Fifty years of "The Singing Wilderness"

Sigurd Olson
Naturalist Sigurd Olson was a close friend of Hubert Humphrey, and influenced Humphrey to include the BWCA in the 1964 Wilderness Act. He also supported restricting access to the BWCA in the 1970s.
Photo by Bruce Littlejohn, courtesy of Kevin Proescholdt

Half a century ago, Sigurd Olson extolled the joy of a canoe trip in his book, "The Singing Wilderness."

Boundary Waters
"The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten," wrote Sigurd Olson.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind," Olson wrote. "Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores."

Olson and other wilderness advocates promoted the vision of protecting northeastern Minnesota's glittering, necklace-like chain of lakes, rivers and rapids. It would become the BWCA and and be placed off limits to motors, mining and timber harvesting.

"The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten," Olson wrote. "It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe he is part of all that canoes have ever known."

"The Singing Wilderness"
"The Singing Wilderness," by Sigurd Olson, was published 50 years ago. It is credited as part of the inspiration for creating the Boundwary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Image courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

The sermon-like quality of Sigurd Olson's writing is genuine. His father was a Swedish Baptist preacher. The family left Illinois and moved to northern Wisconsin when Olson was a child.

As a young adult, Olson landed a teaching job in a Minnesota Iron Range town. Later, Olson joined the faculty at then Ely Junior College, which is now Vermillion Community College. That's where he became a lifelong friend of and wilderness ally with one of his students, Bill Rom.

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"My job was cleaning up Sig's laboratory and his office and his desk and so forth," Rom says.

Ely native Bill Rom was putting himself through school during the Great Depression, with the aid of a New Deal program called the National Recovery Act.

After his Navy duty during World War II, Bill Rom returned to Ely. He started an outfitting business that supplied hunters, campers and anglers. Rom joined Olson in the campaign to restore the area's wilderness character.

Hanged in effigy
The Sierra Club, along with environmentalists Sigurd Olson and Bud Heinselman, were hanged in effigy in Ely during a congressional field hearing on the BWCA in July 1977.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Proescholdt

Advocates of motors and logging flew into a rage. They worried the restrictions would cost jobs, hurt the area's economy and end a way of life.

As passions rose, some of Sigurd Olson's critics hanged him in effigy outside a congressional field hearing in Ely on creating the BWCA.

Bill Rom learned not even his status as an Ely native or World War II veteran spared him from the wrath of his detractors.

"They blockaded our store, parked big long logging trucks in front of it, and picketed our customers as they came in. They had a big sign out there, 'Run the bum Rom out of town,'" Rom recalls.

The end of the story is neither Bill Rom nor Sigurd Olson left town. One reason is that Olson's advocacy for wilderness had deep roots and many supporters.

Olson's cabin at Listening Point
Listening Point, located on the south arm of Burntside Lake, was Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson's getaway place. They bought the land in 1955. This is their cabin, which still stands.
Photo by Richard Frank, courtesy of the Sigurd F. Olson Web site

Kevin Proescholdt, the wilderness and public lands director for the Izaak Walton League of America, says Olson was on a first-name basis with powerful members of Congress.

"He had played a very critical role nationally with the National Parks Association," says Proescholdt. "He was the head of the Wilderness Society board of directors, he played a crucial role in the passage of the l964 Wilderness Act."

Sigurd Olson's writing, his charismatic personality and his voice were powerful tools in the campaign to create the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

In a l970s statement of his philosophy, he said, "We came from the wilderness. Our long evolutionary background proves that we are at one with all forms of life. That the song of the wilderness is something we all listen to, we're all searching for it."

Kevin Proescholdt
Kevin Proescholdt from the Izaak Walton League.
MPR file photo

After decades of work on behalf of other wilderness causes, observers say Olson's role in the BWCA effort was that of elder statesman. He offered advice, made occasional speeches and contacted members of Congress.

Sigurd Olson's son, Robert, says Olson was a reluctant public figure.

"He did not relish the publicity and the adulation and the public relations aspect of it at all," Robert Olson says of his father.

Sigurd Olson preferred the written word for expressing his views. Robert Olson's wife, Yvonne, encouraged her father-in-law to write a book and became one of his editors.

"We had some tussles, but generally he was very good about it," says Yvonne Olson. "We had a few general things I insisted on, and he'd just sometimes laugh and go ahead and do it is own way anyway."

The campaign to create the BWCA reached a climax in the mid-l970s. It came as a swarm of groups -- wilderness advocates, mining companies, timber harvesters and others -- targeted the region.

The Boundary Waters
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Photo copyright by Jim Brandenberg

One of the most vexing issues to Olson and others was a proposal from mining companies and state officials to extract the area's copper nickel deposits.

Wilderness proponents worried the pollution from smelters would damage the area's ecosystem.

So in l975, the 78-year-old Sigurd Olson, his voice still strong, sat down in front of a microphone in Ely to warn of the consequences.

"A decision whether to give up any wilderness for some material activity which might destroy it is of terrific importance," Olson said at the time.

In l978, wilderness advocates won their campaign when President Jimmy Carter signed the federal law creating the BWCA.

David Zentner
David Zentner of Duluth is a friend of the late Sigurd Olson, and past national president of the Izaak Walton League. Zentner says Olson would have lamented the state's waning commitment to conservation and the environment.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Sigurd Olson died on a winter day in l982 at age 82, after snowshoeing near the wilderness area he helped create.

The federal law mostly eliminated motors, timber-cutting and mining from the 1.1 million-acre BWCA.

The debate continues over how to manage activities in adjacent areas that could affect the BWCA's ecosystem. So, for that matter, does the argument over how to preserve the entire state's remaining natural habitat.

Sigurd Olson was an avid hunter and angler, and his admirers say he would have supported and attended a conservation rally at the state Capitol in St. Paul this spring.

The carnival-like atmosphere at the second annual gathering to lobby for waterfowl, wetlands and clean water included duck-calling contests and speeches by political figures, exhorting citizens to lobby for preserving the environment.

Conservation rally
At a conservation rally at the state Capitol this spring, people signed cards to their lawmakers encouraging more protection for the environment.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Sigurd Olson's friend, David Zentner from Duluth, a former national president of the Izaak Walton League, says Olson would have lamented the state's waning commitment to conservation and the environment.

"Our general revenue spending for all environmental purposes is at the lowest level in 35 years," says Zentner. "It barely makes a percent. And if you look at the money for natural resources, every dollar we have or every subject has been raided, if it hasn't been constitutionally protected."

"This is our world, the only world we'll ever have," Olson said in a 1978 speech. "We depend upon the wilderness for our welfare, physically and mentally, and above all, spiritually. We cannot afford to lose any wilderness in view of the increase in population going on all over, the increase of industrialism, the putting ahead of materialism, beyond and above the spiritual."

Sigurd Olson wrote nine books. The first, The Singing Wilderness, was published 50 years ago.