Sen. Donald Olson, a Democrat from Alaska, spends January to May at the state capital in Juneau and the latter part of the year in his rural hometown of Golovin where he flies helicopters and herds reindeer.
Olson grew up in the town, population 160, but some of his ancestors come from a long line of reindeer herders who migrated from Northern Europe to Alaska more than a century ago. His love for flying was instilled by his father, a bush pilot, who disappeared into a blizzard in 1980.
Today, Olson owns Polar Express Airways and the air taxi service company, Olson Ventures, in addition to being a doctor and father of six. The 64-year-old has lived a life fit for the silver screen, but if someone were to make a movie about him, it could easily be entirely focused on a reindeer rescue mission he orchestrated in 1992.
It was a few weeks before Christmas when Olson and a hand-picked crew of reindeer herders landed on the frozen beaches of Hagemeister Island. The 24-mile-long island is home to an uninhabited wildlife refuge in Bristol Bay some 400 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had sent marksmen to the island to kill a herd of more than 1,000 reindeer that had grown out of control. Reindeer are not native to Alaska and many of them had begun to starve.
When Olson learned about the “mercy killings,” he quickly organized and financed a rescue mission. He spent several days herding and loading dozens of reindeer into a World War II-era cargo plane. After three trips, they had saved about 125 reindeer but harsh winter weather forced them to halt their efforts.
“During the second trip, when we didn’t have a reindeer herder on board, one of the reindeer got loose and got into the cockpit,” Olson recalled, laughing. “That caused a fair amount of excitement.”
Before the 2000 elections, he decided to run for office when he said he realized the Alaska Senate was lacking perspective he could offer. He now sits on multiple committees where he can lend his expertise, including ones addressing the Arctic, finance, health and social services.
“I can make the tough decisions because if I’m re-elected, good, but if I’m not, then I have other things I can live off of,” Olson said.
“But these people who don’t have any other life besides being a politician — so they become career politicians — I think those are dangerous,” he added.