Listening Point

Listening Point on Burntside Lake

Listening Point on Burntside Lake

Wilderness. It is a concept fading from our consciousness as more humans populate the earth and those growing up now increasingly have their attention focused on the virtual.

The wild places—those where it is just you, the natural world, and the past, present and future you become aware of when you truly listen and observe what is around you—are arguably more important now than ever before in our fast-paced world.

This is something that Sigurd Olson lived and taught. If it weren’t for Olson, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) would not exist.

Yesterday I had a chance to visit Olson’s cabin on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, a place he called Listening Point, and one now on the National Historic Register.

When I was in college in the late 1970s, I’d joined an “environmental backpacking” group at the University of Minnesota, one focused on fun outdoor adventures making minimal or zero impact on the places where we explored and camped.

Sigurd Olson

Sigurd Olson (photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

When Olson spoke to us he was in his late 70s. At the time I had little knowledge of his impact on the wild places in Minnesota and his tireless efforts to get the BWCAW bill passed to protect the areas he loved.

In the years that followed my life accelerated in to career, family, and travel—lots and lots of travel—and as I grew older I took less and less time to seek the wild places where I could just be.

On a whim before one of my trips, I bought Olson’s book “Listening Point.” As I read it on a plane headed somewhere in my late twenties, I found myself stunned that this man was writing about things that touched my soul: the sights, sounds, smells, geology, time, the meaning in everything he saw, and all the boundless beauty and joy that wilderness brings to one who pays attention.

I ended up buying and reading most of his books.

Staying on Lake Superior this week for my annual road trip, I impulsively decided to drive the 2+ hours to Ely, MN yesterday. It was a beautiful day and I’d hoped to be able to at least walk out on to Listening Point, a spot about 10 or so miles from downtown Ely (Olson lived in Ely and found this land close to his home and bought in the late 1950s).

Stopping at the Ely tourist information spot when I arrived in town, arrangements were made for me to meet a guy named Chuck Wick out on a highway intersection just outside of town. Little did I know that Wick is the Vice President of the Listening Point Foundation, and someone who knew Olson well.

The tour was a bit of a whirlwind but amazing to experience, and Wick’s knowledge and personal connection with Olson made it so much better. I’d have liked to be by myself on the point, in the cabin and to NOT have the fisherman just offshore and the kayakers near the point when we arrived. But I got to see the cabin, be on the point, see the bearberry where Sig and his wife Elizabeth first slept after buying the point and before the cabin was built, and it was everything I’d imagined.

If you care about wild places, wilderness, being connected to the natural world in any way, you owe it to yourself to read Olson’s books. Start with Listening Point.

Olson said it best in this book when he described Listening Point and why it came to be:

“Though the point was only a small point of the vastness reaching far to the arctic from it I could survey the whole. While it would be mine for only a short time this glaciated shore with its twisted trees and caribou moss would grow into my life and into the lives of all who shared it with me.

I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard.

Everyone has a listening point somewhere. It does not have to be in the north or close to wilderness, but some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated in awe. The adventures that have been mine can be known by anyone.”

Here are a few photos I snapped that you might enjoy. Click on any image to view a larger version:


About Steve Borsch

I'm CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you're already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.


  1. Marty G. says:

    I, too, have read all of Sigurd Olson’s books. Sadly I live in Manhattan and it is pretty tough to find places that are close to being “wild” in this city, but his books transport me to a place I love too.

    My wife, kids and I have traveled to the Boundary Waters wilderness to canoe and camp every year since she and I were married. The only time we skipped was when our middle son was born in the summer of 1995. Otherwise even a toddler would go on one of our BWCAW trips!

    Thanks for this post. We just returned from two weeks in the Boundary Waters and it never occurred to me to go to Listening Point. I am jealous but you have convinced me that, when we are there next year, this is our first stop.

  2. Steve Borsch says:

    Thanks for the nice comment Marty. Must admit though that you’re a better man than I am, taking toddlers on your canoe trips!

    When you get to Listening Point I hope it touches you like it did me.

  3. Nice post Steve. I’m in the middle of reading Listening Point for the first time and enjoying every sentence (multiple times). I’be been trying to locate Listening Point on a map this morning. Can you share the location? The Foundation’s website didn’t share the exact spot. Thanks!

  4. Steve Borsch says:

    Thanks Wade. It’s near Ely, MN and Google Maps says it’s 17 minutes. By the way, when you get into Ely stop at the visitor’s center and let them know you’re interested in touring Sig’s cabin on Listening Point. They’ll connect with one of the folks from the Foundation who give tours or they’ll let you know when the next tour is to happen.

    View Larger Map

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