Wilderness Days

Wilderness Days

Sigurd F. Olson
Copyright Date: 1972
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv07t
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  • Book Info
    Wilderness Days
    Book Description:

    In the evocative words of one of America’s best-loved nature writers, Wilderness Days brings together the essence of the magnificent wilderness with which he deeply identifies. Sigurd F. Olson collects from his writings those moments that vividly depict the turn of the seasons in the great woodlands and waters of the legendary Quetico–Superior region overlapping the Ontario–Minnesota border.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7948-5
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Author’s Note
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue: My Wilderness World
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    My wilderness world has to do with the calling of loons, northern lights, and the great silences of a land lying north and northwest of Lake Superior. It is concerned with the simple joys, timelessness, and perspective found in a way of life close to the past. I have heard the song of this wilderness from the border country of Minnesota and Ontario to the lonely reaches of the tundra close to the Arctic, but I hear it best in the beautiful lake region of the Quetico-Superior, where travel is still by pack and canoe over the ancient trails of...

  5. Spring
    • The Winds of March
      (pp. 3-7)

      To anyone who has spent a winter in the north and known the depths to which the snow can reach, known the weeks when the mercury stays below zero, the first hint of spring is a major event. You must live in the north to understand it. You cannot just come up for it as you might go to Florida for the sunshine and the surf. To appreciate it, you must wait for it a long time, hope and dream about it, and go through considerable enduring.

      Looking forward to spring plays the same part in morale building in the...

    • No Place Between
      (pp. 8-14)

      To the Chippewas that sprawling series of lakes and rivers known as the Kawashaway was a land of mystery. Bounded by brooding stands of pine, its waters were dark, their origins unknown. According to the ancients, the land belonged to those who had gone, was forbidden to those who lived. From the AlgonquinKaw, meaning “no,” andAshaway, meaning “the place between,” it took its name: No Place Between—a spirit land.

      Primitive races all over the world have such places, their origins buried in mystery and forgotten legends. Strange things have happened there, and the sense of awe and...

    • The Loons of Lac la Croix
      (pp. 15-21)

      The loons of Lac la Croix are part of the vast solitudes, the hundreds of rocky islands, the long reaches of the lake toward the Maligne, the Snake, and the Namakan. My memory is full of their calling: in the morning when the white horses* of the mists are galloping out of the bays, at midday when their long, lazy bugling is part of the calm, and at dusk when their music joins with that of the hermit thrushes and the wilderness is going to sleep. But there is a time in the early spring—just after the ice goes...

    • The feel of Spring
      (pp. 22-30)

      Spring canoe trips into the hinterlands are always exciting adventures after a northern winter, for impressions then seem as fresh as the country itself. One that stands out boldly from the many I have made over the years is a trip young Sig and I took during the war, when he was at home on a last furlough before going overseas with the 10th Mountain Division. I wanted him to carry something special away with him, something he would remember when the going got tough: the feel of spring and the joy of wilderness travel after the break-up.

      It was...

    • The Storm
      (pp. 31-35)

      It was mid-April before I heard the first robin, the fluid, haunting melody of gurgling notes which sounds like the flowing of water itself. As yet, the grass had not begun to green, but there had been mist and a soft lushness had come into the air which spoke of more to come.

      The snow was all but gone now; only in the deep, shaded valleys and on the north slopes was there any sign at all. Some of the smaller lakes had opened, but the larger ones were as solid as they had ever been. The ice was blackening,...

    • The Sound of Rain
      (pp. 36-42)

      One night in my tent I listened to the rain. At first it came down gently, then in a steady-drumming downpour, and I lay there wondering when I would begin to feel the first rivulets creeping beneath my sleeping-bag. The deluge continued, but there were no exploring trickles, no mist through the roof of balloon silk. The tent, on the little rise with its thick cushion of bearberry, had perfect drainage all around, and the ropes were tied to two good trees. The gale could blow now and the rain come down, but I would be safe and dry the...

    • Witching Hours
      (pp. 43-48)

      It was dusk, and the loons, hermit thrushes, and whitethroats were almost through with their calling. The tapered line unfurled and a fly soared over the rushes, landing like a puff of down upon the water. It sat there a moment, then seemed to struggle to free its wings before taking to the air. A swirl, and the fly rod bent, and soon the bass swam in slow wide circles beside me.

      A swish of the net and it was inside, its red gills opening and closing, its tail beating a soft tattoo against the bottom of the canoe. Then...

    • Silence
      (pp. 49-53)

      It was late May, before dawn and the first calling of the birds. The lake was breathing softly as in sleep; rising and falling it seemed to me, absorbing like a great sponge all the last sounds of spring: the tiny trickles, the tinklings and whisperings from still-thawing banks of hidden snow and ice. No wind rustled the leaves; there was no lapping of water against the shore, no sound of any kind. But I listened just the same, straining with all my faculties toward something—I knew not what—trying to catch the meanings that were in that moment...

    • Young Ottertail
      (pp. 54-60)

      As I sat on the end of Listening Point watching a flaming spring sunset and looking toward the northwest and the wild country of Lac la Croix, a day’s paddle beyond, I thought of the legend of young Ottertail. Why I thought of him just then I do not know, except that the moment was one of mystery and my mind ranged to far places that spoke to me of mood. Such a place was Pine Point on Pickerel Lake, north of the Canadian border, the burial place of a young Indian of the Lac la Croix band.

      One moonlit...

  6. Summer
    • The Way of a Canoe
      (pp. 63-69)

      The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats: the sky, the water, the shores.

      In a canoe a man changes and the life he has lived seems strangely remote. Time is no longer of moment, for he has become part of space and freedom. What matters is that he is heading down the misty trail of explorers andvoyageurs, with a fair wind and a chance for a...

    • The Portage
      (pp. 70-74)

      The portage lay in the end of the bay, and there a battered white sign was nailed to a tree. As the canoe slipped beside a log we stepped into the shallows and lifted out the packs. The sign was broken in half, torn no doubt by a curious bear, weathered and beaten by the wind, but on it were the names ofvoyageurswho had gone before.

      I stood for a long time looking at that sign as I have looked at hundreds in the wilderness lake country here and far to the north, and marveling as I always...

    • Stream of the Past
      (pp. 75-82)

      To recapture the spirit of any era you must follow old trails, gathering from the earth itself the feelings and challenges of those who trod them long ago. The landscape and way of life may have changed, but the same winds blow on waterways, plains, and mountains, the rains, snows, and sun beat down, and the miles are just as long.

      When I first saw the wilderness lake country of the Quetico-Superior, I knew little of its frontier days beyond the fact the logging was about over, the great booms, rafts, and enormous mills gone. Lumberjacks were still around with...

    • White Horses
      (pp. 83-91)

      The sunset over the little Indian settlement was startling. One of the last level rays caught the tip of the church spire and made it burst into flame for an instant. A faint chorus of dogs drifted to Tony and me across the water. It was a beautiful scene, but we were far too sleepy and tired to enjoy it for long.

      It was dusk by the time we had stowed away the packs, checked the canoes and the outfit, covered everything, and weighted down ponchos and tarps with rocks, should the wind come up.

      We crawled into our tents...

    • The Falls
      (pp. 92-98)

      The portage around Trout Lake Falls was a pretty one skirting the brink and ending just below where the water was a-churn and covered with foam and the air full of the sound of it.

      Out in the open again, we turned in our canoe, sat there in the swirling currents feasting our eyes and senses, then just across the channel found a campsite on a smooth, rocky shelf above a roaring rapids, the sound of it merging with the music of the falls.

      The river swirled deeply off the ledge, and I asked Tony and Elliot to get some...

    • Ghost Camps of the North
      (pp. 99-107)

      Thevoyageursof our expedition had battled their way up the Camsell River from the height of land above Great Slave toward the barren bleakness of Great Bear. It was a time of rain and cold; the winds off the Arctic ice never ceased. The terrain had grown more and more rugged, and each day we fought the waves, dodged behind islands, and skirted dangerous promontories we could not avoid. We ran what rapids our canoes could take, but when they were bad we portaged–in that icy water we dared not take a chance.

      The hills were almost mountainous...

    • Painted Rocks
      (pp. 108-114)

      Indian paintings are found on smooth cliff faces all over the Quetico-Superior area. Reddish brown in color and seldom large, they adorn the rocks along many major routes of travel as high as a man can reach from a canoe. These strange likenesses of animals and birds, of suns and moons, canoes and figures of symbolic meaning are found from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as well as along the waterways of the Canadian Shield.

      No one today knows when they were done, who the artists were, or what they mean. All we know is that the pigment used was...

    • The Ross Light
      (pp. 115-120)

      Years ago on a canoe trip with photographer Frank Ross of theSaturday Evening Post, I learned something about light I did not know before. For a long time I had been aware of the magic of those last slanting rays of the setting sun but, until that memorable trip with him, I was not fully aware of their significance and possibilities. I discovered with Ross that unusual effects could be achieved during certain rare moments when the light was just right, when color and depth were accentuated to the point where ordinary scenes could become spectacular pictures. Day after...

    • Campfires
      (pp. 121-126)

      Something happens to a man when he sits before a fire. Strange stirrings take place within him and a light comes into his eyes which was not there before. An open flame suddenly changes his environment to one of adventure and romance. Even an indoor fireplace has this effect, though its owner is protected by four walls and the assurance that, should the fire go out, his thermostat will keep him warm. No matter where an open fire happens to be—in a city apartment, a primitive cabin, or deep in the wilderness—it weaves its spell.

      Before men ever...

  7. Autumn
    • Falling Leaf
      (pp. 129-134)

      It was a bright and sparkling morning in late August with just enough hint of frost in the air to make one question the permanence of summer. A blue jay screamed the hard clarion notes of coming fall, and in that sound was the promise of change.

      I stood beside the big boulder on top of Listening Point. Beyond it and silhouetted against the blue of the north channel was a large-toothed aspen. A small scraggly tree, it was sparse of leaves and branches and its roots went into a crevice of the rock. Standing there alone, it was like...

    • Wild Rice
      (pp. 135-144)

      When I look at my bag of wild rice, I feel rich. Food of the north, this is nature’s wheat, the traditional staple of Indians in the lake states. True, they have many other foods, but this wild grain, gathered in the shallow, mud-bottomed lakes and rivers of the north Middle West, is more important to them than any other. Bloody tribal wars were once fought for its possession. Those whose lands included stands of it were considered wealthy and insured against starvation and want.

      Wild rice is easy to prepare: it needs only to be washed, to have boiling...

    • Pine knots
      (pp. 145-149)

      Pine knots are different from ordinary firewoods. They cannot be compared with birch or aspen or oak, for the time-and-effort cost of gathering them is beyond the realm of common sense and reason. The warmth they give is negligible, but the light effects when they burn have a quality and importance that none of the others can approach. The burning of an old pine knot is a spiritual occasion, and the possession of a goodly supply for winter nights before the fireplace is a joy.

      It was late October when I made my last expedition for knots. I say “expedition”...

    • Beaver Cutting
      (pp. 150-156)

      Just off Listening Point a small aspen had been felled. Though there were no beaver dams nearby, and none of their houses in the bay or toward the river, the tooth marks were fresh and plain. This must have been a lone beaver cruising along the shore with an eye for a succulent bit of food—an old bachelor perhaps, shunned by his tribe and living by himself. The top had been carried into the water, and only part of the trunk had been gnawed.

      This was the sign ofCastor canadensisthat men had followed for three hundred years....

    • Smoky Gold
      (pp. 157-160)

      The leaves are gone from the hillsides, and the glory of the red maple and yellow aspen and birch is strewn upon the ground. Only in the protected swamps is there any color, the smoky gold of the tamaracks. A week ago those trees were yellow, but now they are dusty and tarnished. These are days of quietly falling needles when, after each breath of wind, the air is smoky with their drift.

      I walked into a muskeg where they grew, a muskeg bedded deep with sphagnum and heather and where the ground trembled beneath me. Each tree showered me...

    • Caribou
      (pp. 161-170)

      I had climbed to the top of a low mound in the caribou country over a hundred miles northwest of Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay. On the barren lands that morning was the feel of being above timber line, so fresh and clean was the air, so sparkling the sunlight. But here there were no peaks, no background of snowy ranges, only endlessly rolling ridges with scattered clumps of gnarled spruce between them. This is where the vast unbroken tundra of the north meets the jagged tree line known as the taiga. As far as I could see was the...

    • Hunter’s Moon
      (pp. 171-178)

      When the hunter’s moon of October emerges from the dusk, when it is huge and orange over the horizon, I am full of a strange excitement, filled with unrest and the urge to range valleys and climb mountains. I need vistas from high places, to see the silver of roaring rapids and sparkling lakes, to be part of the moon-drenched landscape and its continental sweep.

      All life is changed then. Dogs howl madly when it comes into view and wolves make the hills resound with their wild music. Fish feed and throw themselves out of the water in sheer exuberance....

    • Scrub Oak
      (pp. 179-184)

      Elizabeth and I brought the maples into the yard so that we could enjoy for a few short autumn days the brilliant reds and yellows of their coloring, reminding us of the flaming pageantry of the entire north whenever we looked their way, the poetry of shorelines and protected bays, the magic of a lone and vivid splash of red against a whole hillside of somber green. We wanted them to remind us of the portages of October and old logging roads carpeted with their fallen leaves. The maples are finished swiftly, and when their sudden ecstasy is over they...

  8. Winter
    • Coming of the Snow
      (pp. 187-191)

      The earth is rigid, the waterways are hard and blue. Aspen and birch are bare traceries against the sky, spruce and pine dark masses against the mauve of the hills. Hollows are deep in leaves. They are damp, and smell of wetness and the beginning of mold. There is a sense of expectancy, a waiting and a breathlessness. The rustling sounds are gone, the scurryings and small, dry movements of fall. There is a hush, a deep and quiet breathing after the hurried and colored violence of the months just gone. Birds are moving and squirrels storing the last of...

    • Northern Lights
      (pp. 192-195)

      The lights of the aurora moved and shifted over the horizon. Sometimes there were shafts of yellow tinged with green, then masses of evanescence that moved from east to west and back again. Great streamers of bluish white zigzagged like a tremendous trembling curtain from one end of the sky to the other. Streaks of yellow and orange and red shimmered along the flowing borders. Never for a moment were they still, fading until they were almost completely gone, only to dance forth again in renewed splendor with infinite combinations and startling patterns of design.

      Fall Lake lay like a...

    • Timber Wolves
      (pp. 196-201)

      I could hear them plainly now on both sides of the river, could hear the brush crack as they hurdled windfalls in their path. Once I thought I saw one, a drifting gray shadow against the snow, but it was only a branch swaying in the light of the moon. When I heard the full-throated bawling howl, I should have had chills racing up and down my spine. Instead, I was thrilled to know that the big grays might have picked up my trail and were following me down the frozen highway of the river.

      It was a beautiful night...

    • The River
      (pp. 202-208)

      I took the trail to the river because I wanted to see open water again after nothing but solid ice on the lakes, brittle frozen brush, and snow that felt like sand. I wanted to see something moving and alive and listen to the gurgle of water as it rippled its way around the rocks of some place that had never quite closed. I knew of such a place, where in the summertime a rapids whitened the blue of the South Kawishiwi.

      The snow was unbroken, and the jackpines were so heavily laden that their branches touched the ground. Not...

    • Dark House
      (pp. 209-214)

      It was just ten years ago that my son Bob came home to catch the feeling of the Minnesota-Ontario border country in midwinter. He wanted, above all, to sit in a “dark house” with me again and watch the circling decoy and the scene below the ice. He wanted time to think long thoughts and hear the whispering of the snow outside the thin, tarpaper walls. He wanted the good feeling he used to know at night after a long day on skis, and perhaps the taste of a fish fresh from the icy waters of the lakes of the...

    • The Spawning
      (pp. 215-220)

      It was February and the mercury was below zero. A woodsman friend and I took off from the cabin when the moon was high and the surface of the lake glittering in its shine. The snow was firm, and the skis hissed as we pushed along. We did not stop to look at the moon or the stars, but were conscious only of the fact we were moving through a brittle icy brightness, that the stars were close, almost near enough to touch. It was one of those winter nights in the north, one of those times close to midnight...

    • Trapper’s Cabin
      (pp. 221-224)

      The cabin on Snowbank Lake was primitive; the unpeeled logs were chinked with moss; there was no floor and only one small window. The little shelter faded into the tall, black spruces around it as if it had always been there. It smelled of balsam, for in one corner was a bunk full of the resinous tips and on the packed-dirt floor needles were the pattern.

      The cabin had not been built for summer comfort or view. It had no real-estate value. It had one purpose only: to provide comfort at the end of a long day on the trap...

    • Wilderness Music
      (pp. 225-229)

      One night I followed a ski trail into the Lucky Boy Valley. It was dark and still, and the pines and spruces there almost met overhead. During the day it had snowed, and the festooned trees were vague, massed drifts against the stars. Breathless after my run, I stopped to rest and listen. In that snow-cushioned place there was no sound, no wind moaning in the branches, no life or movement of any kind. Leaning on my sticks, I thought of Jack Linklater, a Scotch-Cree of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In such a place he would have heard the music,...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 230-234)

    Over a hundred years ago Henry David Thoreau made a strange and prophetic statement: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He said this while living in his cabin at Walden near the rural village of Concord, at a time when the North American continent was comparatively unsettled and the west still largely unknown.

    The Space Age of today is a far cry from the elemental world he knew, and he could not have dreamed what was coming. But he was a reader of signs, had listened to the Pipes of Pan, and had watched what was happening to...

  10. Map Section
    (pp. 235-242)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-243)