Bringing Power to Mink Lake Wilderness Camp


We sat down with Eric Oordt, employee member of the Interstates Foundation, to learn more about the Coldwater Foundation project at Mink Lake Wilderness Camp – here’s what we found out!

How did this project get started?

It all started when Coldwater Foundation: Mink Lake Wilderness Camp, a leadership camp in Northern Minnesota, reached out to the Interstates Foundation about a grant to add solar power to their new campus. This request was slightly different than what we typically receive and something about it really piqued my interest. Included with the application were five pages of technical data sheets. As I read through these, I realized this type of project would be perfect for our engineering team.

The project truly began when four brave Interstates Engineering souls showed up to an informational lunch. This core team quickly developed a passion for the project and soon we had a service project in the works. Along the way, additional team members were selected from other Interstates teams (procurement, construction, control systems, etc.). Eventually, we had a team of 15 Interstates folks (and one Echo representative) who made the trek to Grand Marais, Minnesota and completed the installation of a donated propane generator, underground wiring, and lighting for 15 buildings. The work getting ready for the trip was somewhat rewarding – but it was the trip that really made it worthwhile.

What was the main goal of this project?

The primary purpose was to bring power to a remote campus that needed it to develop programs, train staff, safely organize for wilderness leadership trips, and give camp participants the opportunity to read and study as they prepared for/debriefed their wilderness experiences. The organization is based out of Grand Marias, MN. The camp was located about 20 miles out of town – about 5 miles off the Gunflint Trail (one of the main routes to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area) – far enough from the main road to receive utility power.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered throughout the project?

Fundraising was challenging. We set an early fundraising deadline and when the funding didn’t come in, we had to move the solar portion of the project to a later phase. Instead, we used our team’s strengths to install all of the infrastructure (lights, panels, underground wiring). Due to a donated propane generator, we were able to turn the power on for the entire site on the last day.

Working with a team that was volunteering time was also challenging. Our meetings were usually brown-bag lunch meetings – the design was spread across many night and weekend hours.

Another challenge was the remote nature of the site. Google satellite photos were our best friend, but that was a tough substitute for boots on the ground research. Additionally, much of the Coldwater staff is not available by cell coverage during all of the spring, summer, and fall, which resulted in spotty communication.

We were met with some challenges during construction which forced us to think outside the box. Any power had to come from generators. That meant we couldn’t reply on laptops, cell phones, etc. FedEx freight could not get a delivery close to site, so we took most of our supplies with us. Digging conduit into the rocky soil of the northern shield was a risky choice, but the best choice given the project.

Tell me about the greatest wins and best memories.

The project started with a solar design for three buildings, but ended up being a propane generator with service to fifteen buildings. So it was very satisfying to turn on the power for the first time in rooms that had only seen the light from a propane Humphrey lantern in the past. It is awesome knowing there are nearly 100 lights installed and ready to be used.

Collaborating with the team. Since everyone on the trip had a common heart of service, we were able to use that commonality to really share the experience with one another. We were there in the setting of prime fall colors and the team would spend time each morning eating together and chatting about lessons learned – that is one of my fondest memories. I’m not sure if it was the fresh air, the disconnect from electronics, or the chance to collaborate with the team, but everyone that participated seemed to leave more refreshed than they came!

Sharing Interstates’ method of Design Build Partnering and leadership philosophy. We got to see how Coldwater teaches leadership and they got to witness some of the ways we build leadership – that was really neat.

How did you feel at the end of the project?

A beautiful kind of tired! I felt a new bond to each person that was a part of the project. Partly because it made me let my guard down and depend on others, but also because we succeeded in helping Coldwater further their mission. They’ll still face the challenge of raising funds and installing a solar system, but we were still able to make a big impact on the camp. Coldwater is on their way to raising more funds for phase two (the solar project), so stay tuned… there may be a Coldwater 2.0 in the works!

Check out these great photos from the project.