When Helen (Mudge) Heller died on July 27th, 2018, after a long and painful illness, she left behind an extended community of grieving friends and family in the US and Canada, where she was born and raised. In addition to the treasured relationships that survive, Helen also left a conservation treasure by permanently protecting Olson Island through a gift to American Friends shortly before she passed away. Helen said, “The island will be a gift to future generations who love Rainy Lake. The images embedded in my memory of one of the most beautiful places on earth and the deep satisfaction that Olson Island will be preserved in perpetuity are also special gifts to myself.”
It was fitting that conserving the island brought joy and respite to Helen even though she was suffering. Locals say that World War II veteran Fred Olsen took refuge on the island to recover from “shell shock.” Apparently the healing qualities of nature, the quiet solace of the island and the nurturing powers of Rainy Lake were his cure, as he went on to lead a normal life.
It was when Helen and her family lived on the shores of Rainy Lake during her high school years in Fort Frances Ontario that Helen came to fully appreciate it. “I fell in love with the lake. It was beautiful in all seasons,” Helen recalled, while conceding that winter could be very challenging.
Shortly after Helen married Robert Heller, a lifelong resident of San Francisco, Rainy Lake became an integral part of their married life. The Hellers bought Noden Island and spent summers there for over forty years. Olson Island is just a “stone’s throw” from Noden, so Robert and Helen jumped at the chance to buy it in 1989. The Hellers shared Olson Island with their nieces and nephews. “We all enjoyed the lovely mossy areas, the little swamps, the beach, the blueberry patches and the majestic pine trees,” Helen recalled.
When Helen’s sister and brother-in-law, Phyllis and Dale Callaghan, helped launch the Rainy Lake Conservancy (RLC) in 1999, Helen remembered being “immediately receptive to the idea” of preserving Olson Island. Phyllis and RLC board president Carolyn Wallis, whose family protected Echo Island with Ontario’s first cross-border conservation easement, made Helen’s wish a reality by facilitating her gift to American Friends.
Not long after Helen passed away, Phyllis wrote, “We’re fortunate to be back on Rainy Lake, which we think does have a special healing power. Helen is never far from our thoughts; she seems to be present in the water, trees and rocky shorelines that she loved dearly. She will always be a presence here on the lake.” Helen’s gift of Olson Island will help ensure that Rainy Lake will continue to have that effect on everyone who has the good fortune to experience it.