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Longtime park caretaker is friend to campers far and wide

For 24 years, Glenn Motzko has been caring for public land surrounding the Crow Wing River. A river he calls the best in Minnesota.

Glenn Motzko is the park maintenance supervisor for the Wadena County Park System.
Glenn Motzko is the park maintenance supervisor for the Wadena County Park System.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal
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NIMROD — “Because of its low gradient, clear water, stable flow and numerous access points, the Crow Wing River is considered to be one of Minnesota’s best family-oriented canoe routes,” according to a brochure from the Minnesota DNR about the Crow Wing River State Trail.

One man has been working to maintain that claim to fame for the last 24 years. They call him “Ranger Glenn.”

"Ranger Glenn" Motzko has been parks maintenance supervisor for Wadena County Parks for 24 years and has a love for the Crow Wing River system that campers and paddlers can’t help but pick up on. He’s referred to as “ranger” as he is often the one seen maintaining and caring for the nine Wadena County campgrounds nestled along the Crow Wing River. He patrols them on the weekends as well to note who is using them and how.

“There’s a piece of me everywhere you look,” Motzko said as he sat inside Stigman’s Mound in Nimrod, that’s one of many historic sites along the Crow Wing River that he regularly visits. On that particular day, a light rain fell and some foliage in the area was just starting to give up its most brilliant of colors, which would soon be a dazzling display for fans of fall.

Motzko, who grew up near Staples and now calls Oylen home, has been living and working along this river for most of his life. He absolutely loves the office view as he’s trimming brush or replacing picnic tables and looking out over the slow moving river. He made the move from the rat race of life in the cities to the north woods years ago and has never looked back. He recalled his move out to a trailer in the woods near Brainerd without power or running water.

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Crow Wing River.jpg
The Crow Wing River is considered by many as one of the most family friendly rivers in the state.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

“If you don’t pursue your dreams, dreams are all they’ll ever be,” he told his previous co-workers when he moved into the woods with his now ex-wife.

Life out there only lasted a year, but he soon found a spot in Oylen, Minn., that suited his desire to be in one of the more untamed areas of the state near the Crow Wing River.

He makes some strong claims about river fishing that may cause people to pause. It’s not widely known as a strong fishery but he believes that it’s hard to beat.

“The next state record might well come out of this river because there is a lot of forage fish,” Motzko said. He’s got footage to back up his claim as he skips through his phone photos to show off a 4-pound bass he recently pulled from under a bridge. That’s far from a state record fish, but it’s a fine fish from what’s known as a rather shallow river.

Glenn Smallmouth.JPG
Glenn Motzko holds a smallmouth bass he caught in the Crow Wing River.
Contributed photo

“Because of its sandy bottom, sparse aquatic vegetation and lack of deep pools, the Crow Wing is not a good game fish river and supports only a limited number of waterfowl. Northern redhorse and white sucker, both rough fish, are the river's most common species,” reads an excerpt from the Minnesota DNR’s website about the Crow Wing River State Water Trail.

That’s a description Motzko is ready and willing to debate as he talks of little kids who have stayed at campgrounds with no experience in catching fish and no equipment. Before they leave he has pulled a bit of line and tree branch together to get the kids their first fish.

But like anything about this stretch of river, he’s ready to promote it as one of the best around.

“You have to put a little bit of ownership into it,” Motzko said in his favorite park along the chain, “Little White Dog,” named for quite literally, a little white dog that a pioneer once owned near that park.

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Staying at Wadena County Parks
Campsites are rustic with picnic tables, fire rings and a hand water pump nearby in campgrounds like Little White Dog in September 2022.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

In that park he recalls the picnic table that he built with his daughter when she was still a little tyke. He speaks of how the bank was completely eroded from canoes being pulled in and out of the gradual slope. He worked on reconstructing the bank with a crew to add large rocks by hand, then smaller rocks, logs, and finally reestablishing native vegetation until they brought the site back to what it is now, which is one that stops erosion and creates habitat for water and land creatures. A concrete landing nearby is now the main entry and exit point and withstands erosion and heavy canoe traffic. Those have been added at five of the nine parks and have made a world of difference in keeping the sites from deteriorating.

While Motzko loves the work of mowing, trimming and generally keeping the sites looking clean he said that’s something that takes daily attention during the camping season.

Frame's Landing CCC
Scenes like these with a full crew of men ready to build the future was common place even in places like Nimrod, Minn., where a Civilian Conservation Corp. camp was once operating in the 1930s.
Eric Mortenson/Minnesota Historical Society

While showing off his latest project, erecting a monument to a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Nimrod, at Frame’s Landing, he explains that this area was something special long before he got here. He’s just been working to keep it special and by preserving history, explain how these places came to be. He can’t help but pick up little bits of garbage left by visitors to the parks as he’s walking along. It’s as if he’s tidying up his living room when a guest comes over.

“If somebody sees a bottle on the ground, they’ll add to it,” Motzko explains. That’s why he aims to keep the sites free of litter. “I’m constantly picking stuff up,” he said.

He recalls a story where he was passing by a popular swimming area on the river and a man tossed an empty bottle into the river. He pulled over, walked down to the man and let him know that he could either go get the bottle or Motzko could involve law enforcement.

“He went for a swim and came back with two bottles,” Motzko said of the litter bug.

Things were known to be a bit crazy down on the river before Motzko came on the scene. He was made aware in the hiring process that being caretaker to these parks meant more than just mowing grass. He was asked if he had a background in construction and a background in dealing with people and alcohol. Motzko was able to say “yes” as he was involved in furniture making and served as a bouncer in past jobs. He was hired.

This wild stretch of river tends to involve people who want to have a good time, from church groups to the highly intoxicated. Glenn often has to speak with groups about the fact that everyone is visiting these sites to enjoy this place and it’s up to them to keep the peace. In instances that they don’t, law enforcement may get involved. He says that’s rare.

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“If everybody is having a good old time, so be it, enjoy yourself,” Motzko said. “As long as you're not wrecking nothing, disturbing others, paying your camping fees …”

Staying at Wadena County Parks
A trail to a campsite at Little White Dog is littered with fresh fallen leaves (not garbage) in September 2022.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

One former deputy said the work that Motzko did to turn things around was night and day from the previous free-for-all. The work is made clear by people who leaves comments on their payment slips. "Beautiful as always," as one camper put it. Campers come from all over North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa for a taste of this place, even if just for one night. "We decided to stay another night," commented another camper.

“You can’t wreck these places, just show a little respect for mother nature and everybody else,” Motzko said. Not everyone likes to be told what they can and can’t do. But without a little enforcement, places like these will cease to exist.

“This is the nicest river in the state of Minnesota, in my mind,” Motzko said. He considers it safe as there are limited deep holes. It’s clean thanks to a spring fed watershed. And in the heat of summer, it gets bathwater warm, something the strings of tubers tend to enjoy each summer.

“And the fishing can be phenomenal,” Motzko reiterated.

Motzko looks over comment cards and hears often about the beauty of this place knowing he had a hand in keeping it precious.

“They say, ‘It’s heaven,’” Motzko shared about some of the comments.

Outside of working alongside this place and conversing with hundreds of people from across the country who come here to enjoy it, he’s only put his canoe in the water about five times in 25 years. He offers a tip to those who’ve only ever dreamt about enjoying this slice of heaven.

“You’ve got to find the time to do it,” Motzko said.

Crow Wing River Paddle.jpg
Paddlers enjoy a paddle down the Crow Wing River in September 2022.
Contributed by WDC Schools

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in the city of Verndale, Minn., but is bent on making it as country as he can until he returns once more to the farm living he enjoys. Also living the dream are his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at mjohnson@agweek.com or 218-640-2312.
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