“To anyone familiar with the Quetico-Superior and the long struggle for its preservation as wilderness, Bill Magie needs no introduction.” So wrote Dave Olesen in a memo to Tom Klein, director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, on June 2, 1980.
Olesen goes on to write in his letter that through Magie’s experience as a “surveyor, bush pilot, timber cruiser, guide, C.C.C. camp boss, mine engineer, conservationist, and recreationist” he had “come to know all facets” of the Quetico-Superior area first-hand. And it was because of this knowledge, as well as Magie’s “famous ability as a raconteur,” that Olesen had decided it was worth a “considerable expenditure” of “time, money, and energy” to collect and preserve Magie’s personal memoirs.
For Olesen, the “Magie Project,” as he described it, started when Olesen was a Northland College student completing an internship with the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Olesen met Magie for the first time on December 28, 1977, at his home on Lower Eau Claire Lake in northern Wisconsin, and between January and May 1978, Olesen captured more than twenty hours of taped interview sessions with Magie.
By all accounts, including his own, Magie was a charismatic, “hell-raising” young man who grew to be an exceptionally faithful and effective defender of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Conceived on Isle Royale, and born in Duluth on April 29, 1902, Magie first experienced the canoe country as a seven-year-old. He was educated in elite, eastern schools, where he “always got into a little mischief,” and in his twenties, he learned to fly, earning a license from Orville Wright that was quickly suspended after he flew under the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge on a bet.
As a conservationist, Magie worked with leaders such as Ernest Oberholtzer and Sigurd Olson and made significant contributions to initiatives that led ultimately to the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. These included the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, the Thye-Blatnik Act, the 1949 Air Ban, the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. Magie also served for many years as the executive secretary for Friends of the Wilderness, a nonprofit organization formed in 1949 “to co-ordinate the volunteer efforts of thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations in the preservation of the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Superior National Forest.”
In his memo to Tom Klein, Olesen notes that the tapes and transcripts of the Magie Project “form a unique record of the Quetico-Superior. From hilarious tall tales, to stories of madness, murder, and smuggling, to memories of the vanishing Ojibwe villages of Quetico, to the political events that have shaped the region’s use,” writes Olesen, “Bill weaves a wonderful tapestry.”
The editing and weaving together of this wonderful tapestry were completed by Olsesen, and a grant from the Quetico-Superior Foundation supported preparation of a typed manuscript titled “A Wonderful Country: The Story of Bill Magie,” which was completed in 1981. Three years later, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, in collaboration with Olesen, illustrator Wayland Swain, and Magie’s widow, Lucille, prepared and published A Wonderful Country: The Quetico-Superior Stories of Bill Magie.
Shortly after the publication of A Wonderful Country, Dave Olesen and his wife, Kristen, moved to Hoarfrost River Homestead, which is located 160 miles northeast of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Here they run a large kennel of working sled dogs and operate a commercial, bush-plane air service. Olesen published a second edition of A Wonderful Country with Raven Productions in 2005 and is also the author of Cold Nights, Fast Trails—Reflections of a Modern Dog Musher; North of Reliance; and Kinds of Winter: Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories. You can keep up with Olesen by following his BushedPilotBlog.