What I learned while clearing brush for Will Steger

I am a city girl.

Well, actually, a city girl with suburban roots working hard to shed some of those pesky habits that comes with growing up in the land of big-box retail, cul-de-sacs, perfectly manicured lawns and four-car families.

While I do my best to shop and eat local, walk instead of drive to the grocery store, drink tap instead of bottled water and mind all those other habits of enlightened urban folk, I know there is far more I can do to reduce my carbon footprint.

So when I got a call earlier this summer to see if I would be interested in joining a group of random city people for a weekend up at famed explorer/environmentalist Will Steger’s cabin in Ely, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Along with more than a dozen of other people affiliated with the Downtown Network — a social networking group — I spent the weekend at Steger’s homestead Aug. 22–24. I drove up to the artsy town on the edge of the Boundary Waters with a co-worker and his friend. We had no idea what to expect, but had been told to bring work gloves and boots. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to chop any wood since I have notoriously weak biceps and have been known to lose arm wrestling matches to 6 year olds. Since we didn’t know if there would be any free time, we stopped in town for some wild rice beer and a game of darts before we headed to Steger’s place.

When we got to the homestead — a collection of several cabins, storage sheds and a magnificent five-story cabin still under construction — we had to decide where to stay. We could pitch a tent along a lake near the campfire area known as the “Irish hobo village” or stay in “Happy Acres” — a tiny two-story cabin with a wood-burning stove up on a little hill. We opted for Happy Acres and then spent the rest of the evening getting to know our workmates for the next day.

The next morning, we had breakfast with Steger and then he put us to work. A small group of people joined the stonemasons working in the main cabin’s atrium, and the rest of us headed to the woods to clear brush — a task that took us nearly seven hours to complete. We were clearing brush to free up room for the white pine seedlings.

In the evening, we all packed into one of the main cabins and enjoyed a spaghetti dinner. Later, our group joined the stonemasons and other friends of Steger’s at the campfire under the stars. The city folk got along just fine with Steger and his Ely friends.

I’m a condo dweller with only two small plants in my place, so to be covered in dirt, sweat and tree sap for an afternoon, and spend some time taking in the beauty of Northern Minnesota, was a very satisfying experience.

We helped out Steger with tasks he said would have taken him a couple of years to complete on his own. In exchange, we got to hear stories about his expeditions, his thoughts on the need to take urgent action to fight global warming and, get a firsthand glimpse of his extraordinary creativity and commitment to maintaining a simple, environmentally friendly lifestyle that left many of us truly inspired.

Sarah McKenzie edits the Southwest and Downtown Journals and lives in the North Loop.