“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.
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”
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.
Much more is in this episode along with the 3 x 3 Main Street Challenge and There's No Planet B.