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Finding Minnesota: Will Steger's center for environmental learning, stewardship nears completion

Inside Will Steger's center for environmental learning and stewardship
Inside Will Steger's center for environmental learning and stewardship 03:23

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Minn. -- It's a wilderness retreat unlike any other, where a famous explorer's dream is about to become reality.

"[In 1995] when we were crossing the Arctic Ocean on the Russian side, we were stalked by polar bears," explorer Will Steger said. "The ice was breaking so we were trying to get back to shore."

At his wilderness home near the Canadian Border, Steger has more stories than the Northwoods has trees. His legendary tales are about grueling dog sled expeditions across the North and South Poles, Antarctica, and the frozen Arctic Ocean.

It was during one of these journeys, nearly 40 years ago, that Steger got the idea for what some would call a "castle in the woods." Legend has it he drew it up on a piece of paper.

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"It was seven months, brutal weather. And there's nothing to do. And it's blank all the time, so I worked for that full seven months designing this place," Steger said.

He imagined the Steger Center in his head and wrote the plans down on scraps of paper.

"I lived in these rooms in my mind to figure out what they would look like," said Steger.

After decades of work, his plans are almost complete.

"The view is superb. It's a Boundary Waters feel," said Steger while standing on a walkway at the center.

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Every inch of his 5,000-square-foot destination is being built with the environment in mind. The building is entirely solar powered and the wood is all recycled. The roof is copper because it's a metal that lasts decades. The idea is to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible.

When the center opens next summer, Steger envisions it as a place for Minnesota state -- and even world -- leaders to meet to resolve environmental issues.

"There's this inspiration and this presence in this wilderness that is very special and it's very conducive for thinking. It gets you in the right spot. Especially when you're dealing with the future and the environment," said Steger.

In the meantime, he's relying on construction students to help see his dream through.

"Literally, all we do is build stuff. You see the smile on everyone's faces afterward," said De-John Warfield, one of eight students from Summit Academy who made the four-hour drive from Minneapolis to help finish Steger's property.

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While they develop skills, they're also learning what this place is really all about.

"It's his own utopia. It's literally what he made. It's pretty cool," said Warfield.

"It was definitely a new experience. I have never done anything like this in my life, so that was like, you know, a little scary. But it was exciting getting into it," construction student Ujima Boseman said.

It's exciting for Steger, too, a man who has completed expedition after expedition. But he believes this journey is as important as any of them.

"I did major expeditions. I worked all these educational projects. Those were basically means to an end to get this off the ground," said Steger.

Steger hopes to finally have the center open for a trial run next summer. He believes it will be fully functional in about three years. For more information, click here.

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