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Minnesota warden Keith Olson retiring after 34 years on Lake Superior

Olson has been part of the DNR's Marine Unit for his entire conservation officer career.

Minnesota Conservation Officer Keith Olson in patrol boat
Minnesota conservation officer Keith Olson pilots the DNR's 27-foot SAFEboat patrol boat away from the dock at Duluth's Rice's Point landing on Monday. Olson is retiring June 2 after nearly 34 years in the DNR's Lake Superior Marine Unit.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Keith Olson was piloting the 27-foot Department of Natural Resources patrol boat through the Duluth Ship Canal, close to the north pier, back into the harbor after a couple hours of checking Lake Superior anglers.

“Big, grumpy guy, plaid shirt, with his family,’’ Olson said.

Olson opened the boat’s side window and started waving furiously at the family of tourists on the pier. They all smiled and waved back, even the previously grumpy-looking guy in the plaid shirt.

“Got it!’’ said Olson.

Mission accomplished. Olson got the reaction he was looking for.

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“You gotta have a little fun out there,’’ said Olson, who had been wearing a giant foam pirate hat back at the dock and is known to perch a fake parrot on his shoulder on occasion. He also queued up Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,’’ as he was maneuvering the boat — nicknamed "The Pickle" because of its distinctive green sides — away from the dock.

“Some people get creeped out when I play that song on the water,’’ Olson said, noting not everyone appreciates his high jinx. “Once my captain told me I can’t go through life like it’s a Jimmy Buffett song. … But why not?”

Keith Olson, Minnesota conservation officer
Minnesota conservation officer Keith Olson explains what he and fellow officer Kipp Duncan look for as they check anglers on Lake Superior.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

It’s also mission accomplished for Olson, who turns 55 this week and will retire June 2 after 34 years of plying Lake Superior waters as a DNR Enforcement Division’s Lake Superior Marine Unit conservation officer. Olson was only 21 when he started, and the Marine Unit, also new at the time, is the only DNR job he’s had.

Olson is now the state’s longest-serving conservation officer on duty.

The conservation officer’s contract requires they retire by age 60, but it encourages them to leave at age 55, with fully paid health care benefits until they can go on Medicare. The rules keep the ranks of the conservation officer corps younger, critical for such a physically demanding job. But it also forces out decades of experience.

Over the next seven years, nearly half the DNR Enforcement Division’s 170 officers will retire, noted Kipp Duncan, a Duluth-based conservation officer who often accompanies Olson on Lake Superior patrols.

Olson figures he’s spent about 300 hours annually on the big lake, more than 10,000 hours combined.

“We’re losing decades of Lake Superior knowledge with Keith leaving. He’s developed so many relationships out here, with the Coast Guard ... with the fishermen. With the charter captains. Everybody out here knows The Pickle. And they know Keith,’’ Duncan said.

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Olson usually has a sidekick on board, getting assistance from local land-based wardens like Duncan.

“‘It’s almost impossible to do this job with one person. If I do, it’s just for show then, letting people see the DNR boat is out here. … But with a second officer on board, we can actually do the checks we need to do,’’ Olson noted.

Officer Gumby
A pickle-green Conservation Officer Gumby is the mascot of the 27-foot Minnesota DNR Lake Superior patrol boat nicknamed "The Pickle" because of its distinctive green sides.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

Conversation officers

On a cool, but not too windy, mid-May morning, Olson and Duncan worked their well-rehearsed routine. Olson used his binoculars to check boats from a distance, before the unsuspecting anglers knew who was watching. He was checking for extra fishing lines and to see how many people were on board.

As The Pickle closed in, with giant letters on the boat’s side announcing “MN-DNR LAW ENFORCEMENT,” he’d watch for any furious action on board that might foretell illegal activity.

“Most people out here are doing the right thing, or they mean to be,” Olson noted. “If a guy has a $60,000 boat he’s probably going to pay for a fishing license and a trout stamp, too.”

Some anglers forget to renew their licenses early in the season. Others may keep a steelhead rainbow trout, which are protected, mistaking it for a silver salmon. But serious violations are rare.

Keith Olson talks to anglers
Minnesota DNR conservation officer Keith Olson talks to anglers on Monday. Olson is retiring June 2 after 34 years as a warden for the state, all of them spent in the Lake Superior Marine Unit.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

Olson has even developed a way to “pull over’’ a fishing boat for a check while allowing the anglers to keep fishing. He approaches from a side angle to not disturb the trolling lines and he keeps moving forward at the same speed, just in front of the fishing boat.

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“Just keep your lines out, keep fishing, and we’ll keep moving,’’ Olson called out from behind the wheel.

While Olson piloted The Pickle, Duncan would go through the checks. Fishing license and trout stamps? Check. Personal flotation devices? Check. Any fish? Anglers would shake their heads or hold up a lake trout or Chinook salmon on occasion.

“Try fishing a little closer to the sand,’’ Olson said, offering advice to anglers who hadn’t caught a fish all morning. “We saw some huge balls of bait fish in there the other day on the sonar.”

One angler seemed to want to tell his life story to the officers, dragging the interview on for several minutes.

“That’s why they call us conversation officers,’’ Olson quipped. “But you need to listen to people. … We work for them.”

Keith Olson, Minnesota conservation officer
Minnesota conservation officer Keith Olson uses binoculars to check out a boat of anglers on Lake Superior from a distance.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

The officers took turns, with Duncan driving on occasion Olson doing the interview.

“Keith is just so good with people. He puts everyone at ease,’’ Duncan noted. “He totally draws people in rather than being confrontational.”

Most anglers are friendly and appreciate the advice. Almost everyone checked asks how the other fishing boats are doing.

“Most people out here love to see us going after the intentional cheaters,’’ Duncan added. “Most people appreciate what we’re doing.”

Those “intentional cheaters” are the ones with too many fish on board, or who fish with extra lines strung off their downrigger cables so they can’t be detected from above the water line. On this day, the officers didn’t find any intentional cheaters, or any violations for that matter. They checked a guy fishing from a 9-foot kayak just off the Aerial Lift Bridge; two guys in a 16-foot boat with a 25 horsepower motor; and anglers in all manner of fishing boats up to full-size cruisers.

In addition to fishing regulations, the DNR also enforces boating safety laws, such as navigation lights at night, drunken boating and having proper personal flotation devices for everyone on board. The Pickle also is called out for search-and-rescue and recovery efforts in water emergencies.

A colder Baywatch

Olson, who was born in Duluth but grew up in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, has been on the big lake in some of its nastier moods, including waves up to 14 feet high. The Pickle is perfectly suited for big water, but only if the pilot knows how to handle it. Its twin, 300-horsepower Evinrudes can push the boat to 50 mph and beyond, and it can turn on a dime even at high speed.

“It’s like 'Baywatch,' but colder,’’ Olson noted of his water-themed career.

Keith Olson talks to kayaker
Minnesota Conservation Officer Keith Olson talks with an angler fishing from a kayak.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

The Pickle and Olson were regulars in the Duluth harbor and St. Louis River Estuary, too, especially for busy boating weekends like the Festival of Sail, Fourth Fest, Bayfront Blues Festival and fishing contests. This past week Olson, Duncan and The Pickle also were on duty “protecting’’ the USS Minneapolis-St.Paul, the newly commissioned Navy warship docked in the Duluth harbor.

The commissioning of USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the first ceremony like it in state history, packed the port with dignitaries, military service veterans.

The DNR has a second, 23-foot Lake Superior boat available as well as smaller boats and even personal watercraft to scoot around the harbor when needed. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard and St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office also enforce boating safety in the area, as do Wisconsin-based agencies.

When he wasn’t on Lake Superior over the last 34 years Olson could be found checking hunters in the woods around Duluth, patrolling snowmobile trails or staking-out fish poachers along North Shore rivers. He loved the freedom that conservation officers have to set their own schedule but lamented that the “always on duty’’ mentality probably has hurt family life.

It’s the plague of a game warden, Olson noted, that “when you’re with your family you feel guilty about not working, and when you’re working you feel guilty about not being with your family.”

Olson hasn’t made any formal retirement plans yet, but he’s pretty sure of one thing.

“I know it won’t involve a gun belt,” he said, noting he won’t be doing any more law enforcement work.

There are plenty of fishing and hunting trips to be taken, and plenty of auctions and garage sales to shop. Olson is thinking about selling his current home and building a smaller house on his property in Normanna Township just north of Duluth. He plans on doing a lot of traveling, including a trout fishing trip when he visits his lady friend in North Carolina next month.

Keith Olson
Retiring Minnesota conservation officer Keith Olson.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

And, who knows, Olson may end up back in a boat on his way to a place where his Jimmy Buffett attitude would be appreciated.

“I was thinking maybe a big motor sailboat,’’ Olson said before packing another dip of Copenhagen tobacco between his cheek and gum. “I still might do it. Get in the boat in Duluth and take it all the way down to the Bahamas for the winter. How cold would that be?”

Marine Unit expanding

Created in the mid-1980s, just as Keith Olson was starting his career as a conservation officer, the DNR’s Marine Unit originally had three officers, but has been down to just two, Olson and officer Matt Miller, for the past five years, with the third position left open.

Rodmen Smith, director of the DNR’s enforcement division, said Olson’s position will be filled and that the DNR is in the process of expanding the Marine Unit to add a Twin Cities station. The DNR also is considering adding a Marine Unit station elsewhere in northern Minnesota's lake country.

“There will absolutely continue to be a DNR presence on Lake Superior in the Duluth area — that’s a given,’’ Smith said. “We will continue to have two full-time officers stationed up there.”

Smith said the DNR is using Olson’s retirement as a good time to reevaluate the unit’s needs, including the size of boats used. He said they may retire the 27-foot Pickle and move toward smaller Lake Superior-worthy boats such as the agency’s 23-foot craft.

“It really takes two people just to operate The Pickle and we want boats that are easier to operate, and to trailer, so one person can run them if needed,’’ Smith said. “But with seven of our officers stationed within 45 minutes of Duluth, we can and should be tapping all of them to spend more time on the water.”

Undercover wardens
Minnesota DNR conservation officers Kipp Duncan, left, and Keith Olson, just before a stakeout along a North Shore stream in spring. The Duluth-area officers were trying to catch poachers who illegally net trout out of local rivers.
Contributed / Kipp Duncan

Smith noted that the DNR is increasing its presence on all waterways statewide with a big increase in recreational boating: Minnesota has seen additional 86,000 boats registered in recent years and now has more than 850,000 watercraft on lakes and rivers.

“We have a lot more user groups on the water, and a lot more new boaters. There’s just a lot more pressure on our lakes now than ever before,’’ Smith said. “So we are making it a focus to spend more time on the water, too.”

The DNR now has about 180 conservation officers on duty, with 19 more ready to start training academy May 31. The recruits will fill open positions starting this fall as existing officers retire.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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