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This Northern Nonsense:

Ernest Oberholtzer and Mallard Island

by Stephen Wilbers

Now available from Red Dragonfly Press and lulu.com.

Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to
The Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation.




To Joe Paddock, Jean Replinger, and Beth Waterhouse, with thanks for introducing me to Mallard Island


To Ernest Oberholtzer, who cherished the natural world and felt a special kinship with its native inhabitants

And to my readers, whether you already know Ober’s story or are curious to learn about this remarkable person, a gentle man who was, and is, loved by many (including some, like me, who never met him)

Ober cherished the natural world and felt a special kinship with its native inhabitants. A little man possessed of the courage to defeat an industrial giant, he devoted a major portion of his life to protecting the U.S.-Canadian boundary waters region, the Rainy Lake watershed, a place of "unsurpassed beauty," from those who would plunder and transform it.

Who was Ernest Oberholtzer?

Ernest Oberholtzer

When Ernest Oberholtzer was 17, he suffered a severe bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. His doctors told him he wouldn’t survive the year. On June 6, 1977, his damaged heart gave out and he died at the age of 93.


Ober was a man of many passions. He studied the Ojibwe language at a time when our nation’s policy was to suppress native culture and languages among Indian children. He gathered Native American stories and legends. He photographed Indians and wildlife, becoming famous for his photographs of moose. He played classical violin, collected books, and entertained friends by the dozen on his small Rainy Lake island. Though he never married, women were drawn to him, and one in particular fell deeply in love with him.


Perhaps his greatest passion was his love of wilderness. He devoted a major portion of his life to protecting the U.S.-Canadian boundary waters region, a place of “unsurpassed beauty,” an area he considered “one of the rarest of all regions of the continent, if not the world.”

He knew the Minnesota-Ontario lakes region well. In 1907, when he was 23, he went on the first of his many canoe trips. Five years later, he paddled with Ojibwe trapper and guide Billy Magee across the Canadian Barrens to Hudson Bay and back, completing the two-thousand-mile, four-month exploration in freezing temperatures and blowing snow just before the onset of the sub-Arctic winter. A little man possessed of the courage to defeat an industrial giant, he fought to protect the Rainy Lake watershed from those who would plunder and transform it. He spearheaded the 1930 defeat of a plan to build seven dams to convert the boundary waters lakes into a four great storage basins for the production of industrial hydroelectric power.

For fifty years Ober made Mallard Island his home. Only eleven hundred feet in length and without running water, the island contains seven buildings whose construction was designed and supervised by Ober, two permanently grounded boats, two pianos, and more than twelve thousand books, all carefully selected and many mail-ordered by Ober. The buildings, some sided in cedar bark, rise from their stone footings and blend harmoniously with the surrounding birch, pine, and fir. One structure is a kitchen boat; another is reputed to have been a floating whorehouse. On the east point, Front House looks to the horizon across an open expanse of Rainy Lake’s some three hundred and thirty square miles. On the west point, Japanese House, with its screened decks, overlooks a bay cloistered by granite outcroppings and coniferous forest. To the north and south, narrow channels separate Mallard from a cluster of sheltering islands. Louise Erdrich describes the island as “the kind of place that inspires a certain energy . . . a combination of erudition, conservationism, nativism, and exuberant eccentricity.”

More than anything Ober wanted to write. An avid reader and accomplished writer, he wrote dozens of articles, thousands of letters to friends, and thousands more in support of his plan for wilderness preservation, but he never achieved his lifelong ambition. He never wrote a book about his canoe trips with Billy Magee, and he never wrote a book about Native American legends – books that would justify his Harvard-educated Northwoods existence, books whose royalties, he hoped, would solve his lifelong financial problems. This failure haunted him as the great frustration and disappointment of his life.

In his final years Ober was robbed of his ability to speak by a series of minor strokes. But as reported by Joe Paddock in Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer, he still had good days. One day, the late Ted Hall, a former correspondent and deputy New York bureau chief for Time-Life and publisher of the Rainy Lake Chronicle, was pushing Ober in his wheelchair down a sidewalk in International Falls. According to Hall, "The whole morning there hadn’t been a word you could understand. He just communicated by signs. And as we were crossing the street, an Indian woman called out to him and started a conversation." Not until Ober’s friend had gone did Hall realize that, in Ojibwe, Ober had been "completely, absolutely articulate." After the conversation Ober once again "couldn’t get a word out."

I am fascinated by the mystery of language and how it becomes a part of us. How is it that words become so deeply ingrained in our brains, and in our hearts, that if one path is blocked, another opens?

With these eighteen poems, selected from a sequence of fifty-two, I hope to get some of those words out, words not only from Ober, but also from me, a kindred spirit who has canoed the boundary waters region with his father, family, and friends for more than thirty years, a tree-hugging wilderness lover whose enthusiasm for language and life knows no boundaries.

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