When Elizabeth Uhrenholdt received her marriage proposal from Sigurd Olson, it came with a caveat: Sigurd wanted her to realize that he would be spending a lot of time outdoors, and that he couldn’t be happy if he had to give that up. She said okay, and soon found out he meant it. Their honeymoon in August 1921 was a three-week canoe trip, and Sigurd had her paddling so long and hard that after two days she got physically ill and had to rest up for a couple of days before she could continue. Later on, Elizabeth became quite frightened on a portage when they saw a sign that said “Wild Man, last seen east just across the portage.”
the wild man
That honeymoon trip is a metaphor for their entire sixty years of marriage. First, Sigurd did spend a lot of time outdoors. That fall, on Elizabeth’s 24th birthday, Sigurd was out deer hunting and returned home hours late. She was worried and hurt, but understood once he told her he had wounded a deer and felt he had to track it until he could put it out of its misery. Nevertheless, his habit of being in the woods every weekend so bothered a neighbor that she said to Elizabeth, “You’ve got to tame that Sig.”
Which leads to the next point of the honeymoon metaphor. That Wild Man on the portage? Elizabeth Olson knew who he was. He was paddling her canoe, and she had married him. No wonder she was frightened!
But it wasn’t the outdoors that made him wild. It wasn’t anything outside at all. It was what was inside. Sigurd was restless, struggling to figure out what he was supposed to do in life, feeling strongly that he had something to contribute to the wider world, and unable to be content until he figured out what it was and did it. Elizabeth didn’t understand that. She was settled, and was quite content with a simple, normal life filled with family and friends.
On their honeymoon, Sigurd soon found out that Elizabeth could not keep up with him. Long before he wanted to stop for the night, she would ask if their campsite was near. To keep her going, he would say that it was just around the next bend. When they got there, he would say they would go a little farther.
bow paddle challenges
In real life, too, Sigurd was in the stern, and Elizabeth in the bow. There were times when—especially in his long, hard struggles to become a writer, with all the frustration and near despair—Elizabeth felt mentally exhausted. Sigurd was paddling long and hard, and she had no idea where they were going or when they would reach their destination. He would tell her that he thought he had found his direction, but then it was just a matter of time before he decided there was another bend to go around.
That was the hard part of it. And for Elizabeth, who once told me that she never truly understood her husband, it was extremely difficult at times. And yet of course it wasn’t always that way. During that first part of their honeymoon, when Sigurd drove her to exhaustion, there were still many moments of beauty and wonder and tenderness. Likewise for the first part of their marriage, despite Sigurd’s inner struggles. For Elizabeth, both the honeymoon and her marriage ultimately became happy memories.
the expert bow paddle
How? She kept paddling. Elizabeth paddled through sun and storm, paddled when the next portage was in plain view and when it was lost in a blue and green maze of water and islands. She paddled when she was happy, and when she was sad or angry. Sigurd was in the stern of their marriage, and Elizabeth was in the bow. It wasn’t just Sigurd’s canoe, it was hers, too, and she more than pulled her share of the load. And over time, as Sigurd came to know his direction and follow it, she grew not only to enjoy being the “bow paddle,” she became an expert at it.
As the bow paddle, Elizabeth provided tremendous stability and common sense to the man in the stern. She would give Sigurd feedback on his writing (not always well-received in the early years), encouraged him when she could, and challenged him when necessary. She made sure Sigurd looked his best, and tried to keep him healthy. And in their dealings with publishers and the public, Elizabeth, bow paddle in hand, excelled at keeping a sharp eye ahead for rocks that she knew Sigurd would never see. His eyes were always on the open horizon. Without Elizabeth, Sigurd would have sunk.
One journey, two indispensable callings
Her personality suited her for the role. Elizabeth was outgoing and made friends easily. She loved to meet new people, and to entertain. Being in the bow, Elizabeth was the first to greet the many visitors who arrived at their door once Sigurd became famous. She would usher them into a three-season paneled porch with a picture window view of red pines and bird feeders, and introduce the guests to her husband. Then she would hurry off to the kitchen for coffee and some of her freshly made lemon cake or sugar cookies.
It didn’t matter if you were a college student dressed in shorts and sandals or a senator or Supreme Court justice with an entourage in suit and tie, Elizabeth Olson was kind and gracious, genuinely interested in getting to know you, and a great listener. Being well-read, she could talk knowledgeably about current affairs and many other topics. She made so many friends as the wife of Sigurd F. Olson—friends young and old, from all walks of life. And she loved it. Loved the journey she had taken with the man in the stern.
In the dozen years that she lived after Sigurd’s death in 1982, the people didn’t stop coming. She continued to make new friends, especially the young people coming up to Ely and dropping by because they had read The Singing Wilderness or Reflections from the North Country or one of the other books Sigurd wrote. In her 80s and even into her 90s, she would still greet them with a smile, invite them in for coffee and cookies, and listen to them talk about their dreams and their struggles. They would leave feeling graced, uplifted.
Elizabeth would encourage them when she could, and challenge them when necessary. She gave common-sense advice, pointing out some of the rocks she knew they might not see. For she knew that most of these young men and women coming to her door were restless, seeking something that might take them a long time to find. She didn’t want them to take their eyes off the horizon. She wanted them to live their dreams, to find their calling and make the difference they were supposed to make.
Elizabeth knew how to nurture them, for she had been doing it for three-quarters of a century. She wasn’t just Mrs. Sigurd F. Olson. She hadn’t been along just for the ride. She was Elizabeth Uhrenholdt Olson, a woman of spirit and grace, wisdom and intelligence—and a world-class bow paddle.
Photo: Elizabeth Olson ca 1937. Sigurd kept it on the wall of his writing shack near his typewriter. Elizabeth told me it was his favorite of her.
This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2009 newsletter of the Listening Point Foundation. I encourage all to support this wonderful organization, which preserves Listening Point and the Olson home / writing shack, and also promotes Sigurd’s philosophy.
This post relates to humility, love and truth and therefore fits in the gold portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.