Ori’s Bench: Honoring a Professor and Conservationist Who Love the Woods

Orrin Rongstad and his family made countless memories along Coon Fork Creek

Joe Knight

GONE FISHIN'. The late Orrin
GONE FISHIN'. The late Orrin Rongstad frequently fished and camped along Coon Fork Creek in rural Eau Claire County. After he died last summer at age 91, his family paid to put a memorial bench at his favorite fishing spot. (Submitted photo)

There is a pool on Coon Fork Creek, just downstream from Coon Fork County Park in eastern Eau Claire County, where the creek slows and deepens momentarily, bordered by sandstone bluffs. It is a natural fishing hole, but also a scenic spot for hikers and skiers using the nearby Evergreen Trail to pause. For decades the pool has been known as “Ori’s Hole” to the Rongstad family, named for Orrin Rongstad, patriarch of the family. His daughter, Amy Grelle of Middleton, thought it would be a good spot for a memorial bench in honor of her dad who passed last summer at the age of 91.

The Eau Claire County Board’s Parks and Forest Committee sometimes gets requests for the placement of a memorial bench at a scenic spot on county land that has special meaning for a loved one and family and friends. If approved, the county orders and installs the bench while the family covers expenses.

In a letter for the committee, Grelle wrote that Ori grew up in Osseo and had camped with school friends near the creek before it was dammed to form Coon Fork Lake, and before the county created the surrounding park. In 1962 he took his parents for a final canoe ride on the creek just before the dam was built that created the lake. He liked to point out where he shot his first buck in 1947 or where he had picked a Wolf River apple big enough to make an entire pie.

The family made annual camping trips to the park. “My husband and boys learned firsthand why my dad loved the area,” she wrote. When her husband Rick began turkey hunting, Ori and Rick began an annual spring camping trip to the park, which served as a base for their hunting. On April 22, Ori’s birthday, they would invite friends and relatives for a campfire.   

Orrin Rongstad, his son-in-law, and grandsons at the fishing hole in 2002. (Submitted photo)
Orrin Rongstad, his son-in-law, and grandsons at the fishing hole in 2002. (Submitted photo)

As I read the letter, I realized that I knew Ori, although I hadn’t seen him in 40 years. I knew him as Professor Rongstad in the department of Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison. He co-taught an introductory class on wildlife ecology where they would play a loud recording of howling wolves through open classroom doors. It got the attention of the students right away, as well as the attention of everyone else in the building as it reverberated through the hallways. At the time, in the early 1970s, there were no wolves in Wisconsin, nor anywhere else in the lower 48 states outside of northern Minnesota. If you had said at the time that in 40 years there would be 1,000 wolves living in northern and central Wisconsin, you might not have passed the class.

Professor Rongstad mentioned once or twice that he was from a place called Osseo, but my knowledge of western Wisconsin was minimal. It would be many years before I discovered Osseo, the Norske Nook, and their extensive list of pies.

I phoned Amy Grelle and told her the committee had unanimously approved the bench, although she had already gotten the news. I told her I knew her dad and had been one of his students. She and her husband Rick told me more about my old professor.

Rongstad was friends with U.S. Gaylord Nelson and conservationist Martin Hanson. The three shared a common interest in environmental policy and martinis, and they would get together for cocktails. During one of these sessions, they discussed the possibility of returning wild elk to Wisconsin. This became a reality in 1995 when the Department of Natural Resources began releasing elk in northern Wisconsin. Hanson was a financial backer of the project. Hanson owned land in northern Wisconsin where he let Rongstad’s graduate students study wildlife. He later donated over 1,000 acres to the university.

According to family lore, at another one of these sessions, Nelson brought up the idea of designating a day to celebrate the environment: Earth Day. He set it on April 22, Rongstad’s birthday.

The annual family camping trip to Coon Forks Park was a highlight for Rongstad and the extended family, Grelle said. “This was the place, where he could share his love of the outdoors with his family. He was happiest there. The food tasted better. Drinks were better. Everybody’s best martini was at Coon Forks.”

They got to know the parks rangers well. Rangers John and Betty Brevik would often stop by the campfire, and later Ranger Tess.

Orrin Rongstad continued to camp into his 80s, using a tent that attached to the back of his car. (Submitted photo)
Orrin Rongstad continued to camp into his 80s, using a tent that attached to the back of his car. (Submitted photo)

In 2015, when Rongstad turned 85, he decided he was done camping. But he came back two more years using a tent that plugged into the back of his car. Then for two more years he slept at a motel in Osseo, but spent all day around a campfire. His last time at the park was 2019.

The family asked that the inscription on the memorial bench say simply: “Orrin Rongstad. Walking in the woods.” He always enjoyed walking in the woods with family members or students, pointing out things in nature, Grelle said.

Just before he died, she asked him if he thought he might somehow watch his funeral, peering down from some celestial perch. “He said, ‘Oh no. I’m going to be walking in the woods.’ ”

Joe Knight represents District 3 on the Eau Claire County Board and is chairman of the board’s Parks and Forest Committee. He is also a longtime outdoor and environmental writer.