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!


Blowin’ a Hoolie


Mark Sealy, the great meteorologist with MPR and the University of Minnesota, has a rag-bag of interesting and colorful weather terms and names from around the world. One of his favorites is “Blowin’ a Hoolie,” I believe he said it was Irish, an expression or description of a particular kind of a forceful wind that blows so hard it rattles your windows, shakes your shutters and walls. A hooligan wind.
It has been two weeks since the storm of a half-century blew down a forty foot Jack Pine that lived up the cliff behind the one-man tent where Jasper and I live and damn near died. IMG_5542

It was three in the morning when the hoolie hit us from the northwest. It was a hammer made of 80 mph wind, sideways rain and constant lightning. The sounds were terrifying. Great large trees, thousands of them, were popping, snapping and crashing. Howling, tearing and ripping sounds roared in the night as people yelled for each other to get to safe places.

The breath taking sound of that big tree smashing down on hard ground three or four feet from our heads was terrifying. It scared the hell out of us. I threw on my headlamp, leashed Jasper, unzipped the mosquito netting and rain fly, got out of the tent and glanced at the branches of the tree that hit us. The pulsing lightning made it easy to see we had had a very close call. Like Dylan said in one of his songs, “I didn’t know whether to duck or run, so I ran.” Jasper and I ran for our lives.

We did not have far to flee to reach the shelter of good old Boat House on the shore of the Wilderness Center’s lake, beyond reach of any falling trees. Meanwhile there was chaos up on top of the ridge and in the woods where three residents had set up a tent camp called Bum Town. All three tents had been crushed. Leif, Nick and Big Jake made the decision to run for their lives just in time.

The great group of city people from Summit Academy were all camped in tents too. Most had never camped a day in their lives before arriving to set up their eight tents on the clover and grass field near the pond and Pond House cabin. The Hoolie utterly wiped out their camp and sent their tents flying wildly in the wind and into the woods, lightning, crashing sounds and rain. Again, no one was injured. It seems everyone one was running for his or her lives that night. The Summit crew reached Pond House safely though two large trees crashed on its roof.

Happy Acres, Logan Smith’s beautiful new cabin, was impaled. A large tree behind the cabin blew down with such authority one of its branches smashed through the metal roof, through the three quarter inch plywood below the metal and then on through the sheet rock ceiling. The branch came down like the Sword of Damocles, thrusting through, head high, at astonishing speed. Had Logan been standing in that spot, the jagged branch would have skewered his head like a shiskabob. Fortunately for him, he was standing a few feet away. IMG_6262

The next morning dawned bright, clear and windless. None of us had slept for more than a couple of hours, if that. Everyone was dazed. A strange silence took over our group as we came together for breakfast… a mixture of gratitude for simply being alive and vivid memory of recent terror. Now that’s a Hooligan Wind.

But there was work to do. Trees of all sizes, hundreds of them, were down on the Center’s mile long driveway. The Cloquet Line headed towards Ely looked like a direct hit. Miraculously the new solar array held its own, suffering no damage at all. What a test! IMG_6698 By noon Logan and a crew had made the driveway passable. Another crew cleared the tree that missed Jasper and I. IMG_6761-2
At this point in time I was still a bit shocked by the whole experience and got the yipps as I looked up the hill behind my tent and the new Grand Hobo Lodge and spotted two large trees dead trees still standing in dangerous positions if they were to fall. I was still scared and asked Will if the two trees could be cut down. Will took a look and agreed they needed to go. He and Logan assessed the situation and made a plan. The breezes had picked up by now. Its direction was favorable to the direction of the desired drop and crash target. IMG_6500

The first tree to go was a very tall, very dead Jack Pine located half way up the cliff behind the fire pit in the middle of Hobo Village. Will and Logan agreed on a strategy for the cuts and Logan dropped it very near the center of the fire pit. Perfect. IMG_6502

The next tree, a big dead Birch, was located only six feet behind and even with the back wall of our brand new Grand Hobo Lodge. It had been a eye sore near the shore of Picketts Lake for years and Will was happy at the thought of getting rid of it for both aesthetic and safety reasons. Again Will and Logan made a plan to drop the tree about three feet behind and parallel to the back wall of the structure. A tricky proposition.

“The best laid schemes of mice an’ men often go awry.”
– Robert Burns 1785

The heavy Birch tree fell directly on the top of the lodge. IMG_6513 IMG_6514 IMG_6515 It crushed many of the ceiling timbers and bent the top of the wall supports badly. It was a mess. But the tipi canvass survived with only a few small tears. IMG_6527

Thirty six hours later we cooked, served dinner to eighteen people as we celebrated life and told each other storm stories GABRIEL Screen shot 2016-07-24 at 2.46.52 PM IMG_6418 in the completely rebuilt and improved Grand Hobo Lodge.
Now that’s resilience.

Will Steger has been living and working on this land for fifty one years. IMG_6146 Yesterday he told me that the storm at the wilderness was the largest and most violent he had ever seen there. It was a huge storm, stretching from southern Ontario to Duluth and even further south. One hundred and two mile per hour winds were clocked in Duluth that night. Two boy scouts were killed by falling trees in separate locations in the BWCA. Power was knocked out for days in wide spread locations. Gas stations were shut down. Thawing meat began to rot in grocery store freezers and coolers. Even 911 emergency communications were knocked out for days.

Will estimates cleanup and harvesting the blow downs will be a four-year project which will provide fire wood for the entire Center for at least that long. In addition, the harvest appears it will be quite large, yielding enough free milled lumber to completely build the new Dining Hall two summers from now. There is a bountiful side to all the destruction.

According to the meteorologists at NOAH, this storm “ had the fingerprints of global warming written all over it.” It is a good thing the Saturn Window in the Center is built to withstand wind speeds of over two hundred mph. It is going to need such strength as our planet continues to warm and as freak storms become both more frequent and more powerful. IMG_6703

It is good to be alive.

John Ratzloff
August 3, 2016

Story and Photos by John Ratzloff.