Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review: Tales of a River Rat

The "Wild Mississippi" in this collection of essays is the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin, some six thousand acres of seasonally flooded hardwood swamps and heavily forested uplands. Though wild and undeveloped and largely unspoiled, this land is in constant earshot of one of North America's noisiest river channels.

This has been the domain of  nature writer, storyteller, river guide and environmental educator Kenny Salwey for more than three decades. He describes it in first person prose, as if dictating en plein air:

"Now I'm in the Big Woods, sitting in the shade of the old basswoods. How they whisper in the breeze! The water in the log pool is dark and foreboding. A fine scum rests against the upstream edge of the logs. How long have they lain in their watery grave? Two red-tail hawks soar on silent wings; around and around they go. Are they related to the hawk we watched on my first trip here more than forty years ago? I'd like to think so. A splash in the scum breaks the spell. I look down to see ripples where a trout took a fly."

The subject of a 2004 BBC documentary in its Natural World Collection, Salwey is often referred to as the "last of the river rats," a rare breed of people who pretty much live off the land in this harsh territory.

Salwey's essays  are predominantly autobiographical present tense stories of his life in the wild - running a trapline, training a hunting dog, studying wildlife, guiding birders, fishing for trout, encountering bears and muskrats, and getting lost in a blizzard. There's also a handful of his poems in the book and even a recipe for cowboy cookies.

Tales of a River Rat: Adventures Along the Wild Mississippi
by Kenny Salwey. 
Fulcrum, 2012.
The Nature Pages
Nature Writing and Natural Histories
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