by Doug Wood
As I write these words from our old 1930’s cabin in the Pine Point woods, change is in the air. The basswoods have long since dropped their leaves. The maples have passed their brightest brilliance and the last of the foliage they hold will not last the advancing cold front. The tamaracks still hold forth in all their golden glory, and of course the red oaks will cling to their scarlet cloaks until nearly spring. But the woods are changing, and all can feel it.
The red and gray squirrels are more active and industrious than ever. Most of the ducks have migrated down the great Mississippi flyway. The herons have moved along. A kingfisher rattled from deep in the back bay a few days ago, but I have not heard him since. The nightly lows are lower. The winter stars come around earlier in the evening and begin to claim the summit of the night sky. By the time these words are read, snow
will likely cover the ground, and Old Man River may be once again locked in ice.
Change is in the air. But then, it always is.
During the months when Orion rules the night, we will be attuned to the slightest upturn in temperatures, the advancing minutes of daylight. We will watch the ground turn bare on the south side of the big White Pine trunks. We will listen for the first telltale drips from the eaves and the first whisperings of running water, the “Spring’s here!” call of the chickadee. We will feel something quicken in our blood with the first warm zephyrs from the south, and restlessly await the arrival of geese and redwings, bluebirds
and swallows, goldeneyes and buffleheads.
Change is always in the air.
Sometimes it arrives more unexpectedly than with the predictable cycle of the seasons. But it is never totally unexpected. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It may arrive as a wild storm, toppling old friends. Or as a bright,
breezy, sunny day, kicking out the last rags of clouds from a lingering low-pressure system.
And of course, change arrives in our human lives as well, in our families and organizations, in all the things we care about and love. As it arrives, we undertake the constant but always new process of dealing with it—with birth and loss and growth and evolution; with joy and sadness and concern and excitement. All are a part of the seasons of life.
For our Listening Point Foundation, this is particularly a time of change. Our beloved Boundary Waters Wilderness faces perhaps the greatest challenge yet to its viability and integrity, while wild and natural areas and creatures nationwide bear the brunt of new policies and actions from Washington that threaten hard-won gains that may have once felt permanent. Caring citizens throughout the upper midwest and coast to coast are engaged in efforts to direct the constant reality of change in positive directions. The LPF—guided by its twofold mission to preserve Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point and advance his legacy of wilderness education — will be navigating these waters in the months and years ahead. And we will do so in the context of even more change.
LPF’s long-time Executive Director Alanna Dore, for years the heart and soul and face of the organization, is taking early retirement. I say “early” because whatever her age (she may be over 35) and length of tenure, it would always feel like she should have stayed “just a little longer.” That will always be the case when a person gives as much of herself—of her love and care and personality and devotion—as Alanna has done. Her accomplishments on behalf of this organization are unrivaled and too numerous to list in full. From yeoman-like fundraising toward the purchase of the old Olson home as our new headquarters; to acquiring much needed grants for much needed projects; to overseeing historical refurbishments and restorations to the iconic cabin; to truly expert archiving and management of ever increasing historical resources; to organizing large scale annual spring and fall events, dinners, fundraisers, gifts and auctions; to creating the ongoing “visits to Listening Point” program; to—and most importantly—dealing with an endless stream of personalities, needs, wants, desires, and obligations in her graceful and positive interactions with the members of LPF and the public in general, well… as I say, a full accounting of all Alanna has done and meant to the Foundation is impossible to present here. Suffice to say, she will be greatly missed.
But not yet. For another part of this change is our welcoming on-board of new Executive Director Steffi O’Brien. Introduced at our annual Fall Dinner in Ely, Steffi has been chosen to continue in Alanna’s footsteps for many reasons, not least her brilliant smile, engaging personality, outstanding educational background, achievements and skills. Much more will be shared about Steffi in this space in the future, but for now I will simply add that Alanna and Steffi will be working together for the first six months of the new year, as Alanna shares ALL she has learned and mastered in her tenure, and Steffi soaks it ALL up. And begins to add her own touches.
So… change is with us, as always. In the midst of it we feel challenged, and beckoned, and uncertain, and reassured. As always. As human beings will forever feel on this beautiful planet Earth we call home.
By Douglas Wood, president of the LPF
On February 23, 1977, a young college student named David Backes—struggling, feeling lost and adrift and about to drop out of school—wrote a letter to an author and conservationist named Sigurd F. Olson. He expressed his despondence and confusion to a man who, for some reason, he thought might understand. Who might even be able to help.
David had spent the previous summer camping in the Ely area, where he and his family had taken many happy camping and canoeing trips, and during that time had discovered and read two of Olson’s books, The Singing Wilderness and Reflections From the North Country. They had struck a chord in a young man who loved the outdoors. And the words on the pages provided a hint that here was someone who knew some essential things about life, someone a young person might be able to reach out to for guidance and understanding.
Exactly one month earlier, another young man living and teaching school in Morris Minnesota, sent Sigurd Olson a very similar letter. He, too, felt lost and uncertain. He, too, had recently discovered Olson’s books. He, too, had been moved—even to tears—by the words on the page. And he, too, had the strange feeling that here was a person who might somehow be able to help.
The second young man was me.
David and I did not know each other then, had never even met. But without realizing it, we were connected by our shared difficulties and confusion, and by our impulse to reach out to someone we thought could help. When we compare notes now, the similarities and parallels are striking.
Within a week, David received an answer that changed and gave direction to his life.
“There is no substitute for a college degree,” read the letter, “Much as you may hate to sit behind a desk…. Talk to your professors and advisors and don’t worry too much about the major right now. That will come in time. With your love of the wilderness and a definite objective your grades will go up. What you need to do now is pour all of your energies into your work accumulating all the possible information you can get.”
I, too, received an answer within a week. “What a beautiful letter,” said the words. “You really impressed me with the exquisite depth of your understanding and your need of the North Country, and you said so hauntingly well I am sure I have not seen the last of your reflections…. You have talent, I know that. Keep on working away and someday you’ll arrive.”
Both David and I were shy, unsure about reaching out and “bothering” this famous author. Neither of us really thought we’d get an answer. And both our lives were changed—and redirected—when we did. Had either of us realized how incredibly busy and burdened this 78 year-old man was, we would probably not have even tried. It is good we did not know. Because we both needed an answer, needed the feeling that someone heard what we said, understood how we felt, and would take the time to encourage us.
David became a teacher—a college professor—helping countless other young people reach for their dreams and sort out the choices and challenges of life. He also became a writer and Sigurd Olson’s official biographer, telling the story of Sig’s life—including all his own difficulties, fears, and doubts—in the beautiful book, A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson.
I became a writer as well, first of songs and later of many books, including my latest memoir, Deep Woods, Wild Waters, the story of my own lifelong love affair with the natural world and the North Woods.
It is my considered opinion that none of this would have happened had we not stumbled upon the writings of Sigurd Olson, and more particularly had not each of us sat down to write a letter, and received a beautiful and caring answer in response.
Sig Olson is remembered and revered today for many things—for his beautiful books, for his environmental and wilderness ethic, for his hard and fruitful work to preserve wild and natural areas in the North Country and all over the continent. But perhaps one of the least known aspects of his life and career was the way in which he gave a helping hand, a listening ear, warm counsel and advice, to literally countless individuals, often young people, who needed just that. Often responding in a matter of hours or days to the many letters and requests he received. David and I were by no means exceptions, but rather examples of a commitment Sig Olson took seriously and lived every day.
Life is hard. It is confusing and challenging and full of twisty trails and difficult portages. It can be discouraging. Everyone needs a little extra help once in awhile. Here at the Listening Point Foundation we have declared this our “Year For Youth,” as we highlight the importance of mentoring and making connections with younger generations. And we can all make a difference. Sometimes it is hard to imagine, with all of our own life difficluties, our acknowledged shortcomings and limitations, that what we say and do really matters, can really make a difference to someone. That we are really important in the scheme of things.
We are. For although few of us may ever have the public impact of a Sigurd F. Olson, each of us is vitally important. To someone. Each of us can help someone. I have a favorite little saying that I’ve often shared around the campfire with groups I’ve guided on wilderness trips: “There’s no such thing as V.I.P’s. (Very Important People) Just I.P’s (Important People.)” Sooner or later on a canoe trip you discover there is only one way to sit around a campfire—in a circle, no one in a more elevated or more important place than anyone else. Everyone equally responsible and equally involved. There is another saying: “To the world you may just be one person; but to one person you may be the world.”
And so we encourage all our LPF friends to make a special effort this year to do what Sigurd Olson did. Connect to the next generation. Remind them they are important and have something to offer and contribute. Share your wisdom and your passion, and help pass on the legacy of caring for our environment and our natural heritage. Remember someone who helped you along in life, and be that person for someone else—someone who may be young and in need of guidance. Help the Listening Point Foundation celebrate the “Year For Youth.”
That would make Sig Olson proud.
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 .
The Immortals of Argo
by Sig Olson
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.”
In Sigs cabin
There’s a pipe stand
with three or four
Maps on the walls, and
doggerel shaped books watch
me from shelves
as my fingers inch
towards His old
The chair feels right.
Desk a little low for my
but the pipe stem
in its grasp
and with the sound of
the stretching pines overhead
I can see
the blue smoke swirling
round my head.
Thick and dark
like the tannins in the waters
that wind from creek and stream
dripping into the lakes
of the Boundary Waters.
—Timothy James Stouffer
Page 7 of the Fall 2016 Newsletter
By Kevin Proescholdt –
Last year, 2016, marked the centennial of the formation of the National Park Service. The heightened awareness of the National Park Service surrounding this anniversary has triggered a fresh interest in the national parks that this agency manages. Of particular interest to those with an interest in Sigurd F. Olson is the story of national parks in Sig’s home state of Minnesota and Sig’s role with them.
As this article will show, Sig did play a critical role in the establishment of Minnesota’s only full-fledged national park, Voyageurs National Park, for at least a decade in the 1960s and early 1970s.
There had long been an interest in establishing a national park along the international border in northern Minnesota. As early as 1891, the Minnesota Legislature passed a resolution asking the President to establish a national park in Minnesota by “setting apart a tract of land along the northern boundary of the state, between the mouth of the Vermilion River on the east and Lake of the Woods on the west….”
By 1959, the National Park Service (NPS) expressed interest in updating its 1939 parks and recreation plan for the Minnesota Division of State Parks, and NPS field staff visited the area to do that and to begin investigating possible national areas in the Kabetogama Lake area. The State Parks Director, U.W. “Judge” Hella (not a judge
in real life), briefed Minnesota Governor Elmer L. Andersen in September 1961 about the NPS interest, and Andersen became like Hella an enthusiastic national park supporter. Sigurd Olson would also play a vital role.
At this point in time, Sig stood in a very important position nationally. He had gained national attention for his wilderness conservation work in the late 1940s to protect the area later to be renamed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Sig had worked as a wilderness ecologist for the Izaak Walton League of America since the late-1940s, and also served as a consultant to the President’s Quetico-Superior Committee. He had written three critically-ac- claimed and popular books (The Singing Wilderness, 1956; Listening Point, 1958; and The Lonely Land, 1961) that brought him new national distinction and standing, with three more books coming out later in the 1960s. He had served on the board of directors of
the National Parks Association for most of the 1950s, including six years as board president, and he had joined the Wilderness Society’s Governing Council in 1956, of which he would also become president in the 1960s.
And perhaps most importantly for the Voyageurs story, Sig served on the Department of Interior’s Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments beginning in 1959. This prestigious board advised the Interior Secretary on park management and potential new national parks. Invited to join by President Eisenhower’s Interior Secretary, Fred Seaton, Sig continued on this board during the new Kennedy Administration where he strengthened his friendship with NPS Director Conrad “Connie” Wirth and developed a close relationship with newly-appointed Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. Those connections, his position on the National Parks Advisory Board, and his personal familiarity with the broad international Quetico-Superior region that included the future Voyageurs National Park would all prove immensely valuable.
In October 1961, Sig participated in a field trip with NPS staff, Hella, and others to the area around the Kabetogama Peninsula. The field party agreed that “Kabetogama had potential as a national area and recommended that the director authorize full- scale studies of the area.” At the end of that same month, Wirth authorized those studies to begin, and Gov. Andersen began promoting the concept. The push to establish Voyageurs had begun.
In June of the next year (1962), Gov. Andersen invited Connie Wirth to visit Minnesota, in part to be present at the dedication of the new Bear Head Lake State Park between Tower and Ely. But Andersen had also arranged a visit to the proposed national park site so Wirth could see the area himself. Sig, Judge Hella, and others joined them on the field trip on June 27th to the Kabetogama-Rainy Lake area. Connie Wirth was quickly convinced. During that field trip and a discussion of what to name the new park, Sig suggested the name as Voyageurs, after the hardy canoe- men of the fur trade era who had paddled their birchbark canoes through the region. According to an unpublished essay Sig wrote nearly two decades later, Wirth slapped his knee at Sig’s suggestion and exclaimed, “That’s it!” The name stuck.
Sig continued to fight for Voyageurs in the coming years, including work with the National Parks Advisory Board. In October of 1962, the board voted to submit a formal recommendation to the secretary of interior that stated that the region was “superbly qualified to be designated the second national park in the Midwest.” (Isle Royale was the first national park in the region.) In 1964, as another example, Wirth’s successor as National Park Service Director, George Hartzog, suggested downgrading the proposed national park to a lesser category such as a national recreation area. Sig successfully urged the Advisory Board to
re-affirm its support for Voyageurs as a full national park, and Hartzog relented.
Sig spoke at public meetings, worked with the Voyageurs National Park Association, which had formed to push for the park’s establishment, and continued to work with Elmer Andersen, who remained a strong park proponent even after Elmer had left the governor’s office in 1963. Sig testified at the Congressional field hearings on the Voyageurs National Park legislation in International Falls in 1969, and again at House hearings in Washington, DC, the following year, testifying that the proposed park’s spiritual and intangible values were its greatest resources.
The Voyageurs Park proposal was not without controversy, of course, and at many steps in the process obstacles appeared that could have delayed or killed the bill. Intense opposition in some parts of the local communities often nearly derailed the effort.
In late 1970, after the Voyageurs bill had passed the House, a worried Rep. John Blatnik, who represented the area, asked Elmer Andersen and Sigurd Olson to come out to lobby for the Voyageurs bill when it appeared the bill might die in the Senate. They did so and, among many other frantic lobbying efforts, arranged a personal meeting with Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who chaired the Senate committee. They convinced Jackson, worked around other obstacles, and the bill passed the Senate. President Nixon ultimately signed the Voyageurs bill into law in January 1971. Voyageurs National Park, though authorized by the 1971 legislation, would not officially be established until 1975. The Voyageurs bill required the State of Minnesota to first donate state-owned lands within the park, some 36,000 acres, of which 25,000 were School Trust Lands, to the federal government. This required special legislation from the Minnesota Legislature and compensation to the State School Trust Fund (first condemnation, then the sale of state bonds to reimburse the trust fund).
But in January 1971, after the Voyageurs bill had passed Congress but before the park was officially established, Sig was asked to write about Voyageurs for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ magazine, the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Here is part of what he wrote, a summation of his values and dreams for the brand-new national park he had worked for a decade to establish, in an article entitled “Intangible Values of Voyageurs National Park”:
“Cultural, esthetic and intangible values are a composite of many things: beauty of terrain, geological and ecological under- standing, and the background of human history. Knowledge of how the land was formed, its volcanic eras, the vast glacial periods which smoothed, gouged and shaped its surface into what we see today is vital to appreciation of its values. The evolution of wildlife and vegetation, their slow adjustment to climate, water, soil, and land forms are as necessary as having an understanding of the hopes, dreams, and fears of those who lived and labored here hundreds and even thousands of years ago. All this imparts deeper meaning and even enhances its beauty.”
“As an ecologist, I became convinced that the entire area was an ecosystem of special significance, one of the rare undisturbed regions of the Great Lakes biotic complex with infinite and authentic interdependencies among its many associations. The stands of beautiful red and white pines growing along the lake shores meant more to me knowing they were the northern-most extension of their range, that while a few stands could be found elsewhere and even beyond the Quetico, it would be spruce or jackpine intermingled with birch and aspen, from here up to the barren lands of the tundra.”
“Knowing the involved geological formations with their exposures of greenstone and intrusions of granite and basalts, the story of the glaciology with its disturbed drainage patterns and the response of all life to the ancient fire ecology of the north, gave new appreciation of the area’s intangible values. The bogs with their paleobotanical records of phantom forests of the past imparted insight to the forests of today.”
“This maze of waterways had its human history as well, for over its lakes and portages had passed voyageurs on their 3000- mile trek from Montreal into the far Northwest. Here too went the great explorers, Alexander Mackenzie, the Henrys, Verèndrye and a host of others, a stream of heroic figures through the border lakes from Grand Portage and eventually through Crane, Namakan, Kabetogama and Rainy Lake into the park area. Over these routes went tons of trade goods to the west and fortunes in fur for the waiting markets of the east. This was the route of Canadian destiny.”
As one paddles down this famous wilderness highway, it takes little imagination to picture the colorful brigades of the past, red- tipped paddles flashing in the sun, the gaudy designs on bow and stern of each canoe. As one sits before a campfire one can almost hear the sound of them and the songs of the French voyageurs coming across the waters.
Voyageurs National Park is properly named, for all traffic from east and west funneled into Rainy Lake, the canoes from Grand Portage along the border, those from Fort William over the French-Dawson route, those from Lake Superior going up to Vermilion and La Croix. No wonder an important post was maintained at Rainy as a rendezvous and meeting place for expeditions from Montreal and far away Athabasca. Of such human history are intangible values made, and all add to the beauty and meaning of the Voyageurs National Park area.
Perhaps as important a value as any is the wilderness character of the area between Lake Superior and the Rainy River, where alone of the 3000 mile extent of the Voyageur’s Highway, the scene is still relatively unchanged with old pines standing that voyageurs saw as they passed by. This wilderness, the old sense of solitude and silence, can still be felt there.
When we talk about the intangible values of the Voyageurs area we know such values are a composite of all the cultural facets of the region, that Voyageurs National Park is more than terrain. It is in a sense a living storehouse of beauty, of historical and scientific
significance. If museums are places where the treasures of a people are safeguarded and cherished then Voyageurs is truly such a place.”
—Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization (www.wilderness- watch.org). He also serves as one of the Listening Point Foundation’s Advisors. Kevin’s most recent book, Glimpses of Wilderness, is a set of wilderness essays set in the BWCAW and the larger Quetico-Superior and can be found at www.kevinproescholdt.com.
Places can be marvelous things. Strange things. Fragile things.
Sometimes a place is just that—a place to put your keys, hang a picture, park your car. A place to go to work or go out to eat. But sometimes places are a little bit more. Some- times a place is rest for a weary mind, repository for dear memories and deep feelings.
Sometimes a place is a home for the soul.
We all have places that mean something special to us. Although sometimes in the rush and semi-chaos of life we forget about them or lose track of them, still they are there—in some safe and treasured corner of the heart. And when the rush calms just a little, when there is a quiet moment to reflect, we can find the memories, the feelings, that are the residue of place.
It may be a church, a park, or a school remembered from childhood. It may be a hill or a trail or a patch of woods, a favorite shade tree, the site of a first kiss, the scene of some personal triumph, a ball field or a favorite fishing hole.
For many of us, the places that mean the most are out of doors—for all the added meanings the natural world provides. A favorite campsite or trail, a mountain or lake or island, is often remembered and loved as much or more for its own intrinsic qualities and values as for anything that happened there. The sounds, sights and smells of a place can become wedded to particular activities and events so deeply that they are inextricably tied in memory. And when a place is a part of something larger, a landscape of beauty and meaning and integrity, then the entirety of a sense of place is complete.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, along with Quetico Provincial Park, Voyageurs National Park and the entire Quetico Superior country, has long been such a landscape for millions. And within that landscape are countless particular places of profound meaning for countless individuals. It is one of the great mysteries and charms of wilderness and the natural world that each of us has our own pair of eyes and ears, our own mind and heart and life-experience that determines why and how we might fall in love with a place.
As a child, I was introduced and returned every year to a lake called Kabetogama, now a part of Voyageurs National Park. It is a beautiful lake—a lake of white granite shorelines and tall pines, quiet bays of cattails and bulrushes, with long vistas of open water dotted with islands. The names are as familiar and dear to me as family members: Sugarbush and Cutover, Marten and Wolf, the Grassies and Nashota’s Point and Lost Bay. I long dreamed of someday having a place on Kabetogama. But when the opportunity finally arrived with a successful book and a little bit of money, the establishment of the park meant that there was precious little real estate available. Still, I gladly traded the dream of a place on “my lake” for the protection the park provided.
Instead, we found a spot on nearby Rainy Lake—an island with an old, run-down cabin, a floating (sinking) dock and an out- house. And we set about discovering, creating, and enjoying everything about it that would make it our own special place. And so it became, through a combination of sunsets and moonrises, storms and windfalls and hard work, dock repair and cabin repair and late nights of Parcheesi and cut-throat card games. Fawn Island became everything a beloved place can be—as well as a symbol and re- minder of all the campsites, lakes, and islands I had loved in a lifetime of wilderness travel and canoe trips. And through the presence of my family—my wife and children and now grandchildren, it became even more.
Sigurd Olson had found his place many years before, and it was perhaps through his example and my reading of Listening Point— the first Olson book I read and still my favorite—that the dream and later reality of our Fawn Island came to be. On Listening Point, Sig discovered all that he was looking for: the opportunity to tie together his deep feelings for the Canoe Country, his love of wilderness, and his commitment to its preservation. In walking its glaciated bedrock and listening to the wind in the pines, in building his little cabin, woodshed and sauna, in swimming at the little beach and paddling the clear, deep waters of the lake—and in sharing all these joys with his family, Sig was able to forge a powerful connection to this little piece of the Earth. He found a home for his soul. And in writing his book, he gave that gift to countless readers.
Today Sig no longer walks the trail among the bearberry and the corydalis, but of course he is still there. And visitors who come to hear the loons and watch the sunsets feel his presence. They might have read the book or heard the stories, or might feel some vague call for a sense of place and a home for the soul. Such places are forever needed, and forever in need of protection. The integrity of a landscape and all of the magical places within it can never be taken for granted. And such places seem to be endlessly under assault. The siren call of riches and profit, of extraction and exploitation, is as powerful as it ever was. As Sig said, the battle goes on forever.
Places are marvelous things. Strange things. Fragile things. Sometimes they reside only in memory—in some treasured corner of the heart. But sometimes, with commitment and intent, they can be preserved and given to the future. And there are few greater gifts. For in the love of place can be found solace for the spirit, and strength for the battles to come.
“A little step may be the beginning of a great journey.” —Unknown
And so it has been. My little step just happened to occur inside Sigurd Olson’s Writing Shack on August 3, 2015. Upon entering the Shack for the first time, my eyes swept over the solid desk and classic typewriter, the table full of rocks and other outdoor treasures, and the many happy pictures of people and adventures from years past tacked to the walls.
Among other things, I also happened to notice a number of rolled up, poster-sized papers of varying length neatly stacked on top of the old filing cabinets in the far corner.
Maps, I thought. Glorious maps! At least that was my guess, and it turned out to be right for the grand majority of them. But that comes later in this story.
Let me take a moment and introduce myself. My name is Steffi O’Brien, and I am a lifelong Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) enthusiast and avid reader of Sig’s writings. I am also currently pursuing my Masters in Experiential Education at Minnesota State University Mankato; a program dedicated to learning and education through hands-on, direct experience, meaningful reflection and analysis, and mindful application at all stages and in all areas of life.
Back in August of 2015, I was still searching for a final capstone project for my degree. My hope was to create one that would integrate my passions for lifelong learning, the natural world (especially Northern Minnesota), and the study of geography (especially historical geography and cartography). You can probably see where this is going.
Also during that same August, my father and I finally took our long overdue trip to the BWCAW. Fresh off of our 10-day journey, we planned to stop by the Listening Point Foundation as a part of one of my smaller summer projects. The visit itself almost did not happen, due to a series of slightly
bungled communications. Luckily, after persistent phone calls and voicemails from both sides, we pulled into the Olsons’ driveway and began our tour at the Writing Shack.
The spotting of the maps happened almost immediately, with subsequent inquiries of whether we could unroll a few and have a look. Alanna’s answer was something along the lines of, “Well, sure you can look at them! No one has really gone through those since the ‘80s.”
I am fairly certain my heart stopped for a brief moment when I heard those words. A collection of nearly-untouched and unexamined maps! Having studied cartography for my B.A. in Geography and having a deep and abiding love of maps and geography in general, I may have gotten a tad overexcited at this discovery.
This initial enthusiasm led to the rap- id making of plans with Alanna to come back to Ely at a future date and at the very least, catalogue this collection and take notes and photos. But of course, this was not just any collection of old maps. This collection also happened to belong to Sigurd Olson, a man whose writings I identify with so strongly that his words accompany me on every Boundary Waters trip I have ever been on and led. I constantly share his story and knowledge in my academic and personal world whenever the opportunity arises. There was so much potential in those maps! I could not let the chance to investigate them disappear.
And so, let us fast-forward the story to mid-March, 2016. While many of my peers headed south for their spring breaks, I went over 300 miles north instead and found myself in Ely for a glorious week of delving into the map collection. And what did I find? The collection contained over 70 maps, varying in their markings and purposes. If I were to tell you about everything I have found so far, it would take pages.
However, what I can share with you is that I am now positioned to design a truly unique capstone project that could be a foundation for further research in the future. Multiple aspects will be involved, including educational displays for the exhibit room in the Olson home that highlight some of Sigurd’s maps. Another piece will be inter- active, potentially online features created through the use of Geographic Information Science (GIS). Completion for the initial project is currently scheduled for April of 2017, and though the final project design is still in the works, the grand journey of research and discovery has certainly begun.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned as the story continues! The next newsletter will contain a more detailed discussion of the map collection and the exciting features that have been found therein. There is much left to explore!
By Kevin Proescholdt
This year, 2016, marks the centennial of the establishment of the National Park Service. Though national parks had existed since Yellowstone in 1872, it was not until 1916 that Congress passed the law creating the National Park Service. Sigurd Olson played important
roles both in the national parks and the agency created to care for and manage the parks.
At first glance, Sig’s involvement with the National Park Service might seem odd. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, he had dealt much more with the U.S. Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since the Forest Service managed Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota that held the U.S. portions of the international Quetico-Superior region that he worked to protect.
But that began to change after Sig’s successful work in the late 1940s to convince Congress to pass the Thye-Blatnik Act in 1948 and President Truman to create an unprecedented airspace reservation over what would later be re-named as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Sig’s successes brought him to the attention of the national conservation community in Washington,
The National Parks Association quickly recruited Sig to join its board of directors, beginning in 1950. He became vice president the following year, and in 1953 Sig was elevated to the position as president of the National Parks Association. In these capacities Sig was exposed to many issues affecting the national parks and national monuments. He also worked personally with National Park Service staff, including Conrad “Connie” Wirth, who became Director of the National Park Service in December 1951.
His involvement with national park issues grew, including the famous 1954 hike along the C&O Canal to save it from reconstruction as a highway, the proposal to dam and flood Dinosaur National Monument along the border of Utah and Colorado in the mid-1950s, hiking
in Olympic National Park in Washington state with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1958, and many more.
In 1959, Sigurd resigned as president of the National Parks Association, but later that same year Interior Secretary Fred Seaton appointed him to the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments. Sig served on this influential board well into the1960s. During the Kennedy Administration, Interior Secretary Steward Udall also appointed Sig as Udall’s consultant on wilderness and national parks in addition to serving on the National Parks Advisory Board. (Udall also tried to recruit Sig to become the director of the National Park Service, but Sig demurred.)
From these posts, Sig played an enormously important role in identifying and visiting potential new national park sites, including field trips across the country and up to Alaska. This work came to fruition as new national parks like Canyonlands National Park were created in the 1960s, and years later in the monumental 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which protected many of the areas Sig and his colleagues had identified in the 1960s. Closer to home, Sig also played important roles in the creation of Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, just west of the BWCAW. Sig, in fact, is even credited with proposing the name of this new park as Voyageurs. So Sig’s role with the national parks was quite extensive and critically important, and something well to remember in this centennial year of the National Park Service.
—Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization (www.wildernesswatch.org).
By David Backes
Published in the Summer 2016 LPF Newsletter, page 7
Excerpts from Sigurd’s writings have been published in a variety of languages, including Russian and Arabic, but a Chinese company is the first to publish a complete translation of one of Sigurd’s books. SDX Joint Publishing Co. in Beijing has published a Chinese edition of The Singing Wilderness, and sent me several copies just in time for the Listening Point Foundation annual luncheon in St. Paul on April 9.
It was a long time in the making. I was contacted by the publisher in the summer of 2010, and there were several exchanges of emails but communication was difficult and spotty. Once they published it, they were supposed to send me copies for the LPF, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, and the Olson family. I never heard from them after 2010, and wondered if they ever finished it.
That fall of 2010, at my annual conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education, I met and became friends with a young Chinese woman, Yan Zhu, who was starting a doctoral program in Florida. She happened to have spent some time at Wolf Ridge, and so she knew of Sigurd Olson and had read The Singing Wilderness. She was excited to learn that a Chinese publisher was interested in making available a translation.
After years of no communication from China, we both wondered what had happened. This past December Jo Jo (as friends call her) finished her PhD and moved back to China. Soon after arriving, she discovered that the book had been published in 2012! Jo Jo set about learning who to contact, and making sure they lived up to the agreement to send those books. The surprise package from China arrived at my house on April 2.
The translator is Cheng Hong, a professor in the foreign languages department at Capital University of Economics and Business, in Beijing. She has taught English there for more than 30 years, and during a period in the mid-1990s as a visiting scholar at Brown University in Rhode Island she developed an interest in nature writing and eco-criticism. She has one book of her own about British and American nature writers, called Tranquility
Her husband, by the way, is Li Kequiang. Li just happens to be Premier of the People’s Republic of China—the head of China’s government. He took that office in March 2013.