by David Backes
Sigurd Olson's dream of owning a rustic cabin out in the woods was as old as his dream of becoming a writer. Even before he married Elizabeth Uhrenholdt in 1921, he had thoughts of both. After they moved to Ely in 1923 and started a family, he kept coming back to the same thought: Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a simple cabin in the silence and solitude of the north country, where he could go and soak up ideas and write them down? He thought of Henry David Thoreau and especially of his favorite nature writer, John Burroughs. They had done it. He would too. The story of Olson's life is one of many struggles, inner and outer, with the prime lesson being the value of never giving up, no matter the obstacles. It took him more than 30 years to fully achieve his dream of becoming a successful author. He became a popular writer of fishing and hunting articles for Sports Afield and other outdoor magazines; but whenever he tried to reach a wider audience by writing north-woods-based short fiction or the kinds of interpretive essays for which eventually he became known, his work came back rejected by publishers. Olson supported his family primarily by teaching and became dean of the local community college, but this did not satisfy him. Indeed, he often felt life was passing him by. In 1947, after his two sons had grown and gone, Olson quit his college position and soon afterward embarked on a career in conservation. His rapid rise to national prominence in environmental circles brought him to the attention of the famous publisher Alfred Knopf in 1954, just as Olson was ready to give up on a book manuscript that had already received several rejections. Knopf took a chance and published The Singing Wilderness in April 1956; and a month later, the 57-year-old first-time book author had a bestseller on his hands. As fate would have it, he would find his place in the woods about the same time as the publication of his first book. In 1955 Olson learned that the owner of a long stretch of pristine shoreline on the south arm of Burntside Lake had divided the acreage into lots and was ready to sell. Early in 1956 the Olsons bought six of the lots, totaling 26 acres. This initial purchase included the point and the place where the cabin sits to this day. Eventually, they added another 10 acres. Just 10 miles from his home in Ely, the land wasn't as wild as places Olson had envisioned ever since the 1920s and '30s, when he spent days at a time in abandoned trappers' shacks deep in the wilderness. But this new place was wild enough to draw out fond memories of many past expeditions and beautiful enough to inspire many new voyages.
The point itself was magnificent—granite and greenstone rock, gouged by glaciers, sloped down to the cold, clear water. Burntside Lake opened up in front of the point in a wide, blue sweep of liquid landscape. Pine-covered islands loomed beyond the glittering waves. Above the rock slope stood wind-weathered red pines surrounded by an evergreen groundcover of bearberry and juniper. The shoreline gently curved away from the point on both sides. To the southeast was a cove bordered by alder and willow and a little sandy beach, which stretched a long way into the water for ideal wading. Away from shore, second-growth birches and pines stood among immense boulders—glacial erratics left behind at the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. That summer, while Olson was enjoying the success of his lifelong dream, he and Elizabeth spent their first night out at the point. There was no road, no cabin. They canoed in and slept under the stars on a patch of bearberry bushes on a ledge just above the point. Olson scoured Lake and St. Louis counties, driving the back roads in search of an old cabin to buy. He didn't want to build a new one, nor did he want anything fancy. He wanted a one-room hewn-log cabin, built by early settlers. He found one in October, just seven miles south of Ely on Ida Wright's farm (known to some as the Anderson farm). The cabin had been condemned to make way for Ely's airport. He paid $200 for it and had it taken apart and hauled away. The man in charge of building the foundation and putting the cabin back together was Urho Salminen. Olson had known him for 30 years. Salminen had been a game warden and had helped Olson gather data for his master's thesis on the timber wolf. Constructing the cabin wasn't simply a matter of reassembly; Olson wanted windows and a fireplace. Olson found all the rocks for his fireplace, gathering them on the property and putting them in a pile near the cabin. Gradually, the cabin became a home away from home. The woodstove was a gift from longtime friends Bill and Ann Langen. (Ann became Olson's typist and editorial assistant after The Singing Wilderness.) The chairs came from Olson's former business, the Border Lakes Outfitting Company. The refrigerator and the hot plate were propane-powered. There were kerosene lanterns and no electric lights, no running water. The cabin was pleasant, comfortable, and simple.
Olson was well into writing a manuscript about this retreat before he came up with a name for his book and the land. He wrote down nearly three dozen possible book titles, including The Sacred Place, The Listening Place, and many variations on the word point, such as Point of the Winds and Solitude Point. He didn't find one he really liked until spring 1958, when his daughter-in-law Yvonne arrived from overseas for a visit. Her husband, Sig's younger son, Bob, was a U.S. Foreign Service officer stationed in the Middle East. After walking around the point with Olson and hearing how he talked about it, she said it reminded her of the diplomatic community in Libya. They referred to Benghazi as a listening post, from which American diplomats could stay in touch with all that was happening along the northern coast of Africa. She said Olson had described the point as a listening post for the wilderness, from which he could stay in touch with the deeper meanings of the world around him. Olson had his name. From then on, he called his manuscript and land Listening Point. But Listening Point didn't become the writing retreat he had imagined because he discovered he could not do any serious writing there. The sights and sounds were too distracting, too enticing. So, he would take insights and ideas from his time out at the point and bring them to his typewriter at home, where he had long ago converted a detached single-car garage into a writing shack. But while the point may not have met Olson's writing expectations, it became more than he dreamed of—a much-needed place of silence and solitude that provided balance in a life that was turning busier and more stressful. An acclaimed author and sought-after speaker, Olson had become a national leader in efforts to preserve national parks and wilderness areas. In the 1950s he served as president of the National Parks Association; in the 1960s he was president of the Wilderness Society; and throughout that period, he advised two presidential administrations on park and wilderness issues. He was rapidly becoming what Sierra Club president Edgar Wayburn would eventually describe him as, "the personification of the wilderness defender." Being viewed as an icon of the wilderness preservation movement wasn't easy. On one hand, environmental activists at times criticized him for not advocating the policies they thought were best. And on the other hand, quite a few people in his hometown treated him like a pariah because they equated wilderness preservation with the destruction of their economy and personal freedom. Even his home ceased to be a refuge. His son Bob recalled that after The Singing Wilderness came out, he could not have an uninterrupted conversation with his dad unless they went out to the point. At home, they were continually interrupted by ringing phones or people dropping in to meet the famous author.
Listening Point was a godsend for Olson. There, where rocks and trees became like old familiar friends, he could walk around, take a sauna, chop wood, read, and especially listen. He could listen to the waves chucking up against the point, listen to the gulls calling as they circled overhead in the afternoon and the loons calling mournfully at sunset. He could listen to himself, with inward ears, as he would put it. He knew how important such experiences were in a typically hectic modern life; he believed reconnecting with the simple natural world was key to finding joy. He knew he was blessed to be able to own for a time such a wonderful getaway, and that's why he fought for parks and wilderness areas—to make such experiences possible for everyone. This was his message. This was his wish. This was his legacy. As he wrote in his book Listening Point, published in 1958:
While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind. Listening Point is dedicated to recapturing this almost forgotten sense of wonder and learning from rocks and trees and all the life that is found there, truths that can encompass all. … I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard. Everyone has a listening-point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe. … The adventures that have been mine can be known by anyone.
Read more about Sigurd Olson or to arrange a visit to Listening Point through the Listening Point Foundation.