A Wilderness Within


David Backes’s skillful biography, A Wilderness Within, explores in depth both the public activities of Olson’s productive conservation and preservation career and the torments that dogged him throughout his life. Thanks to years of careful research by Backes, we have a colorful portrayal of Sigurd F. Olson, backcountry woodsman and guide, wilderness advocate, negotiator, administrator, teacher, author, and environmental icon. New York Times Book Review

This smoothly written, congenial biography will engage readers through its compelling parallel narrative of a man’s unfolding commitment to his own enlightenment and to the public good. Publishers Weekly

A highly readable portrait of a much-loved writer and a beautifully articulated history of the conservation movement in the United States through the middle decades of this century. Audubon

In this beautifully composed biography, David Backes presents readers with a compelling portrait of Sigurd Olson (1899-1982). With this and the paperback editions of Olson’s writing recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, the public now has easy access to a full understanding of the life and thought of this important American conservationist. This is an outstanding book. Minnesota History

In our talks, Olson also detailed the difficulties he encountered in becoming a successful writer. But it wasn’t until I read Backes’ excellent biography that I fully realized how painful the process was. Fifteen years after his death, Olson may still be Minnesota’s most beloved author. I opened this first biography of Sigurd Olson with great anticipation. And its author, David Backes, did not disappoint me. A Wilderness Within is a fascinating book. And the Sigurd Olson who emerges from its pages is far more complex and heroic than the persona that he fashioned for himself. Backes has done an enormous amount of research, and he explores many aspects of Olson’s personality, but he never loses sight of his main story-Olson’s desperate need to fulfill himself as a writer. There will be other books about Sigurd Olson, but I doubt they’ll be more compelling than this one. Minneapolis Star Tribune

In the last decades of Sigurd Olson’s life, he was a mythic figure to friends and conservationists. Successful writer, teacher, administrator, national wilderness leader and spokesman: all of those accomplishments wrapped up in a handsome, white-haired, charismatic package. But it had been a long, and largely suppressed, journey to get there, a progression marked by self-doubt, rejection, perseverance and, finally, triumph. That struggle is portrayed in a captivating biography by David Backes. In A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson, Backes traces Olson’s life from his boyhood in Illinois and Wisconsin, through his frustrating attempts to become a writer, to his critical role as a national wilderness advocate. Backes is an ideal choice as a biographer. He knew Olson in his last years. And he kept in touch with Elizabeth Olson after Sigurd’s death. At the suggestion of a publisher, he asked her if she felt ready for a biography of her husband. St. Paul Pioneer Press

I am grateful for the insight into Olson’s life and intellectual development that Backes provides; grateful, too, that a new generation of readers will have Sigurd Olson’s own words to guide and inspire them. Conservation Biology

I knew Sigurd Olson the writer, Sig Olson the mentor, Sig Olson the wilderness warrior and elder statesman; now I know more fully Sigurd Olson the man, and I am more inspired than ever. A Wilderness Within presents a compelling, integrated portrait of a Northwoods icon, describing a life more courageous, more human, and finally more admirable than the myth. I thank David Backes for it. Douglas Wood, author of Old Turtle and Paddle Whispers

A Wilderness Within provides valuable insights into the life and times of Sig Olson. During the big battles of the 1960s, Sig was the nation’s most eloquent and knowledgeable advocate for the protection of wilderness and wild rivers. Stewart L. Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior 1961-1969

Insightful, elegantly written, meticulously researched and sympathetic without being unbalanced. Paul Gruchow, author of Grass Roots and Journal of Prairie Year

Wilderness guru Sigurd Olson spent his life fighting to save the wildlands of America for the backpack and the canoe. In this deeply probing and rich biography, David Backes reveals that Olson, unknown to all around him, was secretly fighting and eventually won another battle against the demons and frustrations within his own psyche. It was the battle that left us Olson’s epic books on his wilderness theology and the human need for primitive places. Every wilderness lover and parks user owes Backes a resounding ‘bravo’ for this revealing, eminently readable biography of the restless and driving spirit who did more than any other to shape the modern parks system in America. Fred Bodsworth, author of Last of the Curlews

This is biography at its best, a book that is certain to become a classic. Gerald Killan, King’s College, London, Ontario