By Will Steger
I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Ever since I was fifteen years old, however, I had a plan to move out of the city when I turned twenty-five. The idea of being a pioneer fascinated me -- going over the mountains in a covered wagon, then clearing some land with an axe and making gardens.
When I was nineteen I kayaked for 3000 miles through Alaska. The Native Americans and trappers I saw there impressed me. I liked how they lived in log cabins and were self-sufficient. I had a lot of time to think as I was hitchhiking back from Alaska about the idea of living sustainably. I've always had a builder's instinct, and hitchhiking gave me time to visualize my perfect situation: two lakes' distance away from a road. Then I could be a few miles away from the nearest road, but not have to walk the distance, carrying my supplies. I could canoe.
When I got back to Minneapolis, my brother Tom and I went to Ely. That was my first time in canoe country and I found exactly what I was looking for. Tom and I portaged and paddled our kayaks through remote lakes and pine woods. By luck I stumbled upon a perfect building site -- up on a ridge overlooking a lake, four miles from the nearest road. I placed a log where I thought I might build my home. I bought this land when I was nineteen.
I was in college in St. Paul and then taught middle school science for a few years after I graduated. In my free time, I would go up to Ely and work on building my cabin. I didn't know how to build -- I was from the suburbs. But I figured it out. We built everything; doors, windows -- we brought in only the glass. We did the work with a chainsaw and hand-tools. Today you can still see that rustic appearance.
When I turned twenty-five, I had three years of teaching under my belt. I left everything behind and moved up to my cabin.
I could then concentrate on building my homestead and working towards being self-sufficient. We didn't need much money, but we needed some for tools, seeds and a little food that we couldn't grow ourselves. I had some money saved from teaching and from fighting fires in Alaska. Later on I would also lead trips for Outward Bound to get some money.
The sauna was the first building we built after the cabin. The sauna is still the way we keep clean here at the homestead -- we have never had any running water. We heat the sauna with wood and then jump into the lake to rinse away the sweat and dirt.
After building the sauna, we built the ice house and the root cellar, which make it possible for us to keep food cool. We cut ice from the lake in the winter and stored it in the ice house, buried deep in the hillside. We also built a cache for storing food; it's like a miniature log cabin on ten-foot-high stilts. The bottom of the stilts were wrapped in metal so mice and squirrels couldn't climb up. The cache also had a ladder that we would take down so bears couldn't get in. We would store our beans and grains here. Beans and rice, along with fish from the lakes, were our main sources of protein.icehouse.jpg
We then made the gardens. I don't even think the phrase "organic produce" was around at that time, but I knew that I didn't want to be eating the chemicals that coat the food from the grocery store. This part of northern Minnesota does not have very fertile soil, so we built the soil up through composting. This was a long process; it took many years. I was working fourteen-hour days clearing the land. It was a beautiful life -- getting up early, working before breakfast -- a really great way of living.
We started Lynx Tracks, a winter skills school. We started running dogs and, through trial and error, built a good dog team. We would get free meat and bones for the dogs out of the grocery store dumpster. We didn't want anything to go to waste. After seven or eight years, the homestead was finally self-sufficient and Lynx Tracks was going well.
My eyes then turned north. My first few expeditions up north were with one or two other people. We had no media, no sponsors and spent a year organizing each trip. We built our own sleds, sewed our own clothing and outfitted the expeditions from Army surplus stores and Goodwill. Now we have the luxury of sponsors, but at the beginning we made it all ourselves.
Gradually the expeditions got bigger. After we returned from Antarctica in 1990, we started to add technology to our expeditions like computers, satellites and cell phones. These technologies made it possible for us to share our experiences with the rest of the world, but it also meant that we needed electricity at the homestead. Before, our only power sources were kerosene and propane lights and wood heat. In 1990 we added solar panels and batteries and in 1996 we added a wind turbine. When we started to get power tools for sled building we added a back-up propane generator. Propane is cleaner than a gasoline or diesel generator. It doesn't pollute as much and it is easier on the generator, so the generator lasts longer.
Even with the addition of technologies, I'm still trying to keep the self-sufficient sustainable vision. We still cut ice every winter for the ice house, we still use a root cellar, food storage and gardens. Now we have orchards and chickens. We still heat with wood that we cut from our land, haul water from the lake and bathe in the sauna.
My hope is that the Homestead will be a meeting place for experts and nonexperts alike to gather and collaborate on critical climate issues that impact our world. -- Will Steger, January 2007