Will Steger, June 7, 2019:

“It’s a nice peaceful evening, as it usually is on these long expeditions. I’m anxious to get back and see everybody and get in sync with a beautiful summer in Minnesota.
I’ll say my final goodbye here on day 75 — it’s been a really wonderful trip for me and I’ve learned a lot.”

Click the map to track Will’s exact location  ^

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.