In the entryway to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute building on the Northland College campus, a display cabinet houses memorabilia from Sigurd Olson’s life. Nestled among these objects, next to a Finnish Puukko knife and under a Case penknife, is a worn and creased piece of paper with printed text that reads: “The Quetico Provincial Park / Guide’s License / No. 429.” On the appropriate lines, in longhand and fountain pen ink, the paper indicates that the license is for Sigurd F. Olson of Ely, and that it was issued at King’s Point on the 8th day of June, 1926, by Walt Hurn.
Although this particular license is not Sigurd Olson’s first guide’s license, it is virtually identical to the Quetico Park license he would have received on his first trip as a canoe guide. Olson chronicles this first trip in his essay “Beyond the Ranges,” and he makes special note of the day—June 24, 1923—when he was issued his first Canadian guiding license. As Olson describes, the “morning was bright” and his party was “under way by seven. Rocky islands sparkled in the sunlight, the breeze was at [their] backs and the loons were laughing gaily.” Olson goes on to explain that their destination that morning was King’s Point on Basswood Lake, where they would pick up licenses and visit with Walt Hurn, a Canadian ranger.
“Walt greeted us warmly,” Olson writes, “made out fishing permits for Roger and Dave, but of far greater importance, gave me my first Canadian guiding license. I looked at it with respect,” Olson continues, “the seal of the Province of Ontario across the top, and down in the lower right-hand corner, the date and Walt’s carefully scrawled signature.”
For Sigurd Olson, the license with “Walt’s carefully scrawled signature” symbolized entry into a profession and way of life that he valued deeply. As Olson’s biographer David Backes observes, “Olson greatly admired the older guides,” sensing in them “the same authenticity he had found among the farmers and woodsmen of the Namekagon Valley,” where his wife, Elizabeth, had grown to adulthood. Although, as Backes explains, the guides “were low in social standing,” they shared “a deep love of the land in which they lived and worked.” As Olson wrote in “Beyond the Ranges,” “I felt that only by knowing the men who made their living [in the woods] could I ever really understand and catch the full flavor and meaning of the land itself.”
For six years after his first trip as a guide, Sigurd Olson spent his falls, winters, and springs teaching at the high school and junior college in Ely, Minnesota, and his summers guiding for Wilderness Outfitters in the Superior-Quetico Canoe Country. Attentive to the skills, practices, and attitudes demonstrated by the seasoned guides he so admired, Olson developed into a competent and sought after guide himself, logging more than a thousand miles of paddling each summer and serving his own corps of returning clients.
In 1929, Sigurd Olson partnered with two other men to purchase J. C. Russell’s outfitting company, which they renamed Border Lakes Outfitting Company. The company’s base of operations was in Winton, Minnesota, on a western arm of Fall Lake, and Olson continued as a partner in the business until 1951. Olson continued to do some guiding for clients of Border Lakes, but the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the business subsumed his time, and he never returned to full-time guiding after the purchase of the outfitting company.
Nevertheless, Olson’s experiences as a guide had a significant influence on his appreciation for the canoe country, his writing, and his philosophy of wilderness. Retrospectively, summarizing the significance of his experiences as a guide in the final paragraphs of “Beyond the Ranges,” Olson writes:
Honoring the role that guiding and outfitting played in Sigurd Olson’s life and recognizing the importance of facilitating experiences in the natural world, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s Bro Professor, Evan Coulson, recently lead the development and launching of the Institute’s Outdoor Pursuits suite of programs and services. Outdoor Pursuits’ programs include a robust offering of outings and trips for Northland College students, as well as clinics, trainings, and certifications—some of which are open to the public. Services include Outpost gear rental, a bouldering wall, a Nordic ski center, and the Logistical Support Center, which supports Northland College academic courses and campus programs in planning and outfitting for field courses.
Collectively, the Outdoor Pursuits programs and services help to promote a culture of outings that inspires people to live lives rich in wildness and wonder.
A From the Archives Epilogue
We began our From the Archives series on March 27, 2022, fifty years to the day after Malcom McLean composed a letter to Sigurd Olson and Robert Matteson notifying them that Northland College’s Board of Trustees had unanimously passed a resolution establishing the “Sigurd Olson Institute of Environmental Studies” two days prior on March 25, 1972.
We conclude this series today on March 12, 2023, almost exactly fifty-one years after the way was cleared for the Board of Trustees vote by the Northland College Faculty Senate’s unanimous support of the Institute on March 13, 1972.
Those of us working at the Institute today feel fortunate to be part of such a compelling and vibrant legacy, and we are thankful for the vision and achievements of those who came before us. We are also thankful for our extended community of supporters and program participants. You help us to achieve our mission, ensuring that individuals will be prepared to meet the challenges of the future with intellectual and artistic creativity and promoting experiences of wildness and wonder in northern woods and waters, while working to protect wildlands for future generations.
From the Archives in Print
Over the next couple of months, we will be compiling the twenty-six From the Archives stories into a print booklet. The release date and cost have not yet been determined, but if you’d like to be notified when the booklet is ready, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “From the Archives booklet” in the subject line.