We remodeled our sauna! After 25 years of use by Center staff and guests, the sauna needed a little TLC. Assistant Director Jenna Pollard shows us all the improvements that SWC residents and Summit Academy students made in just three workdays.

Follow along as Jenna leads a brand new group of Summit Academy students around the Homestead and shows them our solar array, wood shop, lodge, sauna, and lake village. Along the way we meet three of our dearest community animals — Jasper the sled dog, Mr. Chips the beaver, and Goliath the snapping turtle!

Two massive stone masonry projects — the Roman road and grand staircase — are finally coming together at the Steger Wilderness Center! Learn about this multi-year project from master stone mason Ian McKiel and his students.

Wilderness Word
by Jenna Pollard

June 27, 2018

Berry season has officially begun here at the SWC. Wild strawberries dot the roadsides, juneberries (also called saskatoons or serviceberries) are slowly darkening from a light pink to a deep purple, and our most famous forest forage, the blueberry, has just begun to fill our cupped hands as we walk from our tents to the lodge in the morning. A perfect addition to a steaming bowl of oatmeal! We still have thimbleberries, raspberries, blackberries, dewberries, gooseberries and currants to look forward to as berry season continues. I remember residents last year bringing pockets, hands and mason jars brimming with assorted berries to breakfast each morning. I can hardly wait for that time here!

Today was a day of teamwork as we tackled the completion of the first wall tent. We always have diverse projects going on simultaneously, but today brought a rare day of large group work with four to eight of us working together at a time on the tent. Some things needed to be fixed, others finished. We now have nearly three completed rooms with painted walls and stained white pine floors. All we need are screen doors, bunks and a porch to be ready for our next Summit Academy student group’s arrival in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday night brought with it another exciting town run; dirty laundry washed, groceries purchased and blueberry custard eaten. The farmer’s market is growing in Ely, and this is the first week we’ve had fresh greens and vegetables available for purchase. Our own garden has begun to produce substantial amounts of kale and chard, with radishes and broccoli a close second. We’ve had warm weather and regular rain, and our garden shows it. Snap peas, beans and lettuce heads are growing fast. Our journey to zero waste and self-sufficiency feels the most underway when we’re serving food grown from our own garden at meals. With the dedication of residents and staff (particularly Louis), this summer is proving to be a standard-setter as actively pursue our goals in food management. While checking out the chard and kale beds with Will this morning he said to me, “It hasn’t been like this since the seventies. We always grew our own food then; it was a priority. It’s a dream to see residents working so hard in the garden.”

June 29, 2018

The middle of this past week brought the most remarkably sunny skies we’ve experienced yet this summer. It was a surprise to wake up this morning to rumbling thunder and a sudden rush of rain falling in sideways sheets. We sat together on the porch of the Lodge watching the rain fall. All of us except Aurora, who used the rainfall as a free shower and grabbed the nearest bar of soap to take full advantage of the opportunity. The rain very slowly cleared, and indoor projects (like the cubby room we’re working on) made some headway.
Tina and Kelsey have become confident in their measuring, lay out and circular saw skills and as soon as the rain cleared they finished up the floor in the wall tent. It’s so beautiful! Al and Benjamin set out to complete screen doors for the tent and devise a way to secure the canvas to the wooden frame. This project is becoming more and more of a puzzle as we continue! Luckily, we’ll have a chance to do it all over again with the second tent, and will hopefully bypass many of the mistakes we made in the process of learning with this one.
I couldn’t believe how fast this week flew! Although we all looked completely beat at 5pm today when we sat down for grilled cheese sandwiches and curry (courtesy of Justin and Kelsey), I was able to rally the troops to play a game of volleyball. Rita Mae and Morgan returned from a week-long trip to Colorado and joined us, making it a seven-on-seven, unforgettable game. Swimming in Picketts and singing around the Hobo Village campfire wrap up another solid week of work on the homestead.
– JP

Aurora cuts down a tree, Justin picks up nails, Jenna builds a wall, Louis burns a pine cone, Johnny Ray makes pictures, and Kelsey jumps in the lake on June 25, 2018 at the Steger Wilderness Center. Watch excerpts from the full video dispatch below:

The resident forester at the Steger Wilderness Center burns a jack pine cone. This “serotnious” species makes cones that open to release their seeds in response to fire. What’s the ecological purpose of such a life-history trait? Let’s ask Louis.

There are fewer balsam trees in the woods every day at the Steger Wilderness Center thanks in part to Aurora, chainsawer. Thinning overabundant balsam lowers the fuel load in the forest and encourages the growth of other species like white pine, red pine, blueberries, and hazelnuts.

Wilderness Word
by Jenna Pollard

June 25, 2018

A return to normalcy! A bit of a joke as there is no “normal” here at the Center, but after a weekend hosting the “Life Off the Grid” workshop sponsored by Anoka-Ramsey Community College, it feels like home again with just our core crew of staff and residents around the breakfast table this morning.

Will and I put our heads together to prioritize projects for the next few weeks before our next Summit Academy student group arrives. We’ll be focusing on finishing up our first wall tent so that visiting students and volunteers can stay there rather than having to bring their own tents. It’s a huge improvement and helps minimize our impact on this delicate landscape.

We had a chillier-than-usual morning, perfect for sweaty work in the woods. Our crews today divided and conquered – eradicating balsam fir from the surrounding forest, hauling brush, installing flooring and pouring concrete for a wrap-around porch at the wall tent. It was a cool, partly-cloudy day and the upbeat energy of the residents on the job site made the time fly.

Our meals were over-loaded with weekend leftovers. An end-of-the day swim was a perfect Monday nightcap and a beautiful start to a productive week!


Listen to “Do the Wilderness” written and sung by visiting Summit Academy student Ivan Kipapula, recorded by the Steger Wilderness Center family band, Irony Waters:

Click on the photos below to watch interviews with the Summit students. Portraits made by John Ratzloff.

Watch the full ‘Summit Academy Builders’ 2018 documentary here:

Wilderness Word
by Jenna Pollard

June 14, 2018

It seemed today like the previous nights’ sauna brought everyone refreshed to the breakfast table. With a cloudless sky, the heat of the day came on quickly.

I worked with Beth to design a joint in two 4” x 10” beams that would bear the load of an eight-foot overhang off the back of the second tent platform. Two weeks ago you would have thought there was enough wood here to build a small town, but with these two wall tents alone we’ve made a major dent in our milled wood supply.

By 10:30am Mike and his crew were ready to put the canvas on their nearly-finished tent frame. All hands were on deck as we un-boxed the large canvas tent, transported it to the top of the structure and slowly worked it down the rafters and over the walls of the frame. It seemed everyone was holding their breath as the canvas came into place; wondering if it would fit. It did! We laughed and clapped and high-fived in the joy of hard work and success. Lunch came soon after.

The high sun had everyone feeling a bit exhausted and preparation for the afternoon required plenty of drinking water and sunscreen. I joined Al’s crew for most of the afternoon building two small outhouses to accompany the new wall tent sites. Al modeled the outhouses off of others on the property, but with a twist: we used leftover slab wood from winter milling to side the structures. They’ll blend right in with the forest around them.

After supper many of us went swimming. Paddle-carving continues around the fire at Hobo Village, with Kelsey, Caitlin and Stitch joining in tonight. Our rule is: carve one paddle for use at the Center and then you can carve one for yourself. It’s a very motivating rule!

Will returned home this evening after a week away fundraising. It’s good to have him back. His deep history with this place colors every conversation he’s a part of and makes the experience for residents, students and guests so rich. He joined us around the Hobo fire while we carved paddles, John shared homemade fried potatoes and Summit students met our friendly resident snapping turtle, Goliath.

The wind is picking up tonight and thunder is rumbling to the north. Tomorrow may bring rain; all the better for the garden!

June 15, 2018

It’s the last day of our first Summit Academy student group’s two week stay. I can’t believe we’ve had students stay for only one week in the past. These two weeks have flown, and with the addition of a second week to the program we were able to develop a much stronger connection with the students. They felt more at home here, they knew where to find tools, and they had a weekend to themselves to explore and recreate.

I’m sad to see this group go, and I can hardly wait for the next group to show up in three weeks. Today day was spent wrapping up projects. Summer residents and Summit students worked together to construct two new outhouses.

Everyday I’m surprised by what my position holds here. Today it was a combination of operating a chainsaw and helping staff complete invoices. I’ll never get bored!

The end of the day brought an unforgettable meal – chickpea curry with rice, quinoa and a sweet potato and cabbage salad. We had almost thirty people at the meal, and the energy of finishing our projects was tangible.

We were treated at the end of the day with a tour of the Center with Will. He took the time to share with us his vision, the building process and stories from his past. Without doubt we were all inspired. We swam, made music and enjoyed our last night together around the Hobo campfire.


Wilderness Word – June 13, 2018
by Jenna Pollard

Today was another beautiful, sunny day. I began it on the edge of the lake with Will (Beaton), Johnny Ray and Beth, sipping coffee and watching the pine pollen swirl on the surface of the water. Breakfast included sourdough pancakes, a homestead staple! The sourdough was gifted to us by a local friend, making the treat all the more sweet.

At our 8am meeting we quickly divided into work groups and began an arduous work day. Mike Deboer’s crew finished the framing for the first wall tent so that we should be able to drop the canvas tomorrow.

Beth’s crew worked on laying out the floor framing for the second wall tent. A large aspen stump next to the platform needed to be excavated to make room for a walkway around the tent. Mabel, Tristen and Sophia made a full afternoon of work out of removing the stump.

In the lodge, Trevor and Justin continued work on our new cubby room and installed a new book shelf. We also continued work in the garden, excavating soil for pouring our solar array foundation later this summer.

In the wood shop, Elena, Andrew and Tina finished planing and began jointing the boards for the wall tent floors. Al, Kelsey and Darren are nearly finished putting siding on a new portable outhouse to support the new Summit tent camp.

After a big supper of build your own burritos we headed to the sauna. At 170 degrees Fahrenheit, our pores opened to expel the dirt, sawdust and grime that they had been collecting over the previous few days’ work. A dip in the lake is all we need to achieve the highest level of cleanliness to get us though the rest of the week.

It’s a true testament to the Center’s value of community that after working together, living together and sharing meals everyday, we still find joy in rubbing shoulders, sharing stories and laughing in the evenings.

Around the Hobo Village fire after sauna, Tina and I worked on carving our canoe paddles while we talked about the purpose of the Center and its futuristic mission with Ivan, one of the Summit Academy students. I called it an early night around 8pm, eager to catch up on sleep in preparation for another big day tomorrow. It promises to be a sunny one!


Wilderness Word – June 12, 2018
by Jenna Pollard

I woke up at 4:30am today to the morning chorus of warblers outside my cabin window. In the three weeks I’ve been at the Steger Wilderness Center (SWC) this summer I haven’t yet adjusted to being able to sleep through it.

The morning began with drizzling rain, yet the forecast promised sunny skies to come. Breakfast was delicious – a combination of leftover oatmeal with fresh strawberries and breakfast burritos made with last night’s taco leftovers. We try not to waste anything around here!

At our 8am meeting, we divided goals for the day and set to work. The Summit Academy students were split into three working groups. One group assisted Mike Deboer in completing the framing of a 20 ‘ x 24’ framework for a wall tent to be used by future student groups. Another group worked with Beth Halverson to layout the piers for a second tent platform.

One Summit Academy student worked with Elena Lavorato and Al Osberg in the wood shop to plane down pine boards for the tent platform’s floor. The resident crew supported Summit’s work by digging stumps, trenching a waterway and mixing concrete with our concrete mixer, “Mixy”. The concrete pour lasted all morning and into the afternoon. There was hardly time for a dip in the lake over lunch.

Resident Trevor Hawver spent the entire day in the Bobcat, excavating soil and gravel to make room for the foundation of our new solar array which will go up later this summer. Resident Justin Halverson and I worked together in the afternoon to complete much-needed structural and flooring improvements in our main gathering space – The Lodge, the Center’s longest-standing structure.

We ended our day with a meal from the grill – chicken, brats and vegetarian falafel. Many went to jump in the lake to clean up a bit before heading into Ely for once-weekly “town night”. We choose Tuesdays because the local farmer’s market is held in the city park on Tuesday. In-town errands are run, laundry is done, live music is danced to and a restaurant-made meal is indulged on. Tonight it was Vietnamese food from Oriental Orchid and homemade custard from Red Cabin Custard for many. We carpool into town, and on the way home my car stopped all along the driveway to harvest wild rose petals.

Once home, we made them into jam, known by many as “Ambrosia”. Indeed it is! The night wrapped up with a kombucha-making instructional in the Lodge kitchen. Many residents are interested in crafting their own kombucha, and because the kombucha’s scoby self-propagates weekly, we’re able to share the skills and delicious drink with all who are interested.

On most nights the crew is in bed by 10pm. Sunset is just a little before, and the sunrise comes all-too-soon at 05:00. It can be challenging to get enough sleep with all of the good things to do here!  

The photos below are from the first couple weeks of this summer’s wilderness crew in action. Check out the Snapping Turtle laying eggs in the warm fire pit. Snappers and Painted Turtles have been laying eggs in the sandy soil all over the homestead this past week.

In the photo of the canoe and floating moss hummock, you’ll see the carnivorous Sundew (Drocera rotundifolia). Amenities Director Mabel Smebakken and I took a paddle trip into the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last weekend. We saw swans, fox, turtles, beaver, and a host of other bird species during our trip. We regularly take advantage of nearby paddle opportunities throughout the summer to refresh our minds and our bodies for the next work week. This was the season’s first!