New book captures Sigurd Olson's private journals
The famed Boundary Waters advocate struggled to be known first as a great writer.
DULUTH -- If you are among the throng of paddlers making a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness this summer, you have Sigurd Olson to thank.
You can’t do that personally of course, Olson’s been dead since 1982, but it’s likely he’d appreciate it if you read one of his books.
Sig Olson of Ely was a leader among a small cadre of people who for decades in the 20th century argued, cajoled, debated, battled, convinced and ultimately, mostly, won the effort to preserve a big chunk of the Superior National Forest as an official federal wilderness area now known as the BWCAW.
Older Minnesotans will remember Olson as the godfather of the BWCAW, as a famous figure in the budding national conservation movement of the mid-20th century and as the author of books that revealed a passion for wild, unspoiled nature. (Those in Ely who favored motorboats, mining and logging will remember Olson as a traitor whom they shouted down at public hearings and hung in effigy.)
But since it’s been nearly 40 years since Olson died, it’s likely there is another generation or two who may have never heard of Sig Olson. And that’s where David Backes comes in. Backes in 1997 wrote the essential biography of Sig Olson’s life, “A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson," and also edited two other pieces of Olson’s previously unpublished work.
Backes might have been finished writing about his inspirational icon until another treasure trove of Olson’s writing was made public in recent years. A decade after Olson’s death, his son found many of the famed author and conservationist’s journals in an unplugged refrigerator in the family basement in Ely. But the family wasn’t interested at the time in seeing more written about Olson. So the journals were locked away, gathering dust for another 20 years.
Those hand-scribbled notes are now the basis for Backes’ new book, published this month, “A Private Wilderness: The Journals of Sigurd F. Olson,'' (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95 hardcover). The book, Olson's writing edited by Backes, is a revelation of Olson’s personal diaries and his struggles to balance his life’s passion — writing about nature, about the outdoors — with his job as a teacher, his responsibilities as a husband and father and his role as a national leader in the growing movement to preserve wild places.
It’s clear by Olson’s own words that success as a writer was paramount. The newly unsealed journals detail the dreams and frustrations of an aspiring writer trying to impress editors and readers while filled with self doubt. That doubt at times seemed almost crippling to Olson as he struggled to pursue his passion.
In one example cited by Backes from in January, 1964, Olson had become embroiled in yet another conservation battle, this one over the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine. It was one of his many battles across the continent to save wild places. But it’s clear the constant effort was wearing on him:
“I am now on the fringes — must sooner or later ease out of it — and devote myself to what I can do best, writing & cruising around on my own. The Allagash Area — all these figures seem unimportant now. There was a day, but no more. Others should do this not me. Wilderness preservation will go on but it engrossed me less & less. Others can carry the fight.
What I want to do is get away from all this — make a clean break — I must. It is imperative and only when I return to write & begin working will my balance return. This fall was bad. It must never happen again.
I must make a clean break — money will not count. I’ve got 10 years left. I should put them into the best and not feel frustrated or fighting or feel torn — It is this feeling of being torn every which way that I hate.
I will not miss it. I’m done & seen enough
My writing is poetry.
Why waste it?”
Of course Olson had more than 10 years (he lived another 18) but he also never made that clean break. Year after year, battle after battle, Olson was pushed or pulled back into the fight to keep America’s best places from being spoiled by development or extractive industries. His local efforts culminated in 1978 when the BWCAW received final, formal wilderness designation authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
Most of Olson’s journals consisted of disorganized loose-leaf paper that sometimes lacked dates. Backes sifted through all of the notes, a majority of which were from 1930 to 1941, but did very light editing, correcting misspellings only if they were distracting, leaving sentences incomplete and retaining Olson’s underlines and highlights.
It’s certainly not known if Olson would have wanted his journals published and made public. Some of them were deeply personal, like when Olson writes about his wife, Elizabeth, at one point suggesting they divorce so Olson could be free of his duties as father and husband to focus on writing.
“I would have been surprised if he would have wanted them published or read. Maybe a part of him. But he didn’t intend for these to be public,’’ Backes told the News Tribune.
So why reveal Olson’s private thoughts now?
“I knew I needed to do it because the writing in these journals aren’t talked about in the biography,’’ and are not featured in Olson’s own books, Backes said, adding that Olson's writing is too important to leave in a cardboard box.
“The biography was my interpretation of his work and his life. … What we have in these journals is his interpretation of his life as he was living it,’’ Backes said.
“Writing was his passion,’’ Backes added. “Conservation work was his duty. … And he was very much from a family that did their duty, so he kept doing it even though it may have interfered with his passion.”
Olson clearly struggled to develop his voice as an author.
“It didn’t come easy for him,” Backes noted.
In his own words from January 1935, Olson had steeled away to Bear Island Lake to find some solitude and inspiration that wasn’t coming:
“I am getting discouraged — 3 hours out here & nothing done but I should know better. It may take me a week to come down to earth — surely if I do anything worthwhile it will be by the purest accident.
Burroughs and Thoreau write that their subjects seem to write themselves, that there is no effort for them to set down & pound out an article. The only thing that seems to write itself with me is my thoughts & they so often are just ramblings that I am quite nonplussed …
In order to have any peace of mind I must write it must perforce be something worthwhile. That & that alone is an antidote for suicide.”
But eventually Olson did write, and well. In 1974, Olson earned the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing.
The new book may be the last installment in Backes’ effort to preserve the Sig Olson legacy. He said Olson’s honesty and efforts to work through his struggles should serve as an inspiration for anyone, including even those new generations who might not have heard of Sig Olson before.
“I hope it will be found by that younger generation,” Backes said. “That they would be attracted to the authentic life (that Olson lived) and the importance of not giving up.”
Abou t Sig Olson
Sigurd Ferdinand Olson was born in 1899 in Chicago. His family moved around in Wisconsin and eventually settled in Ashland when he was young, where he attended Northland College.
In 1921, Olson took his first canoe trip, where he fell in love with the canoe country wilderness that would become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. His first article, an account of a canoe expedition, was published by the Milwaukee Journal on July 31, 1921. He worked as a canoe guide for J.C. Russell's outfitters on Fall Lake in Winton just outside Ely. He purchased the business in 1929.
After studying agriculture, botany, geology and ecology at Northland College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Illinois, Olson moved to Ely to teach biology at the local high school and at Ely Junior College, now Vermilion Community College, where he later chaired the science department and served as dean. In 1947 he resigned from his teaching position and began writing full-time.
Olson was influential in the protection of the BWCAW and helped draft the federal Wilderness Act of 1964. He served as wilderness ecologist for the Izaak Walton League of America from 1948 until his death, as vice-president and then president of the National Parks Association from 1951 to 1959, as vice-president and then president of the Wilderness Society from 1963 to 1971, and as an advisor to the National Park Service and to the secretary of the interior from 1959 to the early 1970s. His efforts also helped establish Voyageurs National Park, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Point Reyes National Seashore in California. He served as a consultant to the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall on wilderness and national park issues.
Olson died on January 13, 1982, of a heart attack, while snowshoeing near his home in Ely.
Sigurd Olson’s books
The Singing Wilderness (1956)
Listening Point (1958)
The Lonely Land (1961)
Runes of the North (1963)
Open Horizons (1969)
The Hidden Forest (1969)
Wilderness Days (1972)
Reflections From the North Country (1976)
Of Time and Place (1982)
The Collected Works of Sigurd F. Olson: The Early Writings, 1921-1934. Mike Link, ed. (1988)
The Collected Works of Sigurd F. Olson: The College Years, 1935-1944. Mike Link, ed. (1990)
The Meaning of Wilderness: Essential Articles and Speeches. Edited and with an Introduction by David Backes. (2001)
Spirit of the North: The Quotable Sigurd F. Olson. Edited and with an Introduction by David Backes. (2004)
Learn more about Sig Olson
Sigurd Olson’s legacy is preserved through the nonprofit group Listening Point Foundation, founded in 1998 to preserve Olson's legacy and advance his wilderness philosophy. It’s named after the small cabin on Burntside Lake near Ely that Olson used for inspiration for writing. To learn more about Sig Olson go to listeningpointfoundation.org .
Meet the author, virtually
David Backes, editor of “A private Wilderness: The Journals of Sigurd F. Olson,” will join a virtual Zoom event with the Friends of the Boundary Waters group on June 10 at 7 p.m. for a discussion of the new book. He will be joined by Douglas Wood, author of Deep Woods, Wild Waters.
Participants are asked to register in advance at us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_gLbenSHDR3adHppbFb2nyw . For more information go to friends-bwca.org/get-involved .
Backes is author of the noted 1997 biography, “A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson’’ and editor of Olson’s “The Meaning of Wilderness: Essential Articles and Speeches,” and “Spirit of the North: The Quotable Sigurd F. Olson,’’ all three published by University of Minnesota Press. Backes retired in 2015 as professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.