I can still recall vividly the rainy Kansas Saturday morning when I turned into the parking lot of the Johnson County Branch Library in Shawnee Mission, and waited a moment for a Barbara Streisand recording to come to an end on my car radio. Gravitating to a particular book shelf featuring outdoor subjects, I discovered a new book titled “The Singing Wilderness” written by a Minnesota author named Sigurd F. Olson. Month by month, it chronicled the change of seasons through a year in the north country of the Border Lakes region, through the eyes of someone who was both a trained scientific observer, and someone whose passion for unspoiled wilderness infused each paragraph. It was the first of what would become a series of six best-selling volumes of non-fiction written with the same sense of place and unhidden love for the natural world. And a canoeist of the first order.
I found a particular appeal in his 1958 account of his acquisition of a point of land on Burntside Lake, outside the town of Ely, Minnesota where he lived and worked as the Dean of a Junior College. He named the place “Listening Point”, and there he reconstructed an old Finnish trapper’s cabin he had brought to the spot and situated among the white birches and Norway pines in such a way as to disturb nothing – not even a huge glacial rock which was a feature of the lakeside spot. There would be, he determined, no power or phone lines, or other “conveniences” to intrude on the quiet, natural setting the original owner of the cabin might have known in a 19th century world.
I first began to correspond with Sig Olson in 1962, after reading his latest offering “The Lonely Land”, and seeking his advice in planning my own canoe trip into the Quetico Superior Wilderness (which was carried out in 1964). During the following years our air-mail friendship continued and I made my first trip to Ely in October of 1974, when I parked my truck camper near their home, and was treated to several days of his wife Elizabeth’s warm hospitality as we awaited Sig’s return from testifying before the U.S. Congress.
Sigurd F. Olson, I should explain, is recognized by many as the “father of the “Wilderness” concept in our National Park system, and at the time of my visit was engaged in lobbying for creation of the Boundary Waters “wilderness” designation, preserving the thousands of square miles of lakes and waterways lying astride Canada’s “Quetico” preserve in their present pristine form.
In June of 1975, it became possible to take my family with me on a return to Ely, where Sig and Elizabeth welcomed us almost as their own family. We canoed and portaged in the area, and my ten-year-old son Chris and I joined Sig for a steam bath in his traditional Norwegian Sauna at “Listening Point”, telling stories between repeated trips to the cold lake waters nearby for the required “cooling off plunge”. To our surprise, Sig invited us to sleep for the remainder of our stay – just our family - in the cabin at “Listening Point”, where we shared the ambience and memory-filled intimacy of those ageless log walls, stone fireplace, and unbroken vistas of Burntside Lake.
On January 13th, 1982, while snowshoeing on a favorite trail near his Ely home, Sigurd Olson was felled by an apparent heart attack, actively engaged in what he loved to do, in the great outdoors for which he lived. He was 83. This week, exactly 30 years after his passing, I remember him with the fondest of affections. For me, “Listening Point” is not just a place and a time, but a piece of my heart.
NOTE: In addition to the books already mentioned, Mr. Olson authored “Runes of the North”, “Open Horizons”, “Of Time and Place”, and “Reflections From the North Country”, as well as a collection of excerpts titled “Wilderness Days”.
Pictured in his writing room in the fall of 1974, Sigurd F. Olson was known to a generation of readers and admirers as a champion of wilderness preservation, serving for many years as President of the National Parks Association, and dozens of advisory boards for National Parks, Monuments and as advisor to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
The cabin at “Listening Point” overlooking the expanse of Burntside Lake near Ely, Minnesota. During most of his adult life, Sig Olson led canoe safaris into the vast wilderness of waterways known as “The Quetico Superior” region, capped off by an exploration of the wild Churchill River country of the Canadian north.
The interior of the “Listening Point” cabin was hung with artifacts and mementos of a life devoted to the natural world the owner loved and worked to preserve.
All Photos by Al Cooper