Finding Your Listening Point with Rolf Thompson
Let's Go Deep in the Woods!
“Let’s go deep in the woods!” Rolf would say to his mother and by his tone you might think he was about to enter the Yukon.
But the three-year-old was standing in his back yard in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. The Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis just a few miles away.
Rolf, bundled up in his snowsuit, was about to venture off into a relatively small collection of trees in an adjacent lot – which for him was the same thing as the great boreal forests of North America. Recognizing his early attraction to the outdoors, his mom took this photo and prominently displayed it. Soon enough they enrolled Rolf in a camp at the end of the Gunflint Trail in the true woods of northern Minnesota.
"I fell in love with canoeing and the Boundary Waters."
Like previous Wonder Guides, Doug Wallace and Mark Hennessy, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been an intimate part of Rolf Thompson’s life and work ever since. Much of that time he was focused on the central goal of a connecting young people to the great outdoors – and helping the YMCA do that more effectively.
Rolf was the Executive Director at the two YMCA camps in the BWCAW, Widgiwagan and Menogyn. He was also the Executive Director at Camp Manito-Wish in Wisconsin. Later he would become the executive director of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota, which now hosts more than 18,000 visitors every year. Rolf has also served on the board for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The main mission at the center of it all for Rolf is to connect young people to the wilderness experience.
I was one of those young people, about 15 years old, in the early 80’s when I first met Rolf at the YMCA’s Camp Menogyn in northern Minnesota. He was another in a long line of men and women who simply existed in canoes, tents, and on trails with no effort. One who spoke about Alaska and Quetico Provencial Park as if that were normal. Rolf and his colleagues showed us how to snowshoe and cross-country ski through the woods to a frozen lake where we could build Quonset huts out of snow that you could actually sleep in.
Call them mentors, guides, counselors or simply ‘slightly older cool guys and gals doing cool stuff.’ They were always encouraging me to attend the next camp. To go a little bit farther. To try coming up to the BWCA for winter camp. These role models were a critical force in my outdoor education and instilled in me the desire to continue to explore the great outdoors.
Everyone needs a mentor
One of Rolf’s most important mentors is Sigurd Olson. Continuing to encourage his affinity for nature, Rolf’s parents gave him Olson’s signature book, Listening Point, when he was in high school. Years later Rolf would have the great pleasure of meeting his mentor and having him sign his book.
“Dear Rolf and Carol, someday you will find your listening point and know the same deep satisfactions I have known in mine. Best wishes, Sigurd F. Olson”
Finding Our Listening Point
Listening Point is a real place on Burntside Lake in the BWCAW. The quest for Sigurd to find it was a real one. The rocks, prevailing winds, coves, sunsets and views had to be just so for Sigurd to invest his time and money to make it his retreat. But once he built a small cabin there and settled in he did exactly what the name says. He listened. He found inspiration at Listening Point but he didn’t do his work there, he simply was there. Olson called it his “place of discovery.”
Rolf and his wife C.J. call their cabin and property in Stone Lake, Wisconsin, their listening point. My family and I were welcomed to their cabin in the summer of 2021 and while my girls and wife explored the lake shore and water, Rolf and I got to sit and reflect on the inspirations and stories that shaped Rolf’s life.
Rolf and C.J. spend as much time as they can in Stone Lake where they canoe, kayak, observe the wildlife and otherwise immerse themselves in the wilderness. They’ll even get up before 6 a.m. and both canoe and kayak – before breakfast!
Rolf takes great pleasure in listening and looking for his favorite bird: warblers.
They also lead ‘Grandparent Camp’ for their three grandkids who are between five and 11 years old. They officially name it Camp Solnedgang – which is Norwegian for “sundown.” They lead a variety of activities for their grandchildren and incorporated many of the traditions, songs, leadership opportunities and rituals associated with the camps that they have either attended or led.
Winter is just another season
Like so many of my friends and family from Minnesota, Rolf thrives in the outdoors year-round, no matter the weather. He has raced in the famous Birkebeiner cross-country ski race for decades and he’s camped with friends in the winter every year for over 40 years.
The reason we don’t see these activities as ‘crazy’ or ‘extreme’ goes back to that picture of Rolf when he was a little boy. I think it’s a safe bet that Rolf’s mom wasn’t creating a lot of drama around the weather. She was probably simply helping a young boy prepare for the cold and the snow in a very matter-of-fact way. Similarly, my parents did the same for me. At camp, Rolf and his colleagues were then modeling that no-nonsense approach to winter when I was coming of age.
Sure, it’s cold. Absolutely, we’re conscious of the temperatures and the necessary clothing or gear that is needed on a frigid day. Certainly, there’s some pain and discomfort in the immersion into the winter, but there just isn’t an added layer of anxiety or hysteria around it which makes it much more manageable and normal. Which in turn creates countless opportunities for adventure and wonder.
As he’s paddled and hiked much of North America Rolf stresses again and again the power that the subtle beauty of landscapes, especially the BWCAW, have had on him.
“Listening externally and internally has been the theme of my connection to nature.”
It’s the subtle beauty of the greater BWCAW that continues to motivate Rolf
“It’s so subtle and deeply spiritual.”
National Eagle Center
Rolf would later become the director of the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota. Under Rolf’s direction the center now sees over 80,000 annually. The mission of the National Eagle Center is to connect people with eagles in nature, history and cultures.
Today we might take for granted the fact that we can see bald eagles in many places in North America. However, many of us remember the days when seeing bald eagles out in nature was extremely rare. This, of course, was due to the chemical DDT and how that pesticide nearly wiped out bald eagles as a species. The story of the recovery of bald eagles and how they are no longer an endangered species is an extraordinary one and is just one of the features of the National Eagle Center.
The Eagle as the Strongest Bird Carries the Spirit to the Heavens
Rolf reminds us that eagles to Native American cultures such as the Dakota Indians of Minnesota, “are truly sacred.” Rolf was able to witness the importance of bald eagles at a Dakota Pow-Wow, “where if a bald eagle feather drops out of someone’s regalia, the whole place gets quiet and there’s a whole fifteen minute ceremony before they could pick up this sacred bald eagle feather.”
As for his next adventures, Rolf is preparing for some serious bikepacking. He’s planning on tackling the Great Divide Mountain Bike route which is over 2,700 miles and basically runs along the continental divide of North America from Canada to Mexico.
He completed what he called his Tour de Minnesota in the summer of 2021: an extended bikepacking trip of 1,700 miles, 28 days and self supported. He and CJ are also planning a little hike around Mont Blanc in the Alps. And he reported back to me that “after completing 11 full Birkies, the past four years I have done the shorter (29K) Korteloppet – still on the same trial, ending Hayward Wisconsin on the same weekend.”
If he’s not out skiing, biking, hiking, swimming, canoeing, fishing or leading grandparent camp, he’s probably just sitting and listening to the warblers.
ONE NEW THING with Grant Hartley
The Arrowhead 135 is considered one of the 50 most difficult endurance races in the world. And Grant Hartley has done it three times! He had a revelation just a few years ago that life was too short not to race a fat tire bike for 135 miles in the most difficult winter conditions that northern Minnesota can muster.
Just finishing this race is a huge accomplishment! Roughly 50% of all of those who start the race don’t make it to the finish.
Be sure to tune into the podcast episode to check out Grant’s story.
3 x 3 Main Street Challenge
Speaking of International Falls, there’s a little town just a few miles to the east called Rainer, Minnesota where there is a Main Street with a place known as Loony’s Brew. http://www.loonysbrew.com/
Starting at Loony’s on 3481 Main Street we look just a few minutes away and find the same park where the Arrowhead 135 race starts called Kerry Park. https://www.ci.international-falls.mn.us/services/parks-facilities/kerry-park/ One could go there and do any number of fun things outdoors in both the summer and winter.
Next, we ask, what’s 30 minutes or less from Main Street? I’d suggest one of the greatest and most remote National Parks that we have, Voyageurs National Park just to the east of Loony’s. https://www.nps.gov/voya/index.htm
Finally we try to find something that’s compelling to do outdoors three hours from Main Street. And starting in the International Falls area means there are lots of options! Lake Winnipeg is about four hours to the west. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Winnipeg and the really interesting town of Thunder Bay, Ontario with incredible outdoor opportunities is just about three hours to the east. https://www.visitthunderbay.com/en/index.aspx