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Boundary Waters
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Jane Vessels

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Singing Wilderness

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Text and photographs by Jim Brandenburg

Next stop in the American Landscape series: the beguiling wilds of northern Minnesota.

A "singing wilderness" is what naturalist Sigurd Olson found when he wandered the Boundary Waters region, the expanse of forest and lakes embracing the Minnesota-Ontario border. Here was a land quiet enough that he could hear the natural world speak, a place that offered the renewing moments of peace "when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses." Its a song of silence he felt were all listening for, whether we know it or not, the way "sick animals look for healing herbs."

Before Sig died, old and wise, in 1982, I was fortunate to spend time with him walking these woods and canoeing these lakes. It's in no small part because of Sig that more than a million acres of Superior National Forest were given greater protection in 1978 as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He'd been fighting since the 1920s to keep it free of roads, dams, airplanes, and—in the most pitched battle—boat motors. For his intractable stance on that issue, Sig was hanged in effigy in his town of Ely. Canoe versus motor still churns today, and in the interest of ensuring domestic tranquillity, motors are allowed on a few of the wilderness area's lakes.

I live 20 miles (30 kilometers) east of Ely, my land surrounded by the national forest and brushing against the wilderness area. There isn't a month when it hasn't, in one year or another, snowed. I love the purifying snows of winter. Then spring comes creeping, and thousands of island-dotted lakes begin to absorb their thick skins of ice, and there's a transformation so intense that I have the impression of traveling a long distance, without leaving home. Seemingly overnight, it's summer. The explosion of summer in this latitude begs to be inspected every day, or events will be missed.

So I decided to photograph every day of it. From June's summer solstice, when the light stretches from 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., to September's autumnal equinox—93 days I sought it out, taking in all that a day delivered. I traveled from Uncle Judd's Creek, which tumbles into a waterfall just outside my window, up into the lakes of Canada's Quetico. The gift of a misty July morning was a great blue heron crowning a black spruce. Yes, there were days wretched with black flies and mosquitoes, but those mosquitoes pollinate our glorious orchids, and I'm sure the flies have a higher calling too.

Sig Olson understood that "without stillness there can be no knowing." Once you've experienced the singing wilderness—here or wherever the natural world reigns, you can carry it with you to the noisiest city. As Sig wrote in my copy of one of his books: "May you be somewhere where the singing can be heard."

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Online Extra

Discover a "singing wilderness" of forest, lakes, and wildlife with these helpful travel tips.


A fleeting thunderstorm and an elusive hare bring the natural wonder of the Boundary Waters region to your desktop this month.


Scroll through the fabulous images published in the print magazine.


A Canada goose preparing for sleep makes a serene e-greeting.

Final Edit

Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of a Canada goose at dusk.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
"City life is artificial. Because artificiality leads to a sense of unreality and frustration, unhappiness often results. That is the price a people pays for high technological success, and that is the reason an intelligent, thinking people knows that unless it can break away and renew its contact with a slow-moving natural philosophy, it will lose its perspective and forget simplicity and wholesomeness."

These are words naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote in a 1946 issue of National Parks Magazine.  Olson lived in Ely, Minnesota, near today's serene Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). When he spent time alone in the woods, Olson experienced what he called "flashes of insight" that gave him a sense of enlightenment. He believed wilderness provided an essential altar for spiritual reflection even in the modern world, and he fought difficult political battles to keep the BWCAW safe from noise pollution. As a result of his passionate efforts, over 200 bird species—such as bald eagles, ravens, three-toed woodpeckers, loons, great gray owls—still thrive in the Border Lakes region between Minnesota and Canada today. 

But Olson didn't stop his activism there. After he helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the U.S. wilderness preservation system, he played key roles in establishing Alaska's geologically rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, California's Point Reyes National Seashore, and Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park.

Olson received top honors for his conservation work from the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Izaac Walton League, and the National Wildlife Federation. But perhaps his greatest honor was the personal satisfaction of knowing that places still exist where people can hear songs of silence and reflect on the natural world. As Olson wrote in 1938, "In some men, the need of unbroken country . . . is a deeply rooted cancer gnawing forever at the illusion of contentment with things as they are. . . . Perhaps it is the passing of a flock of wild geese in the spring, perhaps the sound of running water, or the smell of thawing earth that brings the transformation. Whatever it is, the need is more than can be borne with fortitude, and for the good of their families and friends, and their own particular restless souls, they head toward the last frontiers and escape."

—Christy Ullrich

* * * * * *

Quetico Provincial Park is the Canadian component of the Boundary Waters region, a 1.2-million-acre (400,000 hectares) wilderness in Ontario first set aside in 1909 to protect its moose population. Quetico: a beautiful name for a beautiful place. But what the name means is something of a mystery.

Local lore has it as an acronym of the Quebec Timber Company, which is said to have donated this land to the government. "That's an urban legend," says Robin Reilly, the park's superintendent. "There has never been a Quebec Timber Company." (There's some indication that a firm by that name was incorporated in 1882, but Ontario created the park from its own land.)

When travel writer Rory MacLean immersed himself in the Quetico, he uncovered an explanation that it could be a mangling of the French quête de la côte—search for the coast. (The region did have beaucoup French fur traders.) But like most people, he leans toward the notion that Quetico comes from a very old Ojibwa name for a benevolent spirit who resides in places of great beauty. 

I've chosen not to be discouraged by the fact that no Ojibwa elders or linguists have confirmed this. And even though park superintendent Reilly suggests that "trying to figure out the meaning of 'Quetico' is like asking 'What is Jehovah?' "—well, that's just the sort of question people go to places like the Boundary Waters to ask.

—Jane Vessels

Did You Know?

Related Links
Jim Brandenburg's Official Web Site
The ordinary becomes extraordinary through the camera lens of one of the world's premier nature photographers, Jim Brandenburg. Visit his website to see more of his photography from around the world.

The Trust for Public Land
Visit this site for more information about land conservation from the national organization that helped Jim Brandenburg protect the land featured in his photographs.

Sigurd Olson Website
Biographer David Backes provides information about Sigurd Olson on this website that offers a rich history of Olson's life and his many environmental contributions.

Minnesota Lake Finder
The Lake Finder contains data for more than 4,500 lakes and rivers throughout Minnesota, including lake surveys, depth maps, water-quality data, and information on fish consumption.

Friends of the Boundary Waters
This foundation works primarily to educate the public about the importance of protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Quetico-Superior Ecosystem.

Quetico Foundation
The Quetico Foundation is dedicated to the protection of wilderness class parks, particularly Quetico Park, in Ontario, Canada. The foundation was formed as part of the joint American-Canadian effort to protect the unique wilderness areas in the borderlands west of Lake Superior.


Brandenburg, Jim. Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journey.  NorthWood Press, Inc., 1998.

Erdrich, Louise. Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Heinrich, Bernd. Ravens in Winter. Summit Books, 1989.

Klein, Tom. Border Country: The Quetico-Superior Wilderness. NorthWood Press, Inc., 1988.

Kogod, Charles, ed. Heart of a Nation. National Geographic Society, 2000.

Madge, Steve, and Hilary Burn. Crows and Jays. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Olson, Sigurd F. The Singing Wilderness. Alfred Knopf, 1967.


NGS Resources
Steger, Will. "Boundary Waters," National Geographic Adventure (October 1999), 124-25.

Bowermaster, Jon. "The Iceman turns to water," National Geographic Adventure (Fall 1999), 130-33, 154.

"Paddles or Propellers?" National Geographic (May 1998), Earth Almanac.


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