Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was acknowledged during his lifetime as a leader of the American environmental movement, and an emblematic figure for a generation of activists. He was a writer, teacher, and activist who was a harbinger of the raising of America’s ecological consciousness.
The content below was curated by biographer Dr. David Backes, the award-winning writer of A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson. Dr. Backes retired in 2015 after twenty-seven years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He passed on the content of the Sigurd Olson website to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. We’re honored to preserve and share it.
Sigurd Ferdinand Olson (April 4, 1899-January 13, 1982), writer and conservationist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Lawrence J. Olson, a Swedish Baptist minister, and Ida May Cederholm. He spent most of his childhood in northern Wisconsin, where he formed his life-long attachment to nature and outdoor recreation.
Sigurd earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1920. He returned briefly in 1922 for graduate work in geology, and earned a master’s degree in animal ecology from the University of Illinois in 1932. Meanwhile, in 1921 he married Elizabeth Dorothy Uhrenholdt; they had two sons.
From 1923 to 1936 Sigurd taught at a high school and then at a junior college in Ely, Minnesota. In 1936 he became dean of the Ely Junior College, a position he held until he resigned in 1947 to become a full-time writer and professional conservationist.
Ely remained Sigurd’s home for the rest of his life. An iron mining town on the Vermilion Range, it was located at the edge of several million acres of lakeland wilderness in the United States and Canada known as the Quetico-Superior. Sigurd traveled and guided there for many years, and grew convinced that wilderness provided spiritual experiences vital to modern civilization. This conviction formed the basis of both his conservation and writing careers.
Sigurd became an active conservationist in the 1920s, fighting to keep roads and then dams out of the Quetico-Superior. In the 1940s he spearheaded a precedent-setting fight to ban airplanes from flying into the area; the conflict propelled him to the front ranks of conservation. Sigurd 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.
He helped draft the Wilderness Act, which became law in 1964 and established the U.S. wilderness preservation system. He played a role in the establishment of Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and helped to identify and recommend other Alaskan lands ultimately preserved in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Among his many other activities, he played key roles in the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore in California and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. In recognition, four of the five largest U.S. conservation organizations—the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League—gave Sigurd their highest award.
Often pictured with a pipe in his hand and a warm, yet reflective expression on his weathered face, Sigurd Olson became a living icon to many environmentalists, “the personification of the wilderness defender,” according to former Sierra Club President Edgar Wayburn. He was trusting and sentimental, but also a strong leader who could bring together warring factions of environmentalists. “I think he always kept his eye on the star, and he didn’t get down here where we more common folks deal more with personalities,” said former Wilderness Society President Ted Swem. “He made wilderness and life sing,” said George Marshall, a former president of both the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. And yet in Sigurd’s home town of Ely, where many blamed wilderness regulations for the poor local economy, he was jeered and hanged in effigy. And, until he left the junior college in 1947, he often felt trapped in his career and sometimes despaired of his chances to achieve his dream of writing full time.
Sigurd’s large and at times almost worshipful following derives in part from personal charisma, but especially from the humanistic philosophy that he professed in nine popular books, in magazine articles, and in myriad speeches and interviews. He had a way of writing and speaking about the natural world that touched deep emotions in his audience, and many responded with heartfelt letters. An excerpt from his best-selling first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), shows his unpretentious, yet lyrical, style:
The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. 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….There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. 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.
In 1974 Sigurd received the Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing. His other books include 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), and Of Time and Place (1982).
Sigurd Olson believed that the psychic, as well as physical, needs of humanity were rooted in the Pleistocene environment that dominated the evolutionary history of our species. This, combined with his single-minded focus on spiritual values, distinguished him from other leading philosophers of the wilderness preservation movement. Sigurd was influenced by the literary naturalists W.H. Hudson and John Burroughs, as well as many other thinkers and social critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Henry David Thoreau, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Lewis Mumford, and C.G. Jung.
Sigurd Olson argued that people could best come to know their true selves by returning to their biological roots. As he said at a Sierra Club conference in 1965, “I have discovered in a lifetime of traveling in primitive regions, a lifetime of seeing people living in the wilderness and using it, that there is a hard core of wilderness need in everyone, a core that makes its spiritual values a basic human necessity. There is no hiding it….Unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.”
- 1899 Born in Humboldt Park, Chicago, on April 4.
- 1906 Family moves to Sister Bay, Wisconsin, on the rugged Door County Peninsula.
- 1909 Family moves to Prentice, a logging town in north central Wisconsin.
- 1912 Family moves to Ashland, Wisconsin, on the edge of Lake Superior.
- 1916-1918 Sigurd attends Northland College in Ashland; works during the summers at a farm in Seeley, Wisconsin, owned by Soren Uhrenholdt.
- 1918-1920 Sigurd attends the University of Wisconsin in Madison, earns undergraduate degree in agriculture.
- 1920-1922 Sigurd teaches animal husbandry, agricultural botany and geology in the high schools of the neighboring northern Minnesota towns of Nashwauk and Keewatin.
- 1921 Sigurd takes his first canoe trip in June; the Nashwauk (Minn.) Herald publishes the article he wrote about the trip on July 22. A nearly identical version of the article is also published on July 31 by the Milwaukee Journal. Sigurd marries Elizabeth Dorothy Uhrenholdt on August 8. Their honeymoon is a three-week canoe trip.
- 1922 Sigurd starts graduate program in geology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; Elizabeth helps with finances by teaching elementary school in Hayward, Wisconsin.
- 1923 In January, Elizabeth learns she is pregnant; Sigurd drops out of school and lands a job teaching high school biology in Ely, Minnesota, at the edge of the canoe country wilderness. They move there in February. During the summer, Sigurd finds work as a canoe trip guide, which he continues doing every summer throughout the 1920s. Sigurd and Elizabeth become parents on September 15, when Sigurd Thorne Olson is born.
- 1925 Robert Keith Olson is born on December 23. Sigurd is involved in the first battle over the canoe country wilderness, a conflict over proposals to build roads into previously inaccessible areas.
- 1926 In September, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture ends the current canoe country conflict by allowing two major roads to be built, and by creating three wilderness areas within Superior National Forest. Meanwhile, Sigurd begins splitting his teaching duties between Ely High School and Ely Junior College. At the junior college, he teaches animal biology and human physiology.
- 1927 In November Field and Stream publishes Sigurd’s first magazine article, “Fishin’ Jewelry.”
- 1929 Sigurd and two other men founded the Border Lakes Outfitting Co. As manager, Sigurd spends less of his time guiding than in the past. He manages the company until the mid-1940s, and maintains partial ownership until 1951.
- 1931-1932 In the fall of 1931, the Olsons move to Champaign, Illinois, so Sigurd can earn a master’s degree in zoology at the University of Illinois. Sigurd works under Victor Shelford, the nation’s leading animal ecologist. He earns his degree in June
- 1932, after completing a thesis—the first of its kind—on the timber wolf. The Olsons move back to Ely, and Sigurd begins teaching full time at Ely Junior College.
- 1932 In May and June, Sports Afield publishes Sigurd’s two-part article “Search for the Wild,” his first article fully devoted to wilderness philosophy.
- 1936 Sigurd becomes dean of Ely Junior College.
- 1938 In September American Forests publishes Sigurd’s article “Why Wilderness?” Superior National Forest’s three wilderness areas, recently enlarged, are renamed the Superior Roadless Areas.
- 1941 Sigurd begins a syndicated newspaper column, “America Out of Doors.” It lasts until 1944, then, like many syndicated columns of the time, it dies as government wartime restrictions on newsprint force newspapers to cut back.
- 1945 In June, Sigurd heads to Europe for a year as a a civilian employee of the Army. He teaches GIs waiting to be shipped back to America, and is an official observer at the Nuremburg trials.
- 1947 Sigurd resigns as dean of Ely Junior College to devote full time to his writing.
- 1948-1949 Sigurd spearheads fight to ban airplanes from the wilderness canoe country near his home. It is a precedent-setting, successful battle, and brings Sigurd national recognition in conservation circles.
- 1951 Sigurd becomes vice-president of the National Parks Association (now the National Park Conservation Association).
- 1953 Sigurd becomes president of the National Parks Association.
- 1955 The year begins with Sigurd signing his first book contract, with Alfred A. Knopf. In the summer, Sigurd and a group of prominent Canadian friends spend several weeks paddling the wild Churchill River in Saskatchewan, one of a handful of rugged trips they would take together.
- 1956 The Singing Wilderness is published in April, shortly after Sigurd’s fifty-seventh birthday. It becomes a New York Times bestseller. In the summer, the Wilderness Society elects Sigurd to its governing council. Sigurd is among the conservation leaders working on drafts of a bill to establish a national wilderness preservation system.
- 1958 Listening Point is published; the Superior Roadless Areas are renamed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
- 1959 Sigurd resigns as president of the National Parks Association, and joins the advisory board of the National Park Service. He remains on the board until 1966.
- 1961 The Lonely Land is published.
- 1962 Sigurd becomes a consultant on wilderness and national park matters for Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
- 1963 Runes of the North is published; Sigurd becomes vice-president of the Wilderness Society.
- 1964 In July, sixty-five-year-old Sigurd embarks on his last major canoe expedition, a voyage from Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay along the Nelson and Hayes rivers. In September, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness Act, establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System.
- 1965 Sigurd is part of a National Park Service task force that recommends preserving nearly eighty-million acres of land in Alaska. Fearing a political firestorm, the agency buries the report, but the work behind it ultimately bears fruit in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980.
- 1968 Sigurd becomes president of The Wilderness Society. In November, he suffers a major heart attack during the society’s annual meeting at Sanibel Island, Florida.
- 1969 Open Horizons and The Hidden Forest are published.
- 1971 Sigurd resigns as president of the Wilderness Society, citing his health and desire to write. President Nixon signs into law the act establishing Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota; Sigurd had played an important role as an advocate of the park since the early 1960s, and he also gave the park its name. Also in 1971, a new elementary school in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley is named after Sigurd.
- 1972 Wilderness Days is published.
- 1971 The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute is established at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.
- 1974 The highest honor in nature writing, the John Burroughs Medal, is presented to Sigurd.
- 1976 Reflections From the North Country is published.
- 1977 Sigurd is hanged in effigy in his home town of Ely, Minnesota, during debates about the status of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
- 1978 President Jimmy Carter signs the law granting full wilderness status to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, more than fifty years after Sigurd Olson’s first efforts to protect it.
- 1979 In December, Sigurd undergoes successful surgery for colon cancer. However, he never fully regains his strength.
- 1981 The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute is built and dedicated on the Northland College campus.
- 1982 On January 13, Sigurd dies of a heart attack while showshoeing near his home. Of Time and Place is published.
- 1994 Elizabeth Olson dies of heart failure on August 23, at the age of ninty-six.