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Sigurd Olson

Sigurd F. Olson (1899 to 1982) died while snow-shoeing on a cold Ely winter day. Oberholtzer was fifteen years older than Sig and died in a nursing home after years of senility. Two such different endings, yet these two powerful men shared so much, including elements of their careers.

Sig Olson was at heart a writer and in the outer world, first a teacher and college dean. “Sometimes it can be hard to picture a successful writer as anything other than a successful writer,” wrote Sig’s son, Robert, decades after his father’s death. In the 1930s, Robert points to several journal entries by his father that showed how Sig’s writing served to keep him happy or as he said, “put him on his feet.” By 1938, when Sig wrote and published “Why Wilderness,” (American Forests magazine), he’d certainly found a clear message. Still, it took until 1956 for Sig’s first book, The Singing Wilderness, to be published by Alfred Knopf. Books then came in quick succession, to finally number nine. Listening Point (1958) was written about his new land on Burntside Lake, and on this writing continued until a title published in the year of his death. Sig was also a consultant with national parks for Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall and noted volunteer president of the Wilderness Society.

Sig Olson carried an “organismic ethic,” says biographer David Backes (1977 The Life of Sigurd F. Olson: A Wilderness Within, U of Minn Press). Sig’s ethic told him that the biotic whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Nature does not lend itself to reductionary science. This developing ethic, much like Aldo Leopold’s, reversed Olson’s original view of predators (wolves). Like Leopold, he would model being the kind of man who could change his mind.

As Sig began to find his writer’s voice, the wilderness community also found him to be a great speaker. In as early as 1933, at an International Joint Commission hearing in Minneapolis, Sig spoke up about the power of wilderness and received applause. He began then, to consider a new career, away from the routine of the classroom.

People often ask how Sig became involved with the Quetico-Superior Council, the organization formed in opposition to the Backus-damming proposal and employing Ernest Oberholtzer. In short, it was a passing of the torch. More specifically, things shifted about the time of the dispute over the roadless area airplane rules and resort fly-in activity in the national forests.

After World War II, the number of planes and pilots in the US had increased, and the number of pilots wanting something to do that made sense in their lives increased in Minnesota. Post-war fly-in for wilderness fishing tripled. In 1944, there were nine fly-in resorts in the Quetico-Superior region; by 1946, just two years later, there were twenty. The Quetico-Superior Council took on this issue. And yet the group’s leadership differed on questions such as airplane activity. Also regarding logging: Ober said yes – he thought of the area in terms of zones of activity. Olson said no – saying it’s all about the aesthetic and the intangible value of whole forests.

Increasingly, meanwhile, Ernest Oberholtzer was spending more time on Mallard Island and while Ober held firm with his scope of 14,500 square miles for the Q-S region and its Program, Sig Olson, as he met with people in Canada, was beginning to compromise some. In 1946, F. B. Hubachek and Charles S. Kelly offered to raise money not just for Ober but also for Sig Olson, paying Sig to advocate and organize through the Izaak Walton League. By January 4, 1951, in a letter from Ober to Sig, we learn that their main disagreement was on this issue of the scope of the Quetico-Superior region. Ober still wanted to push for 15,000 square miles. Olson’s new treaty draft reflected the reality of about 3,000 square miles. Though they remained friends, things grew cool between the two men. In time, a friendship returned, and most certainly their mutual respect never wavered. Sig gave the eulogy at Ober’s funeral in 1977 entitling it, “A Defender of Wild Places.” “In truth,” says Joe Paddock, Ober’s biographer, “both men were legends.”

One can see how, in the late 1940s, Sig’s advocacy effort picked up as Ober’s waned. Ober was trying to reconnect with his Indian friends before Mrs. Notaway died. He was maintaining an island that now had several buildings and many guests. In 1950, Ober worked hard to help Frances Andrews buy Deer (Grassy) Island from William Hapgood, in Hapgood’s final years. In 1950, Mallard was badly flooded and many walls and all the gardens needed re-building; its ice was gone for that summer; its firewood had floated away. Also in 1950, Oberholtzer bought two more islands: Crow and Hawk, though he left them undeveloped. Clearly Ober’s Rainy Lake life was demanding more of him.

When Sigurd Olson was first published in 1956, Ober was trying to find the laborers to help him put the Frigate Friday houseboat up on land as his cabin on the mainland. Again his attention was needed at home, and it was natural that Oberholtzer’s energy for travel would lessen in his early seventies. It was also natural and a very good thing for the BWCAW effort that Sig Olson’s energy for this work was high, and that his voice was articulate on the beauty and value of the region. Sig resigned his deanship in 1947 to follow the career of writing and wilderness preservation. “I asked Sig what was his major victory,” said Herb Johnson in writing a 1980 piece on Olson. “He replied, ‘Carter’s signing the 1978 Act.’” A quote such as this shows us just how much of Sig’s focus in life was this wilderness advocacy work.

Sigurd Olson “was a sensitive and tender man,” wrote his son, “a man who felt things keenly and loved his world for its very self. He was a child of Nature…” The world remembers Sig Olson now with the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute out of Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. His legacy and the Listening Point land on Burntside Lake is also protected through the work of the Listening Point Foundation, based in Ely, Minnesota.

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Without love of the land, conservation lacks meaning or purpose, for only in a deep and inherent feeling for the land can there be dedication in preserving it.” - Sig Olson

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