Wisdom from the elders

Nick Sallen, Editor in Chief

Throughout my summer spent in residency at the Steger Wilderness Center, I met a couple of master artists in their respective crafts.

The Steger Wilderness Center is a sight to behold. Situated in the boreal forest of northern Minnesota, it’s a towering yet earth-friendly building which utilizes solar panels to collect nearly all the energy used at the center.

The Steger Wilderness Center is located north of Ely, Minn., Photo courtesy of John Ratzloff.
The Steger Wilderness Center is located north of Ely, Minn., Photo courtesy of John Ratzloff.

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.”

— Stonemasonry instructor Ian McKiel

Will Steger, my boss, is a master carpenter, architect, environmental educator and a world-renown explorer. For nearly three decades Steger has been building his own wilderness sanctuary which aims to engulf visitors in nature. Steger is a do-it-yourself kind of guy whose self reliance, knowledge, humility and willpower (pun intended) has inspired myself and many residents to work hard helping him construct his dream. Steger wants to create a transformative wilderness experience that will inspire and motivate new discoveries and bold action to improve the world. All of his accomplishments in life lead to the Steger Wilderness Center, the legacy he wants to leave for all future generations.

John Ratzloff, one the other hand, is a professional photographer who has been capturing moments in time through the lens of his Canon 5d. His charmful enthusiasm, caring spirit and grace in conversation brings great vibes to the community.

Together, the other summer interns, work crews and a few volunteers spent part of their summer living in a close-knit community, miles away from the nearest town on a lake bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Together, we have been adding to a center which requires communal reliance and cooperation.

The purpose of the Steger Wilderness Center is “inspiring wonder and awe,” Ratzloff says.

I fondly remember ending many of my summer nights talking to Ratzloff. We often shared a view of the evening sunset radiating across the cobalt waters of Pickett’s Lake.

In June, I was tasked with building a few stone walls out of glacial boulders and Ely greenstone. Building a wall out of rock and quikrete, I developed a deep appreciation for rocks with good “faces” and 90 degree angles, which greatly helped our crew build a straight wall out of very irregularly shaped boulders.

“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.” Stonemasonry instructor Ian McKiel said.

In three short months, I learned the basics of carpentry and stonemasonry. I hope to use these skills after graduation, should I ever follow through with building my own house.

But I also gained some good life wisdom from people with very unique life experiences. Some of Steger’s most harrowing stories had valuable life lessons nestled between the dangers he faced and the hard decisions he’s had to make.

Ratzloff was a failed businessman before choosing to capture moments in time with his camera. His story taught me how to enjoy the little things in life that are easy to overlook or take for granted, and to enjoy the present moment with all the good company.

When I was a child, I thought adulthood would be a blessing where I would figure things out and see the greater point to life. Ratzloff reminded me that adults are similar to kids, nobody has it figured out. We’re all just trying to be happy and surround ourselves with people who mesh well with us while avoiding any pain.

Nick Sallen  is the editor in chief for   The Dakota Student. He can be reached at  [email protected]