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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.

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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

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Jake Rhoda, from Becker, signed on to the Stone Masonry Apprenticeship program to learn new skills and meet new people. He enjoys fishing, so spending a month at the Steger Wilderness Center, which is surrounded by lakes, was an added attraction for Jake. Although he misses his family and friends, especially his girlfriend, Jake appreciates the benefits of being at the Center that go beyond learning stone masonry. He enjoys working with his fellow apprentices and residents who values being part of a team that cares about this place and are working together to make a positive impact on the world. As Jake puts it, his eyes have been opened in so many ways.

What was your first impression of Will?
Really nice guy; that he loves being up here and is working for a good cause

What are some strengths you bring to the group?
Work hard and well with others. Set a good example

What do you hope to gain or what are you looking forward to this summer at the Center?
Learning different skills such as masonry and interacting with other people

Tell me about some of the interns, residents workers and apprentices
Everyone is nice and hard working. They complete the tasks

Tell me about a memorable moment you’ve experienced so far at the center
Jasper, Johnny Ray’s Siberian husky chasing after a turtle in the pond

What has been the most challenging thing for you so far?
The strenuous labor at first; more used it now

What are some things you miss?

My friends and family; Girlfriend

What do you wish everyone knew about the center?
How this place can open your eyes in so many different ways, open eyes to the people who work and care about this place

Favorite dishes to eat or cook so far?
French toast

What do you enjoy doing during your free time?

Hiking, canoeing, exploring, going into Ely once a week

3 words to describe you.
Funny, sarcastic, outgoing

IMG_4146 Jenna Pollard came up to the Steger Wilderness Center during the summer of 2009 after completing her junior year at the College of Saint Benedict. In 2013, she was an apprentice stonemason and volunteered for some time during the summer of 2015. During her last visit to the center, she asked Will for a position with more responsibility, and was offered the Summer Residency Program Manager position.
Growing up in Kimball, South Dakota, Jenna started building things from a young age. As she grew older, she learned how to do timber framing through DreamAcres Farm in southeast Minnesota, which has led her to take on several timber framing projects, including building her own small cabin on the prairie in South Dakota.
Prior to becoming the Residency Program Manager, Jenna used to bartend. During her shifts, she developed the nickname “Paddle” due to her all-too Minnesotan responses to customer inquiries.
Jenna is excited to go on weekend canoe trips with residents, staff and apprentices, swim in Pickett’s Lake every day, sauna twice a week and most of all: collecting berries! “I hope to take advantage of every opportunity to play, learn and grow this summer. I want to develop my community-building skills, push myself physically, challenge my problem-solving skills and spend as much time as possible quietly observing my beautiful surroundings,” Jenna said.
Jenna can always be found working on something with a smile on her face. “Trying to do everything and still get enough sleep at night is challenging,” Jenna said. “It’s nearly impossible when you consider the fact that daylight lasts from about 5am to 10pm now…and then there’s all the reasons to stay up until it gets dark: star gazing, listening for wolves and watching for the Aurora Borealis!”
Jenna says she’s always missing something, because she can’t be everywhere at once. After work, there are many activities around the homestead, whether it’s sauna, jam sessions in the atrium or hiking and paddling on Hobo Lake. “I just try to remain content in the present moment so that I’m not missing out on appreciating what I do choose to do,” Jenna said.
Jenna wishes that everyone who visits the center could see the unbelievable energy and companionship that’s generated by everyone in the community, and that no matter what the project is, the relationships that are created along the way are the most important “product” of the work here.
Her homemade bread is thoroughly enjoyed by all. “With 20+ mouths to feed, I could be resident baker and keep busy nearly all hours of the day,” Jenna said. “I try to make bread a few times a week, and have gotten good at kneading six loaves worth of a bread at a time.”
Others can rely on Jenna for her energetic, enthusiastic and adventurous spirit. In her free time, Jenna enjoys baking bread, taking photos of wildflowers and then identifying them, bird watching, fishing, canoeing, woodworking, hiking, playing guitar, singing with friends, tanning hides and cooking community meals.

IMG_4340 Before coming to the Steger Wilderness Center, Jake Potts went to Anoka Ramsey Community College and worked as a driver for UPS. The 26 year-old Coon Rapids, Minnesota, native first heard about the center through Peter Walhstrom, one of his professors at Anoka Ramsey.
Jake has been up to the center twice before this summer, for Ice Ball and a Boundary Waters Canoe Area excursion with Peter that he enjoyed.
His first impression of Will was that he’s a mysterious and private guy. Jake believes the center is a wilderness base for like-minded people to come work and learn from each other. “The actual function of the property is to be a homebase for people who have an interest in preserving or conserving wilderness and learning how to live sustainably,” he said.
This summer will be Jake’s first long-term stay at the center. With previous experience in underground telecommunication construction, he said, “this is by far the most versatile construction experience I’ve had so far.”
When Will needs someone to operate the bobcat, Jake is his go-to guy. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy,” he said. “One time I was backing out of Will’s driveway and I got a little too close to the edge.”
The other interns and apprentices can rely on Jake for being conscientious of what’s happening at the job site, what needs to happen next, and how to delegate work that needs to be done. Jake has grown into a leadership position at the center and has a sense of urgency when it comes to completing the task at hand.
Jake’s hoping to gain peace of mind and meet new people this summer. “I was kind of a hermit with work during the winter. I didn’t have a lot of social interaction and I get a peace of mind coming up north,” he said.
Jake is looking forward to seeing the projects completed and woodworking with Sugi, in order to gain the skills necessary to build his own pole barn and woodshop. Jake has enjoyed being around Jenna, the resident coordinator. “Jenna is a motivator. She’s the glue of our community,” he said.
Memorable moments include any gathering down at hobo village with Johnny Ray. “He’s complimented me countless times and helped me see the attributes that I don’t see in myself,” Jake said.
Jake would like people to know the residents are working hard to build a bridge between civilization and nature. “We like to have fun, but we’re working hard toward the end goal of being one with nature,” he said.
Jake misses his family. Around the workplace, Jake is hard-working, tolerant and respectful. One fun fact about him is that he shares the same birthday as John Wayne. In his free time, Jake likes to sit back with a beer, observe people and get to know them.