End of the Adventure

outdoor TV legend Carlson retires with his show

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

TALKING TURKEY. AND DEER, AND ... Dave Carlson, shown in the WQOW studio last year, is officially retiring Dec. 29 with the final episode of Northland Adventures.
TALKING TURKEY. AND DEER, AND ... Dave Carlson, shown in the WQOW studio last year, is officially retiring Dec. 29 with the final episode of Northland Adventures.

Dave Carlson’s office is much what you’d expect of an award-winning broadcaster and writer who’s been telling outdoor tales for more than four decades. His desk is covered in a profusion of papers, videotapes, and discs; above them hangs a wall full of stuffed fish and birds, preserved forever in mid-swim or mid-flight. During a chat in the office at his home on Eau Claire’s north side, the soon-to-retire host of Northland Adventures reflected on the meaning of these taxidermy trophies.

“There are thousands of people out there who hunt and fish and ski and do all these other things in the outdoors much better than me. My job is not to be better than them; my job is just to tell their stories.”
– Dave Carlson, retiring host of
Northland Adventures

“Every one truly is a memory that was in some way touched upon in a program that we were doing,” explains Carlson, whose long-running syndicated show will air its 692nd and final episode Dec. 29. “When people tell me when you do some stories that it’s always about the memories, I can strongly related to that.” Carlson has been recording – and making – memories for outdoor enthusiasts in the Chippewa Valley and beyond since 1970. That’s when he began a decade-long career as an outdoors writer for the Leader-Telegram. In 1981, he made the switch to television, creating and hosting what became known as Northland Journal on WEAU-TV (Channel 13) in Eau Claire, where he produced more than 1,100 episodes, traveled across the nation and to several other countries, and won a host of awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. When that show was canceled in 2000, Carlson was quickly hired by WQOW-TV (Channel 18), where he began Northland Adventures, a weekly, half-hour journal of outdoor issues that now airs on 23 stations in 12 states. He’s also found time to write three books.

About a year ago, Carlson – now 66 – stepped back to a part-time role with the show with the goal of passing it to a new team. Unfortunately, the departure of several correspondents and declining ad revenue led WQOW to announce in November that it will retire the program entirely. As WQOW general manager David Booth said at the time, “We came to the realization that Northland Adventures just isn’t the same without Dave Carlson.” While a modest Carlson disagrees – “I’ve considered it not the Dave Carlson show, I’ve considered it the public’s show,” he says – the sentiment is undoubtedly true for generations of fans who’ve made a weekly appointment with the hall-of-fame broadcaster. In a recent interview, Carlson reflected on his long career and talked about starting a TV show from scratch, why the Chippewa Valley is a sweet spot for outdoor lovers, and what is wrong with Duck Dynasty.

What attracted you to reporting about the outdoors?
Initially I wanted to be a print reporter, general assignment: Send me anywhere and I’ll do the story. (Outdoor reporting) opened up because I went searching for it. I asked (the Leader-Telegram editors) to do some outdoor reporting. … It jumped from there. (Considering) my own interest in the outdoors, it was just a natural thing that I take up writing about it, being in the newspaper business, and that launched me into telling stories, getting good outdoor stories about the personalities, and the places, and the issues, and that’s what continued to evolve right through the newspaper career.

How did you make the move to TV?
(My wife) sees an ad in the newspaper, and I thought, “Nah, not for me.” Because when I go out doing my print stories every time I run into a TV crew, they’re getting in my way. … They tend to try to dominate a conversation or an interview. (But) I thought, “I’m not really going in the direction I want at the Leader, and I’ll give this a chance and apply for the job,” and I got it. … On my first day at Channel 13 – not knowing exactly how I was going to begin to put a show together and just barely beginning to meet the people I would be working with – (President) Reagan was shot, and I’ll never forget how I saw TV work in conjunction with national networking to get that story, and then they build their story with local response, of course. That was not going to be my type of story, but I saw … the power of the camera from the inside.

How did you build a program that, in various incarnations, lasted 32 years?
(They) assigned a photographer to me full-time, and we hit the road, it was as simple as that. … We started doing segments and started building around Channel 13’s Lucky 13 Fishing Contest, changing it from one of those things where it was a walk-in (show) where people were interviewed on the studio set live, and changing it to a prepared production, and learning the editing process, and learning how to deal with the camera as a tool – when it would work, when it wouldn’t work, how it would tell a story. … And learning how to capture the beauty of the world, learning how to capture the things that need to be understood, and sharing that with the public. That was the real trick.

It has to be sort of bittersweet to be leaving when you know you’ve helped to create so many memories.
This has been a privilege for me to do this, because it’s not about me, it’s about others. John Husar, who used to be the outdoor writer for the Chicago Tribune, had a saying that I’ve picked up on and repeated many times: There are thousands of people out there who hunt and fish and ski and do all these other things in the outdoors much better than me. My job is not to be better than them; my job is just to tell their stories. And that’s the cleanest, simplest way I can put it as far as my role in all of this.

“True sportspersons ... need to know about those things, need to know about what’s happening to the world, need to know much more than what bait to use or what shot to use or how to set your decoys.” – Dave Carlson, on the lack of environmental reporting on most outdoors shows

Has media coverage of the outdoors become more nuanced as far as covering the environment and other issues beyond hunting and fishing? Is there an appetite for that?
I hope there is, but I have my doubts when a program like Duck Dynasty is one of the top-rated programs in the county. And it’s a marketing tool: T-shirt hats, mugs, duck calls, look-alike beards and all that stuff. I have watched a few of their episodes – and I’m not just picking on them, because I could say it about most of the outdoor programming – I’ve watched those programs and I see very little storytelling about environmental matters, very little about conservation issue, and that bothers me, because true sportspersons – hunters and fishers – need to know about those things, need to know about what’s happening to the world, need to know much more than what bait to use or what shot to use or how to set your decoys or the other technical aspects of outdoor activity, and they’re not getting it. They’re getting too much of high fives and laughter and clown-type activity that they are editing together in a slick fashion with a lot of glitz and glamour and innuendos and not dealing with real outdoors issues in my book.

Of all the stories you have told, which ones really stand out?
One that comes to mind – not necessary that I liked doing, but certainly one of the most inflammatory – was coverage of the Indian spearfishing (controversy). I would leave in the afternoon and I would go out and stay out till the wee hours of the morning and watch people act like idiots, and just keep your fingers crossed that you or nobody else was going to get hurt that night, and you see society at its ugliest. I compared it to the civil rights struggle in the South. It’s just fortunate nobody was killed. People were injured, and there were a lot of hard feelings. Fortunately a lot of that has blown away, and we’ve come to understand that (spearfishing) had many beneficial impacts for the resources and for the Indian people of the state. That and I think the stories that I’ve been involved in and that we’ve helped shed light on some very controversial issues: coverage of lead poisoning among waterfowl by the spent shot from hunters; chronic wasting disease, its arrival in the state, its spread, and how the state has been, I think, very successful in managing it; issues that look at the management of the Mississippi River; stories that talk about high-capacity wells and their impact on our groundwater.

Considering all the places you’ve been, what makes our part of Wisconsin unique in terms of natural resources that we’re able to enjoy?
This is a great hub. You’re close to Lake Michigan, Lake Superior. Obviously very close to the Mississippi River. You’re close to the Boundary Waters. Go to the south and to the west you’re in prairies. You’ve got some of the best trout fishing in the world in the Driftless area. You’ve got some excellent warm-water fishing. You’ve got beautiful forests. A lot of public access: It’s so important to maintain public access, add to it at each and every possibility if it fits and is a good part of the puzzle. … I think by and large, people care about (the resources). It’s very important to maintain these things.

The last full episode of Northland Adventures will air on Eau Claire’s WQOW-TV (Channel 18) and La Crosse’s WXOW-TV at 10:35pm on Sunday, Dec. 29.