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Image of a Mallard Island

Private Island, Public Waters

Most people lead double lives—that is to say, just about everyone has a private life and a public one. In many ways, the interplay of private and public interests shapes our lives. In this issue, "A Sanctuary for All Time" recounts the very public battle of two Rainy Lake neighbors: one man a model of successful private enterprise, the other a bachelor living on a private island. Though taking stock of the same territory, these two men had wildly different views of the value of public lands and waters. As author Joe Paddock explains, the outcome of their early 20th-century fight continues to hold significance for us today.

The curious private life of the islander—wilderness activist Ernest Oberholtzer—continues to fascinate those who learn about him. In September 2011, I joined a day tour of his island habitat. Beth Waterhouse, caretaker and executive director of the Oberholtzer Foundation, met our small group on the mainland and piloted us on a pontoon around a group of islands. There we saw a string of rustic dwellings perched on 1,100 feet of bedrock known as Mallard Island. Though I'd read wonderfully descriptive essays about this place by writers Louise Erdrich and Bill Holm, I soon discovered that every detail surpassed my imagination.

In a half-century of island life, Oberholtzer (known as Ober to many) designed, refurbished, embellished, and furnished seven fanciful houses and other smaller structures. At the east end, a two-story house with trapdoors and ladders offers guests a clear view of sunrise over the lake. Waves lap beneath Cedar Bark, a remodeled houseboat that rests on pilings over the water. It still has stacks of musical scores and the piano Ober's mother played when she lived there. Bird House, built by a local carpenter, rises to the pine treetops. The bottom floor holds a collection of lake-country maps. On the highest ridge, the most elaborate house was Ober's home. Its central gathering room has a fieldstone fireplace and a large Ojibwe drum given to Ober. On shelves in every house and in a library cabin, books, most of them mail-ordered by Ober, await readers. Among the collection are seven editions of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the New Testament in Ojibwe, and 19th-century volumes on exploration.

Black-and-white photographs shot by Ober attest to his own explorations by canoe. He took along his Graflex camera and strung negatives like clothes on a line from the canoe to dry them. Often, he brought his second-best violin—but not on the 2,000-mile voyage with his Ojibwe companion Dedaabaswewidang, Billy Magee.

Their legendary paddle in an 18-foot Chestnut Guide Special began June 26, 1912, at Le Pas, north of Lake Winnipeg. In addition to two guns and fishing gear, they packed 700 pounds of food, necessitating several round trips on every portage. As they found and lost their way in uncharted waters, Ober mapped the region and made daily entries in his journal. On Nov. 5, 1912, the exhausted travelers finally landed at Gimli, Manitoba. Now, on the journey's 100th anniversary, the Oberholtzer Foundation has published Bound for the Barrens, Ober's word-for-word journals of that trip.

Ober took up residence on Mallard Island in 1922. In 1925 he joined the campaign to protect the wilderness values of the Rainy Lake watershed. Writing in American Forests and Forest Life in 1929, he called for the governments of Minnesota and Ontario to cooperate in regulating damming, logging, and resource use, including commercial fishing for sturgeon. Ober would have celebrated the revival of the sturgeon fishery enjoyed by anglers today see Hooked on the Rainy River.

Enjoyment, after all, as well as survival motivated Ober in his encounters with wilderness. He agreed with his Canadian colleague Arthur Hawkes, who called the border waters "an outdoor university with a campus of 14,500 square miles." Perhaps weighing his own wilderness experience against his Harvard education, Ober concurred: "It contains the larger half of wisdom—the part that cannot be taught within-doors."

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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