Wild Islands of the Shield

by Sigurd F. Olson

Black Bear Island Lake in Saskatchewan. Photo by Mahaffey

One day in the Far North we fought a gale on Black Bear Lake of the Churchill River in Saskatchewan. It was a glorious sunny day and along the muskegs the air was alive with the screaming of gulls and terns, a day that made up for the drenching storms, treacherous rapids, and portages we had known for a week.

Black Bear was a magnificent body of water, the shores high and rocky and covered with the dark green of jackpine and spruce, the valleys in lighter shades of aspen, birch, and willow. In places, the glaciated shores of the Canadian Shield were silvery grey with caribou moss and some of the rocks were splashed vividly with orange. Then we passed through a narrows, left the mainland with its vistas and waves, and found ourselves in a veritable maze of islands and intricate channels where it was still and reflections were all around us.

Here was a different world, a world removed from bold headlands, purple horizons, and winds, and as we paddled on, our minds became part of it and we sensed the mystery and charm of all islands, a sense of being part of something permanent and unchanged. Here was silence and shelter.

Toward late afternoon we drifted toward a small spruce-grown island a few miles from a rapids we must run or portage the next day.  There we decided to camp.

No one, as far as we could tell, had ever stopped there before, no axe marks or scuffed moss, no blackened stones of an old fireplace. We were possibly the first and felt like intruders coming to a sacred place. We left no mark of our passing, built a small fire in a rocky cleft near the water’s edge, pitched the tent on a level spot thick with sphagnum in an opening among  the spruces, tying the tent ropes to two small trees, anchoring the corners with rocks, careful not to disturb the lichens growing on them. We would leave our sanctuary as we found it, clean and unchanged.

It was an untouched microcosm, this island. The great fires that were in constant evidence on the mainland all over the north, through some miracle had passed it by. After supper we sat on a flat ledge above the fire and looked out over the islands around us. Hemmed in as we were, there was no sunset, but the sky above was angry with swirling black clouds streaked with yellow that could mean wind in the morning. It was good to be on an island again — almost like being on a ship at sea.

The deep sphagnum in the spruces proved that nothing had changed for a century or more and its ecology had reached a stage of permanence rare in northern latitudes. Even though the shores of the big lake seemed relatively unchanged by recent burns, few places were as pristine as this. On this tiny pinnacle of hard resistant granite that had survived millions of years of erosion and glacial polishing, time had stopped.

Around us were many islands, little ones no larger than rafts, slivers of rock rounded by the glacier like the backs of black surfacing whales, crooked ones with beaches tucked into quiet bays, larger ones with cliffs and spruces pinnacled against the sky. You could lose yourself quickly here, for channels led to hidden places no other eyes had seen. Their solitudes were ours alone.

All islands of the Canadian Shield, wherever they happen to be in the Quetico-Superior or the Far North, have this sense of remoteness and genius of place that makes them seem different than ordinary terrain. Here one finds a sense of perspective and of being more intimately involved with all life and undisturbed ecological progression than anywhere else, a becoming  art of the cosmic cycles that govern all. This is one reason they are important, but there are other reasons, too, reasons more than beauty, remoteness, or charm. It is a better understanding of the intimate interrelationships of all forms of life upon them. Only through the building of knowledge from the microcosm beneath the forest floor to the inter-dependence of all things growing upon them can we really become aware of their true value.

The work of an ecologist like Miron Heinselman and others who have devoted their lives to the study of habitats and living forms in all their complex relationships, helps us know what any island means. Only by knowing their uniqueness can we be successful in preserving them. The Nature Conservancy in preserving some untouched islands in the Superior National Forest and on Lake Superior, the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources of Minnesota, and the vital interest of environmental groups will make this possible so people of the future will be able to see what they looked like before our coming.

Donne said, “No man is an island unto himself.” No truer words were ever spoken, for any island is a part of the whole. By knowing an island you know all wilderness.

Sigurd F. Olson wrote this wonderful island essay in 1975. It was published in the Naturalist, the quarterly magazine of the Natural History Society of Minnesota. The Naturalist did not enjoy as broadly national a circulation as had Sig’s books, so this essay has remained mostly unknown outside of Minnesota, and little known in the state.

The incident about which Sig wrote occurred on his long canoe trip in 1955 along the Churchill River in Saskatchewan. Sig wrote at length about that canoe trip in his book, The Lonely Land, published in 1961. The camping on the island incident comes from pages 139-143 of that book.

Sig wrote this essay as an introduction to this issue of the Naturalist, which focused on the Nature Conservancy. But he wrote it particularly to introduce the article that followed his, written by Dr. Miron L. “Bud” Heinselman.  Bud’s article, “Islands as Unique Environments: The Minnesota Nature Conservancy’s Boreal Islands Project,” mostly described Pine and Snellman Islands on Burntside Lake, located close to Sig’s Listening Point.

Sig and Bud had been close friends since the late 1950s. They had worked together through the Izaak Walton League on BWCA issues from then on into the 1960s, and Sig was impressed with Bud’s ecological research and understanding. In 1965, Sig recommended Bud to U.S. Forest Service officials as a forest ecologist for a new agency ecological research program in the BWCA, a position to which Bud indeed was appointed. As the years went on, Sig relied more and more on Bud’s ecological knowledge, based on Bud’s extensive field research on peatlands ecology, forest ecology, and fire ecology.

Interestingly, Sig modified his island essay somewhat from the original narrative that appeared in The Lonely Land. In the essay, Sig and his group had a lighter impact on the island than the way he wrote about it in the book. This heightened ecological sensitivity in the essay may have come about because Sig himself had become more ecologically aware in the two decades since the canoe trip, or because of Bud Heinselman’s influence on Sig’s ecological understanding, or for some other reason. Regardless, “Wild Islands of the Shield” is a delightful essay written by the fully mature writer that Sig had become by 1975.

— by Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization (www.wildernesswatch.org). He also serves on the LPF’s National Advisory Board.

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