The idea and many of the architectural drawings for the Will Steger Wilderness Center emerged in a tent pitched on vast snowfields amid howling winds and minus 90 degree temperatures. I was leading a team of six explorers and scientists from around the world on the first trans-Antarctic dogsled expedition. Over 7 months in 1989-1990 we covered 3,741 miles across the continent, which provided us with plenty of time to think about the future. For the last 25 years I have worked continuously to plan and build the Center, but the origins go back much further.
Ever since I was a child I wanted to live in the wilderness. My plan was simple. I would build my own log cabin, clear land for gardens and establish a self-sufficient homestead. When I was 19 I kayaked 3000 miles across the northern Canadian rivers, and this journey inspired me to make this dream a reality. Soon afterwards, I bought land in the north woods three miles from the nearest road, where the Center is now built.
I always had a clear vision of what I wanted to do with my life. I was born with the desire to be a teacher. So my schooling came first. By the time I was 25 I had finished my undergraduate degree in science and a masters in education along with 3 years of classroom teaching experience in a Minneapolis high school. That’s when I left my home and friends in the city and moved permanently to the wilderness near the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness north of Ely, Minnesota.
I established a winter school at the homestead, where I led students deep into the snowy wilderness on skis or dogsleds. Dogs played in integral part in my livelihood. Since I lived far from a road for the next 25 years, sled dogs ferried supplies and materials to my home. They also made it possible for me to undertake many explorations of the Arctic and Antarctica. To this day I am still involved in winter expeditions.
The Will Steger Wilderness Center building grew out of my original dream of living close to nature while uplifting the values of sustainability, self-sufficiency and innovation. The experiences of my Polar explorations revealed the steep challenges facing the planet as well as the remarkable creative ability of people interacting in small groups of 6 to10.
My mission for the Center is to make a lasting positive impact for the future by bringing small groups of leaders, educators, and policy makers seeking to re-imagine solutions to the world’s most intractable problems. It is designed to activate our understanding of what it means to be interdependent—with each other, with our earth and as a society—to inspire clarity and break-through innovation that sparks the synergy, inspiration and fresh thinking essential to developing innovative and workable approaches to protecting our planet and creating a better world.
The Will Steger Wilderness Center is a towering, grand, yet earth-friendly building. It is a place to escape the din of modern life and build focus on what is most important. It provides a construct for approaching sustainability and problem-solving that can be taken into everyday life.
The Center is built on the principle that “small is beautiful” – with group size determined by a respect for what the land can bear and featuring programming that will add to the social and intellectual capital of the “North Coast,” which can be exported as models to other local groups grappling with similar challenges.
The Center itself—built in a unique, beautiful organic architectural style making full use of the state of the art and ecological stewardship, is a demonstration center for devising new solutions to the seemingly complex issues we collectively face. Solar, wind, biomass and other alternative energies will provide electricity and heat. All buildings will be constructed of recycled or locally harvested materials. Gardens will provide fresh produce that will be stored in an ice house and root cellar for use during the winter months.
The Center’s pilot energy projects and off-grid sustainable living are important teaching and learning tools about what is possible in the realm of environmental responsibility.
“You can be brilliant in mathematics or with computers, with great prospects on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, but unless you understand the interdependency of the environment where we live, the planet is doomed. We can decide our fate only if we fully understand the consequences of our action.”
Will Steger, Saving the Earth-1988