Almost overnight, I became a twenty-nine-year-old single father of a rambunctious two-year-old.
Kris Olsen Jr. with a Chinook caught while fishing with his father on Alaska’s Nushagak River.
In October of 1987, at the age of twenty-seven, the Good Lord brought me a gift that turned out to be far greater than anything I could have known or ever even imagined. Although not sure I was ready for the challenges or lifestyle changes that come with parenthood, the arrival of my son Kris Jr. certainly changed my perspective and brought me a whole new appreciation for what is truly important in this world.
It is said that life as you know it ceases to exist when you bring a child into this world, and I can certainly attest to that as almost overnight, the future you embark upon revolves completely around your child. It marks a distinct change in your growth as a human being to suddenly realize there are other things in life more important than yourself. You surprisingly begin to think and act in terms only relevant to the well-being of your child. It is a profound, yet joyous transformation to which any parent can easily relate.
As often happens, turmoil found its way into my spousal relationship as the futures we envisioned seemed worlds apart. Before I knew it, Kris Jr.’s mother and I ended our nine-year relationship and went our separate ways. I was determined to maintain a close relationship with my son, but little did I know just how intimate that relationship would soon become. I made a play for sole custody as I was clearly best able to provide for his needs. My wish came true when his mother signed off on the deal with the simple request that visitation be liberal and not limited to some regulated schedule.
Skykomish River king caught in 1995.
Almost overnight, I became a twenty-nine-year-old single father of a rambunctious two-year-old. I can tell you there is nothing that can prepare a young man for a constant diet of feeding, clothing, bathing, and entertaining a ball of energy such as a two-year-old boy. On top of that, driving him to daycare each morning before work and picking him up afterwards made for some long days. Aside from occasional weekends, my entire week was consumed with parental duties. I had no time for friends, dating or other social norms that most young people find themselves preoccupied with.
Two years later, when Kris Jr. was four years old, I unexpectedly met the woman who would ultimately become my second wife. In September of 1993, Tricia and I were married and began a long, loving relationship that is thriving to this day. Her willingness to love, nurture, counsel, and care for him as one of her own helped shape him into the outstanding young man that he became. I have always believed however, that those early, impressionable years we shared alone helped him and I cement a relationship that was unique in its closeness.
As you all know, one of my great pas-sions in life has always been fishing for salmon and steelhead. While Kris Jr. was exposed to that endeavor at a very early age, I was always careful not to force my passion for the sport upon him. Instead, I simply made those opportunities readily available to him and gave him the option to participate or not. As a young boy, sometimes he would join me and other times he would pass to spend time with his mom.
As he grew older, the times he would pass on the opportunity became far fewer and were almost always because other obligations stood in his way. We started out with short trips to a local lake, where we would row around in my drift boat, catch a few trout, and call it a day. At some point later I became engaged with a thriving guiding business, so any fishing time I could chisel out with my son was a treasured moment for sure.
Father and son on the Quinault River.
In the summer of 1993 at age 5, I introduced him to the fantastic Pink Salmon (Humpy) fishery on the Snohomish River. It was then that he began to learn how to properly battle salmon, letting them run when needed, while slowly working them back. He was a fast learner and by age 7, I remember people being amazed at how well he handled a rod for such a young boy. I think it was simply in his genes, but he did have a rare gift for it. Using trout rods and light gear made it a necessity to learn quickly if he wanted to land many Humpies. Kris Jr. was a natural however and always caught right on no matter the quarry or techniques involved.
In the summer of 1996 at the age of 8, Kris Jr. single-handedly landed his first large king salmon, a beautiful 35-pound Hoh River Spring Chinook. As I launched the boat at Oxbow campground among several other anglers, we were happy just to be sharing time together more than we were concerned about catching fish, but we did have our hopes. I had been promising him a father-son trip for some time and when he called me out on it, I found a weekend to call our own.
At the first likely and available holding water, I instructed young Kris to put the plugs out. We were just using Magnum Wiggle Warts, something easy for him to handle. He dutifully counted out the line and set each rod in the holder. I began the slow methodical rhythm of dipping the oars, but only got in about ten strokes when the right rod doubled over. I was not sure Kris could even get it out of the holder it was pinned so hard, but he was on it like a cat. Line smoked off the reel as though we had hooked a passing locomotive.
I thought quickly about what to do next and realized it was now or never, leaving it entirely up to him to either win or lose this battle for the ages. After chasing the beast several hundred yards down river, I finally anchored and jumped out with the net, praying for a good outcome. With the stars properly aligned and the Good Lord’s blessing, I slipped the net under that big chrome springer. When I held it up for his appraisal, the wide-eyed smile on his face was simply priceless. He was hooked for life from that very second on.
After that I started bringing him down with me to the Grays Harbor region to fish fall salmon. In those days, fish were very prolific in each of the area’s rivers. There were so many Chinooks to be had that the silvers were considered consolation Coho. Rivers that have long-since closed to retention of Chinook were open all season long to two adults of any kind, wild or hatchery. Best of all, the crowds of today were nearly non-existent back then.
There were other anglers, but you did not need to haul-ass three miles downriver in the dark to anchor up in one hole for the entire day and could fish most every pool or run without much conflict. Fishing was very productive, and between my own skills and those of my fellow guide buddies, Kris Jr. enjoyed coastal river fishing in ways most kids cannot begin to imagine. Sharing those experiences with him brought me a huge sense of joy as a father.
When Kris got to be a young teenager, I started taking him with me on guided trips to the Quinault Reservation, where tribal guides are required to access their supremely productive, private water. For thirty-five years, I have fished several times a year with Clay Butler. Taking my son along was always a special treat. I remember one steelhead trip when he was about fourteen, where he out-fished me something like seven or eight to two. While I was busy doing my own thing, he was busy listening to Clay and putting on a clinic. Those were memorable days.
Kris Olsen Sr. and Jr. with Wynoochee River summer steelhead.
We enjoyed numerous trips to Alaska together, but our first was an unforgettable journey to Kodiak Island when Kris was a young teenager. That week at Olga Creek Lodge in August of 2002 will go down as a memory for the ages. We caught so many Coho salmon we thought our arms were literally going to fall off. If ever an epic father and son trip existed, that was for sure it. Over the years, Kris was featured in many of my fishing articles and graced several magazine covers, gaining rock-star status among his many friends and young anglers everywhere.
Kris always had a knack for catching fish and whether it was summer steel-head, or fall Chinook and Coho, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. That was evident again in the spring of 2007 when my buddy Mark Heise and I headed north to make a float down the famous Sauk River for big, wild steelhead when it was still open in the spring for catch and release. At the last minute, Kris Jr. decided to join us, which proved to be a wise move on his part. He caught the only fish of the day, but what a fish it was. With me on the sticks working Tadpolly plugs, at age 19 he hooked and landed the steelhead of a lifetime, a beautiful buck we estimated to be about 24 lbs. To this day, I have never caught one larger and likely never will.
2007 is about the time he also settled on a long-term career path. He traveled to Chicago to attend insurance classes sponsored by Allstate and returned home to become an insurance salesman, something he was very dedicated and successful at, especially for starting at such a young age. He found a great independent agent in Lynnwood, WA and went to work for him full-time. Through all of his treatments and health battles, that relationship never wavered. They made a great team for many, many years.
If only all days could be epic and not like the day in February 2016 when we learned the news that no parent should ever hear. At 28 years of age, Kris Jr. was diagnosed with Stage IV Colorectal Cancer. Stage IV meant that the cancer had spread throughout other organs, more specifically his liver and lungs. Hearing the Oncologist tell us there was no cure for his condition and that his only real hope was to buy time was beyond devastating. As you can imagine, Kris Jr., Tricia and I were all crushed and distraught beyond belief.
There is nothing on God’s Earth that can prepare you for the news that your son is dying, but that was the reality we were abruptly left to process. The loss of someone at such a young age when their life is mostly ahead of them, is utterly impossible for any of us to understand. It is not for us to ask why, because the answer will never be forthcoming. I sincerely believe however, that ready or not, God has a loving plan for each of us and we simply had to find a way to lean forward and keep on keeping on.
In September of 2016, seven months after his diagnosis, Kris married the love of his life. He and Angileen had been together for several years and long planned to marry and raise a family of their own. His diagnosis did nothing to stop Angie’s desire to marry him and provide as much love, comfort and caring as she possibly could to help him in his battle. Theirs was a fairytale outdoor wedding that included a horse-drawn carriage, a glorious sunny afternoon and the love of many friends and family to help celebrate a very happy day in an otherwise difficult future. Her character throughout proved to all of us just what a truly lucky man Kris was to have her in his life.
Kris Olsen Jr. with a Michigan steelhead.
After his diagnosis, it became even more important for us to live the dream we both enjoyed so very much. We made a sojourn to Michigan in November of 2016 to enjoy five days of stellar fall steelhead fishing, relishing some epic days in beautiful autumn sunshine that I will never forget. The Pere Marquette River treated us spectacularly and provided a very memorable trip fishing with Chad Betts Guide Service. I had worked with Chad previously in 2013 and knew he would be the perfect man for the mission. I
n early June of 2017, we spent five glorious days in Craig, AK fishing the ocean for Chinook, halibut, and other as-sorted rockfish, another fantastic location and memory with Rich Manning’s Catch-A-King Charters. In early July 2018, we shared another epic week of Chinook fish-ing with Jon Boyd’s River King Outfitters, a self-guided operation on Alaska’s famous Nushagak River, fishing twelve hours a day and relishing every minute. Again, time I will immensely treasure as I recall the look of joy on his face every time his rod was bent to the cork.
Along with his love of fishing and later deer hunting, something he learned from his friends, Kris loved to snowboard and water ski, two activities he became profoundly adept at. He also liked to spend time golfing in the summer and was known to be well accomplished around a BBQ grill. He had many close, lifelong friends he very much cherished. Judging by the prolific number of photos that they posted on their Facebook pages, they were a close, tight-knit group. Whether they were camping, fishing, hunting, or whatever adventure they pursued, they did so with an incredible amount of joy, passion, and delight.
While so many parents are cursed to have children who somehow lose their way in life or become estranged for one reason or other, we were blessed to have one that made us profoundly proud in every meaningful way that a son can be measured. We were lucky enough to have the extraordinary gift of time to express to him how very much he meant to all of us. Most often, people we love pass suddenly, denying any opportunity to convey our true feelings for them. In our case, we had the rare opportunity to envelope Kris with our love and affection in every meaningful way.
For the last five years, I never ended a conversation, be it over the phone or in person, without telling him how much I loved him. Sadly, the Good Lord reeled Kris into the light early Wednesday morning June 9, 2021 at his home in Newport, WA, surrounded by his most treasured family members. His last legible words to me I clearly heard and understood were “I love you so much,” a gift I will treasure the rest of my days. While his passing will weigh heavily upon all who knew him, his memory will be a shining beacon for us to navigate our own remaining time on this earth.
Kris Jr. was an inspiration to us all. He carried his burden with grace and determination. He never expressed a why me attitude, he just went about his business and took in all of his treatments as if they were just another day. He lived large, loved life, and his wife and family with everything he had in him. That never wavered throughout his entire excruciating ordeal, even as modern medicine ran out of options. He faced his mortality with the mental fortitude of the Viking he was, and it compels me to find the resolve I will need to carry on without him.
Tricia and I are heartbroken that Kris never had the opportunity to raise a family of his own, to share with his own children lessons that he had accumulated throughout his own upbringing. I am certain that he would have been a fantastic father and mentor. He would have eventually said something to one of his kids, only to have the revelation that he had suddenly become me. I know this because one day when Kris was a young school boy, I unexpectedly heard my own father’s voice in the message I was delivering. Ultimately, that was a good thing and passing that down to the next generation would have been a great joy to him.
Before he left us, I took great care to make sure Kris understood he was transitioning with a certain amount of responsibility. I told him I was counting on him for two very critical things. First and most importantly, to scout out the best salmon and steelhead water in God’s Kingdom ahead of my own arrival. Second, to make sure he and his Grandpa Olsen do not eat all the Swedish Pancakes in Valhalla. I am supremely confident in his ability to carry out the first task, but regrettably, not so much the second.
In early October of 2020, on his annual birthday fishing weekend, we spent a truly epic day fall Chinook fishing on the lower Queets River within a half-mile of the ocean with our go-to Quinault guide, Clay Butler. Kris Jr. railed big kings like there was no tomorrow, leaving me holding both the net and the camera all morning long. It was just one of those days where all of his stars aligned, and I loved each and every minute of it. Little did I know it would be the very last time we would ever share a boat together.
Kris Olsen Jr. with the first Chinook he caught all by himself on the Hoh River in 1996.
Whether it was a guided trip on the Quinault Reservation, floats in our own drift boat, or grand trips to Alaska, the time we shared in the outdoors was without question the quality time we enjoyed most. Having a son who shared my passion was a gift I will always treasure. It is with immense sadness, but faith in a loving God that I say a very tearful goodbye to the best son and fishing partner a man could ever know. I will forever cherish every last one of the unforgettable memories we created over his all-to-short life.
Thank you, Kris, for your smile, your humor, your kindness, your respect and simply for being the kind of son any father would be proud of. You will always remain a huge part of our lives, both is spirit and in our hearts. Save me a seat in your Viking Longboat, for when I join you in Valhalla, there is nobody I would rather share a boat with. May your journey home be with fair winds, following seas, and everlasting tight lines. I love you always.