Dennis Anderson: 30 years later, Sigurd Olson's big thoughts still apply

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2012 - 1:04 PM

In the three decades since Sig's death, much has changed, and in those changes arise challenges to the tenets of the personal philosophy Sig forged over his 82 years

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Sigurd Olson

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By the time I met Sigurd Olson, he was a man in full. Not so much in the sense of Tom Wolfe's novel of the same title, whose characters contort mightily over their self-images. Rather, by 1977, when I first visited Sig and his wife, Elizabeth, at their Ely home, he was in important ways well-settled, with many voyages behind him -- least profoundly, perhaps, those he took by canoe over more than a half-century in Quetico-Superior border country.

Instead, in Sig's wake, and happily so, were the high water marks of a career as a national conservation leader, including important turns as president of the National Parks Association and Wilderness Society.

Trailing him as well were the tormented decades during which he struggled to find his writer's voice, and audience, and the conflicts also that arose from his need to make a living while forever in the grip of a tempestuous muse he never could shake; not from his childhood days in Door County, Wis., to the afternoon he died while snowshoeing near his home.

Now, 30 years to the week after Sig collapsed on a cold January afternoon, what remains of the legacy of this wilderness advocate whose nine books published between 1956 and 1982 still find readers worldwide, and whose beloved boundary waters might yet, in the mining of precious metals nearby, find their greatest challenge?

Such questions at first seem easily answered.

An environmental institute that bears Sig's name thrives at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. Listening Point, the quaint cabin on Burntside Lake near Ely that embodies the beauty Sig found in simplicity, is a sort of Mecca to his followers (see accompanying story). And professors of ecology, nature writing and wilderness studies often speak of Sig in the same breath with John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

Yet, in the 30 years since Sig's death, much has changed, and in those changes arise challenges to the tenets of the personal philosophy Sig forged over his 82 years -- the foundation of which was his belief in the universality and agelessness of spiritual benefits that accrue from nature, particularly in the context of wilderness.

• • •

For me, moving to Ely was less a philosophical decision than a practical one. I had been offered a job editing one of the two weekly newspapers in town, and with it a cabin for rent on White Iron Lake, not far from its outskirts. I owned a 14-foot boat, a 10-horsepower outboard, a Model 12 Winchester, a yellow Labrador and a '56 Jeep pickup with big tires. The last job I held before this new posting was as a long-haul trucker. I was happy.

At the time, the population of Ely pushed 5,000. Today's it's about 3,500. St. Louis County found more inhabitants then, also -- some 222,000 compared to 200,000 today. Ditto adjacent Lake County, with its 13,000 inhabitants compared to about 11,000 now.

Demographers and sociologists would know better than I, but moving from the Twin Cities, where I had just finished graduate school, to a small town outstate seemed not so unordinary. Perhaps this was the tail end of the hippie-esque "back to the land'' movement. Or whatever. At any rate, I wasn't alone. A couple of friends also made the trip, as did others, both with and without college degrees. Ely, in fact, was where I first met my Star Tribune colleague Doug Smith, and also the Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer, Sam Cook, both of whom toiled for the town's other sheet.

The Sig I met, and became friends with, cut every bit the figure of a writer, right down to the pipe that curled like a fixture in his hand. Often in our banterings we discussed affairs of the day. But he preferred as much recalling duck hunts of his youth, or times in the grouse woods, or, no less, canoe trips he had made both nearby and in the far north.

One week, making an editorial decision that seemed quite natural at the time, I republished in the Ely Miner a lyrical essay of Sig's about the arrival of spring. Most people in town took no offense or, if they did, said nothing. But others were quite direct in their insistence that I not pull a stunt like that again.

Naively, I had opened a long-festering wound that divided the town, dating at least to the 1940s, when Sig helped lead the fight to ban airplanes (primarily floatplanes) over the boundary waters. The resulting schism between Olson and many of his fellow townspeople never did quite heal, and in fact in some ways widened over time, notwithstanding his growing national and worldwide acclaim.

My friends and I had read Sig's books before moving to Ely. The introspection he wove into his many essays about the northland wasn't altogether lost on us. But it's fair to say at the time we read him more for the adventure and inspiration than for Big Thoughts.

Like Sig, we also wanted to travel the border country, and those lands farther north, paddling their lakes and rivers, catching their fish, and at night sleeping in tents while wind rustled long pine boughs overhead.

• • •

Today, things are different.

Long ago, my brother and a friend gave up their dream of homesteading in the Yukon, married and settled instead on lakes outside of Eveleth and Ely. Their grown kids now live in or near the Twin Cities.

Other friends from our Ely days found jobs there and never left, while Doug Smith, Sam Cook and I were among those who departed the north -- mostly with regrets -- to find jobs that paid living wages.

If, in the '70s, we were part of a movement from big cities to small towns, that trend seems no longer. Today, the economic engines of metropolitan areas inevitably suck young people from the hinterlands, paying them better while entertaining them more and, not incidentally, cocooning them in relative comfort.

Some nights, after my wife is well asleep and the kids are upstairs in bed, I'll run a finger along the books that line shelves on a wall of our old farmhouse.

Not uncommonly I'll stop at some of Sig's offerings, perhaps "The Lonely Land,'' "Runes of the North,'' "Open Horizons,'' or "The Singing Wilderness.''

And I'll read.

More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our primal senses beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium.

Ring a bell now 30 years after Sig's funeral on that frigid day in Ely in January 1982?

Seems to.

Still.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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