Sig Olson: The Bourgeois and his Voyageurs
By DR. OMOND SOLANDT
Sigurd Olson is rightly regarded as one of the world's most distinguished and articulate champions of the wilderness in his generation and has joined the small company of the greatest in history. During his lifetime and since, he has received a great many awards and distinctions. But of all these possibly the one that he cherished most highly was the title of Bourgeois that was enthusiastically bestowed on him by the small company of canoeists that he described so vividly in his classic "The Lonely Land". Because they had set out to re-trace the old Fur Trade routes they came to call themselves "the Voyageurs", so it was natural for them to have a Bourgeois.
The Bourgeois of the fur trade was by no means a working canoeist. He was a bureaucrat who went along to look after the general direction of the trip. He rode in splendour in the centre of one of the canoes, slept in a tent and was catered to in every way. Sig was not that kind of Bourgeois. He was not only the active leader of the group, but was also the cook and did his share of all the work. From The Lonely Land onward Sig's writings frequently showed how comfortable he felt in his role and how often he played it.
The Kid and The Voyageurs. This wonderful photo was taken along the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan in 1955. This small boy chats with the six men from far off who came to paddle this then-remote river. The trip story was told in Sig Olson's book The Lonely Land. Photo copyright (c) Pamela Morse. Click on the photo for a larger-size image.
The Voyageurs were a very amorphous or even non-organization. They began in Ottawa as a plan of Eric Morse to take in a few foreign diplomats on a short canoe trip to show them some important aspects of Canadian life that they wold never encounter in the course of their normal duties. That first trip was down the Gatineau River and adjoining lakes near Ottawa. The route was not too tough but the trip was made quite demanding by Eric's eccentric insistence that we get close to the wilderness by rejecting the sybaritic delights of tents, air mattresses and sleeping bags. It would not have been surprising if the novices has unanimously said "never again". In fact all but one were bitten by the wilderness canoeing bug and never recovered. Eric was already an addict and for Tony, Blair and myself canoeing became a central fact of our lives from then on.
On the second trip four of us (Eric Morse, Tony Lovink, Elliot Rodger and Omond Solandt) set out to go around Hunter's Island in Quetico Park. Eric had been in touch with Sig by mail in planning the trip but none of us had ever met him. He agreed to meet us at the Horse Portage, a trek of more than a mile into Basswood Lake where a launch would take us to the home of F.B. (Brookes) Hubachek where we had been invited to stay for a couple of days to rest, wash, eat and talk. Our first meeting with Sig was very auspicious. We arrived at the portage landing after a tough day paddling in rain against a headwind and were not looking forward to walking a mile uphill with canoes and packs. Sig and Joe Kerntz, a very experienced local guide who was Brookes' manager awaited us. After a warm but brief welcome they shouldered our two canoes and set off at a brisk pace. When we got to the end of the portage we found Hub's Tub, a commodious work boat, waiting to whisk us down Basswood Lake to Brookes' establishment while we drank cold beer. When we arrived we had showers and then a huge dinner of steak and apple pie followed by a sauna and bed. No wonder we thought well of Sig, Brookes, Joe and all their friends!
We all instantly felt that Sig was a kindred spirit whom we would like to get to know better. From this wonderful beginning grew an attachment that meant a great deal in the lives of all concerned. Only Sig became a Voyageur. Brookes had been an avid canoeists in his youth but had been forced by a heart attack to give it up. Both Brookes and Joe participated actively, if vicariously, in out trips. They not only supplied the base for our trips in Quetico but also helped with the planning and outfitting.
At Basswood we also met Elizabeth Olson for the first time and began to appreciate the wonderful way she teamed up with Sig. She soon became a firm friend of each Voyageur and before long, of their wives and children. The Voyageurs trips were always for men only but after our more venturesome efforts in the north we began to return to Quetico to take our children out to expose them to the canoeing virus. Elizabeth was a pillar of strength in all these ventures and went along with Sig on at least one trip with the Lovink family. Quite often wives and small children stayed with her at the Olson's welcoming home in Ely while the rest canoed. So we all came to love Elizabeth both for herself and as the other half of our beloved Bourgeois.
Looking back on our first two trips we all realized that we lacked a leader who could make decisions when the need arose in a way that would be cheerfully accepted as final by all. There are many such decisions on a canoe trip and some can be life and death affairs, especially in the real wilderness where help may be many days away. They include the obvious ones about whether or not to cross a stormy lake, or shoot or not to shoot a dangerous looking rapid, when to stop and where to camp. In a group such as ours everyone joined in the discussion of these vital questions but someone had to make the final decision. There was never any question of Sig's role in all this. We just looked to him to make the final choices. When the discussion was over we always accepted Sig's decision without questions and rarely had afterthoughts. Sig's pronouncements were usually made in the form of a 'ukase' - not really a fur trade term. In making a ukase he often accepted the recommendation of whichever one of us specialized in a particular field. For example, he often took my advice on how the nightly rum rations should be prepared and sometimes regretted listening to me!
Sig was a wise and experienced leader expert in canoeing, campcraft and the psychology of keeping a small group cheerful, especially when the going got rough. A real sense of fun was one of his most useful tools. Sig was also an old-style naturalist. Throughout his years of teaching and of wilderness travel he had accumulated a vast store of knowledge about trees and flowers, animals and birds, rocks and terrain and wind and weather which he was always willing to share with us.
In looking back on our trips together I realize that part of the magic of his leadership was a gift for encouraging each Voyageur to do his thing and to defer to him in his chosen area. For example Sig did not monopolize the role of naturalist. Eric knew more than Sig about flowers and history and Elliot was an expert on birds, especially waterfowl and was also greatly interested in animal tracks. He had a habit of wandering off after the work was done to scout the neighbourhood and often came back with antlers or other trophies of the chase. He was also unmatched as an assistant to the cook. I established a modest reputation of keeping track of where we were. Once, after the cocktail hour, Sig decided that he would honour me by appointing me cartographer to the expedition. He had trouble finding the right word and finally decided that the closest he could come was pornographer. So from then on map reading became pornography! Tony shared a tent with Sig and was responsible for pitching it while Sig cooked. Tony was also the uncontested champion pot washer. He was proud of this skill and loved to show his blackened callouses at diplomatic cocktail parties. Blair and Tony shared the honours as fish suppliers to the party and never let us down. Blair and Denis shared the task of diarist in the early trips. Several of Denis' diaries were published in daily installments in the Ottawa Journal and made us local celebrities overnight. Denis was also the powerful and dependable motive power for a high speed front drive, rear steer canoe. Modesty forbids that I mention the name of the skillful steersman! While there was much work to be dome everyone kept going and when their job was finished help someone else.
On the earlier trips Sig brought along a small collection of memorable clippings from which he read for a few minutes around the fire after the dishes were done and we were all in a contemplative mood. Most of them dealt with wilderness and many had a religious flavour. He loved a quotation from my Mother that I had given him. "I often feel the need to go camping in the woods. It irons the wrinkles out of my soul." Later, when we were retracing the fur trade routes, Eric who was a historian, would put together excerpts from the writings of early travellers in the area so that each night he could read us their comments on the parts we had just been over or would do the next day. With very few exceptions the only dams we encountered we made by beaver so rapids and portages were little changed in the 150 to 200 years since most of the writers had come that way. We called these sessions Uncle Eric's Fireside Hour. Sig reveled in them and loved to imagine how the early travellers had coped with the hazards that we encountered. We never really thought of them as explorers because they were always in territory that was well travelled by the resident natives. In some cases these early "explorers" had the good sense to send an advance party to build cabins for them to facilitate their later "exploration".
Sig insisted on being the cook and he was better than good but not quite "cordon bleu". Elliot was his assistant so Sig was not overworked. On our early trips with Sig we let him make out our grub list. He was never much interested in food so it tended to be uninspired. We gradually livened it up - first with snacks and drinks for a cocktail hour when we relaxed after the tents were up and dinner was cooking. Next came steaks and red wine for the first night out. Naturally all the drinks were carefully selected by Tony from his well-stocked ambassadorial cellar. Volumes were always, well almost always, firmly limited by the hard-hearted bartender. I was also able to add some excellent dehydrated food especially meat that was being made experimentally for the Canadian Army. Sig readily accepted these additions but was always against planning menus more than one meal ahead. Modern campers who bag each meal for each person separately are horrified by such lack of preparation. They occasionally carry more weight and always have less fun. Excellent fishing on our trips added both class and flexibility to our menus and provided the 'raw' material for many tall stories. Sig's pan-fried pickerel (walleye) fillets and his pike fish cakes were enough to make any gourmet's mouth water. Lake trout and arctic grayling added to the variety. Sig vowed that he had never run out of food on any trip. We gradually found out why. His policy was to use the best first and place no limits on quantities. he had observed that the huge appetites of the first few days did not last long. But even with the fish we, as consumers, began to notice that the meals which had been simply magnificent gradually became less interesting until they were finally, in a few cases, downright unappetizing. We then discovered that the rock bottom supplies that he always carried were a big chunk of sow belly (salt pork) and a bag of dried beans. We were never quite reduced to eating them but we were sure they would have lasted a long time.
In the magnificent introduction to the first book in this series, Sig's son Bob commented on Sig's delight in acting a part. He had the sort of vanity that demanded that when he played a role he must completely look and act it in every detail. Since it was obviously not just conceit but a real desire to do the thing properly, it was one of his most endearing characteristics. It showed most obviously in his reluctance to be photographed unless he had the right hat on at the right angle.
Our trip down the Hayes River to York Factory was more than usually eventful. The water was very low and we had more and longer portages than we expected. One day two of the voyageurs got restless and went on ahead. They had a spill and lost all our cooking gear. In addition it was cold and wet and we all became a bit dispirited. Sig and Tony being the oldest and probably the most industrious in the crew began to feel tired. Sig stumbled and fell on one of the last portages. He was too tired to save himself and knocked out a front tooth. We fortunately found the tooth and Sig took it along. At that time there was no one living at York Factory and our chartered plane was waiting to take us to Churchill, about an hour's flight north. The Army had just left Churchill and had vacated their various buildings. Other government agencies had moved in and kept the Officer's Mess in operation. I had written to say we were coming and they had offered to have their monthly Guest Night on the day we arrived and to have us as their honoured guests. When Sig saw himself in the mirror he flatly refused to appear at such a public function. Nothing would cheer him up. Not even the assurance that there would be many gorgeous girls got through to him. Then our host said that the Army dentist was still around and could see Sig at once. They immediately discovered that the offending tooth was a false one on a pin and could be repaired and replaced. After the rest of us had started drinking, Sig made a grand entrance smiling with all his teeth and dressed as a Bourgeois should be. He took the whole party by storm.
Another of Sig's Bourgeois acts had a less happy but funny ending, On the last day of a trip from Reindeer Lake we had come down the Fond du Lac River to Stony Lake. There was a very long portage from Black Lake to the village of Stony Rapids but there was a truck road along it. We camped on Black Lake for our last night before our ceremonial entrance in the town of Stony Rapids and our flight home the next day. The Hudson's Bay Factor came to see us at Black Lake and offered us a ride into town with all our gear. We naturally spurned such a sybaritic suggestion but did accept his offer to take one canoe and all our extra gear into town so that the next morning we could shoot the Stony Rapid and arrive in town in style; three in each of our two remaining canoes.
In the morning Sig dressed the part with care, we made him comfortable in the centre of the first canoe and away we went with the whole of the population of the village watching from the shore. All went as planned except that the leading canoe shipped a great deal of water and when Sig stepped ashore to receive the plaudits of the populace he was soaking wet from the waist down.
As this take has unfolded the reader will have gathered that his Voyageurs had almost complete faith in him as their Bourgeois. However there were a few exception. On this occasion the astute observer would have seen that Sig got no sympathy for the wet bottom. His Voyageurs were almost starving because he had given all our remaining food to a hungry Indian the previous night. We were not cheered by hearing from the Hudson's Bay manager that the locals in Stony Rapids watch with admiration as this hungry native cons each passing canoe party out of more food than they can comfortably spare. Another example that our idol had touches of clay in his feet occurred in Quetico. Sig was in country that he vowed was familiar to him so he took over the task of guiding us to a wonderful campsite he knew. After far too much paddling we realized that we were lost. Sig stoutly denied this charge and assured us that he was just searching for his Grandmother's grave which he yearned to revisit! Such slips were rare and only serve to further endear him to us.
Sig will be long remembered by a worldwide public for his books and by many who encountered him personally during his lifetime of work to protect the wilderness. We who were his Voyageurs remember him as our own Bourgeois, always wise and helpful with a never-failing sense of humour. We regard our friendship with him as one of the most important elements in our generally eventful lives. We like to think that he was proud and happy to be our revered Bourgeois.