In May of 1981, Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson traveled to Northland College to participate in the dedication ceremony for the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s new building. The building was overflowing with guests that afternoon, and Sigurd and Elizabeth watched with appreciation as the Institute’s Voyageurs singing group raised Olson’s B.N. Morris canoe to the Institute’s west wall, a symbol of the Northwoods and of the role Olson had played in establishing the guiding vision for the Institute.
Just eight months later, on January 20, 1982, the Institute’s building was again filled with guests, but they were quieter than they had been in May, and on this winter afternoon a voyageur’s sash was draped across the stern of Olson’s canoe. Balanced on its thwarts was a broken paddle.
A week before, a bright sun had elevated unusually frigid temperatures above zero in Ely, Minnesota, and with twelve inches of fresh snow on the ground, Sigurd and Elizabeth had decided it would be a perfect day to try out the new snowshoes they had purchased for themselves as a Christmas present.
As David Backes describes in his biography of Olson, their excursion took them down a nearby esker to the edge of a swamp that was the birthplace of Caribou Creek, a sanctuary for Olson when he was home in Ely. Before long, though, Elizabeth began to have trouble with the bindings of her snowshoes, and so she turned back. Olson continued on, but neighbors found him shortly thereafter, face down in the snow, having suffered a heart attack.
Institute Director Tom Klein and Northland College President Malcolm McLean notified the College community of Olson’s death in a half-page, typed memo on January 14, writing: “One of the great men in the life of our college and a person who meant so much to so many individuals here has left us.”
The community came together on the afternoon of January 20 to mourn and celebrate the life of Sigurd F. Olson. The Institute’s Voyageurs opened the ceremony. Singing old paddling songs Olson knew and loved, they gathered around a fire burning in a hearth on the Institute’s deck. From this fire, they lit candles, which they carried inside, passing the flame from one to another until everyone held a lit candle. And then, together, everyone read aloud, “Something happens to a man when he sits before a fire. Strange stirrings take place within him, and a light comes into his eyes . . .”
Today, the words of Sigurd Olson continue to resonate in the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, intertwined with the scent of pine and cedar, for he was, as Malcolm McLean said in his remarks at Olson’s funeral, “blessed with special gifts. . . . He moved the hearts of thousands through his books and speeches. He touched the lives of hundreds and hundreds for our students. . . . and that is why, in the final analysis, the Sigurd Olson Institute was named for him.”