Sigurd Olson and His Boys in the Wilderness – The Immortals of Argo

Opening By Kevin Proescholdt.  The Immortals of Argo by Sig Olson

When most people think of Sigurd Olson and his guiding of wilderness canoe trips, they usually think that the people he guided were all adult men. But this was not always the case. Sig had an interest in introducing young people to the wilderness as well, particularly through his long-term relationship with YMCA Camp Widjiwagen on Burntside Lake and its strong canoe camping traditions. But he also guided his own boys on family canoe trips in the late 1930s.

In the following article, published in 1939, Sig described a canoe trip he led for the boys. The group included his wife Elizabeth, sons Sig Jr. and Bob, and nephew Andrew Curtis Uhrenholdt. Curtis lived with the Olson family in Ely during the years 1938- 1940 while he attended the Ely Junior College (today’s Vermilion Community College). Curtis became like another son to Sig and Elizabeth, and an older brother to Sig Jr. and Bob.

The article is interesting for many reasons. First, it is one of Sig’s few articles about a family canoe trip. In fact, though Sig took Sig Jr. and Bob on various hunting and fishing trips through the years, it was only during the time that Curtis lived with the Olsons that they took canoe trips with the entire family in the 1930s. The article also has an air of poignancy and loss, knowing that Curt is would tragically lose his life just two years later aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

1l1e article also gives insights to canoe camping in the Quetico-Superior during that time, in that era of relatively low visitation  compared  with  modern  times and  that era’s somewhat simple camping gear. And because of the relatively early publication of this article, it is more indicative of Sig’s writing in the 1930s — primarily hunting and fishing articles — rather than his more polished writing of wilderness essays later on. Still, however, it’s obvious that this is a Sigurd Olson piece. And finally, it’s just a fun read, learning how Curtis, Sig Jr., and Bob became members of the Immortals of Argo!

Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization (www.wildernesswatch.org), and the author of Glimpses of Wilder­ness, available at https:// kevinproescholdt .com .

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The Immortals of Argo

by Sig Olson

Sports Afield

July 1939

We were camped on Crooked Lake some 30-odd canoe miles from the little border town of Winton, Minnesota; had been out a week enjoying our fill of bass and walleyes and wilderness living along the famed international border route of the Quetico-Superior country.

This was no ordinary guiding trip, nothing hit or miss about this expedition.  Not a thing had been left to chance that might even in the remotest way keep this cruise from being the high spot of the year’s woods experience.  There are times when being a professional Canadian guide has its disadvantages and one of these times is when he takes his own family into the bush.  They were with me now, Bob and Junior, their mother Elizabeth, cousin Curt and what they expected of me was nothing short of perfection.

I had worked them by east stages toward the clear water trout lakes of the western Quetico, had camped that night so they could look north and feast their eyes on the wild, mysterious channels of Moose Bay and the route toward Lac la Croix.  With such a deliberately planned setting, talk turned as I knew it would to the one thing that had brought us west, the wild hope of taking a monster trout.

“When you start talking of trout,” I said after listening to the chatter of the boys for an hour or so, “there is only one lake in the whole of the Quetico worth thinking about, that big spot of blue on the map now called Argo.  In the old days, we used to call it Canadian Trout, but some map maker changed it to Argo, but Argo or Trout, it’s got more and bigger fish than any other lake in the whole country.”

The boys edged closer, stirred up the fire and got set, while Elizabeth, veteran of many a wild expedition, gazed tolerantly at her bunch of conspirators.

“Why, there’s one hole up there,” I continued, “that produces nothing but 20 pounders, the most beautiful fish you ever saw, full bodied steel blue chaps, pearl white bellies and the reddest meat you ever ate.  It’s a shame even to eat them, let alone take them out of that clear water.”

“On the camp site on an island in the center of the lake is a cedar slab with the records of all the big trout that have been taken there during the past 20 years.  If that old board could only talk and tell the stories of the fish that have been taken.”

I knocked out my pipe, filled it leisurely, lit it again with a coal and settled back luxuriously against a near pack.  This must be an unhurried bit of propaganda.  Every bit of it must be savored to the full and so I waited, gazed in fond reminiscence at the glowing coals until I was sure the boys couldn’t stand it a moment longer.

“There’s one I took back there in 1927 with Doc Cahn that went better than twenty-eight pounds, another by Jimmy McManus twenty-two pounds, one of Doc Bacon’s about twenty-four and some fellow I guided back in 1930 a shade bigger than any of them and a lot of others that I can’t begin to remember.  To carve your name on that old slab,” I continued, “means that you have begun one of the immortals of Argo Lake and for that matter of the whole Quetico and that my boys is something worth working for.  That setup produces trout such as you fellows have never seen before and the beauty of it is that you don’t have to paddle more than a few hundred yards from camp to fish the best spot in the lake.  When the wind is right, all you have to do is troll up and down along the base of a certain big cliff and you get one every trip.  Trout,” I said, giving the fire a kick to emphasize my point, “trout – that lake fairly reeks with them.  You can all but smell them when you cross the portage from Crooked Lake.”

Elizabeth looked across the fire reproachfully, but said nothing.  The thing had gone too far to stop and that sort of ecstatic description was old stuff to her.  She knew that invariably with the years the hard and sad parts were forgotten, that given time only delightful remembrances remained.  But three pairs of eyes shone across the fire light, eyes of three young voyageurs craving action and excitement.  The wind blew in the trees.

Junior spoke up, “You don’t expect us to believe all of that, do you Dad? Remember this isn’t our first trip out and we know trout are hard to get even in the best water.”

“So help me,” I assured him, “every word of it is true and more.  Speaking of camp sites, that island I mentioned is something to dream about.  There’s a clean rocky point backed by pine trees with a sloping shelf right down to water’s edge, a perfect landing for canoes, a good spot for the tents and plenty of room to roam around in.  And don’t forget this,” I concluded, “when the moon is full, and it will be in a couple of days, you can sit out on the end of that point and look clear across to the narrows down towards Crooked.  What a setup,” I sighed, “nothing like it in the whole of Quetico.”

“When do we start?” spoke up Curt.

“Well,” I countered, “it’s up to you fellows.  You’ve got to remember it’s a long trip in and there is always a chance that the trout aren’t hitting just now, that the wind might be wrong or a storm blow up, but I’ll do whatever you think it best.”

“How far is it?” gulped Bob, the youngest of the trio.

“Something better than twenty miles,” I answered, “just a good day’s travel if the wind is with us.”

Rising to my feet, I drove home the final challenge to their spirit of adventure.  “Of course,” I added, “I don’t want to force you into this but if you are willing to take a gambling chance on everything working out all right, let’s pull out first thing in the morning, at the crack of dawn or a little before.”

‘With a whoop of delight the boys dove into their tent to begin gathering up their odds and ends of duffel for the dash out.  Walleyes were tame and so were bass and northerns, but trout from the clear cold waters of Argo, trout with flaming gills and spots on their sides, twenty or thirty pounds of battling fish from cold, green depths, but more than all of that, their names carved with the rest of the immortals on that old cedar slab, that would compensate for any hardship.

The fire died low as Elizabeth and I busied ourselves getting our own personal outfit ready for the morning’s start.  This was old stuff to us but the enthusiasm of those voyageurs of ours was contagious and we found ourselves looking forward to the new day and with joy and expectancy.  Now if the old trout hole would only produce, what a glorious wind up it would be.  The red gods could not disappoint us now.  We just had to be in luck.

Up at dawn.  By the time the bacon and pancakes were ready, the boys had the tents down, the packs ready.  As the sun topped the pines we tossed in the last bundle and pushed off into the north.  Down the winding channels of Crooked Lake, twenty miles of rocky islands and smooth glaciated cliffs, deep grassy bays, narrow channels sedge bordered and close to the great red pines and then into the afternoon a stop at the old ranger’s cabin near Argo Portage for a pot of tea and a snack.

In the distance we could hear the roar of Curtain Falls where Crooked empties into Iron but in the trees above us we were conscious of a rather disquieting whisper, the sound of rain, the slightest intimation of a coming drizzle.  All afternoon I had worried about the sky, hoping against hope that the clouds piling up would disperse by sunset.  But now the rain clouds hung low, the wind had come up out of the west and the bay before us was choppy and dark.  We would have to hurry and make camp before the storm caught us.

Stowing the kettle, we pushed off and headed for the grassy bay around the point that marked the portage.  A moose had made a wallow of the swampy landing and as I stepped out into the soft muck, I saw something that worried me far more than the coming storm, far more than any outburst of the elements—a boot mark, clear, well outlined in the mud. I said nothing, knowing that there was only one decent camp site on the lake.  If that was taken, we might have to push on to Darkey Lake on the north and the Darkey portage with its many windfalls was not one to make at night.  We could, of course, camp right here on the Crooked Lake side but this was a famous mosquito hole and the boys would want to go straight through.  We would have to take a chance.

The drizzle had now commenced in earnest, a slow fine penetrating wetness that was more mist than rain.  The swamps were muggy and alive with the hum of tiny wings.  Clouds of gnats and mosquitoes followed us even over the high rocky slopes. Sweat and mud, black flies and soggy brush, my file of voyageurs struggled manfully through it all, swatting with their free hands, cussing I was sure under their breaths, unaware of that boot mark in the mud.  But ahead was Argo and my glorious camp site and that was enough to make them forget any discomfiture.

By the time we hit the end of the portage, the rain had begun to come down in a steady downpour.  Dropping our loads we hurried to the water’s edge, washed off the muck and sweat, drank deeply from the clear cold water.  The boys stood and stared at the wild darkening lake, camping ground of the immortals.

“So this is Argo?” said Junior.  “How far to the campsite?”

“About two miles,” I answered, “just an hour and we’ll be all set on that point of mine.”  I knew what their mother was thinking, knew that in all probability she too had seen that boot mark.  As an old Canadian guide, I also knew that only damned fools travel at night in the rain.  But this, I argued, was different from the ordinary setup.  We would no doubt stay here several days and for that matter we were already wet.  But as we loaded up and pushed off, I prayed fervently that everything would be all right.

It was rough going.  The chop had grown into quite a gale out of the northeast.  We hugged the rocky shores, took advantage of every island and promontory and all the time got wetter and wetter.  There was little daylight left and the shores loomed black and soggy.  Rounding a heavily timbered point, our island lay before us at last but not the fairyland I had described the night before.  Now it was dark and threatening, white caps washing the bare wind-swept ledges, the sheltering pines moaning in the gale.  In a moment, I would know.

I pushed hard on my paddle, tried desperately to penetrate the mist.  Was that a white rock on the point or was it a tent?  I tried to make myself believe that in the darkness I had forgotten the old shoreline but as we came closer the terrible truth struck home.  That white V was a tent and the island point was taken.  Waiting for the other canoe to come up, I broke the news as cheerfully as possible.

“Guess someone got in there ahead of us,” I called loudly, “looks like we’ll have to look around a bit.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell them that our chances of finding a site were rather slim, that the shores for miles around were rugged and strewn with boulders, that in the gale there would be little chance of landing anywhere with safety.  Turning about, I headed directly into the waves rolling toward the opposite shore.

Junior and Curt paddled rather dejectedly, their dreams of Argo and its beauties vanishing rapidly in the gloom.  Bob sat humped in the center of my canoe, a dripping poncho pulled over his shoulders.  They were all wet and cold and weary and the open water we were to cross was anything but inviting.  No one said a word, for which I blessed them all.

The point we headed for proved rougher than even I had anticipated.  There wasn’t a spot for one tent, let alone two, and the rollers broke as dangerously along shore, that landing was out of the question.  Somehow, someway, I would have to bring a camp site out of that dripping wilderness.  It was bad enough to be up a tree with a bunch of tourists, but with your own family who believes implicitly that you are the greatest guide who ever stroked a paddle, it is something different.  I simply had to produce, simply had to make this wild adventure pan out as it should.

I finally decided to head back toward the old island.  Perhaps, I figured, we might find something on the lee side out of the wind.  What we needed now was shelter and warmth, not beauty or romance.  Anything would do.  I remembered a spot in the timber where cruisers had camped many years ago to escape a November storm.  Nothing poetic about that setup, but we would be out of the wind, and there would be plenty of wood.

We landed close to a forbidding slope, unloaded with difficulty in a clump of dripping balsams, packed the duffel up under the pines, pitched the tents as best we could.  A big dry stump furnished plenty of kindling and soon the rain was spitting merrily into a roaring fire. By now the squall had developed into a real gale and the lake outside was loud with breakers.  We could hear their crash and roar on the other side of the island where our beautiful camp site lay.  What a tornado that little tent was facing and then we knew that the Red Gods were with us; that if the old point had been unoccupied we would have been camping right in the teeth of the nastiest northeaster that ever hit Quetico.  The boot mark in the mud was a good luck sign after all.

What laughing and joking there was that night in spite of the storm.  The black sodden trunks of the pines glowed in the firelight and the wild crash of the combers across the point made our shelter seem cozy and secure. Elaborate plans were made for the morrow, for every hour from dawn to dusk, where to fish, what to use and who would have the first try at the old glory hole.  But the morning, instead of dawning clear and bright, was grey with rain and wilder than ever with wind.  It rained and stormed for two solid days, days of cold and discomfort when we dared not attempt to put a canoe in the water, dared not make pancakes or anything that required exposure to the elements.  We huddled in our tents, played games, even read the advertisements in the few magazines we had brought along, kept the guy ropes taut and the fire going and prayed for a letup.

On the afternoon of the second day, a rift appeared in the clouds toward the west, and suddenly the wind shifted.  To one who has never experienced the sight of blue sky in a dripping wilderness; to one who has not seen the sun for two full days of rain, this will mean nothing, but when that warm beautiful sunshine came through that rift of blue for the first time, when the leaden sky actually began to color, we dashed out of our tents and yelled for sheer joy.  And while the island steamed its gratefulness, we dragged out blankets, heavy and soggy, dried out everything we had.  It was a glorious time and we were happy, happy not only to be dry again, but because we were going trout fishing at last off the finest point in Quetico.

The sky cleared rapidly and the bank of rain clouds piled heavily against the southern horizon, driven by a drying wind from the west.  Just before sunset, the wind died and the long awaited time had come.  We launched the canoes and paddled swiftly around the point of the island toward the big cliff.  We had about an hour to fish.

As we approached the hole, I yelled instructions, but the boys were not in any need of help or advice.  For two days they had pictured this event, knew everything about it, how deep to fish, what direction to troll and how to act when they hooked the big one they expected.  Every move was timed perfectly.

Elizabeth hooked a little one going over, just enough for a fry when we returned and Junior a four-pounder, just this side of the cliff.  Then Curt tied into something heavy and yelled, “Snag.”

Junior backed immediately while Curt took in the slack.  I hoped that it wouldn’t tie them up too long as their fishing time was short.  Perhaps I had better go over and help them.  The Curt yelled again, “This isn’t a snag.  It’s moving.” And move it did right out into the open water, stripping line steadily off the reel.

We were in for action.  I had seen this sort of thing happen before.  Curt had tied into the big one we had been praying for.  This was his first trout, so we paddled alongside to give advice and watch the fun.

Drifting close, I tested the line just to be sure.  It was a trout all right and a big one, moving now slowly across the big rock pool into the deeps beyond.  I glanced at my watch.  It was exactly 6:30 and the clouds in the west were turning pink.  It was a grand setting for the climax of our cruise.  Long rosy streamers clear across an unbelievably blue sky, the south leaden grey with the retreating storm, loons calling excitedly and Curt fast to the sort of trout we had been hoping for.

“Urge him a little,” I cautioned, “but take it easy.”

Curt’s face was white and set and he did as I said.  Junior had already reeled in his line and was handling the canoe like the veteran which in truth he was.

“How big do you think he is,” asked Bob.

“Should say he’d go twenty pounds at least,” I answered, “big enough so that if you are lucky enough to land him, you can all carve your names on that slab.”

After some twenty minutes of play, the fish started coming in a few feet at a time, then with a scream the line went out across the pool.  Then up again, this time fast and I slipped alongside to be in at the finish, knelt in the bottom of the canoe and looked down into the green translucent depths.  Still no sign.  Then a flash of white, a great startling flash of underside as he turned.

“He’s big,” I whispered, “you’ll have to take it very easy.  Remember that line tests only eighteen and when he runs let him have it.”

The fish spiraled slowly against the pull of the line, then seeing the two canoes made a swift dash down into the green below.  A hundred feet of line this time and the battle was on once more.  But when a trout has come that close, it is near the finish.  Five minutes more and the slack was in again.  This time I hung on the gunwales of both canoes and got set.  Slowly, oh so slowly, he came toward the surface and then once more that flash of white.  Now he was on his back turning over, the great fins sticking out at right angles, crimson gills opening and closing, tail fanning gently.  He looked eight inches across the back and a yard long.

“Bring him close,” I cautioned, “but if he tries to run, let go.”

Curt needed no cautioning.  He sat as though carved of stone, slowly pumping the great fish within reach.  Kneeling down in the bottom of the canoe, I slipped my arm clear in to the shoulder and waited.  He was coming in – another two feet and he would be within reach.  Curt braced himself against the weight and I am sure he prayed.  His reputation was at stake.  If he should lose this fish, he would never live it down and if he won, his name would be with the rest.

Another turn of the reel and I touched the glistening grey sides.  Leaning out as far as I dared, I slipped my hand gently toward those wide open gills, took a firm hold and with a smooth swing brought him out of the water and laid him in the bottom of our canoe, the biggest and most beautiful trout I had ever seen on Argo.

The fish lay for a moment without moving, just the gills slowly opening and closing, blood red gills and heaving gill covers.  One final slap of the tail against the planking and it was all over.  I stole another glance at Curt.  His face was still white and as yet he hadn’t said a word, not a single word since the battle started three-quarters of an hour before.  Bob broke the tension.

“Wow,” was all he said.

We held the canoes together for just a moment and admired our catch then paddled happily toward the island.  The last flaming rays of the sun were a fitting tribute to our accomplishment.  Passing my old camp site, we picked up the old cedar slab, could not resist showing our prize and gloating just a little.  When our intruders told us that the three days before the storm had produced nothing larger than five pounds, we knew that the boot mark had brought us more than our share of good fortune.

That night we sang all of the songs we knew, ate fried lake trout until we could barely stand and then by the light of a blazing fire carved our names with the rest of the immortals on the old cedar plank and the legend of the finest trout we had ever taken in the Quetico.  There was only one regret.  We had no scales and had to guess at the weight.

Elizabeth looked across the fire as much as to say, “Somehow, someway, things will just pan out for you.”

 

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