Wilderness Word
by Jenna Pollard

June 27, 2018

Berry season has officially begun here at the SWC. Wild strawberries dot the roadsides, juneberries (also called saskatoons or serviceberries) are slowly darkening from a light pink to a deep purple, and our most famous forest forage, the blueberry, has just begun to fill our cupped hands as we walk from our tents to the lodge in the morning. A perfect addition to a steaming bowl of oatmeal! We still have thimbleberries, raspberries, blackberries, dewberries, gooseberries and currants to look forward to as berry season continues. I remember residents last year bringing pockets, hands and mason jars brimming with assorted berries to breakfast each morning. I can hardly wait for that time here!

Today was a day of teamwork as we tackled the completion of the first wall tent. We always have diverse projects going on simultaneously, but today brought a rare day of large group work with four to eight of us working together at a time on the tent. Some things needed to be fixed, others finished. We now have nearly three completed rooms with painted walls and stained white pine floors. All we need are screen doors, bunks and a porch to be ready for our next Summit Academy student group’s arrival in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday night brought with it another exciting town run; dirty laundry washed, groceries purchased and blueberry custard eaten. The farmer’s market is growing in Ely, and this is the first week we’ve had fresh greens and vegetables available for purchase. Our own garden has begun to produce substantial amounts of kale and chard, with radishes and broccoli a close second. We’ve had warm weather and regular rain, and our garden shows it. Snap peas, beans and lettuce heads are growing fast. Our journey to zero waste and self-sufficiency feels the most underway when we’re serving food grown from our own garden at meals. With the dedication of residents and staff (particularly Louis), this summer is proving to be a standard-setter as actively pursue our goals in food management. While checking out the chard and kale beds with Will this morning he said to me, “It hasn’t been like this since the seventies. We always grew our own food then; it was a priority. It’s a dream to see residents working so hard in the garden.”

June 29, 2018

The middle of this past week brought the most remarkably sunny skies we’ve experienced yet this summer. It was a surprise to wake up this morning to rumbling thunder and a sudden rush of rain falling in sideways sheets. We sat together on the porch of the Lodge watching the rain fall. All of us except Aurora, who used the rainfall as a free shower and grabbed the nearest bar of soap to take full advantage of the opportunity. The rain very slowly cleared, and indoor projects (like the cubby room we’re working on) made some headway.
Tina and Kelsey have become confident in their measuring, lay out and circular saw skills and as soon as the rain cleared they finished up the floor in the wall tent. It’s so beautiful! Al and Benjamin set out to complete screen doors for the tent and devise a way to secure the canvas to the wooden frame. This project is becoming more and more of a puzzle as we continue! Luckily, we’ll have a chance to do it all over again with the second tent, and will hopefully bypass many of the mistakes we made in the process of learning with this one.
I couldn’t believe how fast this week flew! Although we all looked completely beat at 5pm today when we sat down for grilled cheese sandwiches and curry (courtesy of Justin and Kelsey), I was able to rally the troops to play a game of volleyball. Rita Mae and Morgan returned from a week-long trip to Colorado and joined us, making it a seven-on-seven, unforgettable game. Swimming in Picketts and singing around the Hobo Village campfire wrap up another solid week of work on the homestead.
– JP

Listen to “Do the Wilderness” written and sung by visiting Summit Academy student Ivan Kipapula, recorded by the Steger Wilderness Center family band, Irony Waters:

Click on the photos below to watch interviews with the Summit students. Portraits made by John Ratzloff.

Watch the full ‘Summit Academy Builders’ 2018 documentary here:

Wilderness Word
by Jenna Pollard

June 14, 2018

It seemed today like the previous nights’ sauna brought everyone refreshed to the breakfast table. With a cloudless sky, the heat of the day came on quickly.

I worked with Beth to design a joint in two 4” x 10” beams that would bear the load of an eight-foot overhang off the back of the second tent platform. Two weeks ago you would have thought there was enough wood here to build a small town, but with these two wall tents alone we’ve made a major dent in our milled wood supply.

By 10:30am Mike and his crew were ready to put the canvas on their nearly-finished tent frame. All hands were on deck as we un-boxed the large canvas tent, transported it to the top of the structure and slowly worked it down the rafters and over the walls of the frame. It seemed everyone was holding their breath as the canvas came into place; wondering if it would fit. It did! We laughed and clapped and high-fived in the joy of hard work and success. Lunch came soon after.

The high sun had everyone feeling a bit exhausted and preparation for the afternoon required plenty of drinking water and sunscreen. I joined Al’s crew for most of the afternoon building two small outhouses to accompany the new wall tent sites. Al modeled the outhouses off of others on the property, but with a twist: we used leftover slab wood from winter milling to side the structures. They’ll blend right in with the forest around them.

After supper many of us went swimming. Paddle-carving continues around the fire at Hobo Village, with Kelsey, Caitlin and Stitch joining in tonight. Our rule is: carve one paddle for use at the Center and then you can carve one for yourself. It’s a very motivating rule!

Will returned home this evening after a week away fundraising. It’s good to have him back. His deep history with this place colors every conversation he’s a part of and makes the experience for residents, students and guests so rich. He joined us around the Hobo fire while we carved paddles, John shared homemade fried potatoes and Summit students met our friendly resident snapping turtle, Goliath.

The wind is picking up tonight and thunder is rumbling to the north. Tomorrow may bring rain; all the better for the garden!

June 15, 2018

It’s the last day of our first Summit Academy student group’s two week stay. I can’t believe we’ve had students stay for only one week in the past. These two weeks have flown, and with the addition of a second week to the program we were able to develop a much stronger connection with the students. They felt more at home here, they knew where to find tools, and they had a weekend to themselves to explore and recreate.

I’m sad to see this group go, and I can hardly wait for the next group to show up in three weeks. Today day was spent wrapping up projects. Summer residents and Summit students worked together to construct two new outhouses.

Everyday I’m surprised by what my position holds here. Today it was a combination of operating a chainsaw and helping staff complete invoices. I’ll never get bored!

The end of the day brought an unforgettable meal – chickpea curry with rice, quinoa and a sweet potato and cabbage salad. We had almost thirty people at the meal, and the energy of finishing our projects was tangible.

We were treated at the end of the day with a tour of the Center with Will. He took the time to share with us his vision, the building process and stories from his past. Without doubt we were all inspired. We swam, made music and enjoyed our last night together around the Hobo campfire.


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.


MinnPostWilliam Moreland experienced a lot of firsts as he wrapped up his studies at Summit Academy OIC, a community-based vocational training and job placement program in North Minneapolis.

MinnPost: Summit Academy students, Will Steger break ground on cabin-building initiative in BWCAAlong with learning about construction math, building materials and power tools, the 36-year-old Texas-native became one of the first academy graduates to build a cabin adjacent to the Boundary Waters for renowned polar explorer Will Steger. Moreland and his classmates started building the cabin in late June at the Steger Wilderness Center in Ely, Minn.

“I got really inspired being able to go meet someone like Will Steger,” Moreland said, who visited the Boundary Waters for the first time. “I look at it as development and personal empowerment. It’s just a real exciting opportunity that I’ll be able to talk about for years.”

The project is part of a new partnership between the Steger Wilderness Center and Summit Academy. This summer, students will get real-life construction experience using recycled materials, while replacing a cabin at the center that burned down three years ago.

Steger and Louis King II, the founder of Summit Academy, hatched the idea about eight years ago while teaming up for H.I.R.E. Minnesota, a program aimed at ensuring that public investments in infrastructure and renewable energy help transition people from poverty and reduce racial disparities. For the cabin project, Steger provided a week of room-and-board and building materials, while the students gave their carpentry expertise and labor.

“Building little cabins in the wilderness is just a great experience,” Steger said. “People want a job, they don’t want to live in poverty. They want to work. What it’s really about for myself is I have a real commitment to the inner city. It’s about getting opportunities here.”

Moreland, who lives in Minneapolis, used to drill oil rigs. When he became dissatisfied with his job, he started looking for new career opportunities. That’s when his brother told him about the Pre-Apprentice Carpentry Program at Summit Academy.

The two-phase program provides students with job readiness skills in the construction trade through classroom and hands-on training. The first 10 weeks covers general industry training, while the second 10 weeks provides hands-on training.

MinnPost: Summit Academy students, Will Steger break ground on cabin-building initiative in BWCAThe program costs $5,400, but tuition is generally paid for through a combination of federal financial aid, donations and foundation grants, according to Steve Shedivy, director of marketing at Summit Academy. Students don’t have out-of-pocket costs or loans to pay back.

Typically, students using the program are low-income adults who are unemployed or under-employed, Shedivy said. They must have a minimum of a high school degree or GED and pass an entrance exam. Students are selected based on interviews and academic performance.

The selection process can be stringent, Shedivy added.

Upon graduation, students receive an undergraduate certificate and have the skills to work at union shops as pre-apprentices, said Jim Jordan, operations supervisor in the carpentry department at Summit Academy. Jordan is leading the cabin project.

Moreland and five other students built the cabin’s 16-by-16-foot structure during the weeklong trip, starting June 15. A second group of students will return in early July to complete the interior and exterior. The cabin will house up to two visitors at the center, Steger said.

Jess Hill, 23, of Mounds View, also joined Moreland for the first cabin-building trip. Hill grew up camping in the Boundary Waters. She also took on minor building projects as a girl, making plant box and shingles with her family. Hill said she jumped on the chance to work with Steger — whom she admires for his dog-sledding expeditions across Antarctica.

“I was right on top of it,” Hill said. “When I heard that we were building a cabin for someone as big as Will Steger, I wanted to go.”

After graduating from Summit Academy, Hill hopes to find a job with a union contractor, learn as much as she can from others, and eventually become a foreman.

Moreland wants to find a job in union carpentry, too.

“I want to gain work experience,” he said. “I want to build a reputation and move forward in this career. I really want to make it work for me. I’m just going to own it, do it, and teach others.”

Summit had a 71 percent job placement rate for students who completed the pre-apprentice program between 2012 and 2013, according to the program’s website.

Steger said he plans to have more building projects for Summit Academy students in the future.

“It’s a really neat experience,” he said. “The friendships you build here are really important. I think some of these people will probably stay in touch too.”

Via MinnPost.com

The Homestead was a bustling place last week, with a small city of tents pitched near the lake, the repeated squeak and groan of the lodge door as people filtered in and out, and five students plus one instructor from Summit Academy started work from the ground up on a new cabin.

Summit Academy A Community of Us3Summit Academy, a North Minneapolis-based program, focuses on providing its students with practical training, so that participants are prepared to enter the workforce in fields such as construction or healthcare. The students who worked on “Happier Acres” were on the last stretch of a twenty week program. After spending the first part of their training learning different elements of the business, they finally put together all the various skills they’d learned into the construction of the cabin, making it the first official project the students have completed from start to finish. The sense of pride and accomplishment felt by those in the class was clear on their faces as after-dinner conversation would turn to the day’s progress. Willy-Bob, one of the academy students, described the feeling of building the cabin as wholesome, going onto say that it has given him a lot of confidence. He was proud that the newly constructed cabin would long stand as a representation of the school. He plans to continue to use his newfound construction skills not just in the field, but in his everyday life as well, and hopes to someday go to school for design drafting.

Summit’s time at the Homestead was also more than just an opportunity for its students to gain practical experience. By mid-week, the students of Summit felt like permanent members of the Homestead, having quickly settled into the routine of the days. “You’re really living without technology here!” proclaimed one student. All meals were prepared and eaten together. Everyone partook in evening saunas and swimming. Several of the Summit crew went fishing one evening, and then treated the group to a tasty meal of fish, spicy tomato salsa, and fried rice. By Friday, there was no more distinction between ‘the Summit crew’ and ‘the interns.’ That night everyone gathered around a roaring bonfire to celebrate the success of the week and reflect on how much the experience had meant. One student, Joe, mentioned how, on arrival, he had not expected the interns living on the Homestead to be such a tight-knit group. “And now,” he said, “it’s like our group joined yours. It’s a community. A community of us.”

Everyone was sad that the week had to end. Saturday morning the van was packed, and goodbyes were said. On what had once been bare ground less than a week ago now stands a completed cabin shell, ready for finishing. The cabin is a testament to more than just the technical skill of the students of Summit Academy, for it also reflects what a dedicated group of people can accomplish when they come together to focus their talents towards a goal.

Photo: The Crew From Summit: (left to right) Homestead resident Mike, Joe, Boonka, Jess, Summit instructor Beth, Jermaine, Will, Willy-Bob

summit-logo 175Through Summit Academy OIC, students gain access to high quality training in specialized areas of technology, construction and healthcare. By offering supportive services such as career counseling and planning along with “soft skills” training in the areas of job readiness and leadership development, SAOIC ensures students are well equipped with the technical and professional skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

In 2008, a unique partnership formed between an arctic explorer and the leader of a North Minneapolis nonprofit that continues to build bridges for individuals from economically challenged neighborhoods.

Summit Team 600Five years ago, Will Steger attended a meeting of H.I.R.E Minnesota – an organization newly founded at the time to ensure public investments in infrastructure and renewable energy lifted people out of poverty, reduced racial disparities and contributed to healthier communities. While at the meeting he met Louis King, president of Summit Academy OIC, who has spent decades in North Minneapolis helping individuals with troubled backgrounds become educated, employed, contributing members of society.

The two have stayed connected over the years as they’ve fought the uphill battle against Minnesota’s racial disparity in unemployment by holding organizations accountable for meeting minority hiring, training and contracting goals on “green” projects.

Will Beth Boonka 600Soon their efforts will converge once more when students enrolled in Summit Academy’s construction training program will travel to Ely, Minnesota to build a cabin adjacent to Steger’s Wilderness Center, a conference retreat facility.

The customized training program was designed to provide students with unique, hands-on carpentry and construction experience while also providing them with the unique experience of building a cabin in the woods.

Final HappyAcres 600Learn more about the students, the project and Summit Academy OIC, which is a Mpls.-based nonprofit accredited educational institution that provides vocational training to individuals from economically depressed neighborhoods.




Program Directors:
Jim JordanJim Jordan, Operations Supervisor, Carpentry



Beth Halvorson

Beth Halverson, On-Site Instructor, Carpentry



For more information visit the Summit Academy OIC website

An integral part of the hands-on education offered by the Center, the apprentice program relies on masters in each field providing mentorship for people interested in developing skills leading to self-sufficiency. This past summer, the Master Stone Mason apprentice program led by Will Steger and resident master stone masons took a major step forward with a six-week engagement of youth learning the trade.

In addition, leaders and instructors from Summit Academy OIC attended the Center this past year for a two-week onsite building project embedded in their curriculum, with the Steger Wilderness Center providing hands-on learning in vital life and trade skills.