Youth Undergrowth

When the gales of this summer’s big storm blew beyond the Steger Wilderness Center, it
seemed to have trailered in its own recovery crew. A team from Summer Youth Corps (SYC)
rode in just days later to help wrangle the aftermath.


The Summer Youth Corps with Will Steger: (back row, L to R) Laura Pratt, Will Steger, Sam Lancaster, Kristi Yang, Hannah Weiss, Charlie Reber; (front row, L to R) June Roettger and Yang (James) Deng.

SYC is a youth development program of Conservation Corps Minnesota (CCM) geared toward high school age students. It provides hands-on work and personal growth experiences in natural resource fields, among others. For many of those youth, the opportunity is their first paying job.

Crew leader Hannah Weiss is a senior at the University of Vermont where she’s studying environmental science. She described the SYC work as physically demanding. It started with basic training at base camp in St. Croix State Park along the St. Croix River. Afterward, the crew departed on what CCM calls “spikes,” a variety of environmental projects often involving manual labor. The crew was on the move, traveling to projects that typically lasted from one to three weeks.

Weiss said the crew at the Wilderness Center focused primarily on cleanup from the July 21 blowdown. They hauled trees, brush and lumber, stacked wood and lopped branches. They also cut saplings from the hillside adjacent to the lake to encourage pine growth and expose the underlying greenstone.


SYC member Kristi Yang clears branches and brush as part of the cleanup at the Wilderness Center.

Kristi Yang, 17, lives in Brooklyn Park, Minn. She said she’s lived in a city environment all her life. But she heard stories from two friends who had participated in SYC and she decided to sign up. Other than helping her grandparents cart vegetables to a farmers’ market, she hadn’t had much exposure to manual labor. Previously, she was a cashier at a supermarket. Though the work for SYC was far different, she discovered something about herself.

“I really like it. I feel I was born to do this,” she said.

Charlie Reber, 16, is from St. Joseph, Minn. Four of his brothers have worked for SYC and one of them is currently on the staff at CCM. He said his brothers always told good stories of their experiences and he wanted to be part of it. Now that he’s had an intensive chance, he appreciates the work ethic he learned.


SYC members Charlie Reber (left) and Yang (James) Deng haul lumber at the center.

“The hardest part for me, was the [physical] work…[But] being here is not about the work. You don’t have to be physically able to perform on the job site…Just keep a steady pace. Keep quality over quantity,” he said.

According to Weiss, the crew normally resided at campgrounds, lived in tents and used camp stoves for cooking. But she said they were living in the lap of luxury at the Wilderness Center with kitchen facilities and sleeping accommodations—with beds—in the guest house.

“They love this place. They really enjoy having access to a full kitchen because that is an incredibly unique privilege,” she said.

Weiss also explained that the SYC hiring process mindfully selects a broad range of students with diverse personalities and backgrounds. She said this particular crew really stepped up and had few complaints. “I’m very proud of them. It’s not always the case with crews.”


The entire Summer Youth Corps crew spent hours lopping branches and cutting away saplings on the ledge wall beside the lake to encourage pine growth and expose the greenstone.

Samantha “Sam” Lancaster, 17, is from Somerset, Wis. She said she’s not a particularly social person, but intentionally joined SYC to leave her comfort zone. She didn’t know any of the other students and was nervous at base camp. She didn’t talk much at the time, but opened up afterward and she loved the work. She said the lopping sessions and time in the field allowed them to talk, get to know each other and become closer.

The Wilderness Center complex and the philosophy behind it also made an impression on the crew. Lancaster indicated an historical and physical appreciation for the setting.


“I like to think that I’m a little bit a part of that now, the hillside and clearing the brush,” she
said. Then she added, “I actually really like that it’s far away. You can see the stars at night.”

For Reber, the wilderness location and opportunity to work in it were second to none. “I’ve heard some spikes are weeding parking lots. Can you imagine that? So I think we’re really lucky,” he stated.


Evening offers a chance to rest and sing around the campfire.

Each crew member noted they had stand-out moments. Reber said he was amazed at how he learned to interact well with people who were from such different places. “Everyone’s got a different story. That’s what I think I can use the most. It’s being able to work with all different types of kids and everyone’s got a different personality.”

Likewise, Yang said the teamwork will stick in her memory. But she also won’t forget the
surroundings. “I’ll take time to appreciate the little nature we have in the Cities. People [there] don’t really pay attention to it.”

Lancaster said SYC was instrumental in helping her learn about working in environmental fields. She’d like to return to the Wilderness Center for one of the summer apprenticeships. “I really like how [Will] is so forward about the environment.”

For more information on Conservation Corps Minnesota, visit online at
or call 651-209- 9900.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

A pilot program that began two years ago at the Steger Wilderness Center has become a foundation and training ground for carpentry education, self-reliance and community. A crew of adult construction students from Summit Academy arrived at the center in July and a second team came in August for hands-on experience as part of their 20-week curriculum.


The construction crew takes a lighthearted breather: (standing, L to R) Hassan As-Sidiq, Bronson Sjolie, Terrance Neal and Gabe Corbesi; (sitting, L to R) Mike DeBoer, Will Steger, Courtney Harris and Beth Halverson.

Summit Academy instructor Beth Halverson led the week-long training programs for both crews. She explained the original program began as a collaboration between Will Steger and Summit Academy President Louis King. The first project involved constructing a cabin at the Wilderness Center. When it was completed, she and Steger liked the result so much they continued the program.

But rather than build more cabins, students now engage in a variety of maintenance projects to upgrade the grounds and refine carpentry skills. Projects included roofing, decking, woodshop work and detailing railings. The hands-on component of their curriculum had only begun two weeks before they arrived at the Wilderness Center. Halverson said some students had used carpentry tools before their schooling at Summit Academy, while others didn’t have a lick of practice.


Live at Hobo Village—Gabe Corbesi on guitar.

She noted that the overall experience teaches students a different way of working with raw materials and offers a better appreciation of carpentry itself. It’s on-the- job training like a typical day at a job site. Plus, working in a natural setting creates awareness of waste within the ecosystem.

Toward the end of their classroom education, students are also taught how to write resumes and cover letters. What’s more, Summit Academy brings in contractors to conduct mock interviews with the students.

All of the students participating in projects this summer live in the Twin Cities area. Some had never experienced outdoor life. Halverson called that opportunity a fantastic bridge between
urban and rural. It ran the gamut from the beauty of pristine wilderness to a violent wind storm. She’s found that when students return to the city and other Summit Academy students ask about the Wilderness Center, those who participated don’t hold back.

“Chests were pumped out,” she said. “They couldn’t talk enough about it.”


Rainey Lott detailed railing spindles in the woodshop.

Loretta “Rainey” Lott, 38, is originally from the south side of Chicago and now lives in St. Paul. Until she enrolled at Summit Academy, she had no construction experience. Until she arrived at the Wilderness Center, she had never been camping, fished or used an outhouse other than in a public park. Table saws, routers and recycled two-by- fours were on her to-do list at the Wilderness Center. She fashioned replacement spindles for railings at the center.

“Bringing that wood back to life, that was amazing to me,” she said. “Being able to see my work, I’m proud of that.”

She also knew very little about Will Steger. According to Lott, she was used to a fast life, living in the city, not even subconsciously caring about environmental concerns and her impact on it. Since her time at the Wilderness Center, she’s questioned herself. “What could I do as an individual to at least be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem?”


Eric Woods (left) and Carlos Hernandez align cedar shakes on the rooftop.

Gabe Corbesia, 35, lives in Minneapolis. His only prior experience in construction came when he was a kid and helped his dad who was a carpenter. But he said he didn’t remember much of what he learned. He’s also camped a little, but not like at the Wilderness Center. That alone has been a bonding experience with his classmates.

“Working with them and having to take a bath in a lake… they haven’t done it either. That brought us closer,” he said.

According to Halverson, exposure to teamwork and instilling a work ethic is perhaps the biggest benefit students derive from the Wilderness Center. It’s another bridge with far-reaching effects.


Terrance Neal works on the deck railing outside the center.

“It leads to their families. It leads to their friends,” she said. “There’s some beauty that’s
happening with people working together as one, as opposed to separating themselves.”

Lott described the experience as one big family. “I love that feel of it… Everybody is
approachable,” she said and added, “I can’t learn enough here. I need more time. I have to come back.”

Corbesia explained he’s made significant changes to turn his life around. His past included unproductive time mired in drugs. But he’s cleaned up and said the hands-on training at the Wilderness Center will help him attain his goals of union work in construction, and peace and stability in his personal life.

Lott said she never envisioned herself going into the construction field. However, her reasons for attending Summit Academy extend beyond carpentry. She’s started the “Bigger than You” foundation. It’s an advocacy nonprofit against gun violence with a focus on misled teens. Her proposed court divergence program includes teaching the construction trade to troubled youth. Eventually she hopes to purchase property as a site for their hands-on training like she’s received at the Wilderness Center. She’s closely observing Summit Academy as a curriculum model.


Bronson Sjolie (left), Hassan As-Sidiq (center) and Gabriel Corbesi secure roof panels.

Summit Academy President Louis King said the school’s mission is to help people get the skills, education and social networks they need to enter the economic mainstream. The partnership with the Steger Wilderness Center gets students out of the “concrete jungle,” helps the environment and allows them to practice their craft.

“We believe the best social services program in the world is a job,” King said.

For more information on Summit Academy visit online at

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

Three decades after their greatest triumph, Paul Schurke and Will Steger still have the itch to explore.
Both marked the 30th anniversary of their famed trek to the North Pole this week by launching new adventures, albeit a bit closer to home.
Schurke, who still operates a dogsled adventure business near Ely, left Tuesday morning with one of the original 1986 sleds for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where he was to meet up with adventurers Dave and Amy Freeman – who are in the midst of their own yearlong trek in the BWCAW.

Meanwhile Steger, who has become a leading and persistent voice in raising awareness about climate change, set off the same day on his own 30-day trek that will take him from Ontario’s Wabakimi Wilderness, across the Quetico Provincial Park and into the BWCAW, finishing at his Steger Wilderness Center off of the Fernberg Road.
The current adventures come 30 years after the Ely duo, together with fellow Minnesotan Ann Bancroft and five others, made history with a 1,000-mile ski and dog sled quest across the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole.
It was the first confirmed trek to the top of the world without resupply, the subject of a National Geographic cover story, a television special and best-selling book, and an adventure that even caught the attention of the White House.

They may not have known it at the time, as they prepared for a 1,000-mile mission in temperatures that at times exceeded minus-70, but their North Pole triumph would set the stage for careers in adventure.
“The North Pole trip defined my life and livelihood,” Schurke remembered in a written submission to the Echo. “Our home and businesses evolved around the skills, resources and adventure passions we gained from that expedition… Tackling a monumental challenge was fearful for all of us. But our success is now the quiet voice I hear every time I face new challenges that says ‘yea, you can pull this off too.’”
Schurke has traveled to the Arctic every year since the initial trek and together with his wife Sue, launched both the clothing business that is now Wintergreen Northern Wear as well as Ely’s Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.
Just four years after the North Pole triumph, Schurke led the Bering Bridge Expedition from Siberia to Alaska, hailed as a diplomatic venture that helped reopen the US-Soviet border and reunited native people on both continents.
In addition to operating his businesses, Schurke has focused on wildlands preservation and received the Environmental Hero award from the national Wilderness Society for his efforts.
It’s an evolution that began with the North Pole venture, one that Schurke looks back on with affinity, even with the extreme cold temperatures.
“I never remember being cold – we were working so hard that we were often too warm and worried about sweating out of our clothing systems,” he said.
It also was a trip that relied on dogsledding systems and navigation techniques that were decidedly traditional.
“They were much like those Robert Peary used starting with his first expedition in 1886, exactly 100 years before ours,” said Schurke. “All expeditions since ours have relied on high-tech superlight gear and electronic navigation.”
Like Schurke, Steger was only beginning his adventures when trekking to the North Pole, and he too has spent 30 years making an impact both in exploration and environmental advocacy.
In 1990, Steger completed a dogsled and ski traverse of Antarctica.
Other adventures have taken him across Greenland, as well as the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada by doglsed.
Steger has received National Geographic’s Oliver LaGorce Medal and is a leading spokesperson on climate change through the nonprofit Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy.
According to Steger, “lots” has changed about the North Pole in 30 years. The polar ice pack is 30 percent smaller and thinner and the team’s launch site is gone.
“Climate change has disintegrated our staging base, which was Coastal Canada’s Ward Hunt Ice Shelf,” said Steger. “It’s no longer possible to depart from there for the Pole. Arctic ice, which helps stabilize global weather systems, is rapidly diminishing.”


This year I am expanding on what I learned from my two previous expeditions of traveling on rivers at spring break up. I have doubled the distance I will be traveling and have moved my starting point to Northwestern Ontario, about 300 travel miles north of the Steger Wilderness Center. On the morning of March 7th, I will be boarding the Canadian Railroad (as a passenger) at the small village of Savant Lake, Ontario. The train will take me an hour to the east and drop me off at the bridge that crosses the Allan Water River. From there I will make my way south first by toboggan and then, as the ice begins to break up, by canoe sled.

I am leaving earlier this year with the hope of catching the mid-winter cold. I will be hauling a custom-made 10-foot toboggan with a 160 pound load of food, fuel and supplies. The county is especially challenging because of its remoteness, deep snow and flowing water. There are stretches of rivers where the danger is obvious but the challenge will be on many of the lakes with currents that creep through them. It looks like the break up will be early this year so the travel conditions will be a wild card.

A hundred travel miles into the trip, my route crosses the Trans-Canadian Highway. The village of Upsala is close by and I have made arrangements to cache my canoe sled and water gear there, along with a wet suit, food and fuel. The river section starts here at the Firesteel and the Siene River. I will traverse Lac des Mille Lac, cross the divide and head southwest down the French River drainage into the Northeast corner of the Quetico. I then follow the lakes and rivers south through the Quetico Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

In general, the travel will be slow at first because of deep snow. Five miles might be a good day. As the spring advances, the snow begins to melt down. At times a thick crust forms, providing fast travel. Often the days may be too slushy to travel but the surfaces freeze solid during the cold nights. In these circumstances, I travel at night navigating by the stars. Once the snows melt completely, the lake surfaces become iced and provide very fast travel. I can make up to 25 miles a day under these conditions. In some situations at break up, it is impossible to travel. There may be a two-day wait or a 10-day wait. Because of this variability, I have to travel with extra food and fuel.

I feel well prepared for what lies ahead. I am in fairly good physical shape and mentally I am strong. I am looking forward to living intuitively in the moment again. So please follow along to see how the adventure unfolds as I journey back home toward the Steger Wilderness Center.


Will Steger

See where the adventure will take Will in 2016.
Click to watch an overview of the route!