'Nothing boring' after decades on road, says retiring Wisconsin State Patrol trooper
Concrete on the new Interstate 94 crossing at Hudson was still fresh when Brian Erickson began patrolling St. Croix County.
The reconstructed bridge saw scarcely 50,000 trips a year after it opened in 1995. That same stretch saw about 90,000 trips in 2018.
"It will be interesting to see what it looks like 10 years from now, 20 years from now," said Erickson, a Wisconsin State Patrol trooper who retires Thursday, May 2.
During his 25 years patrolling highways in St. Croix County and western Wisconsin, Erickson said he's struck most by the evolution in how people drive.
"People don't just drive" anymore, he said.
Erickson said motorists are increasingly on their devices, busy eating or doing something else that takes their focus off the road.
At the same time, troopers and others have had to change how they respond to crashes. Erickson said the traffic volume on I-94 no longer allows for hours-long scene investigations; officers need to do their work quickly and get traffic moving, he explained.
Traffic backups on I-94 often don't involve crashes, Erickson said. He said the sheer volume of cabin traffic can stack up traffic in the summer months.
Erickson knows he will miss parts of the job — especially the daily variety. He called that the best aspect.
"There's nothing boring about this job," the town of St. Joseph resident said.
One day that could mean doing a television interview in Eau Claire; the next day Erickson could be responding to cars in the ditch during a blizzard.
"I like snowstorms — but I come from northern Wisconsin," he quipped.
Erickson began his law enforcement career as a part-time Iron County sheriff's deputy in 1982 until he was hired on full-time in 1985. Nearly a year later, he left northeastern Wisconsin to become the administrative sergeant at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus.
He held that position until joining the State Patrol in July 1988.
Erickson has been patrolling St. Croix County since 1994 when he became a sergeant in charge of between seven and nine troopers.
He said he first became intrigued by the profession through his cousin who was a trooper in Michigan. Erickson worked in the 1970s and '80s on the Ironwood-Hurley ambulance service, where he got regular exposure to troopers on crash scenes.
"I always thought helping people was a big thing," he said. "That's what law enforcement is all about."
Erickson admitted the job's demands come at a price. He said missing out on his kids' activities has been among the worst parts.
"That's hard on families," said Erickson.
Fatal crashes can also be hard, he said. Erickson remembered one on I-94 where he inspected the victim's driver's license, only to learn the man had died on his birthday.
Erickson couldn't help but think of the man's loved ones.
"That one kind of hit me," he said.
He recalled two other fatal crashes involving semis and passenger vehicles that became indelible for him.
"They're chilling reminders" that most crashes are avoidable, Erickson said. "Usually the driver has some control."
He has since watched St. Croix County's population grow at least 63%, a change he said is attributable to Twin Cities expatriates seeking "a little quieter way of life, but still get to work" in the metro.
Erickson said the growth has been impressive, with new school facilities popping up in Hudson, New Richmond and Somerset, along with hospitals that have taken root in St. Croix County over the past 25 years.
"Those changes are huge," he said.
Some changes he didn't even expect to be accomplished — namely, the St. Croix River Crossing that connects Houlton and Oak Park Heights. He said the bridge, which opened in 2017, has become a boon for commuters who had been stuck using Stillwater's lift bridge.
"The traffic backed up the hill both ways morning and night," Erickson recalled.
Erickson continues to pick up shifts as a critical-care paramedic with New Richmond EMS, a role he said he may continue into retirement.
He said that while he hopes to stay busy, he'll also put a priority on downshifting. In addition to family time, he said outdoor activities and golf will help that transition into retirement.
"That's why you work your whole life — for this," he said.