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Olson, Sigurd F. (1899–1982)

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Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1949.

Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1949.

Sigurd Ferdinand Olson was a prominent American conservationist in the twentieth century who is remembered for his work to preserve the northeast Minnesota wilderness. His career can be separated into two parts: the first as an educator and wilderness canoe guide, and the second as an author and national leader in conservation. He wrote and published eight books. His first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), is perhaps his best-known work.

Sigurd Olson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 4, 1899, to Swedish immigrants Lawrence Olson, a Baptist minister, and Ida May Cederholm. While Sigurd was young, his family moved to Sister Bay on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. The Olson family later moved to Prentice, Wisconsin, a few years later, and finally to Ashland, Wisconsin, where Sigurd graduated from high school. As a child, he developed a passion for nature and the outdoors.

Olson’s education continued at Northland College in Ashland and culminated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1920. He earned a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, but biology and geology also sparked his interest. He met Elizabeth Dorothy Uhrenholdt at Northland College, and they married in 1921.

After college, Olson taught in northern Minnesota and then returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate work in geology. Deciding against a career in mining, and with his first child on the way, he left the university in 1922 and moved his family to Ely, Minnesota. Although Olson traveled for his work, he always considered Ely and the Quetico-Superior Region as his home. In Ely, Olson taught high school biology and was a faculty member of the biology department at Ely Community College (now Vermillion Community College). In the summer, he worked as a wilderness canoe guide and outfitter.

The move to Ely also marked the beginning of Olson’s career as a conservationist. He opposed the construction of roads and dams in the Quetico-Superior Region. His advocacy aided in obtaining a proclamation by Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine that restricted road building. He also promoted the passage of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act of 1930, which helped to preserve the Quetico-Superior region by limiting logging and prohibiting the alteration of water levels.

Olson entered the graduate program at the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1931, earning a master’s degree in zoology the following year. His thesis focused on the timber wolf, an animal he had studied since the mid-1920s. Upon graduation, he returned to Ely and began to teach full time at the Junior College. He became dean of the college in 1936. After World War II, Olson went to England and Germany to teach biology and geology to American soldiers in Europe.

Olson resigned from his career in education in 1947 to focus on writing and conservation. His advocacy for restricting the flight of aircraft over the Quetico-Superior area in the late 1940s gained national attention. Thanks to his efforts, an executive order issued in 1949 and legislation passed in 1951 set regulations for air and water transportation in the region.

Beyond advocacy, Olson served as a consultant for the Izaak Walton League of America, and as a member and leader of the National Parks Association and the Wilderness Society. He acted as a consultant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, assisted in the drafting of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and served as an advisor to the National Park Service.

Olson published his first book, The Singing Wilderness (1956), at the age of fifty-seven. He published eight books in his lifetime, and several more have been published posthumously.

Throughout his career, Olson received environmental awards, including the Founder’s Award from the Izaak Walton League and the John Muir Award from the Sierra Club. Institutions such as the University of Minnesota and Carleton College conferred honorary degrees on him. Not all recognition was positive, however. For example, an effigy of Olson was hanged in Ely in 1977 during the debates on the wilderness status of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).

Olson’s conservation efforts in the Quetico-Superior region aided in the establishment of Voyageurs National Park (the name is credited to Olson) and the designation of the BWCA as a wilderness area in 1978.

Sigurd Olson died in Ely, Minnesota, on January 13, 1982, while snowshoeing near his home.

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Hellend, John. “Chronology of Historical Actions for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Within Minnesota’s Superior National Forest”. Minnesota House Research Department, October 2004.

Huot-Vickery, Jim dale. “A Conversation with Sigurd F. Olson.” Boundary Waters Journal, Spring 2006.

Kelleher, Bob. “The Boundary Waters: 25 Years Later.” Minnesota Public Radio, October 21, 2003.

OH 71
Oral History Interview with Sigurd F. Olson, May 27, 1976
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Three hours of conversation with Olson about his childhood, education, early conservationist efforts, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, his writing, and other topics.

Malina, Chris. “How a Wisconsin Upbringing Led to Sigurd Olson’s Love Of Nature.” Wisconsin Public Radio, June 5, 2014.

Northland College. “Sigurd F. Olson: Preserving the Legacy.”

Northland College. “Sigurd F. Olson Speeches: Preserving the Legacy.”

Olson, Sigurd F. The Singing Wilderness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Sierra Club. “Sigurd F. Olson.”

“Sigurd F. Olson: A Brief Biography.” Lake Superior Magazine.

USDA Forest Service. “History of the BWCAW.”

Weber, Tom. “The One Sentence from 1977 That Explains the Complicated Reality of Ely, Minn.” MPR News, January 23, 2017.

Related Images

Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1949.
Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1949.
Sigurd F. Olson, 1959
Sigurd F. Olson, 1959
Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1960
Sigurd F. Olson, ca. 1960
Runes of the North (book cover)
Runes of the North (book cover)
Sigurd Olson's canoe paddle
Sigurd Olson's canoe paddle

Turning Point

In 1947, Sigurd Olson resigns from Ely Junior College to focus on his writing, leading to the publication of his first book, The Singing Wilderness, in 1956.



Sigurd Olson is born in Chicago on April 4.


Olson graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture.


Olson decides to leave the geology graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moves to Ely with his wife to teach high school and later college biology.


US Secretary of Agriculture William Marion Jardine issues a statement that prohibits road construction on Forest Service lands.


Olson and two other men establish the Border Lakes Outfitting Company, for which Olson works as manager and guide.


The Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act prohibits shoreline logging and alteration of natural water levels of public lands.


Olson conducts graduate study at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, and earns a master’s degree in zoology.


Olson becomes dean of Ely Junior College.


Olson resigns from the Ely Junior College to work as a writer and conservationist.


Olson becomes president of the National Parks Association.


Olson’s first book, The Singing Wilderness, is published.


1964 Congress passes the Wilderness Act, establishing the US wilderness preservation system.


Voyageurs National Park is established.


1978 The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness gains full wilderness status.


Sigurd Olson dies on January 13 while snowshoeing near his home in Ely.