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.”

This past weekend the Steger Wilderness Center came to life with a community rallying around clean energy. Will Steger and a group of friends gathered to cut ice from Homestead lake. Every year the ice harvest is different. This year’s Ice Ball turned out to be an unusually wet one. Steger said, “Two years ago we had over twenty four inches of ice, it was a record thickness for us and this year was a record thin. We only had about eight inches of clear ice maximum.” Despite having to work in about ten inches of water, the gathering was a success. By the end of the evening the ice house was full.

I have been cutting ice since 1967. Back then I lived two lakes from the nearest road and I had just finished building my log cabin (which I still live in today). I remember how comfortable it was having shelter in the wilderness for the first time.

My next biggest need was refrigeration. My solution? Digging out a primitive ice house down by the lake and covering it with a log roof and 4 feet of soil.
In Ely, MN there were still plenty of ice saws and thongs remaining in old sheds used before the advent of electricity when ice was the only source of refrigeration . The old timers willingly parted with their tools knowing that they were going to be put back to good use. I spent many afternoons around their kitchen tables, drinking coffee and soaking up their stories of horse teams pulling sled loads of ice from lakes to huge ice houses that would be used by the community throughout the summer.

Cutting ice at the Homestead since then has not only been a tradition but it is a necessity. My goal when I moved into the wilderness in the late 60s was to be self-sufficient. I wanted to build all of the structures from the rock and wood from the surroundings, clear land for the gardens and forage and fish to meet my needs. And, I needed ice to keep our food fresh.

I have never used fossil fuels for refrigeration, I have only cut ice.

Today we have a first class ice house build from cement blocks with a reinforced concrete ceiling covered with ten feet of soil that nourishes the virgin pines above. The mini-forest above the ice house shade the ground and keeps the earth cool so our ice will last throughout the summer. It works so well that as we start cutting ice this year we much first throw out the left over ice from the winter before.

Ice cutting is labor intensive and our annual event has grown to a what is now known as the Ice Ball or the annual Homestead ice harvest. Lisa Ringer’s four work horses that haul tons of ice out of the lake are the central Spirit of this 60-person operation and celebration.

The day is brisk and busy as scores of people cut and form teams to haul the ice out of the lake and ready to be loaded on the sled. Then there are the stackers who tightly pack the ice blocks in the icehouse. Later, the full icehouse is covered by dry sawdust from the shop. Sawdust provides an effective layer of insulation that dramatically slows the melting. The ice will last from the first week of February, when it is cut, to well past October.

In the end, the tools are put away for the another year, the horses are bedded down and the party begins.

There are cooks and helpers in the kitchen that feed this working mob.The festivities start with a feast. A string of smiling red cheeked people holding empty plates weaves its way to the counter and the steaming food. Corks from wine bottles are popped, the keg is tapped, conversations flow. Later the music starts, most listen some dance.

As the evening progresses a bonfire is lit once again drawing the grows into the cold air.

In the early AM, when the spring constellations rise, the fortunate sleep in beds while the remaining sleep on mats and cots in the heated wood shop.

At first light the local wolf pack howls.

I have been cutting ice since 1967. Back then I lived two lakes from the nearest road and I had just finished building my log cabin (which I still live in today). I remember how comfortable it was having shelter in the wilderness for the first time.

My next biggest need was refrigeration. My solution? Digging out a primitive ice house down by the lake and covering it with a log roof and 4 feet of soil.
In Ely, MN there were still plenty of ice saws and thongs remaining in old sheds used before the advent of electricity when ice was the only source of refrigeration . The old timers willingly parted with their tools knowing that they were going to be put back to good use. I spent many afternoons around their kitchen tables, drinking coffee and soaking up their stories of horse teams pulling sled loads of ice from lakes to huge ice houses that would be used by the community throughout the summer.

Cutting ice at the Homestead since then has not only been a tradition but it is a necessity. My goal when I moved into the wilderness in the late 60s was to be self-sufficient. I wanted to build all of the structures from the rock and wood from the surroundings, clear land for the gardens and forage and fish to meet my needs. And, I needed ice to keep our food fresh.

I have never used fossil fuels for refrigeration, I have only cut ice.

Today we have a first class ice house build from cement blocks with a reinforced concrete ceiling covered with ten feet of soil that nourishes the virgin pines above. The mini-forest above the ice house shade the ground and keeps the earth cool so our ice will last throughout the summer. It works so well that as we start cutting ice this year we much first throw out the left over ice from the winter before.

Ice cutting is labor intensive and our annual event has grown to a what is now known as the Ice Ball or the annual Homestead ice harvest. Lisa Ringer’s four work horses that haul tons of ice out of the lake are the central Spirit of this 60-person operation and celebration.

The day is brisk and busy as scores of people cut and form teams to haul the ice out of the lake and ready to be loaded on the sled. Then there are the stackers who tightly pack the ice blocks in the icehouse. Later, the full icehouse is covered by dry sawdust from the shop. Sawdust provides an effective layer of insulation that dramatically slows the melting. The ice will last from the first week of February, when it is cut, to well past October.

In the end, the tools are put away for the another year, the horses are bedded down and the party begins.

There are cooks and helpers in the kitchen that feed this working mob.The festivities start with a feast. A string of smiling red cheeked people holding empty plates weaves its way to the counter and the steaming food. Corks from wine bottles are popped, the keg is tapped, conversations flow. Later the music starts, most listen some dance.

As the evening progresses a bonfire is lit once again drawing the grows into the cold air.

In the early AM, when the spring constellations rise, the fortunate sleep in beds while the remaining sleep on mats and cots in the heated wood shop.

At first light the local wolf pack howls.

Living a simple life on the Homestead not only helps one understand just how many things most would consider necessity to be superfluous, but also to appreciate the things that might seem easily obtained elsewhere – namely, fresh produce. On the Homestead, an emphasis is placed on the relationship between the food consumed and the surrounding eco systems.

Living a simple life on the Homestead not only helps one understand just how many things most would consider necessity to be superfluous, but also to appreciate the things that might seem easily obtained elsewhere – namely, fresh produce. On the Homestead, an emphasis is placed on the relationship between the food consumed and the surrounding eco systems.

Summer weather means magnificent garden salads for lunch made of arugula, collard, mustard greens, and sprinkled with edible wildflowers and herbs gathered from the grounds, so that the serving bowl is overflowing with rich leafy greens, pink and purple flowers, and dotted with fresh blueberries and strawberries.

In charge of the gardens and harvests is Minnesota-native Seamus Fitzgerald, who has been using organic practices to raise food crops for four years. Before arriving at the Homestead this spring, Seamus worked at Garden Farme, an organic farm located in Anoka. Although the Homestead had all the garden beds in place, the hope was that this would be the year to truly increase the amount of food prodoucd, which meant a considerable amount of planning and work. “It wasn’t overwhelming…,” Seamus explains, “but there were a lot of questions. It was a big unknown.” He describes the work of getting the gardens into shape as exhausting, but interesting. Even with his initial sketches and perpetrations, much adaptation was required. Mostly, Seamus describes the process as a sort of grand experiment, as he works to learn what will and will not flourish in the Homestead’s gardens and studies the native flora of the area.

This season marks what is hoped to be the first of many successive ones to come. In addition to an abundance of salad greens, hardy crops like turnips, beets, carrots, beans, and peas have been planted , all from open-pollinated, heirloom seeds. Seamus hopes that in the future, the garden will be a model of diversity, both in the biological and community sense. He believes that gardens are a gateway to study eco systems and human relations – a place for both scientific and personal discovery. When practiced, gardening leads to bigger questions, such as: ‘How does a culture adapt to its place?’ ‘How do you have a sustained physical relationship with your environment?’ “Gardening opened up all of this for me,” says Seamus. “It’s about learning to live with a place, and not on it.”

Famous polar explorer and life-long educator Will Steger spends much of his time these days building a legacy outside Ely, Minnesota. “For the past 19 years I’ve been working on this education center,” Will says as he weaves his way between stacks of lumber, crates of tile, and various machinery being put to use in erecting the most impressive structure in the region. “The hardest decision I ever made was to put a road in. But, no way! was I bringing in an electric line.”

Self-sufficiency is a code he and others here have lived by for 4 decades. But as the center nears completion in the next year, the need for energy cannot be ignored. “People from the cities won’t come up here without some of the basic amenities they are used to, such as flush toilets and electric lights. The plan has always included renewable energy such as solar, but exactly how it would be done had not yet been determined.

Enter Team Sundial. Owner Jon Kramer has known Will for many years and they both share the same vision of teaching people about the Earth and respect for the environment. “I met Will while I was living in Grand Marais back in the early 80’s, just prior to his famous arctic expeditions” Jon says. “Recently he invited me up to his Homestead to show me what he’s been up to. I was blown away by what he’s done!” The plan impressed Jon and he dove in with both feet. “There’s nothing more important than education and whatever we can do to help Will in this vital message we must do. It is our responsibility.”

Over the past summer the Sundial team donated and installed a pole-mounted PV system at the Homestead to test the performance of a new technology in preparation for a much larger installation next year. The installation went well and so far the testing has exceeded expectations. “The PV system is a real luxury,” Will said “plenty of power and silent as sunshine.”

Will Steger with Sundial owner Jon Kramer (left) and General Manager Wayne LaForge (middle)

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Jon teaches an off-grid class at the battery shed.

The array overlooks the lake at Will’s Homestead.

Testing the pole mounting head.

Team Leader Tom Jandric hauls in a solar panel to install on the pole.

Jon and Tom bolting down the panels.