Voyageurs 1964:

The Hudson Bay Diary


This is the diary of Sigurd's last and most difficult major canoe trip, a 400-mile journey from Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay with his group of friends popularized in the Canadian media as "the Voyageurs." Sigurd was the group's leader, and was fondly given the fur trade title of "Bourgeois" by the other Voyageurs. Besides Olson, the Voyageurs along on this 1964 trip were Omond Solandt, Elliot Rodger, Tony Lovink, Denis Coolican, and Blair Fraser. Sigurd was 65 years old, and his right shoulder was still not completely healed from an injury he had suffered a year earlier, but he was in need of a vacation: at the time, he was under attack in Ely as a wilderness fanatic for his work in support of the bill to establish a wilderness preservation system in the United States (the Wilderness Act became law in September 1964), and under fire from some conservationists who thought he was too much of a compromiser. But this trip, as you'll see from his diary, was not exactly a vacation.

There actually are two diaries of this trip: the one that Sigurd wrote by hand in a small notebook, and the version he typed up later, which occasionally expanded upon his notebook entries. What I have done below is to use the original journal, and here and there, in brackets, quote from his typed version. I also use brackets in places to complete words that Sigurd abbreviated and that might cause confusion.

One final note: Sigurd messed up some of the dates in both versions of the diary. Using a calendar and the diary of fellow Voyageur Denis Coolican, I have corrected the dates in the entries below.

You also may want to look at some photos from this trip.

Saturday, July 25:

Norway House - 1st camp - Full moon --- loon coming over. Rocky island - good shelf - gorgeous view of lake. Back in the N[orth]. 1st feel of the N & our trip.

Sunday, July 26:

1st camp on trip - Ichequamish River - Rocky Marshy - canoe [passed with] 2 hosp[ital] att[endants] & Indian from Cross Lake. [In typed version, Sigurd adds: "The canoe with Indian and Hospital Attendants gave me a strange feeling - just out for a holiday, they did not know."] Camp on sort of a rocky shelf - many layers & places to sit. Rearr[anged] the outfit morn[ing] - shaking down - Mostly series of lakes & stretches of marshy rivers. Took off at 7:00 AM.

Monday, July 27-Thursday, July 30:

No diary entry for these days.

Friday, July 31:

Height of land Por[tage] to Robinson Lake, a beauty - like QS [Quetico-Superior] - except no red and white pine. Thru marshy river, through canyons - shot a short rapids and then a marshy river to Windy Lake, another beauty, & then a gorgeous little river like Bass W[ood] River - open little rapids (3), most shootable, then another long marshy R[iver], a long winding canal to Oxford Lake up a long arm to one of our best camps, a third way down lake. Made 26 miles today. [Note: In typed version Sigurd says he must have written the Oxford Lake portion of this entry on the next day.]

Saturday, August 1:

Oxford Lake - Rainy morning, high sea - battling for 26 miles [or] more to Oxford House, a beautiful setting - several hydro[planes] - Indians. Inbreeding - idiots - no travel - [In typed version Sigurd writes: "Evidence of much inbreeding - none of them travel - high rate of idiocy - look at the rather handsome bevy of girls - cross Indians and Yorkshire men. They are dressed in colorful slacks and blouses like the girls outside."] I wonder what will happen here. Rev. Harland says they do not worry about future. I still wonder. They do not want to leave or go outside.

Sunday, August 2:

Oxford House & down the river to the Hayes - 3 rapids & falls. Dory Stevens took us in his boat to the 1st rapids, poss[ibly] 10 miles. From that pt on it was a case of [one] rapids after another, nasty little rapids with clusters of rocks at their ends. We ran most, portaged the impossible. Trout Lake Falls a drop of 10 ft perhaps 8 - not spectac[ular]. No fish but jacks [northern pike]. Omond and Denis hit a rock & shipped a little water. Forward 6 ["miles into a headwind," he adds in typed diary] a gale - blew us onto a beach. Smooth sand. The tent blew down. Finally finished & crawled in. Tony said - "Just like animals crawling into a hole."

Monday, August 3:

Started out with a fair wind up Knee Lake & then discov[ered] beautiful campsites everywhere - smooth glac[iated] spits - now we are bucking the wind - By mid afternoon white caps howling out of the east - & paddling into the teeth of them. Finally could go no further after a gut pulling bit of island hopping. One minute sun & the next a swirling gale - Found a good rock.

Tuesday, August 4:

Got up at 5:00, under way by 6:30. Sky clear - wind down - we paddled into the NE end of Knee Lake - 3 hrs without stopping, finally gained the N shore & saw the grand sweep of open horizons & the mirages of islands floating in the distance. Knee is 45 miles long - enormous sweeps. Paddled 20 miles with hardly a stop, fearful of being windbound. Stopped at a glaciated island 1:30 the finest glaciation I've seen, red polished rock might be hematite but the grooves so clear & sharp they might have been done yesterday. [He adds in typed version: "The rocks were wet and treacherous and Tony took a bad fall, his feet going out from under him and sitting down with a loud smack. He got up painfully and hobbled off."]

Headed for the river mouth - the Hayes - but it about 5 :00 PM ["before we reached it," he adds in typed version.] Saw many fish around - sand bar - poss[ibly] white fish. Entered the river - swift water - boulders - we dodged constantly - the shore all bog & brush looking hopeless for a decent camp. Finally about 6:30 Tony yells "rock" and sure enough there it was, a lovely camp site - unbelievable - possibly our last [good one]. Tomorrow rapids, uncertain, 3 portages well traveled "Baech".

Everyone is weary tonite - 30 miles since [morning]. A lovely evening. Tony caught two big northerns - 10# & 20 # - Many ducks flying up - bluebills [scaup] - red h[eads] & mallards - up to a hundred or more.

Wednesday, August 5:

Found linnaea in full bloom - smelled them. I thought of the pt [Listening Point]. A lovely scene, low shores - dead spruce on one side, burned - live & green on the other - the Hayes - a wild lonely river - York boats - my last. [Sigurd explains this in his typed version: "Imagine the York boats and the heavy travel of a hundred years ago. This may be my last trip."] The nite of the [3rd] Tony took two big northerns 10-20# but supper was ready so we let them go. In the morning we headed down river - many ripples - many boulders - the current swift - Made 4 portages all told in 6 miles before lunch - the 1st a dilly - blow down spruce 1/3 of a mile long. The 2nd OK well used but found it only [by] portaging across country - 3 OK - 4 OK - Had lunch on a flat rock - The current is swift - hundreds of boulders - the wind against us, mostly. Hundreds of terns - a swamp burned over looks as though the water has dropped leaving a bog high in the air. Fought the wind down Swampy Lake, really not swampy at all - rocky islands - low shores but wild - hundreds of snipes [shore birds]. Picked our camp at mouth of the Hayes. A big bed of mint - full bloom - ["the purplish blossoms giving a purplish cast to the whole bed and the rocks," he adds in typed version] a bed of pickerel weed full bloom. Yellow legs good size coming in constantly. Bonaparte gulls - black heads - streaming by island - again alive with terns, sooty mostly - w[ith] sharp tails white and black - Jean's picture. [In typed version he writes: "Sharp tails made me think of Jean's painting in Wash DC." He was probably referring to a painting made by his friend Jean Packard, whose husband, Fred, had been executive director of the National Parks Association in the 1950s, when Sigurd was its president.]

Not a soul since Oxford [House] - 200 miles of the old wilderness - not even planes. Omond & Elliot cooked dinner - pk chops & peas & beans. [Sigurd almost always cooked. In typed version he adds: "Evidently they had noticed I was lagging and my shoulder giving me pain."] Last night no sleep because of my snorers. Hope tonite will be better. Look up the waders - yellowlegs, curlews.

Thursday, August 6:

Down the Hayes to Brassey Hill - 4 portages - dull morning -["many rapids and rocks and very cold," he adds in typed version] - 40 miles to Berwick Falls then home free.

Friday, August 7:

The Bad Day. Rain & almost sleet a head wind and one snarling nasty rapids after another. We lost track of how many. Getting more we ran - one ran into the other. No big ones but a constant dodging of boulders & going down Vs then managing to get out of the tite spots. At noon I took a side channel. Omond & Denis following & for a time lifted & lifted & dragged before we got back to mid stream. By mid afternoon ["morning," he corrects in typed version] we had made 2 of 4 major portages - bad ones - no cutting out - muskeg & heavy brush, all wet.

About noon Elliot & Bl[air] attempted to shoot a wild rapids, tipped over - the 4 packs not tied in, drifting off. Watched 2 milling together & a third going off down stream. We were desperately cold & wet. Blair recov[ered] his pack & Elliot his but one grub pack & the precious cook pack with the old trade pots & axes gone forever in a wild & inaccessible place ----- [In typed version, he adds: "It was bitterly cold. Blair and Elliot were standing in the water on the other side of the canoe holding it steady. We wondered what to do. We must rescue the canoe and both of them. Tony with a long rope finally succeeded in throwing a block of wood to them. They tied the end to the bow of the canoe and we finally got it around pointing toward shore and with all hands heaving hauled it with Blair and Elliot holding on desperately to shore and safety. We built a big fire and tried to dry out but it was a difficult thing to do."]

Made a big fire to dry out & continued. Making the last portage I felt I could go no more. Lay down on the muskeg for a while then continued to a spruce pt [point], where I lay down under a big spruce. The V[oyageurs] took good care of me and I slept well.

Saturday, August 8:

Woke to a clear beautiful day, fair wind - no paddling for me today so rested & paddled only when needed in the rapids. Made portages around 3 falls - long lunch. Berwick where I slipped on a rock & had a bad fall, gashing my lip & knocking off 1/2 of my right incisor - & loosing my Rt. major incisor. ["This I think was Berwick Falls, the portage across an island," he writes in typed diary. The accident happened at the far end of the portage.] This is a terrible blow to me but it could have been worse. Camped at last falls poss[ibly] Berwick in the middle island ---- slept well all night - no food - vomited all I had eaten before.

Sunday, August 9:

A beautiful day - no paddling except in emergency of which there were many. Denis in morning, Blair in afternoon. [In typed diary he explains that the Voyageurs took turns paddling his canoe.] The banks begin and are covered thickly with spruce - really a beautiful river, shallow & swift - clay & gravel banks. Few places to camp - cold, cold as I lay in the canoe in my sleeping bag. A 20 ft. ice line - Balsam Pop & spruce - old & new burns - a hundred miles to York Fac[tory] which we hope to make by the 12th of Aug. The shores Black Spr[uce] - willow flats - no game at all - a few sandpipers, an osprey & poss[ibly] falcon of some kind. Many little rapids - all short. Denis, Blair & now Elliot paddling me. What luxury.

An afterword: Denis Coolican told me in a 1993 interview that Sigurd was shocked both physically and psychologically by his fall. The other Voyageurs sensed that Sigurd was confronting his own mortality. Denis also said that Sigurd was very worried about losing his tooth, especially about what he would say to Elizabeth. Sigurd put the tooth in his pocket and kept it with him. When they got to Churchill the Voyageurs were supposed to be honored at a dinner party. After one look in the mirror at his gap-toothed face, Sigurd refused to attend. Omond Solandt, writing about Olson in the Summer 1992 issue of Che Mun, recalled the outcome:

Nothing would cheer him up. Not even the assurance that there would be many gorgeous girls got through to him. Then our host said that the Army dentist was still around and could see Sig at once. They immediately discovered that the offending tooth was a false one on a pin and could be repaired and replaced. After the rest of us had started drinking, Sig made a grand entrance smiling with all his teeth and dressed as a Bourgeois should be. He took the whole party by storm.