Near Ely, Minn. – Laughter tickles the North Woods night as a delicate snowfall graces those around the campfire. They stand in the heart of winter at the Steger Wilderness Center, north of Ely. After laboring all day, they reminisce about their work and weary muscles. Stories spring loose, new ones take shape and their micro community bonds. The same occurs for folks warming near the wood stove inside the main lodge. They're all participants in Will Steger's "Ice Ball."

As a polar explorer, Steger has directly participated in important expeditions and returned with firsthand accounts of accelerating climate change. He also has designed and constructed an off-grid conference retreat pulsing with renewable energy literally in the middle of nowhere. The wilderness center's power grid features a solar electrical system. However, one of the few elements that require no electricity or propane is refrigeration. He prefers the use of lake ice instead.

Since 1967, Steger has used a variety of methods for harvesting ice from the lake at the center. They've included hauling by hand, by truck and with a Bobcat. But a few years ago he employed horses to further reduce his carbon footprint. Next year, electric chain saws will eliminate more fossil fuels.

Along the way, Steger invited people up a few at a time until the harvest blossomed into a full-blown event. Now, it's the Ice Ball. This year's was Feb. 6. Steger's so-called "old guard" has worked with him for 15 years or more. But he also invites additional guests for what he calls an invigorating day of "good off-grid living." This year, they include friends, associates, donors, and members of the Anoka-Ramsey Community College Environmental Club who arrive early to prepare for the other guests.

The harvest

Peter Wahlstrom is an ethics instructor at ARCC and the environmental club's adviser. He's also the quasi-coordinator of the Ice Ball. Though a festive atmosphere awaits later in the day, he acknowledges there is labor to be done. For interested do-it-yourselfers, these are the basics:

Participants divide into teams. The one on the lake is the largest, with subgroups at separate stations. A 20-by-20-foot grid of lake ice is scored into 4-by-4 squares with a chain saw. About a dozen people then take turns hand sawing with long ice saws. Just a few sawyers work at a time, and trade with a teammate upon exhaustion.

After a block has been cut, an ice screw is centered in the block and affixed with a long strap that has looped handgrips for team members. At this point, nearly the entire team is required to remove the block from the water.

The first block is the most difficult, Wahlstrom said, because it's trapped on all sides by other ice. A long plank is necessary to bob the block up and down in the water. Timing is all important in the heave-ho that finesses the block above additional planks so it can be lifted out and dragged to another station. But even upon success, the team has to be wary of the occasional runaway.

"It's kind of funny because the ice [is like] a bowling ball and starts to come at you faster than you can move," Wahlstrom said.

Chainsaw personnel at the second station cut the large ice blocks into smaller 2-foot pieces and remove the slag, a top layer of substandard ice. It's porous and won't last. With the slag removed, a crystalline ice slab of about 20 to 30 pounds remains. From there, another team uses putty knives to scrape off remaining snow and make the sides uniform for quality stacking.

A team of four Shire horses pulling a freight cart makes its entrance. The ice blocks are hand-carried or pushed up planks, and loaded into the cart. The horses depart from the lake and transport their cargo up and over the hill with relative ease.

The icehouse team unloads the cart, stacks the blocks and covers the ice with a layer of sawdust, providing an effective layer of insulation. The icehouse was built into the cool earth on the side of the hill and under the shade of a "mini-forest," with the expectation of preserving ice for months. It consists of two compartments: one side for ice, the other for storing perishables.

Meanwhile, back at the lodge, the kitchen heroes orchestrate lunch and dinner in preparation for evening festivities. Entertainment has included live music, storytelling and an abundance of laughter throughout the years.

Highlight of winter

This extraordinary old-school effort transcends physical fatigue. In the past, participants have endured 30-below-zero temperatures. This year they sweated through 30-above and slogged across 8 inches of ice water that soaked their feet to the marrow. But they still return. The most common reason by far is for the community working at a common cause.

Some described the work and camaraderie as the highlight of their winter. Another said the people rejuvenated her spirit and energy for everyday life. All credited Steger's vision as an inspiration for themselves, society and the environment.

A 20-year Ice Ball veteran, Jerry Stenger singled out Steger's leadership in gathering diverse people and crafting a team.

"He's an amazing leader in the sense that he doesn't like to lead," said Stenger, who's Steger's videographer. "He'll lay the law if he has to, but he's not one of those leaders that's right out in front all the time. He likes to empower everybody else."

Steger said the lake ice represents sustainability. It's a component in the center's demonstration model. His goal is for a zero-carbon footprint, and he estimated the center will be 95 percent carbon-free within three to four years.

At 71, he'll have a personal sustainability project of sorts when he embarks on a solo hiking expedition from Ontario's Wabakimi Provincial Park to Ely beginning March 7.

As for the Ice Ball, custom has it for workers to fashion a makeshift temple from leftover ice blocks. It's an offering of thanks to the Spirit of Cold. When the icehouse is full and coming darkness turns snow into blue, votive candles are placed inside. The glow emanates gratitude for refrigeration that will keep perishables cool well through hot summer days and into October.

Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at