Young Adult: 1903–1924
(age 19 to age 39)
Note: The information in this Timeline is drawn for the most part from Joe Paddock's Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001).
1903–08 (age 19–24)
- Ober attends Harvard University, is awarded a B.A. in 1907, and pursues one year of graduate study in landscape architecture. Thinking it pointless to prepare for a career with his heart condition, he feels free to pursue his passions, which are many. He studies the violin under Boston Symphony concertmaster Willy Hess, plays in the college orchestra, attends concerts, serves on the board of the Harvard literary journal, The Advocate, and takes heavy credit loads. He studies under some of the best minds of his time, taking philosophy from George Santayana, psychology from William James, and landscape architecture from Frederick Law Olmsted. His English literature professor, Charles Townsend Copeland, whom he calls “Copey,” becomes a lifelong friend. He also begins lifelong friendships with classmates Conrad Aiken, who later achieves fame as a poet and fiction writer, and Samuel Eliot Morison, who becomes a renowned historian.
1907 (age 23)
- In the summer after his senior year, Ober takes his first canoe trip in the border lakes region north of Ely, Minnesota. His experience is less than idyllic. After his first Indian guide gets drunk on the first day out, he returns to Ely and hires a second Indian guide, Duncan Cameron, who also drinks on the trip and then gets them lost, but Ober enjoys his company and is fascinated by his stories. He notes in his journal that his heart “bothered” him one night after he lay down, but he is undaunted. One day he and Duncan paddle 30 miles. On their return trip they carry their canoe and equipment over seven portages, wade through three rapids, and paddle up “two very swift places,” traveling from near Lac la Croix on the U.S.-Canadian border all the way back to Ely in a single day, a distance Duncan estimates to be more than 50 miles.
1907–08 (age 23–24)
- Ober pursues post-baccalaureate studies in landscape architecture at Harvard. He studies under Frederick Law Olmsted, son of the designer of Central Park in New York City.
1908 (age 24)
- July, Ober and his college friend Conrad Aiken sail third-class cabin, steerage, from Quebec to Liverpool. They bike 40 to 50 miles a day around the Lake District in England and the Grampian Mountains in Scotland. Ober makes all the travel arrangements for himself and his painfully shy friend. After two days in which Conrad does not speak to Ober, they quarrel over their itinerary, with Ober wanting to continue north to explore the wilds of Scotland – in particular the Hebrides and the Isle of Skye – and Conrad wanting to head down to Oxford before catching a steamer back home in time for college in the fall. They part company, biking off in separate directions.
1908–15 (age 24–31)
- Ober writes a number of articles and short stories, some under the name Ernest Carliowa. Most are in the boys' adventure genre; many are based on his canoeing experiences.
1909 (age 25)
- Ober's health fails in the winter, and again he is told by his doctor he is unlikely to live more than a year. In the spring he finds a job as the interim managing editor of the Rock Island Union. Though the pay is low, he considers it “a good job” because it gives him “a lot of experience in a short time.”
- Spring, the Quetico Provincial Forest Reserve is created by the government of Ontario, setting aside one million acres as a forest and game preserve. Weeks later the Superior National Forest is created as a reciprocal act when President Theodore Roosevelt signs Proclamation 848, setting aside one million acres on the U.S. side of the border.
- An International Joint Commission is created with the signing of a treaty by Britain (on behalf of Canada) and the U.S. to study and settle disputes between Canada and the U.S. regarding use of international waters.
- At the suggestion of a Davenport bookseller, Ober writes to Arthur Hawkes, publicity agent for the Canadian Northern Railroad, informing him that he plans to spend his summer canoeing the border lakes region. He proposes that Hawkes purchase his travel notes “if you find them of value” and that he publish a pamphlet “describing the area canoe routes which you could use to promote summer travel.” Hawkes responds to Ober's proposal enthusiastically. He provides him with a special railroad pass from Winnipeg to Port Arthur, with instructions to the train crews to let him off wherever he wants, whether in a town or beside a creek, an arrangement that greatly facilitates Ober's explorations.
- May 28, still unsure about how he is going to make a living, Ober begins his “3,000-mile summer.” He canoes from May until freeze-up in late October, exploring water routes in the 14,500 square mile Rainy Lake watershed and discovering a passion for photographing moose. His summer travels, in combination with his exploration of the Canadian Barrens west of Hudson Bay in 1912 and other trips, earn Ober a reputation as knowing the border lakes region better than any other living person.
- In contrast to his 1906 experience, Ober receives expert assistance from six different guides. Two in particular are exceptionally knowledgeable in wilderness ways: 69-year-old Pat Cyr – brother-in-law to Louis Riel (leader of the 1869 Red River Rebellion against the Canadian government) – who is of French-Indian extraction and endowed with legendary strength and ability; and Tay-tah-pa-sway-wi-tong (or “distant echo”), also known as Billy Magee, an Ojibwe trapper and guide who is in his late 40s and is so skilled he can follow a disused, overgrown Indian trail through the forest by feeling it beneath his feet.
- As temperatures drop and the lake routes begin to freeze over, Ober heads for open water. Now traveling alone, he paddles down the Rainy River. Despite the water being “fearfully cold,” he decides not to portage around the big rapids at Manitou and shoots them, finding them “very much worse” than he thought they would be. At Barwick on the Canadian side, he carries his canoe to the railroad station, concluding his 3,000-mile odyssey.
- Ober sells his notes and photographs of his trip to the Canadian Northern Railroad for $400. His pamphlet describing canoe routes and estimated travel times is published by the railroad and is in use for 20 years. Ober also sells two articles, one describing his adventures to Recreation magazine, and another urging that the region be officially designated a protected “international area” to National Geographic, but the latter article is not published.
1910 (age 26)
- Ober finds a job for the winter in a Chicago brokerage firm, probably Hurlburd, Warren, & Chandler, but he is hoping to make his living photographing and writing about wildlife, with particular attention to moose, an animal that has taken on special significance for him as a symbol of primeval wilderness.
- May 22–June 13, with Halley's comet visible in the evening sky, Ober and Billy Magee canoe up the Big Turtle River, prime habitat for moose. Under the expert guidance of Billy, whom Ober describes as a “man who knew more about moose than anybody else,” they sight a total of some 260 moose, spotting 44 on their best day. In contrast to the common practice of using trip wires and flashlights to capture nighttime images, they approach the animals in their canoe in daylight and at close range. Using a large and heavy 3A Graflex camera and a portable developing box, and stringing up the negatives in the canoe to dry as they travel along, Ober takes some of the finest daylight photos of moose in his time.
1910–12 (age 26–28)
- July–September, Ober alters his plans for the summer when a telegram arrives from his childhood friend Harry French inviting him to travel around Europe for three months. All expenses are to be paid by Harry's father as a reward to his son for graduating from Harvard Law School with high honors. In London and Paris the two young men attend musical and theatrical performances, and Ober considers becoming a music or drama critic.
- After a long night of carousing and drinking in Paris, Ober becomes extremely ill. His pulse becomes elevated and his heart races for nearly 24 hours, an episode he later describes as “awfully dangerous for me.”
- At Arthur Hawkes' urging, Ober decides to stay in London for the winter to see if he can make his living as a lecturer and freelance writer providing articles about the North American wilderness for English publications. He illustrates his talks with black and white lantern slides of moose and the border lakes region, publishes a paper in the London Zoological Society proceedings, and does several articles for the highly regarded magazine The Field. He spends many hours in the British Museum library reading about the Barren Lands of Canada west of Hudson Bay in preparation for a major expedition he is planning. He also reads anything he can find about moose, much of which he considers inaccurate. Over the winter of 1910–11 he suffers minor illnesses, and late that winter he becomes seriously ill with what is at first thought to be a second bout of rheumatic fever.
- With his Harvard education and his command of the German language as credentials, and on the recommendation of a friend, Ober is appointed American vice consul at Hannover, a position he accepts partly to help pay his medical bills. He spends eight months in Germany doing work he doesn't particularly enjoy, “all the while,” he says, “dreaming of the Hudson Bay trip.”
- Ober's mother Rosa sails across the ocean to join him. Like her son, she has a heart condition, and she becomes ill. Ober searches for a place for her to convalesce in southern England. He and Rosa spend the remainder of the winter of 1911–12 in Kingswear, South Devon. During this time, Ober continues his study of the Canadian Barren Lands, and he is inspired by the writing of Canadian geologist and explorer J. B. Tyrrell.
- Ober sends word to Billy Magee that he wants him to accompany him on a canoe trip “into the wildest country” in Canada Ober has been able to identify. He explains that they would be gone for the entire summer, their only plan “to get back before winter,” and that “this would be the hardest thing that Billy would ever do in all his life.” Before leaving England Ober receives a letter from his friend Louis Hamel reporting Billy's response: “Guess ready go end earth.”
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1912 (age 28)
- June 26–November 5, setting out at the end of the railroad line at Le Pas, Manitoba (west of Lake Winnipeg), Ober and Billy Magee head “toward magnetic north,” exploring an unmapped territory that hasn't been visited by a white man since Samuel Hearne traveled through the area in 1770. Because of Ober's aversion to killing animals, they do not plan to hunt for food along the way. As a result, they must pack extra supplies, 700 pounds of equipment in all, which requires them to make five round trips per portage for the first part of their trip. They carry “the three staples of the north, flour, pork, and tea” as well as “such luxuries as evaporated potatoes, raisins, cornmeal, oatmeal, cocoa, sugar, beans, rice, and dried fruit.” It is a considerable undertaking for both men, but perhaps especially for Ober, who stands five feet six inches and weighs less than 140 pounds.
- Beginning on the Saskatchewan River, they paddle north to the 170-mile-long Reindeer Lake. There, without a guide, they thread their way through a “labyrinth of islands, long bays, headlands, and points,” never completely certain of their location. The first 500 miles of their trip is against the current. For more than a month they see caribou daily, sometimes in great numbers. Disoriented in the nearly treeless landscape and lost in the deep bays and countless islands of Nueltin Lake (also called Sleeping Island Lake), they spend days searching for the continuation of the Thlewiaza River, which is their passage east to Hudson Bay.
- Exhausted, discouraged, and worried that they might fail to reach Hudson Bay before the onset of the sub-Arctic winter, on August 21 they climb to the top of a 600-foot-high island esker (a narrow ridge formed by a glacial stream), a place they think later travelers would be likely to visit. There, Ober leaves a note in a dried milk can, secured in a cairn of rocks, with what he fears may be his last words to his mother. Ober calls the esker “Hawkes Summit” in honor of Arthur Hawkes, the name by which it is known today.
- Finally the two explorers, exhausted and occasionally hallucinating, find the entrance to the Thlewiaza River, where they see a seal. Hindered by ice in the mornings and tormented by black flies in the afternoons, they make their way down its shallow, rubble-strewn waters and struggle with their gear along the rocky portages.
- September 12, weeks later than planned, the two explorers finally reach Hudson Bay, where they are greeted by an Inuit in a kayak. The Indian, named Bight, is the first other human being they have seen in thirty-four days. He shows them warm hospitality and gives them, with their canoe, a lift in his whale-boat to Churchill for a fee. Two photographs – one of Bight's ten-year-old son with a pipe in his mouth assuming “a shrewd, wizened appearance,” and another taken at Bight's family camp on Egg Island of an old woman bent beneath a load of wood and “hobbling along with two sticks” – are extraordinary. They are perhaps the most powerful, haunting, and unforgettable of all Ober's photographs.
- Stuffing their shoes and surrounding their legs with dry wild hay to keep from freezing, they paddle 300 miles from Churchill south to York Factory, following the west shoreline of Hudson Bay. The slope of the shore is so gradual and the water at low tide so shallow that they are forced to paddle from two to twelve miles from land, where they are at risk of being caught by storms with no escape.
- Against the advice of the post manager at York Factory, they continue their journey south, traveling against the swift current of the Hayes River toward Lake Winnipeg. Fighting freezing temperatures and frequent snow, they paddle for their lives, often traveling fourteen hours a day.
- When they reach Norway House at the north end of Lake Winnipeg, they are told that the last south-bound steamer of the season had departed just two days earlier, and they realize they must paddle another 260 miles to Gimli, where they can catch a train home. It takes them eighteen days, six of which they are snow- and wind-bound, before they finally reach their destination.
- Throughout the trip Ober keeps meticulous notes with the intention of writing a book-length narrative. Until nearly the end of his life, he continues to hope that some day he will get around to the task, but he never does. Nevertheless, the extraordinary 2,000-mile, four-month journey makes Ober and Billy legendary figures among outdoors people, and Ober later refers to the trip as the single most powerful experience of his life.
1913 (age 29)
- Ober spends most of the year in Davenport recovering from the physical and psychological ordeal of his 1912 trip. He finds work as an assistant Boy Scout leader and contemplates what he will do next with his life. He decides that, despite his attraction to cultured life in urban centers, more than anything else he would like to live for extended periods among indigenous people in northern villages and to spend his time learning their language, photographing them, and studying and writing about their ways, as well as photographing and writing about wildlife. In 1917, Ober writes, “Since 1913, I have lived almost continuously among the pagan Ojibwe Indians in the territory north of and tributary to Rainy Lake Ontario. I have made numerous trips alone on snowshoe or in canoe to tribes within a radius of 250 miles, one of the objects being to record in their own language and from their own dictation, their old legends and songs. I have taken down a great many of their stories from dictation in the original Ojibwe.”
- Quetico Provincial Park is established from the forest and game reserve created in 1909. Canada's provincial parks are closed to hunting.
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1914–15 (age 30–31)
- June, Ober arrives once again in the border town of Fort Frances, Ontario, on Rainy Lake. He waits five days for Billy Magee to show up, then paddles north alone to gather information about Ojibwe stories and legends and to study the Ojibwe language. As he later describes the experience, “I traveled alone in 1914 by canoe in summer and snowshoes in winter among the Indians between Rainy Lake and Lac Seul getting their acquaintance and their language.”
- World War I begins in Europe. Although Ober is a pacifist – later blaming the war on the world's “colossal ignorance and selfishness” – in August he sends an overnight message to the secretary of state offering his “services” during the “present emergency,” but he is never called on to serve. That same summer he is suspected of being a German spy because of his service as vice consul at Hannover and because of his German-sounding last name, and he is detained for a few hours in the village of Wabigoon in Ontario. As Ober later recalls the experience, “My work among the Indians was so incomprehensible to the few white settlers of that region and my name appeared so wicked that I was detained a few hours as a German spy.”
- Ober becomes increasingly anxious about not writing, and he decides to commit himself to trying to make his living from it. He submits ten adventure stories under the pen name of Ernest Carliowa to Youth's Companion. All ten stories are rejected, although one later appears in Boys Magazine.
- Over the 1914–15 winter, Ober house-sits a new cabin on Rainy Lake for the Ogaard family. For the first time his local address is Ranier, Minnesota, a village about three miles east of International Falls. He stays on in the summer, and his mother Rosa comes for a visit. Ober later says, “Moving to Rainy Lake was one of the dreams of my life – like a bright thread running through my life.”
- February 21–April 1, Ober travels by canoe to visit the Mine Centre Indians, 40 miles from Mallard Island on the Canadian side.
- June 28–July 30, 1915, Ober canoes with Horace Roberts. He is perturbed with Horace on this trip because Horace shoots and kills a woodland caribou, which Ober believes to be the last animal of that species in the area.
1916 (age 32)
- Ober continues gathering information from the Ojibwe people in the area. They begin calling him “Atisokan,” which means “legend” or “teller of legends” and is in reference to Nanabozho legends. His principal source of material is Pierrish Jourdain, who is of French and Indian descent and is nearly 100 years old.
- March, Ober suffers frostbite on his right foot while hiking overland to Red Gut Reserve at the north end of Rainy Lake. This trip, in combination with other physically demanding trips taken that winter, aggravates his heart condition, and in the summer he blacks out twice, once while crossing the street in International Falls and once while trying to start an outboard motor. His doctor considers ordering him to leave the region for good.
- Ober sees Dr. Douglas Head, a Minneapolis heart specialist who later becomes Minnesota's Attorney General. Dr. Head's teenage son later canoes with Ober. Throughout his life Ober often earns extra money by hosting boys from well-to-do families and mentoring them in the ways of the wilderness.
- Ober rents a cabin on the Canadian side of Rainy Lake from Dr. Frederic Dunsmoor of Minneapolis. In the summer he supervises the construction of a summer home for Major Horace Roberts, an old family friend from Davenport. Rosa again comes to visit, this time with the intention of inducing her son to abandon his “northern nonsense” and come home.
- Ober becomes acquainted with Dr. Mary Ghostley, whose husband, also a physician, died in an epidemic. Some people believe she is interested in a romantic relationship and possibly marriage.
- The National Park Service is established by Congress. It is charged with preserving the scenery and wildlife of the parks and with managing the nation's parks “in such a manner and by such means that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
1916–21 (age 32–37)
- 1916, William Hapgood, a fellow Harvard graduate and brother of Norman Hapgood (editor of Collier's Weekly) hires Ober to develop Deer Island (also called Grassy Island), a 375-acre island on Rainy Lake, for agriculture and tourism. He and Rosa work many long hours hauling topsoil, planting corn, and raising chickens, geese, turkeys, and sheep. When William and Ober incorporate the project as a business in 1920, Ober becomes a partner. In his Fifteenth Anniversary Report to his Harvard classmates, written in 1922, Ober describes his experience on Deer Island “as a five-year orgy of physical activity, with no books, magazines, or music and practically no contact with the outside world.” He also notes, “I have nothing to show for my activity except larger muscles, improved health, and a certain fluency in northern profanity.”
- Ober turns down two positions, one as a Boy Scout executive in Davenport, and another (tentatively offered) by pioneer educator and noted engineer Arthur Morgan to serve as a faculty member at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
- 1918, Hapgood and Oberholtzer purchase the 227-acre Sand Point Island, located on the Canadian side of the lake. When they dissolve their partnership in 1922, Ober becomes sole owner, and for the next fifty years he makes the island's granite ledges and exceptional sand beaches available to the public for picnicking, hiking, camping, and swimming.
- 1921, as a result of losses in the Columbia Conserve Canning Company in Indiana, Hapgood begins to withdraw his support of the Deer Island project and to liquidate assets.
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1922 (age 38)
- The Deer Island partnership is dissolved. Ober is angry over the terms of the settlement. He is offered either $5,000 in cash – provided that sufficient funds remain after all other corporate debts are paid – or sole ownership of Sand Point Island. He chooses the latter. By previous arrangement, in lieu of salary Ober also assumes ownership of three of the four nearby Review Islands (Crow, Mallard, and Hawk, but not Gull, which is later owned by Ted and Rody Hall and given to the Oberholtzer Foundation upon Ted Hall's death in 2003). The cluster is known locally as the Japanese Islands because of the islands' narrow shape.
- During the latter part of the Deer Island Partnership Ober moved two old houseboats that he and Rosa had been using for shelter – the Wannigan, which had been a floating kitchen for lumberjacks, and Cedar Bark, which is said to have been a floating brothel – from the mainland to Mallard Island, which is the middle of the three islands. According to some accounts, Ober selected the acre-and-a-half, 1,100-foot-long Mallard Island as his building site rather than the larger Crow Island because his Ojibwe friends believed that Mallard was a place where the spirits were strong.
- Ober spends part of the year in Chicago, apparently managing a securities account for his mother. He is paid $1,800 for his services.
- A plan for preserving the border lakes region as a canoeing area is proposed by Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect hired by the U.S. Forest Service. Although the plan is never implemented, it stands as the world's first proposal for a wilderness area. Ober is not aware of Carhart's plan when in 1927 he begins to develop his own vision for wilderness management, which he calls “the Program,” but the two plans are remarkably similar. Both call for a fully protected core area and limited, controlled development in outer areas.
- Early 1920s, Ober and Rosa host Frances Densmore, a famous collector of Indian songs. Ober is distressed by Densmore's practice of talking only with “Christianized Indians” in chaperoned settings, and he encourages her to gather more authentic material by talking with some of his “pagan” Indian friends. Concerned that their stories might include something “obscene,” she declines.
1923–24 (age 39–40)
- Ober plans a number of writing projects, but makes no substantial progress on any of them. He considers making his living selling real estate. Twice he borrows $1,000 from Harry French, who is eager to help out his childhood friend.
1924 (age 40)
- Summer and fall, Bror Dahlberg, a wealthy Chicago industrialist, hires Ober to supervise construction of Red Crest, an opulent lodge on nearby Jackfish Island. Ober is successful in persuading the master carpenter Emil Johnson, who is considered a genius with wood, to stay sober and on the job so that the project can be completed.
- With the trained eye of a landscape architect and an innate appreciation for the natural beauty of the north woods, Ober begins to develop Mallard Island, constructing a series of buildings from native materials that blend harmoniously with the granite and pine landscape. He spreads barge-loads of soil and manure over the island's thin soil, transplants many plants from his native Iowa, and eventually puts in fourteen small vegetable and flower gardens, including a sunny sixty-by-ten-foot plot called “Little Iowa” on the southeast end of the island, where his annual crop of sweet corn rarely comes to full maturity in the northern climate. Over the years, Ober ordered more than 11,000 secondhand books. According to Louise Erdrich in Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, Ober “was a dedicated bibliophile, careful and disciplined, ordering books from London booksellers with great specificity and detail, and receiving notes and invoices in return, some of which are still tucked into the pages of his books.” In Joe Paddock's words, “The mind of Ernest Oberholtzer, haunted by death in youth, immersed for decades in the lakes and forests of the northland, immersed in study, music, and story, cast an image of itself onto the rocks of Mallard Island. . . . Many who have gone to live in nature have done so in denial of human community and culture. Though he loved to paddle beyond the reach of civilization, Ober was not of the sort who go to the wilds to get away from people. The lifestyle he created on the Mallard was a rich blend of natural simplicity and cultural sophistication.” In his eulogy for Ober, Sigurd Olson described the Mallard as “a delightful, dream-planned place.”
- Ober travels by canoe to visit the Seine River Indians. He also travels to the Red Gut Reserve in Ontario to purchase Indian crafts to sell to the many people who are now visiting him on Mallard Island in the summer, sometimes for extended stays. He prints a brochure titled “Canoe Trips Arranged by Oberholtzer” offering factual information on routes and campsites as well as anecdotes and bits of local color.
- Rosa, who continues in poor health, regularly cooks for as many as ten to fifteen people in the kitchen boat, and seems to enjoy doing it. She also provides piano accompaniment to Ober when he plays the violin to entertain his guests. Regular guests over the years include the Hapgoods, Sewell Tyng, Gilbert Dalldorf, Harry and Virginia French, Major Horace Roberts, John and Kit Bakeless, Penelope “Pep” Turle, Hugh and Marnee Monahan, and George and Gene Monahan.
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