Ernest Oberholtzer


Explorer, author and pioneering champion for wilderness protection

Ernest Carl Oberholtzer, also known as “Ober”, was a pioneering champion for the protection of wilderness—in particular the Quetico-Superior area that bridges Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.

Early Life

During his youth, Oberholtzer contracted rheumatic fever, which led to a lifelong heart condition. In spite of this, he was a an avid recreationist, often camping in true wilderness without guides or maps. It is believed that he was the first person to ever photograph a moose.

Storyteller and Leader

A graduate of Harvard University, he explored Minnesota’s lakes by canoe, traversing 3,000 miles in the summer of 1909 with Ojibwe guide Billy Magee. Oberholtzer wrote stories and articles based on this experience, sometimes under the penname Ernest Carliowa. In 1922, he bought Mallard Island, where he lived until his death.

Oberholtzer was a student of Ojibwe native culture and was fluent in their language. Because he recorded their stories, the tribes called him “Atisokan,” which means “Storyteller.”

His journey into politics began when he heard of plans to build hydroelectric dams in his beloved Rainy Lake watershed. In 1925, he voiced his opposition at an International Joint Commission hearing. He convened a group of Minneapolis businessmen who were also opposed to industrialization and formed the Quetico-Superior Council in 1928. As the council’s first president, he lobbied the United States Congress and the Minnesota legislature and built public support for wilderness preservation.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created an executive Quetico-Superior Committee to oversee activity in the Quetico-Superior area, and Oberholtzer was its first chairman.

Oberholtzer’s addition to the group that founded The Wilderness Society gave them national recognition. He served on the executive council from 1937 until 1967.


In 1967, Ober was awarded the Department of the Interior’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor granted to a citizen by the agency.

Today, the area he worked to protect is known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and it is considered one of the most visited wilderness areas in America.

"We gain inspiration and take heart from Oberholtzer, a leader of the nation's wilderness movement for much of the twentieth century, and his philosophy of action, an acknowledgement that 'we never know our powers until we put them to the test.' His story continues to inspire wilderness activists." –William H. Meadows, former president, The Wilderness Society