If the Pine River Chamber of Commerce board was looking for another outdoorsman to fill the executive director position, they succeeded.

When 20-year Executive Director John Wetrosky made his plans to retire from the chamber June 1 known, the chamber board began a search for his successor. After several months, a committee selected Pine River resident and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife official Gavin Gensmer.

While Wetrosky is an Iowa native who became a local fixture because of his love of fishing, Gensmer spent most of his youth growing up in Pine River. Though he left for work, he always knew he'd come back for the fishing and outdoors.

Gensmer was born in Lewiston, Minnesota, where his father worked for the Corps of Engineers. The only thing he remembers about Lewiston is fishing.

“I started fishing at a very young age,” Gensmer said.

Before he was very old, they moved to Pine River in 1964, where his father worked as a conservation officer.

“Back in those days Pine River was a station and you had to live within two miles of a post office,” Gensmer said. “They don't do it that way now, but that's how it used to be.”

He remembers that Lewiston was all about farming, but Pine River was all about recreation.

“It was lakes and rivers and trails,” Gensmer said. “That was the biggest change. Farming was a little different.”

A 1977 graduate of Pine River High School, Gensmer went on to work construction until 1986, when he got the calling to what would be his career. He went to school for federal law enforcement and then moved to Montana to become a U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer.

Gensmer worked in Montana from 1986 through 1994, then transferred to Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Iowa before his last placement at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. He always planned to work his way back to Minnesota one way or another.

“You can pretty much get promoted and move wherever you want to. I took a downgrade to get my last station at Carver just to get back to Minnesota,” Gensmer said. “So after 25 years, I retired from there and came back to the country that I love.”

Gensmer still loves time on the water fishing and kayaking on the Pine River and area lakes. Pine River is not only where his heart is, but where his family is. His parents and sister still live in the area, and he and his wife, Sharon, with whom he had four children, own River Fitness in Pine River.

Aside from a venture in selling wild rice, the fitness center is the couple's first major venture into business. Gensmer loves being a part of the business community.

“That's kind of exciting, actually, because I remember what (Pine River) was like in the booming days,” Gensmer said. “But back when Pine River had three or four hardware stores and several pharmacies and three restaurants that I remember and a bunch of gas stations, it was busy here. And over the years that's gradually been trickling down and the community was struggling, but I see it actually starting to come back a little bit. We've got some new businesses going. So it's exciting to be a part of that.”

Gensmer didn't originally plan to be executive director of the local chamber, but he decided he wanted to have a part in Pine River's business future.

“I wasn't planning on doing this,” Gensmer said. “It's just something that kind of worked itself out. When I found out that John was retiring I thought, you know, I've been kind of complaining about the way things are done in different communities, and I thought I better actually do a little bit of work and see if I can change it.”

He hopes his familiarity with the community will help him to have a positive impact in his new position.

“I'm still going through the ropes of John here and trying to learn exactly what we do,” Gensmer said. “But we want to support the community. And this is a tough time to begin what I'm doing with everything being closed like this and a lot of uncertainty.

"We don't know if we're going to have Summerfest yet. We don't know a lot of this. So one of my goals is to make sure that we're properly supporting everybody, and everybody has what they need. That we can try to make Pine River a place where people want to come to and to try to work our way through this, and with the changes that we need to do in the future and kind of make things work out a little better. I want some more optimism for the town and it's coming. I think I see it out there already," he said.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.