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The Last River Rat: Kenny Salwey's Life in the Wild

The Last River Rat: Kenny Salwey's Life in the Wild

Автором Kenny Salwey и J. Scott Bestul

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The Last River Rat: Kenny Salwey's Life in the Wild

Автором Kenny Salwey и J. Scott Bestul

4/5 (4 оценки)
327 pages
4 hours
Oct 16, 2017


Kenny Salwey is a modern-day American hermit who has lived most of his life in the Mississippi river bottoms, coming to know the river ecosystem with an intimacy unavailable to most. Now, Kenny shares his love of, and knowledge about, the mighty river. The Last River Rat is a seasonal look at Kenny's unique life.
Oct 16, 2017

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The Last River Rat - Kenny Salwey

Table of Contents

The Last River Rat




Of River Rats and the Big River


River Rat Almanac

The New Year Begins in the Three Camps

Rat Tale: Big Boy and Beauty


River Rat Almanac

Trout Fishing and Morel Picking

Rat Tale: That Black, Boot-Sucking, Mississippi Mud


River Rat Almanac

The Snake Hunters

Rat Tale: Frog Tears and Rabbit Coffee


River Rat Almanac

To Catch a Cat

Rat Tale: Passing the Flame: The Marsh Shack


River Rat Almanac

Walking Sticks and Woodslore

Rat Tale: Tent Camp and the Bad Bees


River Rat Almanac

Ginseng Digging

Rat Tale: Where Am I?


River Rat Almanac

Duck Hunting and Duck-Hunting Dogs

Rat Tale: Old Spook and the Last Duck Hunt


River Rat Almanac

Hunting the Wet-Tail Deer

Rat Tale: Monarch of the Swamp


River Rat Almanac

Making Meat

Rat Tale: Making Wood


River Rat Almanac

Winter Trapping

Rat Tale: The Grandmother Tree


River Rat Almanac

Fur Processing

Rat Tale: Beaver Lodge Fracas


River Rat Almanac

An Affinity for Turtles

Rat Tale: Life Along the Big River

About the Authors



The Last River Rat

Kenny Salwey’s Life in the Wild

By J. Scott Bestul and Kenny Salwey

With Pen-and-Ink Illustrations by Mary Salwey

Text copyright © 2015 J. Scott Bestul

Original copyright © 2001 by J. Scott Bestul

River Rat Almanacs and Rat Tale text copyright © 2001 by Kenny Salwey

Illustrations copyright © 2001 by Mary Kay Salwey

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form by any means—graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or any information storage and retrieval system—without written permission of the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bestul, J. Scott, 1960-

The last river rat : Kenny Salwey’s life in the wild / by J. Scott Bestul & Kenny Salwey

pages cm

Originally published: Stillwater, MN : Voyageur Press, c2001.

ISBN 978-1-938486-55-5 (paperback)

1. Salwey, Kenny, 1943- 2. Naturalists--Wisconsin--Biography. 3. Mississippi River--Environmental conditions. 4. Mississippi River Valley--Environmental conditions. 5. River life--Mississippi River Valley. I. Salwey, Kenny, 1943- II. Title.

QH31.S16B47 2014




Printed in the United States of America

0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Designed by Ken Lockwood

Fulcrum Publishing

4690 Table Mountain Dr., Ste. 100

Golden, CO 80403

800-992-2908 • 303-277-1623



Many thanks to my friend and budding river rat, J. Scott Bestul. This book was his idea. From the start we hit it off, and I’m grateful for his expertise and his passion for the land.

I would like to thank Reggie McCloud and all the folks at Big River Newsletter for allowing me to create five years’ worth of monthly almanacs for them—excerpts of which appear in this book.

Also a big thank-you to my editor, Michael Dregni, and the staff at Voyageur Press.

Lastly, I want to thank the reader for taking more than a passing interest in nature. During the time it takes you to read this book, we will be fellow travelers in the great Circle of Life. There is no greater gift than the sharing of one’s time with another. The critters and I say thank you from the bottom of our hearts. —Kenny Salwey

I’d like to thank Michael Dregni for his unflagging support during this project, and Mary Kay Salwey for her wonderful drawings and honest input. To the thousands of folks who, through volunteer or professional effort, keep the Upper Mississippi River one of the world’s natural wonders, a heartfelt appreciation. But my deepest gratitude goes to Kenny, who showed me a beautiful place and a way of looking at things that I hope I’ll never lose. —J. Scott Bestul


I dedicate this book to all the river rats who have gone before me, from the ancient people who first saw the Great River to those of just yesterday. I follow them all in the wake of their canoes.

Most of all I dedicate this book to my beloved wife, Mary Kay, who sorted through my longhand scribblings and painstakingly drew the remarkable illustrations for this book. She is the light and the love of my life. She kept me on task and gave me the motivation to complete the book. —Kenny Salwey

For Shari, who reads every word before they escape our house.

—J. Scott Bestul

Leaning on his walking stick, Kenny pauses in the woods.

(Photograph © Jack Lenzo)


Of River Rats and the Big River

Along the Mississippi River, old-timers often speak with reverence of a fabled fraternity of men and women who not only know the Big River, but have made it part of their lives and counted on it for a livelihood. Riverfolk have a name for this dwindling clan: They are known as river rats. While the name conjures images of a sodden, bedraggled critter living in a mud house, it’s considered quite a compliment around these parts, and unlike most names, it’s one that’s earned, not given at birth. Wresting a living, or even part of one, from the river is hard business. As locals are quick to point out, there are no dumb river rats who are very old; the Mississippi does a tidy job of weeding out those who make mistakes at the wrong times.

River rats are a respected bunch, and until a generation or two ago, they were fairly common. Every rivertown claimed a handful—and in some cases entire families—who looked to one of the world’s greatest rivers for sustenance, income, and recreation. In the summer there were fish to catch and clams to dig. Come fall, ducks and deer provided meat for the smokehouse and dollars for the wallet, as there were always out-of-towners willing to hire a guide for a day. As fall gave way to winter, traps were set for beaver and mink, muskrat and otter, all of whose furs would bring the money needed to make it through until spring. And when the snow and ice left the river, the cycle began again. Theirs was a life lived close to the water.

Today, river rats are few and far between. Unspoiled stretches of the Big River are hard to find, and it’s not a lifestyle that will earn you the keys to a fancy house or a big car. Living off the river is a dying way of life.

This is not true everywhere, however. Along the banks of the Mississippi where the waters separate Minnesota from Wisconsin, people speak still of a legendary modern-day river rat, the last river rat. This man is Kenny Salwey.

Kenny grew up on a small farm near Cochrane, Wisconsin, at a time when the river rat’s way of life was still attractive. As a prospective river rat, he had no shortage of role models. Although he already spent his days outdoors doing farm chores, he longed to learn more of the natural world—of the plants and creatures living in the hills surrounding the river, and of the fish and turtles and ducks that called the backwaters home. Farm life was better than town life, but it was also tedious. Kenny wanted to live according to nature’s rhythms, to let the seasons dictate the work that needed to be done. River rats seemed to have captured that essence perfectly—calling no person boss and relying only on their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and knowledge of the country to survive. He could think of no better life.

Kenny had rudimentary training from family members, whose French-Canadian roots remained strong. I was taught young how to gather mushrooms, dig ginseng, setline for catfish, hunt ducks, Kenny recalls. Those activities were part of my heritage. Not all of my family worried about gainful employment, and many of our activities were driven by the rhythms of the seasons. When certain times of the year came, there were important things to do for our survival, and these were the things I loved, even as a young boy.

Of course, acquiring enough knowledge to be a river rat was not accomplished overnight, and most riverfolk guarded their secrets jealously. I hung around whatever river people would let me, listening closely to what they said and watching what they did, Kenny says. I learned a lot that way—from the old ones. But they weren’t willing to share everything. Each knew different places: favorite fishing holes, the best creek bank to trap a mink, the wild celery beds where the ducks came each fall. You could pick up a little bit from each person you knew, but most things you still needed to learn on your own.

Kenny made his home in the Whitman Swamp, a 6,000-acre swampland south of Buffalo City, Wisconsin, that is shut off from the modern world in the Big River’s backwaters. And, in more than four decades of roaming the Whitman, he has come to know the swamp almost as intimately

as any of nature’s creatures who live there.

The Whitman Swamp was separated from the main channel of the Upper Mississippi River by a dike built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1933. The dike consisted of five miles of earth and rock beginning just downstream of Buffalo City, and was part of the vast complex of dams, locks, and levees meant to channel the Mississippi’s power; the system was engineered to protect rivertowns from flooding and make commercial navigation safer and more successful. That was the dike’s expressed purpose, anyway.

What the Whitman Dike actually did was shut the swamp off from the modern world. On the river side of the dike, tugs push barges full of grain and coal between New Orleans and Minneapolis-St. Paul, pleasure boaters steer yachts and sailboats up and down the channel, campers pitch tents on sand-mountains of dredge spoil, and jet skiers steer whining machines into their own chop. From ice-out until autumn’s end, the main channel seems little more than a water-filled freeway carrying a mix of riders: businesspeople, commuters, sightseers, and Sunday drivers.

On the swamp side of the dike, however, time has nearly stood still. Whitman Swamp is a classic floodplain forest,

an ecosystem that dominated the Upper Mississippi River watershed for hundreds of years. As the name implies, a floodplain forest is a largely wooded environment subject to the mood swings and vagaries of a river. When snowmelt and spring rain swell the Mississippi, Whitman Swamp becomes a smaller version of the river itself, full of swirling current, lakes and pools, eddies and ponds. The river flows into the swamp to cool off and calm down, to stretch and rage and bellow until it can reestablish control of itself and flow where it normally does. Once the Mississippi has had its temper tantrum, the swamp becomes a swamp again: a vast and peaceful place where small creeks and sheltered lakes form

a tapestry; where white oaks and silver maple and cottonwood grow on the small ridges that weave among the water; and where birds and deer, muskrats and turtles are insulated from the bustle on the business side of the Whitman Dike. The quiet backwater seemed part of another time and place to Kenny.

Swamps like the Whitman were common in the days before the lock-and-dam system. But damming the river forever changed the shape and appearance of the river bottoms, inundating hundreds of acres of floodplain forest above each dam and channeling the flow below each lock to a trickle of its former self. The river has never been the same. Channelization has, for the most part, provided consistent water depth and flow for large boat traffic, and most of the towns and homes along the river are safer from flooding than they were in the past. But these improvements have come with a price, and one of those costs is the loss of places like the Whitman Swamp. For riverfolk who can remember the Mississippi before dams—and the number of those people is shrinking—it’s a questionable trade at best.

But the Mississippi is only part of the river rat’s home range. Included in his territory are the steeply wooded bluffs that stretch away from the Big River for miles to the east. Escapees from the terrain-flattening glaciers that leveled much of Wisconsin during the last Ice Age, the rugged hillsides are as much a part of the river system as the channel itself. Rising five hundred feet or more above the river bed, the hillsides gather snow in the winter and send it coursing downhill as runoff in the spring. The water freshens creeks and streams, which wind through scenic coulees and verdant meadows and quiet marshes until they feed the river itself.

Life flows back to the hills, too. Deer and ducks leave the river bottoms when the Mississippi floods or when swamp white oaks don’t provide the acorns they relish. Fish from the Mississippi run up tributary streams to spawn their next generation. And the people who saw the river as their life’s blood followed suit, alternating their time between backwaters and bluffs, responding to whatever activity was in season at the time. For a river rat, separating the hills and coulees from the river itself was unthinkable, like divorcing a sea from the shore it caressed.

Kenny finished twelve years of school by the skin of his teeth and then set off into the backwater classrooms to learn the lessons he wanted to learn the most. He lived in the swamp for weeks at a time, staying in three small shacks he’d built as outcamps. He fished and sold his catch. Dug ginseng for the valuable roots. Trapped muskrat and beaver and learned to handle fur. Shot ducks and guided hunters. He had no truck with those bent on making money for its own sake or elevating their social station to impress others. I had little use for people back then, he remembers. I’d be down in the swamp, listening to their cars go by on the highway and I’d think, ‘Good! Let them go!’

He was not, however, completely isolated. In 1961, he was drafted by the Army and stationed in the Pacific Northwest, where he immersed himself in the towering forests they visited in training exercises. Returning home, he married and bought a home in Buffalo City. But at heart, and for most of his time, he remained a riverman who would not be forced into a normal life. Kenny spent his days in the swamp,

sometimes returning home in the evening, sometimes staying in one of his shacks for days at a time. If the civilized world was a swimming pool, he only dipped his toe in it.

While the freedom was exhilarating for a young man, the solitude came with a price. I was suspicious of people, Kenny remembers. Hated authority. I did whatever I needed to get by. If I was hungry, I shot a deer. If I wanted more ducks than the limit, I took them. I was just a taker. I hoarded the outdoors to myself.

Of course, the local game wardens knew that Kenny wasn’t wasting time reading their regulation books. One of the wardens was named Jim Everson, Kenny recalls. Last of the old-time river wardens—very tough and smart. Jim’d come up to me when I was young and say, ‘I ever catch you breaking the law, you’ll get a ticket or an ass-chewing!’ He gave me both several times. But admonitions and fines did little to slow the reclusive riverman. One citation was posted proudly on the wall of his shack for all to see.

Kenny stands in the entrance to Big Lake Shack.

(Photograph © Jack Lenzo)

Kenny didn’t know it, but things were about to change.

"It was a summer day—hot as hell—and I was just laying up until evening in my tent camp. I’d just about drifted off when I heard an airboat coming through the swamp. Wardens were the only ones using airboats then, and as it got closer I started looking around camp—you know, making sure I didn’t have anything laying around that wasn’t supposed to be.

"Sure enough, it was Everson, and when he landed the boat and started walking to me, I started thinking what he could want me for—I couldn’t remember doing anything wrong lately. But he wasn’t looking to bust me that day. He just came up and settled down, making small talk. I was getting kind of suspicious when he finally come out and told me why he was there. He’d been scheduled to give a nature talk to a group of teachers up in Wabasha, [Minnesota,] but he couldn’t make it. He wondered if I’d go.

"Well I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought for a minute, then I let him have it right there. I said, ‘I should go there? I hate schools. I hate teachers. Hell, I ain’t so sure I like game wardens, either. Why should I go?’

"Jim Everson looked me right square in the eye and said, ‘Kenny, you are one of the most selfish, orneriest persons I ever met in my life. You do nothing but take, take, take from nature. You hoard all your outdoor experience. How about sharing, giving something back for a change?’ Then he added, ‘Not only that, but it’s worth twenty-five bucks and a free meal.’

"He had given me a true butt-chewing, but what he said was true.

‘OK, I’ll do it,’ I told him.

Kenny came for the money and the food, but the experience would change his life forever.

I took along a bunch of skins and a box of stuff: turtle shells, deer antlers, whatever. I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. But the shy riverman conquered his nervousness and talked, simply and quietly, about the things he knew and cared about: the patterns of nature down in the swamps and up in the bluffs, and how he felt people fit in the picture.

Somewhere in the midst of his stories, Kenny looked up and realized that the teachers were listening intently, absorbing everything he had to say. When he was finished, hands were in the air and questions followed. Before he left, Kenny had received invitations from several teachers, asking him to address the children at their schools. The response literally drew Kenny out of the swamp. I still remember how good that felt, he says. For the first time in my life, my heart was opened up to other people.

Since that epiphany, Kenny’s life has been anything but reclusive. His schedule soon filled with talks to schoolkids, teachers, nature groups, resource policy makers. Instead of just reaping nature’s harvest, Kenny began giving back, teaching people about the Upper Mississippi River and how he felt it should be cared for. He also became a voracious reader of conservation and nature writers, and could quote John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd F. Olson, and Henry David Thoreau with ease. He co-designed an environmental learning curriculum for an entire school district and once shared keynote-speaker status with Earth Day founder (and former Wisconsin governor and senator) Gaylord Nelson. It was heady stuff for a man used to speaking only a few words in a given day, and most of those to a dog.

There were, as one might suspect, times when Kenny questioned the life change. I remember when I’d be days away from the swamp, he recalls. The time commitment, the crowds, the busy schedule were almost too much. He considered fleeing—back to the river bottoms, away from scheduling people, apart from calendars and commitment. At about that time, a friend of his, the local school principal, talked to Kenny. He told me I couldn’t go back forever anymore, Kenny reflects. That I’d touched too many lives, that people depended on me now. He said it wasn’t fair for me to take that away from the kids who might need me in the future.

It seems a harsh sentence for a man who lived about as freely as one can in the tail end of the twentieth century. There had to be a rising sense of panic, however small, growing in his chest at the thought. He’d made a tentative stab at the civilized world, like a kid poking at a snapping turtle with a stick. But the turtle’s head had lunged and his jaws had snapped and now those jaws would not let go of that life he once held so dear.

In the end, of course, Kenny sided with the principal. Had the groups he talked to been bored or hostile, Kenny might have considered retreat. But he was amazed at their reception; they hungered for the knowledge that seemed second nature to him. And he had the gift of a storyteller: a kind, rich, pleasing voice, a sense of the dramatic and of the humorous, the ability to look people— even hard people—in the eye and let them know he was sincere.

He was good at so many things that he did alone, it felt good to shine at something that required an audience.

So Kenny has struck a balance. He continues to give nature talks to a broad audience of students and their instructors, state resource managers, troubled kids, nature groups, women’s groups, sportsmen’s clubs, and more. Yet when he’s not speaking somewhere, Kenny’s back home in the backwaters and bluffs, knee-deep in muck or clinging to a craggy hillside, part of the river world that once earned him a living, but still gives him life.

Kenny paddles a canoe through lily pads.

(Photograph © Jack Lenzo)

Like so many who’ve met him, I’m glad that Kenny made the choice that he did. Had he not come out of the swamp, much of the lore and the lifestyle of the river rat may have vanished. The towns lining the Mississippi don’t produce river rats like they used to; the promise of a better education, a higher-paying job, a nicer neighborhood, and a faster-paced, more elegant lifestyle continually lures youngsters away from Minnesota and Wisconsin towns like Alma, Buffalo City, Winona, Fountain City, Reads Landing. . . . The way of the river rat is hard and the rewards few. Forty years ago, people didn’t expect so much; these days, a kid who made the choices Kenny did in his youth would be told to see a career counselor and reevaluate his options. So river rats are a dying breed, yet Kenny’s rich oral tradition has ensured that at least some of the lifestyle will be remembered and, hopefully, appreciated.

I’m also glad Kenny came out of the swamp because he’s my friend, and I’m a writer, and this book, we hope, will capture in print some of the traditions and practices he’s included in his talks for years. I’ve tagged along with Kenny as he set beaver traps, hunted ducks, dug ginseng, whittled walking sticks, followed deer trails, listened to geese, and canoed down sloughs. In the process, he taught me a different calendar, one that is not driven by days or weeks, but according to the wind and the weather and the whimsy of nature. It’s a calendar that river rats—and few others—know well. This book is designed to capture those events and seasons and chronicle the passage of swamp time.

And finally, I’m grateful to Kenny for showing me the Whitman Swamp. In this special place, shielded from time and progress, I’ve been able to catch a glimpse of the Mississippi before the lock-and-dam system. In that era, swamps like the Whitman were everywhere on the upper river, and in every swamp there was a river rat—or family of river rats—living by their unique calendar. But just as we can eliminate a species by despoiling its habitat, the river rats have shrunk to a fraction of their original number because places like the Whitman Swamp are now gone. In the void left by these secluded marshes are treeless, grassless, backwater lakes.

Most rivertown old-timers are philosophical about these changes. There is no denying progress, they say, and whining about channelization is like bemoaning the presence of automobiles. Sure, life was different before them, but was it better? Every

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