Service Unplugged


When a group of Interstates employees went “way out in the sticks” to help the Grand Marais, MN-based Coldwater Foundation with a site electrification project for its base camp, they anticipated unique challenges based on the setting. What they didn’t expect was the remarkable way in which all the divisions came together, growing and building relationships in the beauty of nature.

The Coldwater Foundation is a faith and leadership development organization located in the heart of Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Strategically situated near several Boundary Waters entry points, Mink Lake Wilderness Camp is the center of Coldwater’s activities. High schoolers and college students, as well as some adult groups, visit the Mink Lake camp for wilderness adventure, team building, and leadership training.

The Interstates Foundation was approached by Coldwater during its fundraising campaign for a solar project. The technical drawings sparked an idea. “One of our board members saw the proposal and thought that, in addition to financial support, we could offer our technical expertise to help with the design and construction of the project,” says Andrew Roelfs, Organizational Development and Training Manager at Interstates. A team of thirteen Interstates employees (plus a few friends) from several different divisions banded together to make this service project a success.

The project goal was to move Mink Lake from propane lamps to a safer, more reliable, and more sustainable solar power and LED lighting system. “There were no existing electric systems on site, and it was cost-prohibitive to put in overhead Mink Lake Wilderness Camp Service Project utility electric lines. They needed a system that was better than the obsolete and dangerous propane Humphrey lanterns,” says Eric Oordt, Project Engineer at Interstates.

Though fundraising was slow-going at points, Coldwater raised over half its goal, deciding to split the project into phases. “They chose to put in the infrastructure for solar first, but the scope changed a lot. It grew from three buildings electrified by a solar system to fifteen buildings electrified by a donated propane generator,” says Oordt. After six months of volunteered after- hours meetings and phone calls, the designers and engineers worked with Coldwater to nail down the technical details of the project.

With the nearest hardware store over 90 miles away, the team that headed out to Mink Lake had to carry everything they would need with them. This took considerable planning. Other challenges included matching people with varying skills to the right tasks and meeting the goal in a short time period. “Some people were there for a week, and some for just four days,” says Roelfs, “but despite the tight schedule, it was great to see so much team-building and growth in relationships, which will definitely impact our company going forward.”

Kevin Sutton, Director at the Coldwater Foundation, was very pleased with the project outcome. “The team from Interstates brought the perfect blend of professionalism and sense of community to this project. We now have excellent light in our lodge, classroom, planning and gear house, guest cabin, and two bunkhouses. Everything in this project was completed way beyond our expectations, and we have been so happy with the final product,” he says.

Interstates is considering more service projects like this in the future and may potentially help Coldwater with its next phase. The team that visited Mink Lake would surely go back – they were all struck by how invigorating it was to work “off the grid” in the midst of nature. “It was sort of painful to be disconnected from our normal means of communication, but it was also very refreshing. We were in pristine northern Minnesota at the height of fall colors,” says Oordt.

As Interstates considers future service projects, it hopes to partner up with more organizations like this one. “The Coldwater Foundation’s values really line up with ours. They are focused on building people up and teaching leadership, so it was great to get involved with them and give back to the community,” says Oordt.

Learn more about Coldwater: Coldwater leads a variety of wilderness courses for every age where young leaders can have the adventure of a lifetime while preparing to navigate the future. Check out their website to find a course that’s right for you and your family www.coldwaterfoundation.org.