Life Lessons from a 97-Year-Old Lobsterman
John Olson has been on the water for nine decades—and he's still working
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If the definition of a true outdoorsman is spending more of your life braving the elements than seeking shelter from them, lobsterman John Olson may be the finest example alive.
On Halloween morning last year—the wind six knots, the temperature 38 degrees—Olson stands at the helm of a high-bowed wooden boat that shoulders aside the sea. Wearing rubber boots, brown work pants, and a navy jacket with enough dirt on it for him not to worry about keeping it clean, John has the straight-backed bearing of the World War II sailor he once was.
“My mother wanted me to work in an office,” he says, nudging the boat close to an orange and black buoy bobbing off Griffin Island in midcoast Maine. “But that wasn’t for me.” He snags the buoy with a duct-taped gaff, and the hydraulic hauler whines as it lifts a wire trap with a tangle of lobsters inside.
“How do you know where to find them?” I ask.
“It’s all in here,” John says, pointing a yellow-gloved hand to his head, which, after 97 years, is still covered by a respectable amount of gray hair. “I been over this bottom so many times, it’s imprinted.”
John Olson caught his first crustaceans nine decades ago. Born in 1922, he spent his childhood summers roaming Hathorne Point on Maine’s Muscongus Bay with his buddy Clyde. The boys spent their nights camping out and their days fishing, swimming, or working on Clyde’s father’s lobster boat.
“I couldn’t have been much more than six,” John says of his early start in the lobstering business. He digs through a box in the kitchen of the weathered saltbox house he built in 1954, his cat, Mia, rubbing against his legs, until he finds a faded photograph. In it, a young John, jug-eared and smiling, stands by a wheelbarrow full of lobsters, clutching one in each hand. “I started out paddling with oars. Then motors came along, and my father bought an engine for me—a one-cylinder—and we put it in a dory.”
John shows me the lobster fisherman’s license he received at age 16. Dated July 1, 1938, the creased and torn document is a remnant from the Depression, when lobsters sold for 15 cents a pound. After high school, he bought a brand-new boat, paying for it the Maine way: “I went into the woods and cut 100 cords of pulpwood with a bucksaw and ax,” John remembers. “There weren’t no chainsaws.”
World War II put the brakes on John’s burgeoning business. He was 20 when he hitchhiked to Portland, Maine, to enlist in the Navy, where his sea legs came in handy aboard the USS Nelson. “First year on that destroyer, I had to sleep in a hammock, and, boy, that is a job in itself,” he says. “She’d roll upside down and headfirst and all kinds of ways.” John worked his way up from seaman to torpedoman before being stationed off the coast of Normandy, France, for the D-Day invasion. On June 13, 1944—the sixth night of the battle—a German torpedo took out 70 feet of the Nelson’s stern.
“It was 1 A.M., and I was working the five-inch gun forward of the bridge,” John says, reporting the details as if the attack happened yesterday. “Everything went pitch-dark, and I went up in the air. Next thing I heard is someone saying, ‘Throw everything you can overboard.’” Twenty-four crewmen died.
About a year later, John shipped back to San Francisco and caught a train east. On Christmas Eve, he returned to Hathorne Point and started lobstering again. “My new boat had laid on the bank all the time I was in the service, so I lost out on that,” he says. “So I bought the next one, 32-foot. Since then, I been going up and up.”
John’s current lobster boat, the Sarah Ashley, is a 39-foot workhorse roughed up by salt and wind. Rusty tools, wires, screws, and a bunch of other unidentifiable items crowd her dashboard. There’s no chair for the captain—or anybody else. “She’s a little rugged,” John admits.
He’s rugged, too. One front tooth is chipped and his eyes, blue like the sea, are no longer sharp. But John’s core is shipshape, despite the bending, pulling, and lifting that sidelines many lobstermen before they hit 60. According to the U.S. Labor Bureau, John’s career is the most dangerous in the country, and half of the deaths of fishermen in 2017 were workers over 65. Buoy ropes, called warps, can wrap around an arm or leg and yank a person overboard, and the jagged rocks that define the coast of Maine will strand any captain not paying attention.
“I’ve had some close calls,” John admits. But while he used to motor out alone until the land disappeared into unpredictable open water, he always made it back. He credits neither mariner’s intuition, extraordinary skill, nor natural talent for his long lucky streak. “Experience,” he says, coiling the warp neatly on the gently rocking deck.
On this autumn morning aboard Sarah Ashley, the work settles into a slow rhythm—drive, reach, hook, pull, repeat. John maneuvers easily around a slippery deck, his only helper his son Sam, 72, who often comes along as his dad’s sternman. Sam hauls traps, which are coming out for the winter, over the gunwale, stacking them into a tidy pyramid on deck. The flap-flap-flap of the lobsters’ tails is underscored by the chug-chug-chug of the boat’s 220-horsepower engine. Sea water flows into a barrel where crustaceans pile up in a glistening brown heap flecked with sky blue and orange.
“What do you eat for breakfast?” I ask John.
“Half a grapefruit, cornflakes—sometimes a banana along with it—cuppa coffee, and a doughnut.”
“How do you sleep?”
“I go to bed and go to sleep.”
“Do you ever go to the gym?”
“Gym?” His laugh—heh, heh, heh—sounds like an engine sputtering.
“He split 100 cords of wood every winter by hand,” Sam reminds me as he measures the lobsters. Keepers must be at least three-and-a-quarter inches long from eye socket to tail.
“So if you get a headache, you just take a couple aspirin?”
“Very seldom had a headache,” says John.
I’m now in my mid-fifties, popping Tylenol like Tic Tacs, my right rotator cuff torn and my knees aching from years of running, so I’d like to know John’s secret.
“Work, I guess,” he says. “I never loafed.” He picks up a tiny, translucent crab off the gunwale and places it in my hand. “Sure I’ve earned it. But hey, I don’t want to.” It occurs to me then that John’s longevity might be due to the fact that he’s always known who he is and been content to be that.
“He doesn’t drink or swear or kill any other life,” Sam says as John takes the wheel and heads for Caldwell Island. “He doesn’t get mad. Or if he does, he keeps it to himself.” Sam throws a female lobster, her underbelly full of black eggs, back into the sea as required by Maine law. “I spend all the time with him I can because…” Sam glances over at his dad, “…well, you know.”
If there is anything more iconic to Maine than lobsters, it’s the late Andrew Wyeth—one of the best-known realist painters of the 20th century—and John’s life can’t be separated from either. The friendship between the provincial lobsterman and the world-famous artist dates back 80 years, before Wyeth painted his masterpiece Christina’s World in 1948. Wyeth immortalized John’s aunt Christina, who was paralyzed by a degenerative muscular disorder, dragging her thin body through a field in front of her family’s farmhouse. “That’s where I was born,” says John, pointing up at the weathered three-story pine structure. “Corner room.” With double dormers and a narrow brick chimney, the house is now a national historic landmark.
“You know something funny about that?” he adds. “I can look where I’m gonna be buried from that room.”
The family cemetery, tucked in a grove of pine trees above the bay, is just across Christina’s field. John drives straight through it in his Chevy pickup. First he shows me Wyeth’s black-granite headstone, the large pumpkin at its base a splash of color among the haphazardly placed monochrome markers. Wyeth died in 2009. “I was sittin’ eatin’ my breakfast one morning, and a knock come on the door,” John says, reaching back for the memory. “It’s a gravedigger, and he says, ‘Where you gonna put Andy?’”
“Andy?” John asked.
“He’s passed away,” said the gravedigger.
“Yeah, I know that.”
“Well, where you gonna put him over in the cemetery? You’re appointed to pick a spot.”
John finished his breakfast and walked up the hill.
“I looked here,” he says now, his Maine accent changing the word to he-ah. “And I looked there.” They-ah. One hand rests on his old friend’s gravestone as John nudges the pumpkin with his foot. “And I said, ‘Right here.’” The wistfulness in his voice reminds me that there’s a downside to living 97 years: at some point, you’re the last lobsterman standing.
“I think about them,” says John of his fellow boat captains. “Jim Seavey, Halsey Flint, Will Maloney. They’re all gone.” John’s mental acuity makes it hard to remember that he’s lived from an era when mail arrived by horse to one of instant e-mail gratification. “I’m kinda lost right now.”
His own granite marker, low to the ground and simple, is spotted with yellow lichen. The stone’s left side is engraved with his late wife’s name—Betty A., 1927–2002—and on the right, John W. Sr. “If something happens on the ocean, that’s where I’m going,” he says. “I got it all planned.”
John steers the Sarah Ashley back to Hathorne Point, and I ask him how lobstering has changed. John shakes his head—disgust or wonder, it’s hard to tell—as he lists the high-tech equipment that has made lobstering easier and safer over the years: fathom meters, radar, and GPS. “All we had was a compass and a rope with a piece of lead on it that we dragged over the bottom,” John says. He’s been repairing his own engines since he was a teenager. “I look at these new guys and wonder what they’d do if they broke down. I wonder how many of them could knit a pot head or put a trap together.”
But his reluctance to embrace modern technology occasionally ends badly. In 2017, he stranded his boat on some rocks, the tide and the light receding fast. “I made a circle and got too close,” John recalls. “Caught the bottom.”
“The guys started looking around and saw his boat on shore,” Sam adds. “No one wanted to go, because they thought he fell overboard.”
“No cell phone?”
“If it works, he never turns it on.” Sam laughs, in a slightly irritated but proud kind of way. “When I get to the boat—the thing is laying over so the door was kind of facing the sky—he pops out and says, ‘Well, it’s about time. I’m freezing!’” On that bitter December day, John Olson was 95.
He now spends Maine’s winter months on shore. He’s also down to working only 250 traps instead of his regular 400, ceding part of his territory to the “youngsters.” Still, it was only last year, when John lost his balance while trying to hook his skiff from the dock, that he made the decision to quit lobstering alone. “The shoes I had on, tread was gone pretty much, and I slipped. Went headfirst right into the drink.” The water, a brisk 58 degrees, was too deep to stand.
“Were you scared?” I ask, as the Sarah Ashley’s starboard side kisses the wharf with a soft thump.
“Matter of fact, I enjoyed it.” Heh, heh, heh. “I saw all these bubbles coming up around me.”
Dog-paddling, John hollered for help, but by the time someone got there, he’d already swum ashore.