Big Ole - The Xtreme Boatman of the Apostle Islands


Big Ole Hanson
Big Ole- newspaper photo from the 1930s.

If you ever go out to Stockton Island, in the Apostles chain, keep your eyes open for the outline of an old fishing cabin on the ground. It just might be the long-lost home of Big Ole, the greatest rower who ever dipped an oar in Lake Superior.

Everyone in Bayfield knew Olaf Hanson. His Norwegian colleagues called him Stor Ole: "Big Ole." He had a cabin near Presque Isle, where he made his living, fishing from his eighteen-foot rowboat. He ranged all over the big lake, often staying out as long as three weeks, and thought little of rowing across to the north shore, if that's where the fish were.

Though well into his sixties, Ole routinely rowed back and forth between Bayfield and his island home, and if friends in their tugs offered him a tow, he'd turn them down. "Not for a little hitch like that," he'd say.

He might have been too polite to explain that he'd get there faster under his own power. Ole Frostman recalled a day when he was motoring homeward in his tug, preoccupied with gutting fish. He happened to look up, and there went Ole Hanson- passing him in his rowboat.

Big Ole wasn't much for bragging, but eventually word got around of his background. As a young man in Norway, he'd been the national rowing champion for eleven straight years. The only reason he didn't make twelve was that the contest officials asked him to stay home and give someone else a chance.

Rowing was not his only sport. Ole was also renowned as an expert marksman, winning numerous prizes for his shooting. This skill served him well in his first career: before coming to America, he spent years as a harpoon gunner on a whaling ship.

In 1936, word reached Bayfield that the national rowing championships would be held that summer on Lake Winnebago, at Oshkosh. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. Folks in town raised money to send Ole to the competition, to show everyone what a real rowing champ could do.

One unwelcome complication faced the Bayfielders, though. It turned out that the contest was strictly for two-man rowing teams. Big Ole insisted that he'd never needed a partner before, and he wasn't about to change now. It didn't matter- he could beat any two men by himself.

The judges stood firm. Two men per boat was the rule. Ole could do all the rowing if he wanted, but he'd have to carry a passenger. Otherwise, their impeccable logic told them, he'd have an unfair weight advantage. That he was sixty-eight years old was his problem, not anyone else's.

When the starting gun fired, the field took off: two-man teams of vigorous young athletes, and a grizzled old fisherman carrying a passenger for deadweight. Big Ole started off strongly, and maybe that was his downfall. He took an early lead, and flush with confidence, decided to have some fun with the young guys.

That was a mistake. To maintain his position, the solo racer kept up maximum effort while his opponents took turns rowing and resting. After 45 grueling minutes, it all became too much. Big Ole slumped over his oars, beaten for the first time in anyone's memory. Recognizing a true champion, the crowd applauded thunderously as he left the course.

Ole may have lost one race, but he didn't lose his spirit. Before heading home to Stockton Island, he left a challenge: he'd race anyone, man to man, from Ashland to Bayfield. That's the way, he said, to see who's really the best. And to make things worth a journey north, his friends pooled one hundred dollars of their hard-earned money, and placed it on the line for anyone who could beat Big Ole.

None of the young fellows ever took him up on the offer. Maybe they couldn't afford to lose a hundred bucks.



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