Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex, Jenny Smith paddles her kayak along the shoreline of the Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex near Brainerd, MN. The Mississippi River is a conservation priority due to its significance for fish and wildlife and its importance to the economy of Minnesota and the United States., 2012, MN, Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex, Natural Lands, Crow Wing, near Brainerd, Mississippi River Northwoods Hab, Forests | Lake | Recreation, Richard Hamilton Smith
©2012 Richard Hamilton Smith

The simple power of listening to nature

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In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, life moves only as fast as you can paddle your boat. Across 17,000 square miles of northern Minnesota, you won’t find a store, a cell phone tower, or even a road—just a vast maze of lakes and forests, a wild wonderland that draws millions of paddlers every year.

Wild was how it was back in Sigurd Olson’s day, and that’s how he wanted it to stay. One of the 20th century’s most influential conservationists, Olson co-authored the 1964 Wilderness Act, had a hand in creating national parks like North Cascades and the Everglades, and wrote nine bestselling books about the importance of spending time in nature. For all his many victories, Olson is perhaps best known for his work to protect the Boundary Waters from logging, mining, and development.

sfo ca 1950.jpgFor all his many victories, Sigurd Olson is perhaps best known for preserving the Boundary Waters and protecting it from logging, mining, and development.Photo credit: Courtesy of the Olson family

Olson’s career as an activist and philosopher had him on the road a lot. As adviser to the Secretary of the Interior, he even had an office in Washington, DC. But he always returned to his home in Ely, Minnesota, a small town on the very edge of the Boundary Waters. There, in a rustic retreat on the shores of Burntside Lake, he found the peace and inspiration to write about how spending time in the wilderness is important for the human spirit. 

Olson called his retreat Listening Point, because “listening was central to his wilderness philosophy,” says Steffi O’Brien. She’s executive director of the Listening Point Foundation, dedicated to carrying Olson’s legacy forward. “Sig had a strong belief in the power of sitting still, slowing down, and finding a place where you can connect with wilderness and contemplate the universe.” Today, the foundation maintains Listening Point as it was in Olson’s day, welcoming hundreds of visitors a year who are inspired by his work.

mn_northwoods_tpltrips_09152006_150.jpgToday, fans of Sigurd Olson's legacy and work can visit his writing shack at Listening Point, preserved as it was in Olson's day.Photo credit: Bill Poole

Olson died in 1982 at age 82. But today, thanks to him and the many people who joined him to speak up for wilderness, the Boundary Waters offer countless places where people can listen and hear nothing but wind in the trees, waves on the shore, and loons calling in the distance. And thanks to Trust for Public Land supporters, And thanks to Trust for Public Land supporters, Listening Point Foundation now has a new way to help people connect with wild places.

This fall, we helped the Listening Point Foundation acquire Gusty Island in Burntside Lake, across a narrow channel from Olson’s Listening Point, and less than a mile from the entrance to the Boundary Waters. Once privately owned and vulnerable to development, the wooded, rocky island is now protected forever with a conservation easement held by the Minnesota Land Trust.

Gusty Island was the last unprotected link in a chain of islands across from Listening Point. In 2004, we helped protect nearby Long Island, and in 2013, we added Gaul Island to the Burntside Islands Scientific and Natural Area.

mn_longisland_08092007_019.jpgGusty Island is the final link in a chain of protect islands that sit offshore from Sig Olson's Listening Point. Photo credit: Darcy Kiefel

In the coming years, the foundation will be developing opportunities for people to explore the wildness and beauty of Gusty Island. “In Sig’s own words, the battle to conserve wilderness goes on unendingly,” says O’Brien. “He believed that one needs a love of the land in order to want to conserve it.”

When you give to The Trust for Public Land by December 3 your tax-deductible donation will be matched $2-$1 to save more places like Gusty Island. If you believe everyone deserves access to a great listening point, join us today.


As a Science Teacher/Environmental Educator, Science/STEM Professional, Wilderness/Environmental Advocate, a frequent visitor of the BWCAW/Superior National Forest, and an "outdoors" Minnesotan, I wholeheartedly agree that we MUST protect the country's most visited wilderness area from all forms of development but especially sulfide ore copper mining!!

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