to stay here the rest of the summer, even as long as I can. Living in a commune in the middle of nowhere has long been a topic of conversation with my friends. Keeping it simple and local makes it easier to keep a clear mind and live in peace.

Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices
Everyone here works really well as a team. Instinctively they know what needs to be done. Mutual respect for the most part. No one is fighting over responsibilities or spewing negativity.

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center
Fishing for the first time in 10 years. Finishing the wall was an amazing sense of accomplishment; taking pride in this accomplishment, adding to the beauty and grandeur of this place

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?
Bathing in the lake because the water is so cold

What are some things you miss?
Hot showers, even though sauna is amazing. My family and pets.

What do you wish everyone knew about the center?
That people knew about it in general – the amazing work it does as a non profit. “I’ve got a whole handful of friends who would love to be a part of what we have here. It is really living the dream, as far as I’m concerned”

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?
Amanda’s hot Ham and cheese sandwiches

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?
Hiking, fishing, hanging out by the fire, listening to live music, conversing with everyone.

Fun fact about yourself?
Love adventure

3 words to describe you.
Adventurous, Spontaneous, Considerate