Wetaskiwin author gets call from Minnesota

Shirley Olsen, 90, hears from biggest fan from south of the border

Shirley Olsen, educator/author, was truly shocked to hear from a Minnesota resident last week. The eighty-nine year old farmer told her that he’d just come into possession of her book, When the Bell Rings. He recognized the Olsen name, excitedly telling her that he was one of the many U.S. citizens who had stayed in the Olsen family camp in Lake La Ronge back in the 1950s.

James Sorensen, of Lake Benton, Minnesota, made frequent trips into Canada. The lake teemed with Northern Pike, Walleye and trout but guides had to be hired to take fishermen out due to the 500 miles of shoreline and the multitude of islands, making it easy to get lost. The area was popular with Americans; the likes of Haliburton Oil and the Singer Sewing Machine company sent groups up there for fishing holidays. The Olsen’s had the first resort, being more or less forced into the tourist business to provide accommodation and guides for fly-in and later drive-in fishermen.

Shirley Olsen had gone to Lake La Ronge to teach in 1947, before there was a road, so she had to fly in. She later married Kelland Olsen and helped with the family tourist fishing business. She was working in the office when James Sorensen first met her. He kept in touch with the extended Olsen family over the years, one of them being a guide whose daughter recently visited him in Minnesota. She’d given him the book to read and he asked to keep it because he recognized the Olsen name.

“I’ve read it two or three times, now,” Sorensen informed Olsen during their one hour conversation last week, and extracted a promise from her to write. She and Kelland were some of the Olsen’s he’d lost track of when they moved away for Kelland’s work as a millwright. They had a lot of catching up to do, much to the delight of both the widowed Shirley Olsen and caller James Sorensen.

When the Bell Rings, published in 2016, tells of Olsen’s life during her teaching years of 1944 to 1988. She taught in the north of all four western provinces, concluding her teaching years in central Alberta. In the early years she had to fly into many of the northern schools, often finding that accommodation wasn’t “ready for her” on arrival, making for some interesting and hard times. Nor was the curriculum always suitable for the children of families who struggled to make a living. They were keen to learn the ways and means of survival rather than subjects such as world geography. At one point, Olsen taught her avid students how to skin muskrats, along with other skills. She once had to shoot a cougar that “came to school”. She’d received her education on such matters while helping husband Kel with his trap line.

Ninety-three year old Olsen returns to the Lake La Ronge area nearly every year to visit relatives. With the decline in fish, fishermen go further north now, using the lake as a stopping off place to hire a plane to take them into the relocated resorts.

“I can’t believe how far reaching my books have been,” Olsen said with a laugh. “I have to keep printing more!” She is quite willing to accommodate people in that regard. You just have to ask.

-Submitted by Lori M. Feldberg

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