All photos by Leslie Hittmeier
“Hi!” Jenna Pollard calls to me as I pull my rental car into the 240-acre off-the-grid Steger Wilderness Center. A timber framer by trade, Jenna has spent the past nine summers working and teaching here under the spruce, fir, jackpine and aspen trees of the Superior National Forest, just north of Ely, Minnesota. For the next two weeks, she’ll be leading a women’s cabin-building course—four instructors and eight carpenters-in-training will build a 12-by-14-foot dovetail log cabin made from red and white pine harvested and milled on-site. Jenna has been dreaming up this course for years.
“The students are down at the lake swimming,” she says. “I’ll introduce you to them later. But first, a tour of the property!”
The property is the homestead of 77-year-old polar explorer and climate activist Will Steger. Will bought the first 28 acres of land, which borders a wilderness area that extends north to Canada, when he was 20 and has spent his time between expeditions adding acreage and structures. Over the years, it’s become more than just his home; it’s a massive, plein air classroom where students from all over the world spend summers learning from masters in trades like construction, carpentry, stone masonry, stained glass and timber framing.
Jenna points out “The Yard” and the wood shop, where students can build with tools powered by more than 40 solar panels that make up the homestead’s microgrid. Then there’s “The Lodge,” which was built in 1976. The first structure on the property, it originally served as the kitchen, bunk house and wood shop. Today, it houses the kitchen and Will’s library. I get a peek at old black-and-white photographs of snow-covered huskies, men in the Arctic, big groups of smiling young people in front of newly built cabins and hundreds of books with titles like Arctic Melting, Unstoppable Global Warming and Lost at the South Pole.
In 1990, Will and his team became the first expedition to dogsled across Antarctica to raise awareness around protecting it from the petroleum industry. One night during the expedition, while in his tent, Will sketched a building concept in his notebook. He envisioned the building positioned in the wilderness where he would invite key policy makers to come and stay and meet about climate change.
If he could get these decision makers out of their offices and into the wilderness, he thought, where they could live more simply, smell the forest and listen to running water, maybe they could come to understand what we’re all trying to protect. He hoped to foster in his guests the same spirit of teamwork and community that his expeditions inspired in him.
Over the 220 days and 3,741-mile-long trek, amid a 50-day snowstorm, Will built “The Center” in his head:
“I dwelled in this structure, walking through it constantly and living in every room during all seasons. I observed the moon and the sun passing through its windows. I paid attention to the shadows, the lines of the roofs and railings, the reflection of the stars on the atrium windows. In the tent every morning, with a pencil and a six-inch plastic ruler, I would draw into my reality my ideas and plans from the day before. It was a long and beautiful experience, and at the end of the expeditions, with drawings in hand, I set out on a 25-year project to build the Will Steger Wilderness Center.” —Excerpt from the Steger Wilderness Center
After returning home from the successful Trans-Antarctica Expedition, the newly famous Will began construction in Ely. Over the next three decades, the project attracted retired master craftsmen and women and eager apprentices to donate their time and efforts to the cause: fostering community, conversation and education around solving environmental and social problems—and finding new ways to thrive without fossil fuels.
Further into our tour, poking through the trees here and there, we come upon small cabins hand-built by residents over the years. “There’s anywhere from 12 to 17 cabins on the property,” Jenna says laughing, not bothering to count them all in her head. Deeper in the woods is “Sugiville”—built by a Japanese man nicknamed “Sugi” who Will met in the ’80s in Alaska and invited to come to the homestead. He came, learned carpentry and has returned every summer since. Using only scrap metal, Sugi built himself a cabin, guest cabin, shop and an onsen-inspired building so tucked into the landscape they look like part of it.
There’s a writer’s cabin—which we never found—that lies somewhere in the middle of the woods; there’s no trail to get there. And there’s also a musher’s cabin, perched on a hill overlooking the place where the sled dogs used to sleep during Will’s peak expedition days. Today, Aurora Wahlstrom, 26, lives there with her two orange cats, Mr. Nilson and Juniper. She is an expert sawyer and stone mason and will be teaching the students how to build the foundation of their cabin.
In the distance, a large building towers over the trees and homestead. It seems to be made up mostly of windows, a massive solarium cascading down at wild angles that resembles a waterfall of glass. Steeply pitched copper rooflines lead down to a porch and gazebo looking over the lake. It’s otherworldly, like a glass castle.
“That’s The Center,” Jenna explains. “It’s what this place is all about. When I first got here, Will said The Center was on track to be completed in two years.” She remembers working on the waterway, which will flow through the first level of the building. “My first three years here, I was dedicated to finishing it and disheartened by all the work we still had left at the end of each season. But then I realized that The Center is the goal we are all uniting on. Of course, we want it to be done, but what changes us and where we experience growth has been in the journey to completion.”
Our tour ends at the lake, where the soon-to-be carpenters lounge and laugh in the sun on an enormous dock and swim in the temperate waters of Picket Lake. After introductions, we all get to chatting. I learn that most of the women are students from Summit Academy in Minneapolis, a trade school that offers 20-week courses, with tuition covered by grants or gift aid. Some of them have backgrounds in the trades while for others, this course marks their first step on a new career path.
Maricruz Lozano Rios, 23, shares that she’s the first woman in her family doing construction. “I feel like this is where people are really going to realize if this is for them or not,” she says, pondering the two-week project ahead.
“When I first started, it was very rare that I’d see another woman on a job site,” says Beth Halverson, one of the instructors. “The guys were your big brothers after you proved yourself. I had a good experience, but I can’t say everyone has. There are still those guys out there that don’t think this is a place for a woman.”
Ashley Davis, 30, tells us she’s a stay-at-home mom and that she only recently started getting into construction. “I want to see other women doing [this],” she says. “This [project] right here just made it 10 times more vivid … It’s going to be amazing. I’m getting closer and closer to my purpose.”
Aurora agrees with the students. “I’m hoping that by learning these skills they will feel empowered enough to get on a crew somewhere.”
A few of the students tell me they’ve never camped or been exposed to the shower-less lifestyle. They laugh and joke about the armpit hair to come and mourn the absence of comfy beds, cell service and flushing toilets.
The next morning, Jenna announces the plans for the day—gathering stones for the cabin’s foundation. After breakfast, we all jump in the back of a flatbed pickup and head for the quarry. The women are clean, smiley and excited for day one, but not yet sure what the work entails. We arrive at the quarry of Ely greenstone, a dense metamorphic rock that’s 2.7 billion years old and perfect for building foundations. Aurora hands out rock bars and explains what to look for—rocks with nice flat faces.
Flies buzz around us as the heat of the August day sets in. As soon as they get to work, the talk of beds and cell phones is replaced by the focus that only wilderness and hard work can command. Maricruz starts prying a giant rock from the dirt while Aurora and another student, Stacy, work together to carry an 80-pounder.
“I’ve never given birth, but I’m sure this is something like it,” a student says as she lifts a big one into the truck.
The women put their backs into the work, sweat dripping into their eyes, and flies and dirt sticking to their skin. Later, back at the build site, they’ll learn stone masonry, how to piece the rocks together to form a durable foundation. They’ll learn how to measure and cut dovetail joints and assemble a self-supporting, freestanding frame—no glue or nails required. By the end of the course, The Center won’t be any closer to completion, but there will be a new cabin, deemed “The She Shack.” “It takes a community to build a timber frame,” Jenna says. “It’s not possible to build alone. You build the structure, and you build relationships at the same time—and you’re building a structure that’s going to last for, hopefully, hundreds of years.”