Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Sigurd Olson; Photo courtesy of the Olson family

Sigurd Olson was one of America’s most beloved nature writers and most influential conservationists of the 20th century. He played an important role in preserving several national parks, seashores and wilderness areas.
© Photo courtesy of the Olson family

April 2015

Celebrating Earth Day heroes every day

Finding inspiration in those who loved the land.

Doug Scott

Finding inspiration in those who loved the land. Walk out into Wisconsin's prairies, fields and woods, so richly diverse and beautiful. You will find wild magic!

Amid such beauty, we stand transfixed.

Nature does that to us; I'd argue that we are born with love for the natural world and its creatures hard–wired. Watch a young child respond to a butterfly, a deer crossing a rural Wisconsin road or the blue chards of a robin's egg.

Sadly, for too many grownups, other things distract. Two income families work so hard that there is no time to play outdoors. Schoolchildren are toiling to pass tests and there is little time or funding left for field trips. Worst, with all our gadgets, we walk snouts down, absorbed and oblivious to the world around us.

Nonetheless, nature has a way of sneaking up on us.

A Wisconsin kid, John Muir, knew this in his bones. Abused by a hard father on a farm in Marquette County, he fled to Madison to study and to invent. Then he was off on his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, rendered vividly in the book. He caught a boat to take him "around the horn" to a wharf in San Francisco, stopping only to be pointed the way to Yosemite, a walk across the wild valley and up into the yellow pines.

"Between any two pine trees," he wrote, "there is a door opening to a better life."

For the next five decades he explored every nook of the High Sierra Trail, climbed every crag, crawled out perilously to the very lip of Yosemite Falls — then on until he got wet and could look down at the rainbow spray.

And then he climbed on to immortality — the most famous Californian. Not Mickey but Muir on postage stamps and the California state quarter. His books have never been out of print; I must put them on hold at my library.

"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer," he instructed us in Our National Parks. "Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

You don't have to go to Yosemite to get into the wild

Follow Muir and climb. Just about any hill in Wisconsin will do, from the hills in Arbor Hills Park to Garner Hill Park. Get their good tidings. Head north to summit Timm's Hill in Price County. Go on to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan.

Geologist and ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft traveled in the far north of what is now Wisconsin in 1820 when he explored the sources of the Mississippi River. He was meeting and studying the lives of the Native American tribes. He came to the colorful cliffs along the south shore of Lake Superior and enthused over, "some of the most sublime and commanding views in nature."

The area features cliffs rising straight up from the lake, stained in hues of red, orange and yellow. Take the National Park Service boat tour where these colorful "pictures" come alive in the rosy light of dawn and sunset.

A leading champion of the wild canoe country was Sigurd Olson, an Ely, Minn. canoe guide and author of The Singing Wilderness. He served as president of the National Parks Association in the 1950s and was pivotal in securing protection of northern lakes from floatplanes bringing wealthy sportsmen to a growing number of remote luxury lodges in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Olson was a gifted nature writer, and of the romance of the canoe, he wrote, "There is balance in the handling of a canoe, the feeling of its being a part of the bodily swing. No matter how big the waves or how the currents swirl, you are riding them as you would ride a horse, at one with its every movement. When the point is reached where the rhythm of each stroke is as poised as the movement of the canoe itself, weariness is forgotten and there is time to watch the sky and the shores without thought of distance or effort. At such a time the canoe glides along obedient to the slightest wish and paddling becomes as unconscious and automatic an effort as breathing. Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves."

Can't get up north? Rent a canoe and paddle out into Lake Mendota in Wisconsin's state capital. And for goodness sake, take the family and some of your kid's friends. Youngsters will open your eyes, for theirs are not yet dulled to the wonders in the nearest park, for them a wilderness is pulsing with life.

Kids love to hear stories about great adventures and to read Robinson Crusoe, The Leatherstocking Tales and Kidnapped. Muir knew wild adventures will change young lives. Nature does that he wrote, "ere we are aware."

A sage in the sand counties

A young man from Iowa knew it, too. He went west to be a forest ranger, suggested the world's first wilderness area, moved to Madison to be a wildlife scientist, bought an old shack up in the Sand Country … and he, too, walked into immortality. Aldo Leopold, forester, fervent hunter, wilderness expert and author of the nature classic, A Sand County Almanac. Get it. Absorb it. Keep it in your backpack.

Leopold also taught us "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

His land ethic did not come from a book, but was distilled from the goose music he heard every autumn and spring at his Wisconsin shack where he worked to restore the prairies of Sauk County.

Leopold wanted us all to know the land and to learn its wisdom.

"When we hear [the crane's] call," he observed, "we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men."

Thus, we need not approach a nature adventure without good guides. Muir to inspire. Leopold to instruct. Sig Olson, too. With my anthology, Wild Thoughts: An Anthology of Selections from Great Writing About Nature and Wilderness and the People Who Protect Them, I hope to contribute a chapter.

On the wild side

These men, gifted with such foresight, continue to alert us to the vital need to protect the land. Muir was the greatest champion of the national parks and Leopold a founder of The Wilderness Society in 1935. From that perch, he was involved in the conception and campaign for enactment of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Applying this law, Congress has protected more than 110 million acres of federal lands across America. That amounts to 5 percent of all the land in our country — four times as much as all the land tied up in our vast interstate highway system.

Wisconsin has seven federal wilderness areas amounting to 80,000 acres. You might like to visit the Headwaters Wilderness in the headwaters of the Pine River and the Giant Pine Grove, where some of the largest and oldest trees of the Nicolet National Forest grow. The quiet waters of Shelp Lake, shadowed by towering pines on the southwest boundary, are worth a peek. Deer hunting, bass fishing, hiking and simple solitude lure people to this sublime area. And you have many wild and scenic rivers from which to choose. Twenty–four miles of the Wolf River were protected under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

In these wild national treasures — and in large areas of state parks, wildlife refuges and shorelines along the Great Lakes — you will find sanctuary from the noise and confusion of our everyday world, the clank of machinery and the growl of motors.

I was fortunate to spend my career working to persuade Congress to protect wilderness areas. And, while still in grad school, I served on the board of the group that initiated the first Earth Day in 1970, working with Wisconsin's great conservation senator, Gaylord Nelson.

Of course, we didn't really organize Earth Day; we just dropped the seed in a pool ready to get serious about reversing air and water pollution, and protecting national trails and endangered species.

So, on Earth Day, pick up a good book, put it in your backpack and take it along on a walk or on a paddle on Wisconsin's wild side. Remember the work and wisdom of those who came before us.


Doug Scott spent more than 40 years working to persuade Congress to protect national parks, wildlife refuges, rivers and wilderness areas across America. He is the author of The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Natural Heritage Through the Wilderness Act and Wild Thoughts: An Anthology of Selections from Great Writing About Nature and Wilderness and the People Who Protect Them. He served with Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson on the national steering committee for the first Earth Day in 1970. Today, Scott serves on the boards of several national wilderness nonprofits and is the principal of Doug Scott Wilderness Consulting. He lives in Seattle, Wash.