Iconic Ikes: Sigurd Olson

Janette Rosenbaum
Sigurd Olson in 1953 - credit USFWS

Like the Izaak Walton League, Sigurd Ferdinand Olson was born in Chicago. But Olson was born in 1899, and the League’s creation was still two decades away. During those intervening years, “Sig” Olson grew up in northern Wisconsin, exploring the outdoors and developing a life-long love of nature.

In June 1921, Olson’s first canoe trip brought him to the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota. In August he returned with his wife for their honeymoon. By 1923, he had moved to the region. He became a guide—and met some of the first Ikes.

League founder Will Dilg and a group of early members had come to see the wilderness. Olson showed them how fast it was already disappearing, the forests falling to unsustainable logging. Dilg vowed the League would take action.

Sigurd Olson's tireless conservation work left a formidable legacy across the nation.

It was the beginning of a decades-long partnership. Olson became the League’s wilderness ecologist. He also wrote frequently for Outdoor America, carrying on the magazine’s tradition of quality that Emerson Hough had set the bar for in the first issue. While working for the League, Olson also published 10 books and won the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing.

In collaboration with other iconic Ikes like Joe Penfold, Olson was a key champion for the Wilderness Act. That 1964 law, a landmark conservation achievement, now protects more than 800 wilderness areas covering 111 million acres.

Olson also helped achieve the original protection in 1960 of what would be called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (read more from Outdoor America 2021 Issue 1), creation of California’s Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 and the establishment of Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park in 1975.

And all along, there was that Minnesota canoe country. By the late 1930s, the region Olson had fallen in love with had gained some protections, but the League knew stronger conservation measures were needed. In January 1950, Olson reported in Outdoor America that President Truman had signed a first-of-its-kind executive order banning flights in and out of the protected zone. The area was finally designated as wilderness—the highest form of land protection—in 1964. In 1978, Congress expanded the protected acreage. Today, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is the most-visited wilderness area in the United States.

Olson stayed involved with the League for the rest of his life. He died of a heart attack while snowshoeing on January 13, 1982—one day before the League’s 60th anniversary.

The Izaak Walton League's first century of conservation success was carried forward by committed heroes working together to defend America's natural resources. During our centennial celebrations, we're sharing their stories. Look for more profiles of iconic Ikes throughout 2022.

Today could be the first day of your own story as an iconic Ike.

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Top photo: Sigurd Olson with a baby deer. Photo credits: USFWS.

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