Ernest Oberholtzer

The path we’re meant to take may be different than we’d imagined

When Ernest Oberholtzer acquired Mallard Island on Minnesota’s Rainy Lake in 1910, the first building he had built on it was a writer’s cabin. Placed as far out on the western side of the island as possible, it was the place he intended to become the successful writer he believed he could be.

“Ober” set his sights on becoming one of the noted explorers of his age. At a time when exploration and conquest were in the minds of many — particularly young men — Oberholtzer was determined to fashion an expedition worthy of notice. Two years later, he set out from Mallard Island to begin what he would henceforth refer to as “the adventure of a lifetime.”

Ernest Oberholtzer and Billy Magee on their 1912 expedition. (Photo used with permission of the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation.)

What the then twenty-four-year-old Ober had in mind was a 2,000-mile canoe trip to Hudson Bay and back through the barely known wilds of Ontario province. Because he was just beginning to learn the paddling skills he would later be admired for, he reached out to a 54-year-old Ojibwa named Billy Magee to see if he might become his paid guide. Magee agreed, initiating a friendship that would span their lives.

Route of 1912 Oberholtzer/Magee Expedition. Red star indicates Neultin Lake cairn location.

Describing the journey as arduous barely makes the grade. Several times Ober and Billy faced death or life choices, yet perseverance and luck carried them through. As they were still making their way north with winter coming on fast, they climbed the tallest hill next to Nueltin Lake to see if they could gain reliable bearings. At Ober’s insistence, they built a cairn (rock pile) in which he placed a tin can containing a note to his mother, Rosa, in the event they perished. There was a chance that some day, a human would climb up to see the same view and find the tower of rocks with the powdered milk can inside.

Their lives and the success of the journey depended on them taking the right route out of Neultin Lake on the first try. They didn’t have enough food or time to handle another outcome. Miraculously, they did make it out and all the way to Hudson Bay. But there was no time for rejoicing. They needed to paddle back before the rivers froze.

The trip back was worse than the one north. Desperately low on food and hopelessly tired, the explorers often sniped at each other over campsite selections, food choices (when they had any) and the trip itself — Billy frequently expressed that he wasn’t enjoying himself and Ober felt responsible.

When at last they paddled into Winnipeg, it was almost too late in the season to continue southward. Only days away from missing the last southbound train to International Falls, they bought tickets, and loaded their canoe aboard the next one out of town. Upon arriving in “I Falls”, they paddled to their respective homes to rest and recover through the winter.

The Story that Wasn’t

Ober wanted to write a book about the adventure and pitched the story to a few publishers, but initial interest was low (Associated Press rejected his proposal outright). Yet throughout his life he remained certain that the story of their great expedition of 1912 would earn his place in the fraternity of notable explorers. But writing books would not be Ober’s means of gaining notoriety. He would get there by following a completely different path.

The Story that Was

In the 1920s, an industrialist named Edward Wellington Backus made known that his paper company wanted to build seven dams in the Rainy Lake watershed. Already the owner of the second-largest paper-making operation in the world, Backus wielded enormous political clout in large part because he already employed 4,000 workers in Minnesota and southern Ontario. To garner greater support for his dam projects, he wined and dined political figures and reporters on his many properties, including on his island on Rainy Lake, just a 15-minute paddle from Ober’s cabins on Mallard Island. 

Initially, there was little public opposition to Backus’s project, which promised to bring hundreds of more steady jobs to the region. But Ober immediately recognized that the proposed dams would defile the area and submerge the islands and existing shoreline by some thirty feet. Did his neighbors understand that their whole region and way of life was in danger of being washed away? Once they did, would they join him to make sure their concerns would be heard? And even then, would there be enough time and political will to halt the project?

To some, including at times himself, Ober seemed an unlikely candidate to take his place on “that stage on which a new national idea about the use and value of wilderness was struggling to be born”.1 

Yet, history would show that Ernest Oberhotlzer was precisely the right person for the job. Schooled at Harvard, at home in the wilderness, and blessed with the ability to make connections with people both immediate and enduring, Ober became a champion for the wilderness, a “nurturing caretaker of people and places”2 who was willing to forsake many of his own dreams for the greater good of all.   

In fact, for more than four decades, Ernest Oberholtzer would guide the efforts to prevent the Backus dams from being built and protect millions of acres to be designated forever wild in the process. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the Quetico-Superior Region, and Voyageurs National Park, comprising more than 2.25 million acres are all places that trace their origins to the man from Mallard Island. His efforts were heralded by many and earned him an invitation to be one of the founding eight members of The Wilderness Society in 1934.


Those who knew Ober admired his dedication to and connection with nature but admired his friendship even more. He was an accomplished classical violin player (who often traveled with his instrument onboard his canoe), a marvelous (and non-stop) storyteller, a bibliophile who collected and housed thousands of volumes on his island, a consummate entertainer (who drew a seemingly endless parade of visitors from around the world to his not-easy-to-get-to island) and importantly, an honorary member and friend to the Ojibwe nation. Ober was constantly in demand because of the wisdom he held and how easily he imparted it to others.

Bob Hilke
Bob Hilke in 2021

Ober was so gifted at telling tales that the Ojibwe named him “Atisokan”, their word for storyteller. Dear friend Bob Hilke, who paddled hundreds of miles with Ober, shared a memory with me that helped provide context for just how entertaining a host he was.

When Hilke was in high school, he convinced seven classmates to ski to Mallard Island to have a visit with Ober on a February weekend.

“He was so thrilled that we came, even though we showed up unannounced”, said Bob. “That was Ober. He served us dinner then told us stories all afternoon and into the late night. He talked about everything — music, Ojibwe lore, the wilderness, canoe trips, great books that he pulled off his shelves … It kept getting later and later and I mentioned it a few times, but Ober knew everything would be fine. And I knew that if a parent called my house to find out where their child was, that my father would assure them that all was safe with Ober.”

‘Well, we didn’t get back to the mainland until three in the morning. That was more than sixty years ago. But just the other day, I ran into one of the boys who skied out there with me and he said, ‘You know, Bob, I’ll never forget that time we went out to visit that man on the island.’ That was just the kind of man Ober was. You never forget him.”

One thing Ober never forgot was the tin can he left on the hill next to Neultin Lake on his 2,000-mile adventure with Billy Magee. 

“It came up a lot”, said Bob Hilke. “We’d be paddling somewhere and suddenly Ober would say, ‘You know, Bob, I’d really like to go back there and find that can.’”

“When I got back from my first year in college, Ober was ready to go”, said Bob. “It was 1963. We went up to Winnipeg, where he bought a canoe, and we paddled up to Neultin. It’s a big lake. When we got there, it was so windy, we wondered if we could get to the other side, where the hill was. Fortunately, we were able to borrow a motorboat from some Canadian government guys who were working up there.

Eighty-year-old Ernest Oberholtzer finds the cairn he built in 1912. (Bob Hilke Photo used with permission.)

Ober was eighty years old and had slowed down a great deal, but nothing was going to keep him from getting to that rock pile he’d made fifty-one years before. When we got there, the can was on the ground. We opened it and the note was missing. If that was disappointing to Ober, he didn’t show it much. He was just so happy to find the can. It was like everything had come full circle.”

Ober with the recovered milk can. 1963 expedition photo used with permission of Bob Hilke.

It seemed like everything in Ober’s life had come full circle before he passed away in 1977 at age ninety-three.  Because Bob Hilke is one of the few people still alive who knew Ober well, I asked him about the effect that Ober had on his life. 

“Ober was the dearest of friends”, he said. “We were decades apart in age, but it didn’t feel that way at all. We both had the same feelings about nature and the way we went about being in the world. It was easy to be with him, whether it was on a 500-mile canoe trip or just being on the island. It’s hard to explain. He was simply Ober.”

I was tempted to end our chat on that note, but there was one question left that only Bob could answer.

“Did he ever regret not writing the book about his trip with Billy?”, I asked.

“Yes. He regretted it very much”, said Bob. “But I think he got too old, and he just couldn’t write it the way he wanted to anymore, if at all.”

In the days following our talk — days I spent on Ober’s island looking out over the incomparable land and waterscape, serenaded by white-throated sparrows, enveloped by the great calm that only nature can provide and thoroughly thankful for the man’s gifts and legacy — I was also nagged by Ober’s greatest regret. 

The thought that Ober, a man who had left such an indelible and positive mark on the world and his friends, would fixate on one of the few places he felt he came up short, made me wish I could reach back in time to help him see that the stories he shared in person were far more powerful than the book he hoped to write — that living a life filled with purpose and joy is powerful enough to create a sphere of influence that endures long after you’re gone.

Sitting on Mallard Island, writing in the writer’s cabin where he intended to make his mark, surrounded by millions of acres of protected land and thousands of people who still cherish his legacy, it’s clear to see that Ernest Oberholtzer didn’t come up short by any means. 

Writing on Ober’s island. Author photo. ©2021

1 Paddock, Joe. Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Obserholtzer. Minnesota Historical Society Press. 2001. p. 159.

2 Ibid.  p. xvi.

Expedition map Route of the Oberholtzer-Magee 1912 Canoe Trip to Hudson Bay and return provided by designers M. Skoro and R. Rezak for Toward Magnetic North, J. Replinger Editor, The Oberholtzer Foundation, 2000. p. 17. Green arrow and red star indicating the start of the trip and Neultin Lake respectively, added by Jeff Ryan for clarification in relation to this article.


      1. I came to know of Ober’s greatness, after many years of canoeing the BWCA with my son starting in 2012,…100 years after Ober’s epic trip.

        I reread “Bound for the Barrens” each spring…and am always left feeling small in relation to what Ober and Billy Magee accomplished in their lives.

        Thank you for helping to keep Ober’s story alive!

  1. Gгeat blog you hаve here.. It’s hard to find exсeⅼlent ѡriting like yours nowadayѕ.
    I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  2. Great article and tribute to Ober and of Bob Hilke’s reflections of him. I remember Bob sharing stories of Ober and so happy that you have this one preserved in your blog. Thank you!

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