ORR— When a person ages into their seventies, it’s a given that they’ve left many things behind in their lives, and Dick Olson is no exception.A Virginia native who graduated from …
ORR— When a person ages into their seventies, it’s a given that they’ve left many things behind in their lives, and Dick Olson is no exception.
A Virginia native who graduated from Virginia High School in 1967 and went to junior college there for two years, Olson left the Iron Range behind when he moved on to study natural resources at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. He left that behind to move to Cook to work for the U.S. Forest Service for a time, then left that job to work for Boise-Cascade. After 33 years, he left that job, too, and about 15 years ago he left Cook behind for a new home at Myrtle Lake.
But across the decades there have been a couple of things he’s held onto, the most important being his wife, Pat. A teacher by profession, Pat married Dick in 1973, and together the couple had two sons, both now in their 40s.
But there’s a constant in Dick’s life even longer than his marriage, one few can claim. For more than 50 years, starting when he was 18, Olson has been a teacher of hunter education courses. Initially certified as a National Rifle Association firearms safety instructor, he’s going into his 51st season as an instructor for the Department of Natural Resources hunter education program.
Olson doesn’t like to make a big deal about his longevity in the endeavor. He prefers instead to talk enthusiastically about the joys of introducing new generations to safe hunting and the changes in hunter education over the years, all with the hope that his enthusiasm for the pursuit might rub off a little bit and attract new instructors into the fold.
There’s always been a prescribed curriculum for the DNR classes, and like all instructors, Olson had to go through initial training and periodic refresher sessions. But for the majority of his years with DNR, no matter whom he might be sharing class responsibilities with, Olson said he liked being able to delve into a wide variety of topics in his classes.
“It was a broader program, to be sure,” he said. We’d have somebody come in and talk about trapping, talk about bow hunting, talk about black powder. The St. Louis County Rescue Squad had representatives here so they’d come and talk about things like that. We covered the gamut. But then it evolved. The book changed so that it was just total firearms, which is fine, but we still tried to talk about some of the other things that weren’t covered in the book itself.”
Of course, Olson wasn’t married to the book, so his classes rarely went through the chapters in order as he rearranged things to suit his sensibilities.
And his students? Mostly they were kids he was familiar with.
“There were probably only 25 to 40 kids that graduated from school in Cook, but I’d say almost every one of those kids went through the program, both guys and girls. One year we had more girls than boys,” Olson said.
His relationships with the kids, both preexisting and formed through classes, were an asset not only to classroom teaching, but to the hands-on experiences of the field days that accompanied classes, Olson said.
And along with the variety and relationships, Olson also had what he said was a benefit of teaching using real guns and ammunition, something absent from today’s classes.
“I might talk about the different calibers, right, and the different shapes of the calibers. But you have to look at the base of the cartridge to find out what firearm you can shoot it in. They talk about it now, but that’s extremely important.”
Field days also included live fire practice with six rifles donated to the Cook group by the Turkey Federation, Olson said.
“That’s all you can put on the firing line anyway,” he said. “Each one of those kids has to be with an instructor. It’s always been that way.”
A significant change for hunter education in the area came about ten years ago when the Cook and Orr schools were merged to create North Woods School, Olson said. Combining hunter education courses seemed to be a natural extension of the merger, and so Olson, who had moved to Myrtle Lake by that time, found himself collaborating with fellow longtime instructors Tom Fink and Ed Franck in Orr.
“They used to go to Dennis Udovich’s game farm for their shooting, which was a better deal than what we had,” Olson said. “We’d go to a gravel pit. Dennis and Mimi, they’d fix a little lunch for the kids, and then they got to shoot shotguns and clay pigeons.”
But along with a gradual decline in the overall number of hunters has also come a decrease in class sizes, Olson said.
“Between the two programs (in Cook and Orr) there was probably 60 people every year that took the classes,” he said. “I’m guessing now we’re probably about 25 or 30 with the schools combined, and I realize families have gotten smaller and other things like that. But there was probably 80 to 90-percent participation by the kids back in the 70s, 80s and 90s.”
Having gotten his start in the days of chalkboards and slideshows, Olson has seen technology creep into the DNR classes at a faster and faster pace in recent years, requiring experience with computers and PowerPoint that have resulted in him shifting from the role of primary instructor to facilitator and support person. The COVID-19 pandemic was an even bigger game changer, as restrictions on indoor activities and group sizes caused the DNR to shift the firearms safety class to online delivery. And while a hands-on field day is still a requirement for kids 13 and under to complete their certification, 14-17-year-olds can currently do their “field day” experience online, too.
“I’m just sort of sitting in the bleachers,” Olson chuckled. “I had a computer when I was working, but when I left I didn’t follow up on anything there, so I don’t know how to run the PowerPoint.”
There are also fewer classes and field days offered in northern Minnesota, Olson said. An upcoming field day in August at Orr that Olson will be working is already full from online registration, and many of those students will be coming in from a distance.
“Those online kids, they come from Duluth, International Falls, Grand Rapids, they come from just about anywhere,” he said.
But even with all the changes, Olson remains upbeat about the DNR program.
“The new program is very, very good,” he said. “It’s just that I kind of remember the old one.”
And the new program is largely being taught by people who also taught the old program, as new volunteer instructors have been hard to come by.
“When I first started in Orr, there were basically five different guys that worked with the program, but some of them don’t do it anymore. One of them died. It’s an old man’s game,” Olson said.
The Orr group does include an instructor who is a woman in her 40s, Olson said, but getting people to replace the 70-somethings is tough.
“The interest level isn’t there,” he said. “There are some people that might come for a year.”
Volunteers are also generally in short supply these days, Olson acknowledged, and when people get locked into one volunteer opportunity it’s hard to get them to take on more.
“Once you’ve volunteered, you’ve volunteered for life,” he said.
But the work is still rewarding, as is seeing a new generation of young hunters take to the field, and Olson encourages anyone with a love of hunting who wants to help preserve and promote the sport to consider signing up to be an instructor. And you don’t have to be a master teacher to apply, he said, thanks to technology.
“It isn’t like you’re teaching the whole thing, because all the videos cover everything,” he said.