If you have a personal story related to Sigurd Olson or any of his writings that you feel is appropriate for the site, please email me.
Either scroll through the text, or go to the beginning of a person's entry by selecting from the names below:
Arloski, Michael | Barker, Rocky | Berger, Jon | Bjorgo, Jeff | Bodsworth, Fred | Buescher, Lee | Davis, Jerry | Dehl, Elizabeth | Dillard, Annie | Everett, Karl| Gerwood, Joseph | Green, Mike| Hauptmann, Bill | Johnson, Larry | Kinzer, David | Laine, William G. | Loveridge, Carol | Markiewicz, Ray | Mech, L. David | Olson, Robert T.| Lee Paumen| Roberts, Tom Jr. | Slinde, Terry | Stegner, Wallace | Steinhart, Peter | Strong, Paul | Stoner, Barbara | Truby, Todd| Warner, Gary D.
My mother had many of Olson's books, and I read them cover to cover when I was in my early teens. At some point, I wrote him a letter. I don't remember what I said, but I still have his reply, pasted in the back of my all too ratty copy of "The Singing Wilderness," 1956 ed.
I will be 69 years old on Tuesday, and I have kept this book with me for over 50 years!
-- Barbara Stoner --
Whenever I touch the work of Sigurd Olson, the great Northcountry writer, I contact a place in me that breathes in a relaxed vision of a quiet place where nature and self are one. I see photos of The Listening Point, and I am back on a northern shore, listening to the lap of a gentle lake, and the call of a distant loon. I transport myself to a granite shelf where I find a spot free of reindeer moss, and sit with blueberry bushes behind me as I hold a cup of morning tea, hot in my hand.
The warm liquid has an enjoyable astringent quality on my tongue, and I have put it together that the Northcountry has that same quality. This is not a soft land, like the South, it holds together tightly like an early morning shiver. It has that firm tone of healthy muscle, not the flaccid softness of civilization.
I think of the old Soo Woolens shirt I would pull on as I made the morning campfire outside the tent. There is always a way to find warmth you just have to bring it out, like being around a kind-hearted man, who seems gruff on the outside, but you know loves you. What warmth is better than a cozy type of warmth, that of a campfire and a good sleeping bag?
Nowadays, in winter, I look to hammock-stretching and warm-water swimming down in the near tropics. That kind of appeal, many can understand. Nothing astringent there, just the sweetness of a Pina Colada. Yet there are times when that would all be much too syrupy sweet, times when there is a yearning for evidence that one is alive and capable, evidence that you can still pull a canoe along with your paddle.
Olson talked about a "fierce joy" in the hearts of those who immerse themselves in the wilderness. Certainly that can be found in any wild place. I touched it as I hiked alone through a Brazilian sub-tropical rainforest. I felt it as I watched toucans alight in the trees above my head, and then as I stood still and listened, a band of wild monkeys approached, swinging noisily near through the treetops and vines.
There are times for a good cup of hot tea, made better by a cool morning in a land filled with contrasts and paradoxes. Are some of us drawn to such contrasts? Do we somehow need to feel more extremes to feel more aliveness? A long, hard portage, or a head-wind battle across a lake is tiring, but it results in the "good tired" of a good workout and even more of an evident feeling of being vibrantly alive!
Don't get me wrong. The North is not just a bitter and harsh place, though it can be. Astringent is not the same as bitter, and it seems, there is a teaspoon of sugar that summertime adds. This too is a place for hammock stretching. Hung between two white pines on a low cliff top looking over the water, the webbing holds you there to bask in warm sunshine and listen to waves and white-throated sparrows. Ripe red raspberries in early summer, blueberries later on, and the sweetness of quietude that allows you to let go as surely as you would on that tropical beach. Perhaps we value the warmth and the sweetness even more because we know is more short-lived than the season-less sameness of the lower latitudes. Again, more contrast.
Come taste that black tea on the tongue. Drench yourself in lake water and raspberry juice. Put the paddle in your hands and glide.
-- Michael Arloski, Fort Collins, CO--
Submitted by Karl Everett, Duluth, MN:
I am a 58 year old woman from Ontario, and when I was a teenager I found the first of Sigurd Olson's books in the library "The Singing Wilderness" and "Listening Point". I was born and raised in Toronto so his canoe trips and wonderful descriptions of the northern wilderness grabbed me like nothing else ever has. They so captivated me that over the years I eventually bought all his books and still have them in an honoured spot on my book shelf, very much dog eared from many readings and even a few canoe trips.
Without question, the books of Sigurd Olson were the biggest single influence on the life I chose to lead all of my life. I became much more interested in the environment, taking a biology degree at university, and was very fortunate to marry a man who was interested in canoeing and hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing, although he had also been brought up in a city. Over the past 35 years he and I have been on dozens of canoe trips. We have been to Quetico 4 times and many times to Killarney Provincial Park which we are fortunate enough to now live near. The high point of our canoeing experiences was a 3 week trip to Quetico in May and June of 1979 on our way to the Yukon. The day we got back from that trip I wrote my first "fan letter" to Sig and he wrote me back a long letter. We spent the next 3 years living in the Yukon where we did much more hiking and snowshoeing, and less canoeing but I wrote to him several times to tell him about our wilderness trips and still have all his letters. It was while we were there that I received a note from his wife to tell me of his death, doing what he loved: snowshoeing.
Eventually we settled back in Ontario on a farm and less than an hour's drive to some of the most beautiful canoe country in Ontario. Although age and arthritis has slowed us down we still canoe occasionally and are planning a 5 day trip this May in Killarney Provincial Park. I also have taken up solo kayaking in the past couple of years, which allows me to experience the wilderness around here with relative safety and ease. Over the years I have also been a watercolour artist and I have always painted northern wilderness scenes. I also have a library of thousands of photos, and 8 journals filled with details of canoe trips and wilderness experiences taken all over Canada. All of this is because of the influence this fine man had on a shy 14 year old girl who vanished into a world created by his books.
-- Carol Loveridge, Manitoulin Island, Ontario --
It happened so very long ago, so many strokes of the paddle through the past, that I do not remember the year. 1969? 1970?
My brother, David, and I were about to embark on his first, and my third or fourth, canoe trip into the Quetico. At that time I was Outdoor Editor of The Kansas City Star. We had checked in with our outfitter--here again, unknown (either Canadian Waters or Don Beland, as fabulous with a paddle as Sig Olson was with a pen.)
We stopped at a local drive-in for burgers, fries and shakes and drove on to our motel at about 10 p.m. There we spread our repast over the two beds, kicked off our shoes and leaned back against the headboards to watch television for an hour or two before lights out.
We were mystified by a rapping at the door. Who would stop by to see us? We knew, really knew, no one in Ely. I got off the bed, padded to the door and opened it. There stood a tall, silver-haired man I knew to be Sigurd Olson and a woman whom I knew must be (and was) Sig's wife, Elizabeth. After picking up my jaw from the floor we introduced ourselves.
Let me say first that Sig Olson was and remains today my hero, the finest wordsmith God ever put on this earth. To continue, I quickly cleared my bed of food and invited them to sit. Elizabeth took the single chair in the room and Sig sat on the edge of the bed opposite me.
They had, Sig explained, just returned from Chicago where he had received still more deserved recognition from a national conservation group. Stopping by my outfitter, Sig had learned that I was in town, and where I was staying, and had driven to my motel to see me.
Believe me, when Sig Olson drives to your motel to see you, it gives you a tumultuously stunning feeling. At that moment I ruled the world of environmental conservation while knowing that I was only a pretender to the crown which belonged to Sig.
Sig sat on that bed with me and we talked for five or six hours, until almost daylight the following morning. We talked about the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, of course, about remote lakes and waterfalls and portages and rivers. We talked about the rivers in my part of the country--the Missouri and Kansas Ozarks and the efforts we were making to preserve the Buffalo (this nation's first national river) and the Meramec, the Gasconade and the Mulberry. We talked about the Kabetogama Peninsula and the effort to create a national park there. But the conversation always drifted back to the Quetico-Superior and the Boundary Waters.
Late in our conversation we realized that Elizabeth was dozing in the chair and my brother was snoring (not gently) in the other bed. Sig stood, shook Elizabeth's shoulder and prepared to leave. . .after apologizing to me for disturbing our last night before we were to begin the Hunter's Island circuit of the Quetico.
I was as astonished to hear Sig apologizing to me as I had been to see him standing at my motel door. I do not recall my reply. What do you say to a man who is your role model, your shining knight, your God of the written word?
By the way, I didn't know this then, but I am certain that a little part of my reaction to Sig Olson was clouded by more than a tiny bit of envy. I have framed on the wall at my side a little piece Sig Wrote for North Country magazine about loons, for which we share a common and--to me, inexplicable--love. Reading it, I am there. I do not have to dream.
That was Sigurd Olson's gift. I have never been to his Listening Point. But I listened.
-- Gary D. Warner --
It was Sunday night around 7:00 pm when the phone rang. I ran upstairs and answered it. The voice said, I am a Saint Louis County Deputy Sheriff in Ely, Minnesota. May I please speak to one of the parents of Dean?
They arent home yet and I am the only one home at the moment, I answered.
How are you related to Dean? the voice responded.
He is my brother was my answer.
Do you know where he is this weekend?
The last I heard from him is that he went camping in the Boundary Waters with some friends.
Dang! replied the voice.
Is there anything wrong? Did something happen to Dean? I asked.
Well, we cant find him, said the voice.
What do you mean you cant find him? What happened? Is he in some sort of trouble? I asked anxiously.
No, hes not in trouble. We just cant find him. I just wanted to make sure that he didnt come home.
What do you mean you cant find him? Do you want me to come to Ely to help you look for him? I asked nervously wondering to myself where Ely was. At that time in my life Northern Minnesota to me was anywhere just north of Brainerd and I only knew a handful of towns around there by name at that time. And Brainerd is about in the middle of the state.
No you just stay where youre at. I dont want anyone from your family to come up here just yet. Ill let you know when and if I do. Can you tell me what time you expect your parents home? asked the voice.
In about an hour or so, theyll both be home.
Let me give you my name and number and have your dad call me as soon as he gets in. This is very important.
Ill have him call the minute he walks in the door, I responded and hung up the phone.
I ran downstairs and next to one of the chairs in the basement my dad kept an assortment of books in a wicker basket. I quickly grabbed the Atlas and looked for Ely. Oh my gosh! Ely is way up there! Almost to Canada! Thats about five hours away. I glanced at my watch and realized that it would be midnight if I left here now.
My mom and dad arrived shortly and I said Deans in some sort of trouble. I dont know what happened. A deputy Sheriff from Saint Louis County called and said for you to call him right away. They are looking for Dean and they cant find him.
I never saw my dad run so fast. He took my note from my hand and a second later was talking to the deputy Sheriff on the phone.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dean was thirty years old when this happened. It was Memorial Day weekend of 1983. My name is Lee and I am his only brother. Dean is ten years older than me so I was just about twenty years old when this happened.
Dean was an outdoorsman. A very good outdoorsman. He's the kind of guy that you would never expect anything like this to ever happen to. But it did. Dean was missing for six years. Six long years. Every day during those six years I had no less than thirty people stop me and ask me, "Have you heard anything yet? Is there anything new?" Most days I was ok with answering all the questions, but some days were harder than others and I wanted to be somewhere else. Somewhere quiet. No one asked my parents or my sisters, they came to me every day. That's how I discovered the Minnesota State bike trails. I used to pack up my bike and hit a trail somewhere and get away from all the questions and it gave me time to try and sort out all of life's questions for myself. My thoughts always drifted to my brother's disappearance and God. I never intended to think of those things, but it just happened. It felt good to try and figure out life's mysterys and to enjoy some beautiful scenery.
In August of 1989, Dean's skeleton was found a couple of miles from his campsite by three lost teenagers. These boys were kind enough to blaze a trail for the authorities to follow so they could find Dean's remains. It had been raining the evening that he wandered away from his campsite after a brief argument with his friends. It was cold. The temperatures did reach below freezing that weekend. He was wearing a green T-shirt and blue jeans. It is believed that Dean was hypothermic and made a bad decision that cost him his life that night. His death certificate reads "probable exposure".
One of my friends teaches Firearms Safety classes for the youth in our area and a few years ago he asked me if I would talk about my brother to his class during their "safety day". I said yes in a heartbeat. I've been his guest speaker one night every year to his class teaching the kids and parents about what happened to Dean and about hypothermia and how to plan for the unexpected when planning any kind of a trip. I love doing that.
Since my brother's disappearance, whether I knew the people or not, if I overheard anyone planning a trip to the Boundary Waters they automatically got my two minute commercial even if they wanted it or not. Most people would reply to me, "Well, we know what we're doing." And I would in turn say, "So did my brother. It was his second year in a row at this same lake. I have yet to meet anyone who hasn't been turned around at least once up there." Then the smiles would come and they would usually tell me stories of how they got turned around. As politely as I could, I suggested that they wouldn't take any unnecessary chances and to plan for the unexpected. I even had some strangers call me and thank me for the advice saying that it really helped them out when things got rough.
I'm not sure how I discovered Sigurd Olson's books, but I am so glad that I did. The times I spent in the Boundary Waters during the weeks after my brother's disappearance were not pleasant, but the scenery sure helped me deal with the arduous task of looking for him. I'm sure I can speak for a lot of people when I say that when I read from one of his books, I can actually hear the water lapping on the shore. I can feel the cool breeze on my face. I can hear the pine trees sing with the wind blowing them. His writings give me a sense of peace that I need to come back to time and again.
I went on a canoe trip for the first time since by brother's disappearance in 1998 with some friends. I had a marvelous time. I smile when I think about that trip, because the silence up there was noise to me. I remember my ears straining to hear the hum of tires on a highway or some other sound from civilization. I did get used to the quiet and solitude, though, and I can remember how loud I thought everything was when we returned to Ely.
I hope to go again next summer (2008). My firearms Safety instructor friend is planning a trip for next year. I've really been on another "Boundary Waters Kick" lately. I have a strong desire to canoe and take in the grand scenery of the Boundary Waters. I want to buy a used canoe and glide around the shores of the area lakes by my house. I keep looking in the want ads in the local papers, but I guess a used canoe is hard to find these days. I'm also rereading my Sigurd Olson books for the billionth time. I have prints of paintings from artist's showing the "perfect campsite" with a glowing tent, blazing fire, and a good, trusty canoe pulled up on the shore. I've been finding myself staring at these pictures more and more lately and I have to give Sigurd credit for helping me capture the quiet beauty of nature in the Boundary Waters. I don't care where we go or what lakes we paddle through on this next trip. My only goal is to take that perfect picture and frame it so I can feel like I'm in the Boundary Waters again when I look at it.
Thank you, Sigurd Olson, for all you have shown me and taught me. My only regret is that I never got the chance to meet you in person and shake your hand, but I feel that I know a lot about you. You have helped me more than you could ever know. And whenever I get feeling a little blue, I can pick up one of your books and enjoy the splendid beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
-- Lee Paumen --
During the 1960s I was married to Judith H. Conn, whose father, Dr. Howard J. Conn, owned Aberfoyle on Burntside, the property that adjoined Mr. Olsons. Dr. Conn was the minister of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and the church was the sponser for Explorer Post 27. I was a member during my high school years. Our Post Adviser was Dr. John Wheeler, Senior Research Chemist for General Mills, and Sig Olson was our Honorary Adviser. Each year we would come up from MPLS for our ten day Quetico Canoe Trip and at each evenings campfire Dr. Wheeler would read a chapter from Listening Point or the Singing Wilderness--it was the highpoint of each day and the perfect thing before crawling into your sleeping bag. Each year we would take a side trip to Burntside Lake on the way out or coming back in hope of having a chance to meet Mr. Olson--but it never happened.
While in the Navy from 1962-1966 I was staying at the Conn's Burntside Lake home and went into the woods to find a place to safely shoot a .22 Caliber Pistol. I found a perfect spot and went through two boxes of (50) rounds each.
When I went back to the house, Mr. Olson was sitting at the Conn's picnic table overlooking the Lake, his canoe was at their dock. I introduced myself and when he told me who he was, I gave a detailed account of Explorer Post 27...when I finished, he had one question- "Are you finished shooting?" If there was ever a moment of Enlightenment in my life, it was then. "Yes Sir, never again". I kept my promise and thus had the benefit of his advice on a thirty-day trip that I had been planning for the summer of my discharge...it made all the difference in where I went and where I camped--and his books were the lightest thing in my pack.
-- Mike Green, Florida --
I just finished visiting the SFO website and enjoyed reading the personal anecdotes link. It is amazing how many different folks have been touched by my grandfather. What many people don't know about was the very personal side of him and his love of his grandchildren. I can remember sitting in front of the fire out at the cabin listening to him tell his "own" Rumplestiltskin stories or hearing about how the fawn got its spots. I can still close my eyes and hear him humming in his deep voice as we steamed up in the sauna and then made the mad dash to the dock to dive into the velvety waters of Burntside Lake. His laugh would just roll out across the bay in his joy of these little things. Some mornings at the Ely house would start with a fire out in the rock wall fireplace to cook blueberry pancakes and bacon for breakfast. You could see him waiting for the chipmunks who lived in the wall to come out and get their fair share of the breakfast. There is more to the man than just the wilderness - there was the man who embraced his family as heartily as he did his dedication to the wild. This a part of him most folks don't know about.
-- Robert T. Olson, (son of Sigurd T. Olson), Anchorage, Alaska --
It was 1961and I was in the 8th grade. I was sitting at our kitchen table one evening when my Dad came in the door with a smile on his face, and set a library book in front of me and said read this. Now, you never said no to my Dad, so I am figuring how to get out of this one. I was not fond of book work and would rather be on the water or in the woods or playing sports with my friends. I had made it through school so far without reading a book, always faking book reports by reading the book covers. Unfortunately I knew Dad would not be as easy to fool as my teachers. As I was toying with the book trying to figure a way out, the cover caught my eye. The title Listening Point by Sigurd Olson. The next thing I knew it was 2:00 in the morning and my flashlight batteries were running low. I never looked back devouring everything Sig had written and a few other books over my lifetime.
Since then I have canoed all over Northern Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. When Im not on the water no one can put me there like Sig can. I guess I owe my literacy to my Dad and Sig. Otherwise I might still be faking it.
-- Bill Hauptmann, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan --
I met Sig in 1976 at Northland College, and again in 1980 in Ely. His writings and life have been an inspiration to me ever since I bought his "Wilderness Days" in 1973. Long about that time, when I was 15, I wrote him a letter telling him how much I liked his book, and how I yearned to canoe the MacKenzie to the Arctic. He wrote me back, encouraging me to follow my wilderness dream. I put the letter in my "Wilderness Days" and took it to Northland in 1976. It was somehow misplaced during my wanderings those years following, and I haven't seen it since. Ah, yes, if ever I get that letter back I will frame it!
-- Todd Truby, Waukegan, Illinois --
My name is Jeff Bjorgo, I'm a native Minnesotan, retired Navy Chief Warrant Officer.
Three years ago I had the opportunity to attend a guitar music camp in the the Appalachian foothills of SE Ohio. The camp is the love labor of the brilliant guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and his wife Vannessa. Jorma and I became fast friends and he has been so fond of No. Minnesota, Wisconsion and the U.P. where his father, Jorma, was raised. As we came to know each other he told me of the author Sigurd F. Olson and how his writings captured his imagination and ignited his love of canoe expeditions in the BWCAW. I was not familiar with Sigurds' writing or legacy and had never actually been to the BWCAW.
I returned from that Ohio trip and greeted my father, Alfy, with questions about this Sigurd Olson. I was surprised to learn that he had not only read most of his work, but believed that most of the works where in his much scattered library. These were inherited from my mothers father, Robert Burnett. The first book I read, "The Lonely Land". The first BWCAW trip followed shortly.
This past fall from Sept 1 through the 14th I completed a 150 + mile solo trip through BWCAW and Quetico. I used a folding kayak, I think Sig approved.
On Nov 8th this year, my birthday by the way, I was visiting my parents, and discovered some more of that very scattered library in one of the bedroom closets. Up there high on the shelf, a colorful dust jacket caught my eye and I withdrew a somewhat musty copy of Sigurd F. Olson Wilderness Days. I was tickled I had not been able to find it in reprint. And although I had read most of the stories, it was a very cool find, replete with photos to match the seasons.
To my great surprise, within I discovered that the cover page was autographed. My mom told me that she knew my Grandpa had been a huge fan of Sigurd and she had believed he had met him at a book signing.
I was able to reap the fruits of friendship with Jorma last Saturday after his performance here in Minneapolis, and related my story of the wonderful birthday gift find.
I finished rerereading "The Lonely Land" two weekends ago. The copy remains on the bedside table at my mom and dads, for visits home.
And I'm checking my maps...
-- Jeff Bjorgo, Minneapolis--
I am one of those whose life he touched in a most profound way through his books. Some years ago I took my son to the Boundary Waters when he was 16 , he is now 36. Prior to the trip in a motel room I was tempted to phone Mrs. Olson to see if we could visit the shack. Sigurd died during the winter of that year. I picked up the phone but then felt as though I were intruding on her privacy so instead when we returned home to Angola New York near Buffalo , I wrote her to tell of the impact her husband had on my life and I promised her in his name I would encourage my young son to appreciate nature and if possible to help preserve it. She sent me a lovely letter back saying she would have loved to meet us and then it warmed her heart to know Sig's work had such an effect on me.
-- Ray Markiewicz, Angola, New York--
I am now 56 and have spent every summer since 1958 (with the exception of three years in the Peace Corps in West Africa) canoeing the rivers of northern Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. In the early seventies, inspired by the work of the Group of Seven and the writings of Sig Olson, I began to draw while out on the trips. As time went on i accumulated thousands of sketches and was able to share them with Sig- whose letters I treasure.
As a matter of fact, I began to correspond with him when I was in high school and that correspondence continued through the seventies. At that time I was working towards my Ph.D. in ecology and land use planning at the University of Pennsylvania under the aegis of Ian McHarg.
During this period, The grad school ran a student lecture series and invited people to come and speak. I was asked if I had any ideas for speaker and I replied, "Sigurd Olson!" My response was greeted with a "Who!". So the next day I brought in a beaten up copy of The Lonely Land which I shared with the committee chairman. He saw me the next day and said he was up all night reading and of course we had to get Sig in. So I started another correspondence in hopes that he might come. Over and over we tried but his schedule was not possible until finally we got a phone call saying if we could fit him in on short notice he would be in Philadelphia in a week. So - we told him to come and made frantic preparations. There was just time to put up a few signs in the building and the elevators and to arrange a dinner at my Mom's home. So Sig showed up and we met him at his hotel.
I apologized in advance that we had not much time to publicize his lecture. He was gracious as we entered a jammed packed lecture hall!! We could hardly make our way down the aisle to the podium. The Dean was supposed to introduce him but he was not there and so the honor fell to me. I took a deep breath and said - usually the Dean reads off a long list of distinguished credentials but I only want to say that here is the man who has explained our feelings when we swing an ax or a paddle or put up a load to carry across a portage.
It was quite an evening.
So now it is 2001 and I am working on The Canoe Atlas of The Little North - a comprehensive mapping of the river and cross country routes from James Bay to Lake Winnipeg and from Lake Superior to Hudson Bay. If you want to see a bit more about it go to ottertooth.com and click on Sutton River. The Intro to the Atlas says that the Group of Seven and Sigurd Olson are the inspiration.
May the Winds Be at Your Back
-- Jon Berger, Philadelphia --
I did not discover Sig until about six months ago (Nov. 1999), while checking out the nature area of my local library. I only had to read the first essay in "The Singing Wilderness" to know that I had stumbled upon a writer who could fill a need in my life with his words. I still haven't had the opportunity to read all of his books, but I am well on my way. I am in the process of buying them one at a time, so that I can read them over and over. Now that I have found your web site, I feel that in some way, I have a connection to Sig. Not only did he do alot for wilderness conservation, he has done alot for me, as his writings touch me in a way that is difficult to describe. Being able to see the pictures of "the shack" and "Listening Point" help to bring his writings to life. I also enjoyed reading the personal experiances of other Sigurd Olson fans. Though I never had the chance to meet him, he is in my thoughts and helps guide me in my daily decisions.
-- Jerry Davis, Boise, Idaho --
I am a Lutheran Pastor and spent twenty years in a parish in West Des Moines, Iowa. Prior to that I had lived for a time in Hibbing Minnesota, and had often heard the name of our neighbor in Ely. As part of my responsibility in West des Moines, I accompanied between 6-8 youth to the BWCA every year. (It was a tough job but someone had to do it-my tongue is in my cheek.) Last summer was the first summer in 12 years that I wasn't able to go. Nonetheless I, along with almost every youth and adult I went with was influenced by the legacy of Sigurd Olson. It was part of our daily routine to start each day with an essay by Olson. While canoeing on the trails we would stop frequently to allow ourselves time to simmer in the beauty of the wilderness with its sights and sounds. It was a time to let our souls catch up with our bodies. Those times of living in the present moment were for years affectionally called " taking a Sigurd." Needless to say with Jr. and Sr. High kids we sometimes had some who would rather sit than paddle. We would call that activity "Faking a Sigurd." There indeed is a myth surrounding Olson that sometimes robs the man of his humanity. Thanks for setting the record straight! Thanks for helping us get to know Sigurd Olson as a real person who despite his faults, moodiness and desire for recognition has made a difference.
-- Terry S. Slinde --
I remember in 1973, in my motorcycle-riding hippy days, visiting Sig Olson in Ely, following a four-day-long solo canoe trip into the BWCA. I called him on a payphone after my trip and asked if I could visit with him. He said that was OK, but it couldn't be too long, as a group of schoolkids was going to stop by.
I arrived at his house and Elizabeth went to get him. (I was surprised that his house was actually on a city street and not "out" somewhere else.) Sig and I talked for about one-half hour and he autographed a copy of The Singing Wilderness for me. I told him I was upset about one part of my trip because I needed to ask for a tow back to my campsite by a motorboat. I told Sig how windy it had gotten, and that I was frustrated: each paddle forward landed me two paddles backward, due to the windstorm. He said that was nothing to be embarrassed about, asking for help. I could have waited til dusk when the wind would have died down.
His consolation helped me recover my natural experience of canoeing in the BWCA.
I had two other serendipitous meetings with him, both at a bookstore in Minneapolis on two separate occasions. I did have several correspondences with Sig following my canoe trip. I wrote in 1977 telling him of my impending marriage and asked if he could write something for the ceremony. He did, and said he could think of nothing better than several selections from Reflections from the North Country. He typed out those selections in a letter to me, and our pastor read them at the ceremony.
-- Joseph Gerwood, Sylvania, Ohio --
DREAMS WITH SIG - AUGUST 30, 1998
I had a dream about Sig Olson last night. He was a wise, warm man, maybe 60 years old and with a kind smile. Believe it or not, he was going to lead my father and me and my brothers on a Boundary Waters canoe trip. I remember how incredibly important it was to me for my Dad to meet him, and how Sig was father-like toward Dad when he shook his hand and said hello. And I was the happiest person in the world, because I was with the two biggest influences in my life and was about to spend a week or two in the woods with them.
We were loading the packs and canoes on a surprisingly modern truck and trailer--everything in its proper place, spic and span. Sig was chuckling about how some city folks would load the canoes on right-side up; they didn't know a thing about wilderness tripping, he said. Elizabeth Olson was in the background, a sort of mother figure, bustling about and saying kind words. And I was in the middle of it all, loading the trailer and crying out of happiness.
I guess that I was close to waking up, because the next thing I remember is drawing back and realizing that Sig Olson was gone, and that we would have had to take that trip a long time ago for him to have guided us. My father is dead, too, although he lives on very strongly in my memory. He was a kind, gentle man and I miss him greatly, especially when the lakes beckon under sunny skies, and the fish are biting. He would have liked Sig Olson, for they had similar beliefs and passions.
Over the past two years, I've read the books that Sigurd Olson wrote, many of them twice. I've also read his biography, and I've begun to write, just as he did when he realized that other careers didn't satisfy him. My wife says that I revere him like a god, and she's right--I sometimes do. But I know that he was just a man--a good man--who followed his heart, and tried to save the wilderness so that others could enjoy it. He was prone to depression, sometimes blind to contradictions between his beliefs and his own life, and he could get nasty when interrupted from his writing. But there is a lot in his life worth emulating.
I don't exactly know what the meaning of that dream was. Was it a message from God? Or just a fantasy? In some strange way, I feel a renewed sense of opportunity for my own life. I don't suppose that I'll know what the dream meant--at least in this lifetime. So for now, I'm simply thankful to have seen my Dad one more time, and to have met Sig Olson in his northwoods home.
-- David Kinzer, Baraboo, Wis. --
I am one of the unlucky few who didn't meet Sig before he died, but had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know his wife, Elizabeth. My opportunity came during the time I was the staff biologist at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute in Ashland. Elizabeth was often overlooked, but her suppport of Sig and her "role" as a mother, partner, and gracious host to visitors was invaluable. I recall vividly my last encounter with Elizabeth in Ashland at a formal affair around 1991. I hadn't seen Elizabeth in several years, but approached her to say hello during the evening. Always the charming and attentive presence, she recognized me by name and exclaimed how nice it was to see me and how much she enjoyed the last piece I had written for the Institute's newsletter "Horizons" several years earlier. I was amazed at her remarkable memory and gracious charm. Surely, we all miss Elizabeth as much as Sig.
From my top floor office at the Institute, I could always see the canoe that had been hoisted to a perch on the wall during Sig's memorial service there. His aura was in that building and is today if one listens closely and shuts out the rest of the world. In the walls are the faint voices of French voyageurs singing paddling songs, the call of loons on wilderness lakes, and the gentle lap of waves on hard granite cliffs. To be part of the Institute, to have read Sig's books and essays, and to be in the company of those who knew Sig, one could not help but be influenced. Today, as a part time writer of books about wildlife, I recognize and appreciate my years there.
-- Paul Strong, Rhinelander, Wis. --
My only contacts with Sig were through the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and monuments, which met twice a year--once in Washington or near it, and one for a longer session, in the field where national park problems were acute.
I knew Sig's name, and had perhaps read one of his books, when I first met him at a Board meeting in Olympic National Park in September, 1961. I was not on the Board at that time, but I agreed to come one as a special assistant to Stewart Udall, then Secretary of the Interior, and Stewart had sent me there to represent him and learn something about department affairs. I don't remember all the people who were on the Board then--Earl Reed, Carl Wheat, Stanley Cain for three--all now dead or in rest homes. Sig was very warm and friendly, and we had some mutual-admiration conversations about writing. I was not then, and am not now, much of a nature writer, but I had done the biography of John Wesley Powell, and knew some conservationist history. We had a very pleasant few days at Port Angeles and around in the islands and in Olympic National Park, where we all agreed vehemently that efforts of timber interests and Forest Service to get at the timber in Olympic had to be squashed. In between trips and business meetings there was very pleasant socializing. My wife and I left for Washington thinking of that whole groups as new friends.
I worked in Interior only for a few months, until the end of 1961, and then came back to Stanford to resume teaching. Shortly Stewart appointed me to the Board, and from then on for five or six years I saw Sig and the others pretty regularly twice a year. The first time as a Board member was in early October, 1962, when we all took a three-week investigative trip to Hawaii and its national parks and monuments. Sig and Elizabeth were along. So was Marian Heiskell, who was appointed to the Board when I was, and was making her first venture. She became one of Sig's really close friends, and could tell you more about him than I could. (She was born Marian Sulzberger, and her family own the New York Times.) We visited the Hawaiian Volcanoes, Haleakala, Na Pali, and other actual or potential park sites, went over the top of Bib Island in jeeps, checked out some national monuments and historical sites. One field trip, through the Southwestern United States, I missed because we were abroad, but we saw Sig and Elizabeth at shorter meetings in Washington and Harper's Ferry, and in 1965 we took another extensive three-week tour, this time in Alaska and its parks and possibilities. I was chairman on that trip. Udall came along for part of it, and Stan Cain, by then Assistant Secretary in charge of parks and wildlife, made the whole tour. Somewhere in Alaska, I've forgotten just where, we met Sig's son, who was working with one of the federal bureaus there, and who had us out for a salmon barbecue one evening. Also in Alaska at that time was Adrian Murie, brother of Olaus Murie, who took us out to observe some fox dens, and was with us when we went out to Camp Denali. We were supposed to go out to a dinner thrown by the McKinley Station concessioner, but Sig, Marian, and I all thought we wanted to see the park, not the concessioner, and we took most of the Board with us. The concessioner, Hummel, was mad, but we were not much disturbed by his wrath. On the way out to Denali we saw grizzlies grazing like cows in the long grass, and caribou streaming across river valleys, and moose rising like prehistoric beasts out of the dim waters of ponds. While we were at Denali Ade Murie heard from some miners outside the park boundary that there was a sick mother bear with a cub out there, and that the cub had been chased by miners trying to capture it. We walked over the tundra and found the bear--Ade, Sig, and I, as I remember--but the cub was nowhere to be seen. The sow bear lay in the brush and wheezed, ignoring us, and was obviously not long for the world. Ade, a great wildlife biologist, said that when a wild animal got sick it almost always died.
What else? Later, after I had left the Board, George Hartzog, the Park Service Director, invited me to go along to the Everglades and the West Indies on another Board trip. The Corps of Engineers was drying up the Everglades, and I wanted to write an article or two about that situation. later we went to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Sig was by that time no longer a member of the Board, but remained on the Advisory Council, as I did. People along on that trip were again Marian and Andrew Heiskell, Margaret and Nat Owings, Stan and Louise Cain, Durward Allen and his wife, a couple of Congressmen, George Hartzog, and others. These trips were always like reunions, for we genuinely liked each other and were happy to have reason to get together. We went around the islands for a day or two in Laurance Rockefeller's yacht, visited Puerto Rico's national park and El Morro monument, called on Pablo Cassals, spent an afternoon at Caneel Bay on St. John's. Sig was always a major presence. He loved company, loved friends, liked a drink, liked to sing when he had a drink; but his was an essentially serious mind: he never lost track of why we were visiting these exotic places, or what we had to keep our eyes out for. he was a wheelhorse, a tower of strength, to the Park Service and to the forces that were trying to establish new parks, seashores, canoe wildernesses, and other reservations during the Kennedy and Johnson years. But his heart was always out at Listening Point in Ely. He somehow looked as if he felt the need of a canoe paddle in his hand, and his greatest love was the Voyageurs park that he was very instrumental in establishing. I have worked with him on master plans for Yellowstone and other parks, and he was always--he and Stan Cain--the best informed, wisest, and sanest of the committee.
-- Wallace Stegner, Los Altos Hills, Calif. --
Like so many wilderness/paddling enthusiasts before me, I was deeply touched by his writings, having experienced the same "singing." Regretfully, I never knew the joys of paddling until two years ago, at the "advanced" age of thirty-eight, but since then I've been trying to make up for lost time.
Sigurd felt a deep sense of spirituality in the BWCA wilderness, yet it can be felt anywhere, even in the small rivers on the Iowa countryside, as well as on the Mississippi here. For example, late last October I led a small group of friends on a weekend paddle down the Iowa River. We camped overnight on a sandbar in fairly isolated territory. Most folks thought we were a little "daffy," with the overnight temperatures dipping to below freezing, yet we were rewarded in ways they would never understand. We heard the "singing," not only on the river, but that night around the campfire as we shared some of the finest fellowship any friends can have. We heard the owls calling to each other in the distance all night, and arose the next morning to witness one of the most spectacular sunrises ever to spread its radiance across the heavens! Being in such settings and being receptive to the "singing" heightens all one's senses. Pancakes, bacon, and coffee never taste half so good anywhere else, nor is the warmth of a soft sleeping bag quite the ecstasy it is in the wilds on a cold night. There are so many stories to share, it could take forever! :)
-- Elizabeth Dehl, Burlington, Iowa. --
The mood around the campfire that night was electric. I could feel the power of the man as he spoke, addressing a group of Northland College freshmen before they embarked on a canoe trip into the wild, beautiful country he had fought so hard to preserve. It's funny how you remember things, how they stay with you and strengthen you when you need them most.
When you're a young, summer ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, in the wild heart of the Superior National Forest, you seldom hear of opportunities like this one. I was, however, in the right place at the right time when a friend who worked at the old Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, Minnesota, told me that Sigurd F. Olson would be coming to speak that night. Seems a group of students were there, eager to begin their college years with a trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Sig was coming to start their education off on the right foot. My friend knew I had already devoured every Sigurd Olson book I could get my hands on in the two short months that I had been in the north country. Would I like to come?
My favorite book, The Singing Wilderness, by my side, I happened to end up sitting next to the author himself. Under the stars of a northwoods night, Sig spoke of the values of wilderness, its power to renew one's spirit. The unspoken message was there: Appreciate it. Care for it. Never take it for granted. Allow yourself to hear the music, to feel the ancient rhythms. The only sound was the crackling of the fire, punctuating his deep voice. The students were enthralled. So was I.
Sigurd F. Olson was 77 years old then, his features worn and weathered from years of traveling the great silences of land, and his whole body shook with what I later learned was Parkinson's disease. [Editor's note: Sigurd did not have Parkinson's disease, although most people who came into contact with him after the 1960s assumed he did. In actuality, his shaking was stress-induced. It began with a facial tic in the late 1940s, and kept getting worse. He took medicine to control it, but in his last years he shook very much.] But his ability to energize and captivate an audience was awesome to behold. When he spoke, all of his considerable energy was brought to bear, and he stood perfectly still as me made his point. Respect the land. It has intrinsic value that our spirits need. Don't be afraid to fight for it. It's worth the struggle.
I have never met anyone with as much palpable enthusiasm and dynamic magnetism as Sigurd F. Olson possessed that magical night. He even took the time to sign my copy of The Singing Wilderness:
I hope you will always hear the phantom music.
-- Larry Johnson, International Falls, Minn. --
I reviewed Reflections From the North Country for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The book editor Robert Sorenson had not received a review copy or the "office gremlins" of whom he complained had stolen it. I offered to review my copies of it & Hal Borland's Book of Days in a combined review. I sent Olson a copy of my review & mentioned that no review would have appeared if I had not supplied a copy of his book--a gross oversight by his publisher, if Knopf had failed to send a review copy.
We exchanged a few letters, & I secured permission to visit Olson to interview him on my way with two friends for our first expedition into the Boundary Waters. Olson had just finished meeting a busload of schoolchildren & was expected at the lake to meet company, but he gave us about an hour of his time. He spoke in rhythmical sentences about writing & conservation. I never learned what affliction caused the involuntary contortions of his face, but I admired how he just rode them out, like patches of white water, & kept his concentration. I was grateful for the opportunity Olson gave me as a struggling free-lancer.
I have never been able to publish my interview, "Sigurd Olson, a Guide to the Spirit-Lands." The editor of a writers' magazine wanted more about writing & less about conservation. The editor of a conservation magazine wanted more about conservation & less about writing. The most moving part of the interview for me was when Olson recounted the death of his friend Aldo Leopold & how Olson might have prevented Leopold's death without realizing it at the time. [Editor's note: Sigurd often told this story, but he was mistaken. See the introduction to Sigurd's early correspondence with Leopold on this web site.] I'm glad that someone has finally written a biography of this great man.
-- William G. Laine, Menomonie, Wis. --
Sig Olson was a wonderful man in every way--excellent guide, cook, knowledgeable naturalist, and good clean character....In 1926 my father included me, a 15-year-old kid, on a canoe trip of older men down the Basswood River into Crooked Lake, thence to an island camp on Bart Lake. Sig was guiding another party of movie photographers with the Chicago Daily News outdoor writer, Edward G. Taylor. We joined that party at the Bart Lake campsite, having traversed the Basswood River at the same time. Sig and my father became friends.
Fifteen years later Sig, who had given up guiding, did take me and my father and 15-year-old half brother, as a favor to my dad (who was giving his other son the same treat), back to Bart Lake. That reveals the character of Sigurd Olson. Friendship, Sig and Dad!
And Mr. Olson's influence on me as a kid? It changed my life. He instilled the love of nature, the wilderness, in that 15-year-old.
-- Tom Roberts, Jr., Whitehall, Mich. --
I first met Sig in 1950 and in some significant ways it changed my life....I had been a newspaper reporter and in 1950 was breaking into magazine writing. I had sold a few articles to Maclean's magazine, which was then Canada's Saturday Evening Post. I was also by then beginning to develop some skills as a naturalist and I was writing on wildlife and outdoor topics as much as I could. I had gone to John Mitchele, secretary of the Toronto Anglers' and Hunters' Association, about some piece I was writing. He told me of the concern then existing about the future safeguarding of Ontario's wilderness Quetico Park, and that American conservationist Sig Olson was going to be taking three Toronto sportsmen on a canoe trip there and I should join them and write a Maclean's article on the topic. Maclean's approved the idea, gave me some expense money, and I went along and spent two weeks paddling bow in a canoe and talking with Sig in the stern.
I had grown up in a small fishing port on Lake Erie in settled Southern Ontario, Ontario's "deep south," and had always had a romantic interest in the north and had read all the Curwood and Jack London stuff. But this was my first experience with genuine northern wilderness and it really grabbed me. Also, by then, as a naturalist, I was beginning to acquire some biologist acquaintances and the beginnings of some scientific depth to my natural history, but here in Sig was a guy with another whole new dimension. He had the scientific underpinnings, he could talk about lichens and forest succession and the mineralogy of rocks, but he also had another entirely different functional level of bush-lore expertise. he could look at a lake and know right where to go to get a couple of fast lake trout for supper while the rest of us pitched tents. He could find his way across an invisible portage that had not been used for a couple of years, find the salt or tea in a food pack amid a muddle of a hundred other little packets, and knew exactly how much wood it would take to bake a bannock. In that two weeks Sig Olson assumed for me a kind of mythic godlike caliber that mellowed a little as my experience broadened but never entirely left me.
-- Fred Bodsworth, Toronto, Ontario --
He seemed like a real good egg.
-- Annie Dillard, Middletown, Conn. --
My basic recollection of Sig, whom I knew only for a few of his last years, was that he was that rare combination of woodsman and poet, scientist and aesthete. That is what allowed him to translate the beauty, solace, and wonder of the wilderness to so many other people whose circumstances prevented them from more complete or prolonged personal experiences with it.
-- L. David Mech, St. Paul, Minn. --
I'm a 52-year-old biology teacher at the high school/tech college level. I grew up in Minnesota and attended the U of M. My sister got me interested in reading Sig's first books in the early 60's at a time when I didn't really care to read. These books had a profound impact on my life. I studied wildlife management and biology education at the "U" and spent summers and winters in the BWCA. Over the past 28 years I have split my time between classroom teaching and environmental education. I have worked for the Fish & Wildlife Service in Concord, Mass - Thoreau country; the National Park Service in Yosemite - Muir country; and the old Bald Eagle Outdoor Learning Center at Bemidji State Univ - Olson country. Over the years I wrote to Sigurd on several occasions and had 2 or 3 replies. I visited with him in March of 1979 for about 3 or 4 hours - it was great and I would like to tell you about it sometime. On that occasion I brought all of Sig's books with me for autographs - he signed them all with a brief message and they mean a lot to me- some are also signed by the book's illustrator.
When I went to see Sigurd Olson I took a friend along for the long ride from Bemidji State University's Bald Eagle Outdoor Learning Center. It was a beautiful late winter day with bright sun on the deep winter snow. My friend worked for the U.S.Forest Service and I would say that he was not as enthusiastic about meeting Sig as I was. One of the interesting things that happened during this meeting was that the three of us discussed the concepts of preservation, conservation and multiple use. My friend came away feeling that his ideas about resource management were very close to Sig's. I felt that this was good because Sig was misunderstood by some people in resource management.
While at Sig's house, he made us coffee and let me wander around admiring the art work on the walls. He had several original sketches from the illustrations in his books drawn by Francis Lee Jaques. This was a great opportunity for me because I could listen to Sig talk while looking at those neat pen and ink north country drawings. It was like having your cake and eating it too. At one point Sig asked me what was my favorite story. Not a fair question. That's like asking me who is more important, John Muir or Henry David Thoreau. I did have one that I enjoy and it is the Timber Wolves chapter from "The Singing Wilderness". Sig essentially retold the story as we listened. As he told the story, I put myself out on the frozen lake skiing in the moon light. As I came to the narrows I could sense the wolves along the shore line. It doesn't get any better than this. The meeting was over too soon. I can still remember most of what we talked about. I still keep in touch with my Forest Service friend about once a year and we usually have to go back over that meeting with Sig Olson on that beaufiful spring day in Ely.
-- Lee Buescher, Watertown, Wis. --
Sigurd Olson played a pivotal role in my life beginning with his 1972 speech at Northland where I attended. As the student member of the first Sigurd Olson Enviromental Institute campus advisory committee I was lucky enough to get to talk with he and Elizabeth several times and through him got to know Mardy Murie. But it was that speech which today still lays out my own core values on the environment and man's relationship to the Earth ans wilderness. His call to action, I took and today continue as an environmental journalist and author.
One night at a reception in 1973 at Malcolm McLean's [President of Northland College] I related how I had grown up on a farm but would never call myself a farmer. Elizabeth's family were farmers in Seeley, she said, and she told of how amused they were when city boy Sig, (that metropolis Ashland) didn't know the proper direction to put the plow harness on their horse. Sig sort of chuckled in mock embarassment recalling that long ago event during their courtship.
-- Rocky Barker, Boise, Idaho --
I am one of those who treasures a letter received from him late in his life; though the letter merely gave me permission to photocopy one of his essays for use in a writing class I was teaching at Stanford, it was so courtly and generous I felt it required me to write to you in its spirit. I spent a fine winter morning with Elizabeth in Ely in 1993, talking about Sigurd Olson's life as a writer, hard put to keep my eyes from wandering up to the luscious Jacques scratch blocks on the walls. I later kicked myself for not returning that summer to take Elizabeth up on an invitation to visit Listening Point with her. I loved and admired Sigurd Olson's books and felt it an especial honor to walk in his shadow when Bobbie Bristol became my editor at Knopf.
-- Peter Steinhart, Palo Alto, Calif. --