These trails of the north are a sermon in harmonious living. They tell not only of a race in conflict with [Western] civilization but of their whole philosophy and outlook on life. We have so much to learn from Indians and no better place to learn it today than portages worn smooth by our Indian predecessors.
- Ernest Oberholtzer (Oberholtzer Foundation, Friend of the Ojibwe, ¶ 1)
Ernest Carl Oberholtzer, better known as Ober, was born in Davenport, Iowa on February 6, 1884. His parents, Henry and Rosa Carl Oberholtzer, were married in 1882 and had one other son, Frank, in 1886. The couple divorced in 1890, and Frank died from inflammation of the brain the following year. Following his parents' separation, Ober moved with his mother to her childhood home, and he continued to have a close bond with her the rest of his life. In the spring of 1900, he contracted Rheumatic Fever and was instructed to avoid strenuous activities indefinitely (Paddock, 2001).
Ober enrolled at Harvard University in 1903, and he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1907. He returned for one year of graduate study in landscape architecture. However, he had made a trip to the Minnesota-Ontario border lakes in 1906 and had an insatiable desire to return to the north woods. During the summer of 1909, he took his first extended canoe trip through the border lakes and the Rainy Lake watershed. The Canadian Northern Railway purchased Ober's notes and photos from the trip to use for promotional material (Minnesota Historical Society).
Following the trip, Ober served briefly as editor of a newspaper in Moline, Illinois, but he returned to the border lakes the following summer. He spent much of his travels with Bill Magee, an Ojibwe Indian from Mine Centre, Ontario. That fall, his friend, Harry French, invited him on a trip to Europe. Ober spent much of his time in London at the British Museum studying reports of the exploration of the border lakes and the Canadian "Barren Lands." Geographer J.B. Tyrell's account of a trip through the Barrens inspired Ober to make a similar journey. While in England, he also presented a series of lectures on his 1909 canoe trip (Minnesota Historical Society).
Ober stayed in Europe and served as American Vice-Consul in Hanover, Germany in 1911. He then began preparing to embark on his trip across the Barrens. He contacted Magee, who agreed to accompany him, and on June 26, 1912, they set out from The Pas, Manitoba in a canvas canoe on a five month journey. The two men traveled up to Nueltin Lake in the Northwest Territories and back down to Gimli Manitoba, where they arrived on November 5 (Cockburn, 1985).
In 1913, Ober moved to Rainy Lake permanently. For the first few years, he camped during the summer and lived in a houseboat on shore in the winter. Around 1916, he began working for William Hapgood, who owned a group of islands near Rainier, Minnesota. Eventually, he became a partner in Hapgood's venture to develop the islands for agriculture and as a tourist camp. Ober landscaped and supervised construction on the largest island, clearing the center of the island for farming and preserving the perimeter for wilderness campsites. However, in 1922, the partnership was dissolved, and Ober was offered a settlement of either $5000 or sole ownership of Sand Point Island.
He opted for the latter, and in lieu of a salary, he also assumed ownership of three of the four surrounding islands (Crow, Mallard, and Hawk). Ober began constructing several buildings on the island that utilized native materials and conformed to the natural landscape. According to some reports, he chose the acre-and-a-half Mallard Island as his building site rather than the larger Crow Island because the Ojibwe believe that the spirits were strong at Mallard (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline).
In 1925, Ober discovered Edward Backus' plans to construct a chain of dams on the Rainy Lake watershed. He and others spoke in opposition to the proposal at a hearing of the International Joint Commission in September 1925, and in 1927, Ober was invited to a secret meeting with Minneapolis businessmen who were organizing opposition to Backus' plan. The group met several times, and they formed the Quetico-Superior Council in 1928, with Ober serving as president.
The council's agenda called for assuring preservation of the boundary lakes' wilderness by designating Quetico Provincial Park, the Rainy Lake watershed as an international park, and the Superior National Forest, now home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Ober's contributions to the council included maintaining a vigorous correspondence, lobbying Congress and the Minnesota legislature, testifying before committees, and raising public support for the council's land preservation program. He also made several canoe trips to the Quetico-Superior area to gain first-hand information. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the President's Quetico-Superior Committee to advise and coordinate activity concerning the area. Ober was its first chairman and served as a member until 1968 (Minnesota Historical Society).
In January 1935, The Wilderness Society (TWS) was founded by Robert Marshall, Harvey Broome, Bernard Frank, Benton MacKaye, Harold Anderson, and Robert Sterling Yard. Aldo Leopold and Ober were invited to join the founding group, and Ober served on its executive council until 1967 (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline). The Wilderness Society was the first national organization dedicated to the preservation of wilderness, and the organization achieved a major victory in 1964 with the passage of The Wilderness Act. The Act enabled Congress to set aside approximately nine million acres as wilderness. Since then, TWS has helped pass more bills, contributing a total of 104 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System (The Wilderness Society).
Ober remained deeply interested in and affectionate toward the Ojibwe Indians of the border lakes, particularly Bill Magee's family and other residents of the Mine Centre area. He frequently visited their camps, and they regularly stopped at The Mallard. In the 1930s, Ober opened an account with Mine Centre trader Edgar Bliss to provide assistance to Magee and his family and maintained the account long after Magee's death in 1938. He spoke fluent Ojibwe and was a spirited learner of the culture. Ober was initiated into the Ojibwe Grand Medicine Society because of his long association with the tribe and his dedication to their language, legends, and spirituality. The Ojibwe named him "Atisokan," meaning "Storyteller" (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline)
In 1957, formal letters of agreement were exchanged between the United States and Canada regarding the protection of the Rainy Lake watershed. The exchange fell short of setting the area aside as the International Peace Memorial Forest Ober had envisioned and labored for years to create, but it was a significant achievement in wilderness management nonetheless. In 1964, Ober suffered a stroke that nearly ended his life and subsequently plagued him with memory loss and mental confusion.
Two years later, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Northern Michigan University for his unremitting wilderness preservation work. In 1967, Ober was awarded the Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award for his efforts, the highest honor bestowed by the Department of the Interior upon a private citizen. He was also recognized by the Natural History Society of Minnesota and received the Captaine International Honor Award the same year (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline)
In January 1973, Ober moved into Falls Nursing Home in International Falls. He suffered from recurring minor strokes that deprived him of his ability to speak. This condition frustrated and angered him because he loved to tell stories. In May, Friends of the Boundary Waters was formed in opposition to a bill that would divide the Boundary Waters into two areas, one of which would permit logging and mechanized travel. In October, 75 of Ober's friends gathered on Mallard Island for a ceremony honoring his life. He attended in a wheelchair, and a large plaque was installed in rock at the highest point of the island (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline). It is inscribed: "This island was for fifty years the home of Ernest Oberholtzer, pioneer in the effort to save the wilderness, devoted Atisokan to the Indians and cherished friend and companion. 1973" (¶ 65).
On June 6, 1997, after refusing food during his last days, Ober passed away at the age of 93. Memorial services were held in both International Falls and Davenport, Iowa. According to his wishes, Ober was buried in his family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, alongside his mother, brother, and grandparents (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline). Following his death, children and grandchildren of his Ojibwe friends gathered at his Mallard home, made medicine, and put a protective spell over the island (Minnesota Historical Society).
In the years following Ober's death, Ted Hall and George Monahan became key figures in a legal battle to prevent the sale of Mallard Island and in establishing the Oberholtzer Foundation. Some 54,000 of Ober's papers were preserved and eventually turned over to the Minnesota Historical Society. Today, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is part of the area Ober worked so vigorously to protect, is the most heavily visited wilderness in the United States, receiving approximately 200,000 visitors per year (Oberholtzer Foundation, Timeline).