A Sigurd Olson samplerBOOK REVIEW: Sigurd Olson is many things to many people — environmentalist, conservationist, educator, scientist, writer, wilderness guide, troublemaker — and his books have something for anyone who has an interest in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and Quetico Provincial Park.
By: Maureen Maloney, for the Budgeteer
Sigurd Olson is many things to many people — environmentalist, conservationist, educator, scientist, writer, wilderness guide, troublemaker — and his books have something for anyone who has an interest in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and Quetico Provincial Park.
“Wilderness Days” (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) is a collection of some of Olson’s short essays from earlier works published between 1956 and 1969, about his life and his wilderness experiences in northern Minnesota and Canada. He chose the selections himself based on readers’ responses to his previous books. Long out of print, Wilderness Days is now available in a trade paperback edition with a beautiful cover-illustration by Francis Lee Jacques, for whom the Jacques Art Center in Aitkin, is named.
Although Olson the conservationist often decries the visible effect of technological progress on the pristine wilderness, his essays are just as likely to portray the romantic essence of what stays with a person after spending time away from civilization.
His recollections will resound with anyone who has done a challenging portage, watched a mesmerizing campfire at length, observed a spectacular sunset over a still lake, anticipated an approaching storm over open water, experienced the adrenaline rush at the unexpected strike of a trout on a lure, felt the effects of a full moon on an utterly silent night in winter woods, discovered the perfect lakeside campsite, or tasted freshly caught fish cooked over a camp stove.
Olson’s familiarity with the flora and fauna specific to the region makes his descriptions unique and universal at the same time.
Even those Minnesotans whose ideal getaway does not involve roughing it in the woods will appreciate some of Olson’s essays.
Each of the four sections of the book offers seasonal and historical highlights. For example, in “The Winds of March,” he speaks like a true northerner about the subtle signs of spring that are a thrill to winter-weary people. He observes that “To appreciate [spring], you must wait for it a long time, hope and dream about it, and go through considerable enduring.”
The summer section includes haunting images of ghost camps, remote sites that were once hubbubs of mining and fur trade activity. His description of the history and age-old art of wild rice cultivation by Natives appears with the autumn essays.
And in the winter section, his depiction of the smells, textures, sights, and sounds (or lack thereof) of the season are enough to cause a reader to shiver on a hot summer day.
For those who enjoy an armchair view of “man versus nature,” this collection offers tales of real-life encounters in the wild that cannot be duplicated in today’s dramatized attempts to simulate the dangers and challenges of survival in untamed regions. Olson’s knowledge of the history of the Quetico-Superior voyageurs, miners, trappers, and Native Americans who explored and made their living there serves as a backdrop to the recounting of his travels and observations.
Olson writes passionately about this world without being preachy, and his words are timeless. In the epilogue, he leaves the reader with open-ended questions about the benefits and costs of progress. He asks us to consider whether our “gadget-ridden lives” bring us satisfaction, “and if not, how can we regain some of the joys we seem to have lost?”
Whatever becomes of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, these places hold volumes of history and adventure. To see them through the eyes of a gifted storyteller with a great love for the region leaves one with a lasting impression of how the past is connected with the
Maureen Maloney is the branch librarian at the West Duluth Library.