Decoy maker knows intimate details of his waterfowl subjects

GRANITE FALLS -- Vern Olson and his son once crawled on their hands and knees for a quarter of a mile to surprise a flock of 20 geese in a farm field.

GRANITE FALLS -- Vern Olson and his son once crawled on their hands and knees for a quarter of a mile to surprise a flock of 20 geese in a farm field.

The decoys never moved. The hunters never fired a shot.

"The decoys worked for me,'' said Olson with a laugh.

These days, it's Vern Olson who practices the art of deception.

He does so in the quiet of his basement studio, where he turns raw blocks of basswood into colorful replicas of some of his favorite waterfowl: Hooded mergansers, canvasbacks, wood ducks, mallards, and even loons and swans have emerged from his work bench.


They are all decoys, but each is so life-like and required so much work that Olson cannot stand the thought of tossing any one of them into the cold waters of an autumn slough.

He also knows their power to deceive and does not want to see it used.

Olson, 72, grew up on a farm between Milan and Watson in western Chippewa County and hunted waterfowl as a youth and young man.

Now, his passion for carving decoys has given him an intimate appreciation for the beauty of waterfowl. He has decided that wood ducks -- once the frequent target of his own shotgun -- are just too beautiful to be shot. "I think they should be protected,'' said Olson. "They shouldn't be hunted; they are so pretty.''

So instead of placing his decoys in the hands of those who might use them to hunt, he prefers to offer them as gifts to special friends. He refuses to sell them. "I get my enjoyment out of giving them to people who are special to me rather than selling them,'' he said.

The decoys are life-like enough to fool waterfowl or hunter, but the real surprise is this: The carver who creates them only took up his art a few years ago.

He waited until after he retired in 1998 from a 38 years-long career as a quality control manager for a manufacturing plant in Granite Falls.

He gave wood carving a try at the suggestion of his wife Val, with whom he will soon celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary.


Olson said he started out by enrolling in a local community education class. He discovered that he liked wood carving, and knew right away. The subject of his works would be the wildlife he sees around him, especially the waterfowl he loves so much. "Ducks have always interested me,'' he said.

Along with waterfowl, he has also carved life-sized replicas of the cardinals, wrens, robins, blue jays and other birds that visit his backyard feeder.

But the waterfowl are his passion. He spends idle time browsing books at the library and book stores for new looks at the details of his favorite subjects. He loves to escape with camera in hand for walks along the Minnesota River and the chance to observe migrating waterfowl.

Most of all, he enjoys retreating to his basement studio and creating exact replicas of the beauty he witnesses in the outdoors. He does both detail and smooth wood carving, but enjoys the detail work the most. His decoys come with feathers that do not lack for a single barb.

Once the form is created, Olson will mix water-based acrylic paints until he perfectly matches the color and hues of his waterfowl subject. He's even managed to match the iridescent, green sheen visible in the jet-black feathers of loons.

A pair of loons -- modeled after two he used to watch during summer vacations on Willow Lake near Grand Rapids -- is his favorite creation to date.

They also offer some insight into his passion for carving waterfowl. There is no hiding the enjoyment he derives from watching wildlife and being outdoors.

"When you're sitting on the lake and hear the loons calling, it is really something,'' he said.


To relive the magic of that experience, he has only to look at the beauty of his own, hand-carved works.

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