I left my towel on the smooth wooden bench and carefully stepped down the slippery rock stairs into the cool clean water of Rainy Lake. Leaning forward into a breast stroke, the cold water a shock at first, I ducked my head into the water. In the rhythm of my stroke, my body adjusted to the temperature, my eyes taking in the nearby native shores of pine trees, rocks and grass.
I was swimming at Mallard Island, once the home of environmentalist Ernest Oberholtzer (1884-1977) who lived year-round on Rainy Lake outside of International Falls, Minn., from the 1920s to the 1970s. He was a canoeist, a student of indigenous peoples and an avid map and book collector. He famously lobbied against a proposed series of dams in the northern watershed in the 1920s, which helped establish the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park. He liked solitude but enjoyed visitors, and designed an intriguing collection of cottages and cabins on the 1,100-foot-long island so he could entertain guests while maintaining his privacy.
The Oberholtzer Foundation sustains Oberholtzer’s legacy, and its mission has grown to support artistic and environmental work with a focus on indigenous peoples. Ober, as he was known, left behind a treasure trove of valuable hardcover books. The island itself inspired “Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country” by Louise Erdrich.
With writer Michael Walsh, I had organized an “art and science” retreat in August to bring together artists, writers and musicians with environmentalists, biologists and other scientists on Oberholtzer’s island.
Nature and conversation
The wonderful conversations started in the car as I drove up from St. Paul with DePaul University environmental professor Liam Heneghan and Kansas poet Denise Low. At Bald Rock Point on Rainy Lake, we rendezvoused with our caretaker, the multitalented singer Prudence Johnson.
Under the hot sun with a strong breeze coming off the lake, we loaded the pontoon boat and headed for the quartet of long, thin Review Islands that include “The Mallard,” stopping to admire a huge nest with a golden eagle perched beside it. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by our second caretaker, Jennie Ross, and environmentalist Betsy Daub, artist Andrea Carlson and sociologist Thomas Hanson.
We scheppled our bags to our unique residences over wood-chipped but sometimes rocky paths. I stayed in the Bird House, a tall structure of three small rooms on top of each other. Books lined every wall, with some shelves hanging from the rafters. As I got cozy in my high-up perch, the wide windows opened to the forest around me, the calls of the birds and the distant hum of motorboats. After a delicious dinner prepared by Johnson and Ross, we headed back to our rooms to settle in.
The next morning, I snuck out without waking my lower-level roommate, University of Minnesota environmental program director Heather Koop, and proceeded to the Wannigan, a former logging kitchen boat now dry-docked on stilts. Inside, a boisterous group was drinking coffee. After tea and a breakfast of leftover berry cobbler, Daub and I paddled to nearby Gull Island, home to ... a train caboose on tracks! The story goes that Ober’s friend Ted Hall was thwarted by zoning laws, so one winter he hauled the caboose over the ice, equipped with bunks, a toilet and a wood stove — a very cozy living space. We explored the island paths, looking for birds and picking handfuls of blueberries. We then paddled around several other islands, stopping in a marshy lagoon to see diving mergansers and a mallard mama with seven babies eating crayfish.
After lunch and a rest in my room as leaves rustled outside my windows, I spent the afternoon leisurely chopping vegetables for a stir-fry with co-leader Walsh. All the food was brought from the mainland, so we had planned our meals carefully.
After dinner, I sat on the large front rock chatting with Low, then took a dip into the lake at sunset from the swimming hole, the crescent moon shining bright through scant clouds, the pink sunset silhouetting the trees on the nearby islands.
Throughout the week, we explored the island. The first structure Ober built in the 1920s was the Japanese House, a small studio with a screened porch that hangs over the water on the west end of the island. In Ober’s majestic personal cabin, the living room centers around a huge stone fireplace, with books lining every wall and two canoes in the rafters. The sacred Ojibwe drum of the island sits in a corner with offerings. Other buildings include the Front House, with views of the water on three sides; and Cedar Bark, an old brothel boat now moored at water’s edge, a bed tucked in just above the lapping waves. Dotted around the island are weathered Adirondack chairs for observing the waves, the clouds and the loons. Necessities are neatly taken care of with three composters, an intricate water system and a solar shower house.
Most of us had turned off our phones and left our families only the island’s emergency number, unplugging for a week from the tumultuous election, work e-mails and family obligations. Our sunny days were spent paddling, swimming, painting, playing music, writing and enjoying meals while talking about everything from geology and climate change to fairy tales, Indian boarding schools and poetry. I found an old copy of Pearl S. Buck’s “China Sky” that was my entertaining evening read. Nights calmed us with loon calls and the lapping of waves. On Thursday night, we gathered in Ober’s living room. We shared artwork, songs and stories created during the week, including intricate paintings by Andrea Carlson and birch-bark bitings and poetry by Denise Lajimodiere (both Ojibwe artists). We finished the evening with a dessert in the Wannigan.
Our final day on Mallard Island was overcast, and we each took up a cleaning job. We were relaxed and happy. We’d created a wonderful community, our lively discussions bearing out the mission of the Oberholtzer Foundation. This winter, I’ll imagine swimming in the cool lake next to the overhanging pines, a great gift shared by Ernest Oberholtzer, friend of Minnesota wilderness.
More about the Oberholtzer Foundation is at eober.org. Applications are accepted each November for individuals, artists and groups who’d like to enjoy the serenity of the island and its archives while honoring the foundation’s mission to support artistic and environmental projects and indigenous people. Applications and information can be attained from executive director Beth Waterhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathryn Kysar is a poet and writer who lives in St. Paul and teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.