ELY, Minn. — A lot of time passed since I had been to Listening Point, Sigurd Olson's cabin on Burntside Lake outside of Ely, and without help I doubt I would have made the correct turn from what is now a ribbon of smooth blacktop. But once we had parked our vehicles and started up the footpath toward Sig's sauna, and beyond it, his cabin, the place had a familiar feel.
When Sig bought the Burntside lakeshore and 26 acres of land in 1956, he realized a decades-old dream. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had arrived in Ely in February 1923, and he paddled many canoe routes, and traversed many paths — literally and figuratively — between then and the time he purchased the land and, the following year, erected his cabin.
For most of his life Sig couldn't afford a hideaway. By the time I moved to Ely in 1977, he and Elizabeth were comfortable. Their house was roomy and bore Elizabeth's refined, yet relaxed, taste and style. A stone's throw away was Sig's writing shack, with a canoe alongside, and the patio between the shack and the home was often a gathering space for important people and, as regularly, admirers.
The scene was light-years from the converted coal shed Sig and Elizabeth rented when they first came to Ely, a structure that was so cold, according to Sig's biographer, David Backes, they wore knit hats to bed at night.
With me at Listening Point on a recent day were Steffi O'Brien, executive director of the Listening Point Foundation, which now owns and caretakes the cabin and land, and the foundation's president, Patsy Mogush.
On the grounds as well were kids from a local camp. Each carried a pen and notebook, and, while scattered about the cabin, wrote in journals about Sig and, presumably, his adventures and ideas. Certainly, wilderness would be included in these ruminations, however they might define it.
When I first came to Ely 45 years ago I did so fresh out of graduate school to run one of the two local newspapers, the Ely Miner.
By then I had read Sig's books and had canoed the boundary waters but was aware only vaguely of Sig's history. I knew he had graduated from the University of Wisconsin and that his first job in Ely was teaching high school biology. The pay was minimal, and within a couple of years he and Elizabeth had two sons, Sig Jr. and Robert. To make ends meet financially, especially before Sig took a teaching job and eventually became dean of the local community college, in summer he guided rubes on canoe trips, at times learning the tricks of the trade from plucky old-timers who descended from voyageurs of the fur-trapping days.
One week I decided to publish in the Miner portions of an essay from Sig's first book, "The Singing Wilderness.''
I was pretty much a one-man show at the paper, and my thinking, in retrospect — notwithstanding the quality and timeliness of Sig's essay, which, as I recall, concerned the wonders of the coming spring — probably was that I needed to fill pages, not always an easy task.
Thus a call to, and subsequent meeting with, Sig. We chatted then, and did so quite a few times thereafter, usually at his home, but also once when, for no particular reason, we drove to Listening Point.
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On the recent day when I toured Sig's cabin and its surrounding pines and birches, and while winding along narrow trails that circled some of the same moss-shrouded boulders that remained from my last visit, and in fact were there when Sig first stepped onto the property, the memory of publishing Sig's essay converged with my memory of visiting Listening Point with him.
By then Sig was, essentially, a sort-of wilderness guru whose gray-white hair and ever-present pipe lent visual credence to his romantically adventuresome, and deeply philosophical, nature writings, which in some circles drew comparisons to Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, among others.
I wanted to visit Listening Point again in part to see whether Sig's reputation, and indeed the idea of Sig — made manifest by his Burntside Lake property and the small cabin on it — was still alive even now, 40 years after his death.
"We give tours to hundreds of people every year,'' O'Brien said. "Some learned of Sig by coming to the boundary waters to canoe. Many more come to the boundary waters after reading his books. In both cases, many of them want to visit Listening Point.''
To the casual observer, Sig's good fortunes in life might have seemed pre-ordained.
A bright, educated, charismatic guy comes to Ely in the 1920s who loves to paddle, hunt and fish, and eventually he writes to great acclaim in nine books about his adventures and his beliefs, while also leading the charge to turn the boundary waters into a federal wilderness.
Which is true, kind of.
But Sig's life story, and his transformation from scribbler of hunting and fishing yarns in his 20s to a kind of metaphysicist whose wilderness theology links, as Backes notes in his biography, the necessity of wild nature to individual spiritual growth and, ultimately, to the art, science and progress of human evolution, is far more complex.
This philosophy, capsulized, is why Sig believed the act of preserving wild nature is less an option than a moral duty.
Aptly titled "Listening Point," Sig's second book, like his first, was a New York Times bestseller.
He ended the introductory chapter of "Listening Point" with this paragraph:
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 the wilderness, but someplace of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe. The chapters that follow are simply the stories of what I have found on my particular point of departure. The adventures that have been mine can be known to anyone.