Sister Bay


Sigurd's school house

I’ve always been captivated by descriptions of the slender peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan where Sigurd spent a formative part of his childhood, where he had his first outdoor adventures.? So when I went along with my fiancee this summer to a riding clinic just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I decided to take a day trip to the place in Door County where Sigurd moved at the age of seven with his family. This is where, as he put it, “I heard the singing wilderness for the first time.”? (click on the photos to enlarge)

From David Backes’ biography A Wilderness Within:


The Olson family’s move from Chicago to Sister Bay, Wisconsn in 1906 came at a perfect time for Sigurd, because he was just reaching an age where he had the desire and freedom to explore beyond the immediate neighborhood. His family’s two-story, rectangular frame home, half a mile east of town, was surrounded by farmfields, woods and swampland. The dirt road passing in front of the house and the church next door cut straight across the peninsula to Appleport, three miles to the east.? Sigurd got to know both sides of the peninsula: the deep harbor of Sister Bay, protected from west winds by wooded bluffs, the Sister Islands protruding thinly on the horizon; and the shallow waters and windswept shore of wide-open Appleport, where constant pounding of waves left a beach composed of smooth stones, clumps of grasses and hardy wildflowers.


Just south of Sister Bay was Ephraim, where the harbor view centered on spectacular limestone cliffs that were bathed in a luminous gold by the early morning sun. Sigurd often visited Ephraim after his father began holding regular services in a log building there in 1907, and he occasionally accompanied L.J. on ministerial rounds to Bailey’s Harbor, Gills Rock and Washington Island. On the way to Washington Island, the road they traveled with their horse and buggy took them steadily uphill to a high view of Ellison Bay and the broad expanses of Lake Michigan.


At night, lying in his bed, he could hear the moaning of fog horns, a sound that called to him as enticingly as would the howl of wolves or the wail of loons later in life. Eventually he got the chance to follow that call, exploring nearby wooded paths by himself in an ever-larger radius from home until one day he made it all the way to the lake. Half a century later, he described what he experienced at the end of an abandoned stone pier:

“A school of perch darted in and out of the rocks. They were green and gold and black, and I was fascinated by their beauty. Seagulls wheeled and cried above me. Waves crashed against the pier. I was alone in a wild and lovely place, part of the dark forest through which I had come, and of all the wild sounds and colors and feelings of the place I had found. That day I entered into a life of indescribable beauty and delight. There I believe I heard the singing wilderness for the first time.”

? The Singing Wilderness, 1956

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09 2009

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