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.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Will, Jim, resident interns and stonemasonry apprentices pose in front of the new stone arch wall.

Smoke billowed from old coffee cans, smudging the work site at the Steger Wilderness Center where seven apprentice stonemasons were deep into their training program. From a functional perspective, the smoke thwarted black flies and mosquitoes. Aesthetically, it offered a sensory complement to the projects at hand.

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Smoke helps reduce black flies and other insects as work progressed on the stone wall that now supports the deck around the convention center. Photo by Scott Stowell

Instructor and master stonemason Ian McKiel explained that the stonemason apprentice program at the Center is specifically for job training. It’s an intensive, month-long seminar focused on stone, masonry and dry stone laying. Apprentices receive hands-on experience working with concrete and mortar to shape various types of structural and ornamental walls.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

Master sone mason Ian McKiel working with Kayden Nordquist on the new stone wall under the deck of the center.

As a warm-up project, the apprentices constructed a random-rubble style sitting wall. They mixed and poured concrete, reinforced steel footing, then switched to mortar to build up the wall, capping the top with decorative bluestone. It’s a lot to learn in the first week.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

The sitting wall at the end of the roman road.

“This type of work and this type of learning doesn’t really lend itself well to sitting in the lodge and going over things. So basically I get their hands moving and then talk as everybody’s moving,” McKiel said.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Assistant stonemason Mick Wirtz (right) offers a structural suggestion to apprentice Nick Sallen. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Their second project involved structural work under the deck that surrounds the Wilderness Center’s convention center. McKiel said apprentices constructed a stone wall beneath the outer edges of the deck that bear the deck’s weight. The wooden supports which previously held up the deck along that edge were removed. For an add-on project, the apprentices created an arch doorway at one of the storage locations within the stone wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

Jake Potts, Morgan Durbin and Matt Wentz working together to build up the stone arch wall.

According to McKiel, the early stages of learning how to look at stone is a matter of imagining it going into place. “When you’re setting a stone, think about the space above it… Think about the stone that’s going to go on top of the one you’re actually setting, because that stops you from creating problem spots that only a very specific stone can get you out of.”

That type of anticipation and thoughtfulness would appear to serve anyone well whether they’re stonemason apprentices or global leaders. Jess Nimmo, 23, said she participated in the program because masonry seemed like a good fit with the type of career she’s seeking. She’s worked in residential construction, done some welding and blacksmithing, and is currently employed in a custom finishing shop for products like furniture. The program increased her interest in stone masonry.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Masonry apprentices Morgan Durban (left) and Jess Nimmo enjoy some laughter while they work. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“I fully intend on going home and doing a little bit of it myself over at my mom’s place. I’m sure she would love it,” she said.

She also explained how the functional and aesthetic elements of masonry are similar to her number one passion.

“I’ll be a welder, for damn sure. That’s my dream job and I’m going to make it happen,” she stated. “I don’t just want it as a job. I would love to be able to use it as a hobby. I’ve got that blacksmithing experience…[the] more artsy form of welding, being able to form the metal any way you want.”

Milo Payne, 21, said he loved the masonry work and could do it for a lifetime. He has an interest in art and views stone masonry as art in another form.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

Apprentice Milo Payne finesses mortar between stones. Photo by Scott Stowell.

“There are so many different stones you can choose from, so many designs and shapes,” he said.

He added that the convention center building inspires his dreams. “[It’s] phenomenal. I want to hopefully, down the road, with this experience that I have right now, build something from the ground up like this.”

Steger said the Wilderness Center is about hands-on learning and self-reliance. While apprentice programs are offered at a variety of locations in numerous fields around the world, he addressed how the Wilderness Center stands out.

“Learning to work with mortar, concrete and stone is a skill as important as learning the alphabet; it will be with them all of their lives. But the transformational power of the wilderness gives these young people opportunities to see possibilities they haven’t before,” he said.
end of june group

Payne called his time at the Wilderness Center a “fresh, exciting experience” and contrasted it to his life in Elk River, Minnesota. “Many people have to know this experience to know the difference from city life and a life of working to provide for somebody else, or provide for yourself, or just providing in general.”

Along with spending weeks in the wilderness, Nimmo said the best part of the program was being within a community of like-minded people who also accomplished basic chores such as gathering water and taking turns doing dishes. “It’s really great how everybody here works so well together. I feel like this setting definitely brings that out in people.”

The Steger Wilderness Center, Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services, Inc. (CMJTS) have formed a three-fold partnership to offer the stonemason apprentice program. CMJTS is dedicated to serving young and emerging adults, up to age 24, and preparing them for the workforce. They provide employment and training services that connect young people with careers and assist them in achieving success. For further information, visit online at or call or 800-284-7425.

Story by Scott Stowell

Photos by John Ratzloff

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.

Story by Kayden Nordquist. Photos by John Ratzloff.
“One of the best groups to ever come”~ Will Steger
group photo

They say time flies when you are having fun. But I can tell you this — time howls past when you are working hard together to achieve the same goal. As apprentices in the last 30 days, we have completed four huge stone masonry projects that involved moving and setting millions of pounds of stone and natural elements. We couldn’t have done it without the help of the masters, Ian McKiel and Jim Sullivan.

Nothing can compare to the sense of accomplishment I get when I see the projects we have started and completed in such little time. From the first week I think people in this group worked themselves into a funk. We worked our backs off building the sitting wall so quickly that we all were fairly worn out and in funky moods due to our newly acquired sunburns.

Towards the end of the first week it seemed as if everyone was starting to become irritated with each other. The anger quickly passed when we realized it was from wearing ourselves down, and we had three weeks left to work with these people, so being irritated with anyone wouldn’t work.

The more I look at what we’ve done here in 30 days, the more it blows me away. Construction here at the Steger Wilderness Center has been ongoing since 1989. The longer I am here, the more I am realizing our mark on this historic building by being apart of one of the many construction teams that has worked on building the Center over the last 27 years.

I noticed a lot of changes in the apprentices in the time we spent together. The apprentices have grown in many different ways in just 30 days. Even not knowing who these people were in the beginning, I see that most have taken the time we have had here to reflect and really find their true selves, being that everyone this summer is fairly young, and I feel this is one of the first opportunities they have had to do so, including myself.
end of june group

As the apprentices are bidding us farewell and beginning their next journey wherever it may be, I am also beginning mine as a resident here at the Will Steger Wilderness Center.
Farewell Apprentices.
Until next time~
Kayden Nordquist

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.

IMG_4491 Born and raised in Princeton MN, Jaqlyn Bentz is a 21 year-old Anoka Ramsey Community College student pursuing her AA in business. At Anoka Ramsey, Jaqlyn enjoys participating in the theatre program and environment club.
Jaqlyn found about about the center through Peter Wahlstrom. She came up for ice ball this winter with the rest of e club. “It was super cold but at the same time it was great. I kind of got a taste of what living up here was like,” Jaqlyn said. Her mom told her people who want to take care of the environment are usually very compassionate. “I had a bunch of people come up and ask me if I needed snow pants, even though I’d just met them,” she said.
Jaqlyn spent a year working for Americorp with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that aims to build simple housing for those in need. Three months after graduating, she found herself working there, leading volunteers around the construction sites and showing them how to use power tools.
Her first impression of Will was mostly awe when he came to speak at the college. After listening to him speak, she cemented her interest in wanting to be a resident intern at the center
Jaqlyn remembers rafting down on a homemade raft with empty barrels below to stay afloat on the quarry on the south side of Pickett’s Lake to collect rocks for stonemasonry. She never oared anything larger than a canoe or kayak
One of Jaqlyn’s most challenging things so far is bugs. “The hard labor is not that bad,” she said.
Jaqlyn misses her daycare job and the children there. “It’s weird being away,” she said, thinking of all the things the kids are going to do without her.
“I wish more people knew about the center in general. I think more people would come up if more people knew about it,” Jaqlyn said.
So far Jaqlyn has really enjoyed the homemade pizza. Jaqlyn has spent a lot of her free time reading. Currently she’s reading The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris, which compares human cities to zoos. Her favorite book is That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E Hinton.
A couple of Jaqlyn’s strengths are that she’s hard-working, outdoorsy and patient with others. She hopes to live in a tent for the six weeks because she’s never camped for that long. Jaqlyn hopes to leave her mark at the center by the time her residency is over, returning to Princeton to work at the daycare.