Ask those who have known it and who made it a part of their lives. They might not be able to explain, but your very question will kindle a light in eyes that have reflected the camp fires of a continent, eyes that have known the glory of dawns and sunsets and nights under the stars. Wilderness to them is real and this they do know; when the pressure becomes more than they can stand, somewhere back of beyond, where roads and steel and towns are still forgotten, they will find release.”
–Sigurd F. Olson, 1899-1982
Known as “the personification of the wilderness defender,” Sigurd F. Olson’s path took him to many occupations: writer and conservationist, teacher and dean, wilderness guide and backcountry woodsman.
Sig was instrumental in leading the fight to protect and establish many wilderness areas — from the Boundary Waters to Voyageurs Nat’l Park to the Point Reyes Nat’l Seashore to ‘the Great Land’ of Alaska.
Chicago-born, educated at the universities of Illinois and Wisconsin, yet in all of his environmental accomplishments, it is the preservation of the “Northwoods” that he is most responsible for.
“I think his most important role was preserving the canoe country,” says David Backes, author of “A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson.” “He played a role in many environmental battles, but his leadership in the canoe country was indispensable.”
Makes North Country Home
After graduating from college, Olson moved to the “North Country” to become a high school teacher and later, a college dean in Ely, Minn. It is the country around Ely –the Quetico-Superior country — that Sig loved. A land of lakes and loons, water and woods, vast wilderness and unlimited outdoor recreation; from its paddling and camping to its hiking and fishing to its snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, Olson would live the rest of his life in Ely.
Olson kept a cabin just outside of town — a spot he referred to as the “Listening Point.” A place he could get away from it all and renew in the power of nature. In his book “Listening Point,” Olson would reflect on his journeys to the cabin:
“Each time I have gone there, I have found something new, which has opened up great realms of thought and interest. For me it has been a point of discovery and, like all such places of departure, has assumed meaning far beyond the ordinary. From it I have seen the immensity of space and glimpsed at times the grandeur of creation.”
It is lyrical prose like this that drew readers to Olson’s writings. No other outdoor writer could make you feel the wonders of the outdoor world like Olson. His writings not only inspired, they conveyed a sense of place and a renewed sense of spirit.
“I think that Sig was able to put into words the deep and personal feelings he had for the land; for the canoe country; feelings that ‘regular people’ shared,” say Douglas Wood, author of “Paddle Whispers.”
Sigurd Olson: Defender of the Wilderness.
A Love Of Things Wild
But it is not just his writings that inspired readers; it was the charisma of Sig Olson the man. From such wilderness icons as Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, to his students, clients and fans, to know Olson in person, by book or by correspondence (his prompt response to fan letters was legendary) was to understand the search for balance and meaning in life; and the need for outdoor recreation and wilderness areas.
In “Reflections from the North Country,” considered by many to be Sig’s most intellectually significant work, he sums up his personal philosophy:
“Wilderness can be appreciated only by contrast, and solitude understood only when we have been without it. We cannot separate ourselves from society, comradeship, sharing, and love. Unless we can contribute something from wilderness experience, derive some solace or peace to share with others, then the real purpose is defeated.”
In addition to his best-selling books and his conservation work, Olson also served as the president of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association. At the age of 82, Sig Olson suffered a fatal heart attack while out snowshoeing near his home in Ely.
It was not the fact that Olson died in the outdoors, doing an activity he loved that would elevate him to environmental “guru” status (though it didn’t hurt); it was the fact that the following words were found out in his typewriter in his “writing shack” that would have fans of the great “Northwoods” icon talking and debating for years to come: “A new adventure is coming up. And I’m sure it will be a good one.”
The Essential Olson
Of his nine books, the three that define Olson and best represent his lyrical prose are “The Singing Wilderness,” his first and best selling book, “Reflections from the North Country,” his most intellectually significant work, and “Listening Point,” a definition of his land ethics and a favorite among outdoor writers.
All three books are available from the University of Minnesota Press, 800-621-2736 or 773-568-1550.