Labor of love: Steger Wilderness Center in Ely home to vibrant community

For those who know of Minnesota polar explorer Will Steger, they most likely have heard of his ambitious polar expeditions and work on combatting climate change. 

Attention may seldom shift to his Wilderness Center and the community he has cultivated there. 

Located on about 240 acres of wilderness in Ely, Minnesota, Steger’s land includes the beautiful Picketts Lake, a retired sled dog named Jasper, plenty of fresh air, a loving community and, towering above it all, his Wilderness Center. 

Even with all of its architectural beauty, the Wilderness Center is a work-in-progress.

“My expeditions have been a means to an end,” Steger said. “This is by far the largest project of my life. It’s really what my life’s been about, this center.” 

Construction on polar explorer Will Steger’s Steger Wilderness Center in Ely began in 1988, and the building is still being finished. Steger expects the Wilderness Center, which will host a variety of programs on environmental and social issues, will be completed by 2020. (Maya Shelton-Davies/ThreeSixty Journalism)

The center has been a lifetime of work for Steger. Buying the land when he was 19, nearly 55 years ago, Steger intended to live self-sufficiently in the wilderness, he said. It wasn’t until later, while crossing Antarctica, that Steger’s true vision for his land became apparent.
 
“That’s where I had the idea of building a center,” he said. “I felt I could do the biggest impact with my life if I could create the center and then work with top-level leadership and policymakers. Working on the top, you affect the whole base below.”
 
Intending to host a variety of programs surrounding topics such as environmental and social issues, Steger expects the center to be completed and functional by 2020, he said.

VOLUNTEERING IN THE WILDERNESS

It’s not just Steger who sees the potential for the Wilderness Center. Those living on the land during the summer see it, too. 

One of those people is Aurora Wahlstrom, 21, of St. Paul. Wahlstrom has spent about 10 years visiting Steger’s property and is one of eight young adults calling the wilderness home for the summer. Wahlstrom, who spends the season working on construction projects and helping build the center, says she’s able to form a deeper connection to the legacy. 

“I think I keep coming back because my heart is in this place, you know? I just feel like this is my home now, I feel connected to it,” Wahlstrom said. “It gives me a sense of purpose to come here, to use my hands, to build things that are hopefully going to serve a greater cause one day.”

Steger laughs during the daily post-breakfast meeting at the site in Ely. (Maya Shelton-Davies/ThreeSixty Journalism)

The Wilderness Center, as well as the numerous other buildings and structures scattered across the area, have been built with the power of volunteers. Throughout the years, an innumerable number of people have dedicated their time to helping complete Steger’s legacy, making it a part of their own as well. 

“This place wouldn’t even be here without the volunteers,” said John Ratzloff, 71, Steger’s photographer-in-residence and longtime friend. “I heard Will say that there’s well over a million hours of volunteer hand labor in the construction of this.”

COMBATTING CLIMATE CHANGE

For Steger, those hours of work have helped make his vision a reality, and to him, the completion of his Wilderness Center couldn’t come at a more decisive time. 

The Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica recently broke off, Steger says. He previously crossed the Larsen A, B and C ice shelves—he crossed Antarctica in 1989 and 1990—and since then, climate change has caused each to break away, he said.

“This [the Wilderness Center] is almost ready to go at a really critical time,” he said. “… There’s a need to go to the wilderness and bring people together to get inspired and look at the solutions. I almost can’t believe the timing.”

Steger has been doing environmental advocacy for most of his life, starting nonprofits such as Climate Generation, which works with individuals to find solutions to climate change. For him, what sets the Wilderness Center apart is its location, which lets the environment speak for itself. 

“With the power of the wilderness it’s really possible to bring people to a level that you can’t reach in a hotel room or some artificial environment,” Steger said “… They’re also always immersed in the silence of this area, the simplicity of it. We’re not going to solve all the world problems in one center like this, but it can certainly have a big impact.”

According to the residents, however, it isn’t just the wilderness that makes the center unique. 

“The wilderness and Will’s spirit—those two together make everything happen,” Ratzloff said. 

Even for people who haven’t spent as much time on the property, it’s clear that Steger is a big part of the place. 

“I couldn’t imagine this place without him,” Wahlstrom said. “It’s weird when he leaves. I feel like there’s a hole here. I feel like he’s this cohesive glue that holds this whole operation together.”

PERSONAL, COMMUNITY IMPACT

For Ratzloff, the photographer-in-residence, the center is also personally meaningful. He claims that without his time on Will’s land leading an active life, he wouldn’t be the same person. 

“I’m happier here,” he said. “… I could be sitting on a couch somewhere watching television until I fall apart, but every year I get stronger up here despite chronological age. I’m keeping the ravages of age postponed.”

While visitors may value the property for different reasons, one outstanding commonality that seemed to strike everyone was the unique community created at Steger’s homestead. 

Steger says this community stems from the power of the wilderness.

“The community and the people are really where it’s at, and that’s a reflection of what’s happening here,” Steger said. “I would hope that people would see something really positive and respectful. Everyone feels comfortable here. It’s kind of like a retreat, in a way, it’s a wilderness. It’s a wilderness and it’s a wilderness community.”

For Wahlstrom, the community at the homestead stands apart from the rest of society. 

Aurora Wahlstrom, 21, of St. Paul, lays stone outside of the Wilderness Center. Wahlstrom has volunteered on Steger’s land for about a decade. (Maya Shelton-Davies/ThreeSixty Journalism)

“When you’re out here, I just feel like there [are] no stigmas, there [are] no limitations and you can just be really authentically yourself,” she said. “That’s not judged the same way as it would be elsewhere. If I want to be the foreman of my crew and I’m a woman, that seems normal here.”

For others, such as Ratzloff, the community is formed through the dedication to Steger’s legacy: the completion of the Wilderness Center. 

“Here, we work in the field together and we work really hard,” Ratzloff said. “That bonds people. There’s such dignity in labor. Especially when you’re working on something that is going to be a legacy of your own and Will’s.”

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