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Minnesota conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer worked to protect the Boundary Waters

photo of ernest oberholtzer
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Ernest Oberholtzer, 1940.
Ernest Oberholtzer first paddled the lakes of the Rainy Lake watershed in 1909. Starting in the 1920s, he lived on Rainy Lake’s Mallard Island and was a prominent conservationist. He led the campaign for legislation to protect the watershed, including parts of what would become Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer was born in February of 1884 in Davenport, Iowa. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and he was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in an upper middle-class home in Davenport.

As a child, Oberholtzer was interested in the outdoors, reading, and playing the violin. He began playing violin at eleven and continued to play throughout his life. At seventeen, Oberholtzer contracted rheumatic fever, which left him with a weakened heart for many years. The condition shaped how he approached his future, embracing physical endeavors and nature as healthy and restorative.

In the fall of 1903, Oberholtzer began college at Harvard. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1907 but could not decide what to do next. As a result, he spent the next few years alternating between trips to Europe and canoe trips into the Minnesotan and Canadian wilderness.


In the summer of 1909, Oberholtzer had his so-called “3,000-mile summer.” His goal was to travel the major canoe routes of the Rainy Lake watershed. With the expert help of an Ojibwe man named Dedaabaswewidang (He Who Echoes Far Off, also known as Billy Magee), Oberholtzer did just that. As a result, Oberholtzer became an authority on the Quetico-Superior region.

In 1912, Oberholtzer and Magee went on a second major canoe trip, this time to northern Canada and the subarctic Barrens. The two men canoed 2,000 miles through northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories on their way to Hudson’s Bay. The area was home to a variety of Indigenous peoples, including Ojibwe, Cree, Dene, and Inuit groups, but the route was not well known to whites.

Like many white people at the time, Oberholtzer believed (incorrectly) that Indigenous people were disappearing just as the wilderness was disappearing. This led him to try to be an amateur anthropologist and collect the stories of Ojibwe people. After his 1912 trip, he returned to Rainy Lake to undertake this work. Although unable to make a living as an anthropologist, he continued to learn from the Ojibwe people living in the Rainy Lake area throughout his life.

In 1915, Oberholtzer became part of a business venture in the Rainy Lake area called Deer Island, Incorporated. The business sought to raise crops and wild animals and provide campgrounds and guiding services to tourists. It lasted only seven years. When it dissolved in 1922, Oberholtzer became owner of some of the Rainy Lake islands the business had owned. One of these, called Mallard Island, was where, over the next three decades, Oberholtzer would construct a series of cabins for himself, his mother, and guests.

Despite having close Platonic relationships with men and women, Oberholtzer never married. When asked why, he reportedly replied that he was “born in the wilderness” and preferred to be self-sufficient. Some historians believe that, if he were alive today, he might identify somewhere on the spectrum of queer identities—as possibly gay, bisexual, or asexual.

Mallard Island and the Rainy Lake Watershed were threatened in 1925, when lumber baron Edward Wellington Backus proposed building seven new dams at the western end of the lake. If built, the dams would have raised the water level, flooding Mallard Island and much of the watershed shoreline.

Oberholtzer and others formed the Quetico–Superior Council to oppose the dams. Oberholtzer was named president of the council and lobbied the federal government to protect the watershed. Many individuals lent their support, including Sewell Tyng, a fellow Harvard graduate, and Frances Andrews. Fellow conservationist Sigurd Olson also aided the effort. After several years of difficult work, Herbert Hoover signed the Shipstead–Nolan Act into law in 1930. The act prevented logging and the alteration of lake levels on federal land in the Rainy Lake watershed. This law effectively stopped Backus from building his dams.

Oberholtzer continued to live on or near Mallard Island until 1973, when he entered a nursing home. In the latter years of his life, parts of the watershed became well-known Minnesota Wilderness areas. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was created in 1964, and Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975. In 1977, Oberholtzer died at the age of ninety-three. Mallard Island and many of Oberholtzer’s possessions are preserved by the Oberholtzer Foundation.


For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/18/2019 - 08:29 pm.

    The spirit of Oberholtzer lives on today in those oppose mining. Is there a high school named after him anywhere up there. I would suggest that should be the case. As a matter of fact I wonder if his work and others who birthed the BWCA is taught at the local high schools.

  2. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 11/18/2019 - 10:37 pm.

    Thanks for this. We have so much to learn from those who went before us, leaving as their legacy the integrity and beauty of this land.

  3. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/19/2019 - 08:49 am.

    One of my heroes. I have canoed many of the same routes. I am deeply grateful for his legacy, and fight to protect it.

  4. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 11/19/2019 - 09:58 am.

    Joe Paddock’s biography of Ober is a worthwhile read:

    https://queticosuperior.org/blog/book-review-keeper-wild-life-ernest-oberholtzer

  5. Submitted by Beth Waterhouse on 11/20/2019 - 12:02 pm.

    I write as the Executive Director of the legacy organization formed in Ober’s name. Thank you for highlighting a good Minnesota story! Please let me correct a couple of things, just so that the record stays as accurate as possible: Ober only acquired one island after the Deer Island Project, and purchased the surrounding islands in later years. The Foundation now owns and manages four islands in Ober’s legacy. Ober lived on Mallard only until 1957 and then on the mainland (lakeshore at Frank’s Bay) until his nursing home years. And it is also good to mention that Oberholtzer was called upon by five presidents to serve on the President’s Committee for the Quetico Superior. Thanks for the remembrance of an important Minnesota wilderness advocate. /BEW

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