Remembering environmentalist Sigurd Olson, 40 years after his passing

Sigurd Olson
Sigurd Olson near his home on Burntside Lake near Ely, in approximately 1960.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

On this day forty years ago, Jan. 13, 1982, Sigurd Olson passed away in Ely, Minn. He was a nationally respected icon for his leadership in environmental preservation efforts around the country, including in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He was also a nature writer who found acclaim with his best-selling debut book “The Singing Wilderness.”

To remember Olson’s life and legacy, host Cathy Wurzer was joined by David Backes, who knew Olson personally and wrote a biography about the conservationist called “A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson.”

Olson and Backes first connected at a difficult point in Backes’s life. He was struggling in college and feeling adrift. On the verge of giving up, he discovered Olson’s writing and penned a letter to him.

Although they were complete strangers, Olson wrote back quickly and at length, encouraging Backes to stick with it. Backes was touched and inspired to keep moving forward.

Backes said that Olson’s power to inspire pushed many other environmentalists to continue difficult fights of their own: “He had this sense of what people needed to hear to regroup and keep going.”

We also listened to tape from the MPR archives of Olson reading his own words. The tape originally aired in 1982 following Olson’s passing and was produced by Lee Axdahl.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.