Frazee woman, AIS watercraft inspector, has a rich family history in Becker County
BY VIVIAN (MAKELA) SAZAMA
When Deb Wacker of rural Frazee landed a job as the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Watercraft Inspector in Becker County about eight years ago, it was a perfect fit for her. Working alongside boats and lakes was a natural fit for Deb, and working and making a difference in Becker County has been a family tradition that goes back six generations.
Deb has fond memories of the outdoors, and has always respected the area’s natural resources. Part of that respect was formed growing up around watercraft and her father’s business, Ole Lind Boatworks, in Detroit Lakes.
“He made wooden boats from cedar in the 1940s,” she said. “I used to watch him build them, and they were beautiful.”
In later years, her father switched to selling Lund boats, as well as sailboats, snowmobiles, Honda motorcycles and bait and tackle. Ole Lind Boatworks was also the only place in town to fill scuba tanks. Because of her childhood experiences, she really enjoys getting to see all kinds of watercraft come through the landing in her current position.
Deb’s father, Jim Davis, and her uncle John Davis bought out the Ole Lind Boatworks and operated it from 1946 until 1972. Her father then became the groundskeeper at the country club golf course before passing away at age 64.
But Deb’s family history in Becker County started much sooner. Her great grandfather, E.W. Davis, was the first licensed pharmacist in Becker County. He then became the first licensed fur trader to barter with the Native Americans in Minnesota, and established Davis Hide and Fur. Later, he became the first mayor of Detroit, which was renamed Detroit Lakes due to the confusion between Detroit, Michigan.
Another ancestor to place a mark in the county was Deb’s Grandmother Palm. “Grandmother Palm migrated from Rocherath, Germany, which is where the village of Rochert near the Tamarac Refuge got its name,” said Deb. “Her original cabin is still there on Cotton Lake, which one of my cousins now owns,” she said. Deb spent much of her summers growing up on Cotton Lake, and it is there where she fostered a love for the lakes and all they have to offer.
“I love wildlife and the idea of trying to keep our beautiful lakes here in Becker County clean,” said Deb, who works at the Island Lake access. “Island Lake is a very busy access, partly due to four resorts on the lake,” Deb said. “The resorts will many times direct their guests to launch at the access, especially if the boats are larger.”
Deb first got started inspecting in 2014, the first year that the AIS program started. Her husband, Fred, had retired in 2013 from Lund Boats and needed something to do. They happened to hear on the radio an advertisement for watercraft inspectors, and thought that would be a perfect fit. Fred didn’t want to attend the Saturday training at the courthouse in Detroit Lakes alone, so Deb went along. They both passed the test, and the very next Monday they received a call from Big Cormorant Lake Association asking them if they would accept a position there. They agreed, thinking that they would just alternate days working there, however, the next day, a Tuesday, they received another call from the Lake Sallie Lake Association. Deb took that position and served there for three years. “At that time we were considered paid volunteers, we didn’t have the authority to refuse boaters to launch. We were hired by the lake associations, who then turned in our timesheets to the county where we were paid through the county’s payroll system.”
In the middle of the 2014 season, Minnesota passed legislation granting $10 million per year for the management and control of aquatic invasive species. The state then allocates the monies to the counties according to the number of lakes and accesses. There are still some lake associations who contribute monies for additional man hours at their lakes. “I was at the Lake Sallie access for three years, but then there was a lot of road construction along Highway 59, and it began to be a real hassle to navigate to the landing so I then switched over to Island Lake and I’ve been there ever since.” she said.
One of the best things Deb likes about her inspector job is meeting new people. “I get a lot of locals, and it’s always nice to see them again. They know the Minnesota laws and protocol so it’s pretty much just going through the survey questions with them.” she said. “However, there are also a lot of out-of-state people who stay at the resorts who don’t know the laws. Then it’s a matter of educating them and showing them how it’s all done. I love when they ask questions. It’s really rewarding when they come back the following year and they remember it all.” she said.
Another thing she enjoys are the wildlife she gets to see with a lot of different birds and a large eagle nest nearby. “Every once in awhile I’ll see them swoop down and catch a fish,” said Deb. “I’ll see snapping turtles, deer, pelicans, and sandhill cranes too,” she said. The most frightening thing she has experienced at the landing was a very large bear that came through one day. “That was a bit scary,” she said. “I saw him across the parking lot so I went into my car. He then proceeded to amble right on over between my car and a large tree. For the rest of that day I had to keep looking over my shoulder!”
As a service to the anglers with live bait in water, Deb brings along a thermos of fresh water, so that if they want to keep their bait, they can just drain it, which is required, and replace it with fresh water. “Many of the returning fishing boaters now bring their own gallon of water and leave it in their vehicle until they get back in from fishing,” she said.
Something that has been very rewarding for Deb is when the cabin and resort owners come and thank her for doing the job, and let her know they appreciate it.
One of the aquatic invasive species Deb checks for is the zebra mussel, which found its way to American waters from Europe through ship ballasts in the Great Lakes. Currently there are 18 known lakes in Becker County with the zebra mussel, most of which are in the southwest corner of the county along the Pelican River Watershed, with the exception of Pickeral Lake, east of Detroit Lakes, and just north of County Highway 34, and just last year the mussels were found in Eagle Lake near Frazee. The adult zebra mussel grows to ¼ inch in size, and the adult female can lay up to a million eggs. The eggs float in the water columns for two weeks until they begin to form their hard shell and sink, attaching to any firm surface, such as weeds, rocks and clams, or docks, lifts, and watercraft. There is no known predator for the zebra mussel, which has a flat surface on one side, creating a sharp surface for swimmers to cut their feet on. The other primary AIS Deb checks for is the curly-leaf pondweed. Currently, there are a number of lakes in Becker County with this weed, which can propagate to another lake with just a small segment of the leaf. This AIS grows prolifically and clogs waterways for boaters, however, it is now being managed quite effectively using the AIS monies for safe herbicide applications.
In her spare time, Deb has pursued another passion of hers, genealogy. She has collected and put together extensive information on her family’s history, which also includes her great grandfather Johnson, who married an Okeson girl, another familiar name to Becker County. Her grandfather Van Buren was born in Rhode Island and came to Becker County as a young man. She has collected handkerchiefs from her various grandmothers and aunts, which she put together in a shadow box together with brooches from them as well, keeping alive an extensive family history in Becker County.