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Sigurd Olson was born in Chicago in 1899 of Swedish parents. The family moved to Door County, Wisconsin, in 1906, and then Prentice, WI, and then in 1912 to Ashland, WI, on the edge of Lake Superior. He attended Northland College and the University of Wisconsin in Madison for degrees in agriculture, and he becomes a college professor teaching Geology, Botany, and Animal Husbandry. He and Elizabeth Uhrenholdt married in 1921, taking a 3-week canoe trip for their honeymoon.
When Sigurd learned that Elizabeth was pregnant, he temporarily dropped his graduate study programs and got a job teaching high school biology in Ely, Minnesota, at the edge of the canoe country wilderness. During the summer, and for the next 30 years, Sigurd worked as a back country canoe guide and first began the battle to protect the wilderness areas from development.
Sigurd loved writing His first published article appeared in 1921 about their canoeing honeymoon, but starting in 1927 Olson began a life-long string of writings about canoeing, the wilderness, and conservation. While continuing his work as an educator and college dean, Olson became vice-president of the National Park Association in 1951, and then president two years later. He was elected as a governing board member of the Wilderness Society, and was one of the conservationists that drafted a bill to establish a national wilderness preservation system.
In 1959, Sigurd resigned as president of the National Park Association to join the advisory board of the National Park Service, where he remained until 1966. He became a consultant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall on wilderness and national parks issues. In 1963, Olson became vice-president of the Wilderness Society, and a year later his efforts toward wilderness preservations bore fruit when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, establishing the national wilderness preservation system. He moved up to president of the Wilderness Society in 1968. With the work of the rest of the National Park Service task force, efforts led to 80-millions acres of Alaska wilderness being protected by the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980. He had long been an advocate for a national park in Northern Minnesota, and he gave the park its name, Voyageurs National Park, when its creation was signed into law in 1971 by President Nixon. In the same year, an elementary school in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley was named after Sigurd Olson. In 1972, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute was established at the Northland College of Ashland, Wisconsin.
In 1974, Olson received the highest possible honor for nature writing with the awarding of the John Burroughs Medal. However, perhaps his greatest honor came in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter recognized Olson’s fifty-years of work in trying to protect the Minnesota wilderness by signing the law granting full wilderness status to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Olson never stopped writing until his death from a heart attack while snowshoeing near his home in 1982. Of Time and Place, his last of fourteen books, was published the year of his death. Listening Point was the name of his favorite getaway cabin on a Northern Minnesota lakeshore, and also the title of a 1958 book of the same name. In 1998, the Listening Point Foundation was established to preserve and protect Listening Point as a tribute to Sigurd Olson and his legacy in the field of wilderness education.
This short history of Sigurd Olson’s life is told another way in Spirit of the North. David Backes gathers all of Olson’s most memorable writings about canoeing, wilderness, camping, conservation, and the fight to protect natural wonders for future generations, and combines them in this book. They come from Olson’s books, magazine articles, papers, and even his speeches. Perhaps there is no better way to appreciate this great naturalist than by having his life and his interests and concerns brought to us through his own words.