Buying land right on Lake Superior was always a dream for leaders of the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. The nonprofit north of Silver Bay specializes in hands-on learning, getting K-12 students up close to nature and dirty, whether it’s snowshoeing, taking water samples from streams or growing carrots.
For decades, children have climbed Marshall Mountain on the organization’s 2,000 acre campus in Finland, taking in the 360-degree view and glittering expanse of Lake Superior. But the Great Lake was always in the distance, not something they could get down to and stick their hands in.
So when the DNR put a rare property on the auction block in 2013 — 68 acres of state-owned land on Lake Superior — they jumped.
Wolf Ridge trustee emeritus Tom Berg, a former U.S. attorney, said he and Executive Director Peter Smerud set off for the DNR land auction with high hopes and a generous budget. But again and again they were outbid.
In the end, Eden Prairie couple Robert Schachter and Karen Rylander paid $1.2 million for the parcel — nearly $400,000 over the minimum bid price.
Smerud left feeling deflated.
And that’s where the story might have ended if Berg and Smerud hadn’t introduced themselves to Schachter and started a conversation. The upshot: Schachter and Rylander gave Wolf Ridge two long-term leases on the lake property, including one for 99 years. The couple, described as intensely private, declined to talk about the deal or the terms. Berg described the arrangement as “very generous.”
“This lake piece is just such a crowning jewel for us,” he said.
Wolf Ridge is now developing a new course on the importance of clean water that they can teach from the sloping rock shoreline of a lake holding 10 percent of the earth’s fresh water. What better place to learn than a shore where you can feel and hear the crash of its waves?
Wolf Ridge intends to keep nearly all its new lake land wild. Plans include camping areas, trails and a small classroom building with a kitchen.
Now it just needs the money to pay for it. Wolf Ridge is $2.3 million short in a $9.4 million fundraising campaign as it upgrades facilities to keep it on the cutting edge of environmental education. About $1 million of the $2.3 million will fund the Lake Superior project.
It’s nearly finished renovating the old bunkhouse dormitory, transforming it into a model for sustainable living called the Margaret A. Cargill Lodge. It’s the first building in the state — and among fewer than 50 in the country — working to be fully certified by the Living Building Challenge, the highest standard for sustainability. To be certified, a building must be a net zero for water and energy use. It’s home year-round for students and for families attending Wolf Ridge’s summer camp programs.
Every bedroom is monitoring how much electricity, water and heat residents use, and the amounts are displayed in the room. Staff reset the meters to zero for every new group. “I’m kind of banking on the fact that 12-year-olds are going to be a little competitive,” Smerud said.
The lodge officially opens May 5 in a celebration open to the public.
The heart of Wolf Ridge, of course, is outside. Its campus includes forest, lakes and streams that are frequented by wolves and black bear — even Canadian lynx.
Its most popular environmental course, Smerud said: bird ecology. K-12 students tromp around with binoculars and bird apps to learn the differences between a nuthatch and a grosbeak. The capstone is the Chickadee Landing. Students sit quietly in the woods holding black sunflower seeds, and wait for the chickadees to eat from their hands. That’s the kind of experiential learning that Wolf Ridge specializes in.
“That person sits completely enthralled by this chickadee sitting on their hand,” Smerud said. “You see their eyes go wide open and they smile; they can barely contain themselves.
“What Wolf Ridge really does well is bring together knowledge and inspiration.”
When it comes to adventure, it’s hard to beat the high ropes course, which takes students up a wooden bridge to a 29-foot tower and zipline. Students build team work with partners on the ground who encourage them.
“The kids just absolutely love being up there,” said Karen Veches, a teacher from Watertown-Mayer Middle School. “It’s definitely a personal challenge for them.”
Veches, tired after a five-day stay with 96 sixth-graders, described Wolf Ridge as a rite of passage at her school for 30 years. “The moment they start sixth grade, they’re already talking about it,” she said.
Next on the popularity list is the stream class and aquatic biology, where students sample water and study the pH, oxygen levels, temperature, critters and fish. That’s where Lake Superior comes in.
“Anyone who has been to Lake Superior knows the magnetism and power of sitting on its shorelines,” Smerud said. “It is opening up an experience with fresh water that we looked at before and learned about but we didn’t experience at this level, and that’s the key difference.
“Every child needs a little Lake Superior in their heart.”