Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • September 14th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Before Barbie came along in three dimensions to capture the imagination of the nation’s pre-teenage girls, there were paper dolls in two dimensions— Brenda Starr and the like could be dressed with designer clothes cut out from paper along dotted lines and presto! The little girl would have her favorite cartoon character dressed in the latest fashions. So popular and widespread was this preadolescent activity that the Mills Brothers sang “I’m gonna to buy a paper doll to call my own/a doll that other fellas cannot steal”.

Margaret Menamin (Eshbaugh, her married name) carried this childhood activity into adulthood and became— among aficionados of paper dolls— the acknowledged leader of dedicated collectors of such esoteric material. Few outdoor writers in the Outdoor Writers Association of America know that the author of the prayer that opens and closes the organization’s annual conference was written by Margaret Menamin.

Although she never was a member of OWAA, she had deep roots in the organization and strong ties to a number of the pioneers within the group. She was an honored and award-winning poet—published and cherished by those who love poetry— in addition to her odd hobby of collecting paper dolls. But Margaret was a long way from a little girl who never grew up. She possessed a bawdy sense of humor and, belying her moving beautiful OWAA prayer, she also wrote some verse that might shock the socks off of some of OWAA’s more uptight members.

The secret song of caves, the throbbing lust
Of roused volcanoes rising underground,
The laughing rain, the ardent pulse and pound,
Of savage rivers soaking thirsty dust.
Then came hot hailstones on me like a flood
And I could read the poems of your blood.

Only a sample and one of the more innocuous sonnets from Margaret’s series of passionate and erotic tributes to remembered love.

I have a copy of the published but extremely rare–there were only 50 copies by a now defunct publisher in the original edition–manuscript of a long series of sonnets titled Sonnets for a Second Summer which celebrate in eloquent Shakespeare-worthy verse the joy of physical love.

The verses are impossible to read without falling in love with the woman who so eloquently captured the spirit and feeling that is in that poem/prayer which opens and closes every OWWA conference. I never met her in person, But I heard stories about her from Jim Keefe and others and it is one of my great regrets that I never got to hang around with her and swap outrageous stories.”

Menamin delighted in telling a story related to her by a mutual dear friend, Mitch Jayne, who was the bass player for the Dillards bluegrass band, also known as the Darling family on the old Andy Griffith show. Mitch, an accomplished writer and novelist (his book Old Fish Hawk was made into a fine but forgotten movie) once had a Weimaraner to which someone wanted to breed. Let Margaret take up the tale from there: “Apparently this was one dumb dog. And Dutch, the Weimaraner, didn’t understand. Mitch was down on the floor, on all fours, showing Dutch the motions, hoping Dutch would catch on, which eventually Dutch did, after Mitch had developed sacroiliac trouble and possibly a strange propensity for “doing it dog style.” (Forgive me, I couldn’t resist that.)”

In 2009, Menamin began feeling poorly and went to the doctor. She emailed me, “I have been dealt a terrible blow.” She had been diagnosed with leukemia, and within a month she died. She was survived by her husband Robert Eshbaugh, a daughter and a son and four grandchildren. And, although most wouldn’t know her name, she is survived by at least two generations of OWAA members who either are inspired by her eloquent poem—or should be.

When OWAA created a writing workshop, OWAA member Pat Stockdill was inspired to name it Goldenrod, a tribute both to the OWAA prayer, and to its author Margaret Menamin.
Menamin was mourned on several websites by those who knew her and by those who wished they had. No one summed it up better than a fellow who said, “I loved her. We all did. She was one of the supreme unsung poets, the epitome of generosity and class, a great mind and, a great heart. Her passing has left an immeasurable void.” By then her OWAA mentors, Werner Nagel and Jim Keefe were gone and I felt, though I never met her in person, as if I had lost a lifelong and dear friend. I once wrote a profile of Menamin for the OWAA newsletter and it is reproduced here—with the understanding that all the present tense mentions now are past tense.

“In autumn when the leaves are brown/
they fall all around the town.”

As poetry it falls somewhat short of a Shakespeare sonnet, but it’s pretty good for a second grader. Now that the second-grader has grown up she has written a poem that is far more familiar to any OWAAer who ever has attended an annual conference.

The poem contains this phrase, “I am the goldenrod, the grain, the granite …” The OWAA prayer opens and closes every conference; it is prominent in the directory. It was written nearly 40 years ago by Margaret Menamin, then a Missourian, now a Pennsylvanian. Menamin has had several careers, mostly as an old-school newspaper writer, but her love of and writing of poetry has been a constant.

About that first poem she says, “I was so delighted with the idea that I could make a poem that for a long time it didn’t occur to me that I could make more than one poem. I just kept adding to that one, and it got longer and longer. Fortunately it no longer remains anywhere, even in my memory.”

Menamin was born in a rural area of Missouri’s Washington County, which still is as rural as it gets in the Show-Me State. Her family moved to Steelville, on the banks of the Meramec River and she graduated high school there and entered the University of Missouri at 16, the youngest freshman on campus. “I certainly didn’t look like a college girl,” she says. “I was still buying my clothes out of the ‘little girls’ pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog.”

She felt out of it among the older students and dropped out after a year and began working as a printer’s devil – a print-shop apprentice – at the Crawford Mirror in her hometown (this still was the days of hot type set on the incredibly complex Linotype machines).
Next she became clerk of the Crawford County probate and magistrate courts for a decade. She married and had a daughter and a son, and began selling poems to Seventeen Magazine and saw her first poems published in The Missouri Conservationist, the magazine of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

That was her entrée to OWAA – Dan Saults, Werner Nagel and Jim Keefe, stalwarts of OWAA, all worked for the magazine and all became friends. She also knew Don Cullimore, OWAA’s longtime executive director. (The OWAA headquarters then was in Columbia, in a building owned by the late Buck Rogers, OWAA’s 1972-73 president.)

“How I miss Jim Keefe,” she writes. “So many times during the day I encounter an odd news item, a funny typographical error, a beautiful poem or just something I want to run by him and think, ‘I must show that to Jim.’ One never gets used to such a presence being absent.”
Nagel, who also was the founder of OWAA’s Circle of Chiefs, urged her to write a poem that could be used as an opening prayer for the OWAA conference. “I think he did it specifically with the idea of obtaining some recognition for my poetry by OWAA. Who knows?”

Uncle Homer Circle, who was president of OWAA at the time, also urged her to write a poem of invocation. “I felt we needed one to replace those which tended to be biased toward one religion or another,” he said in a letter to Jack Kerins. Circle had been charmed by an “Outdoor Prayer” that Menamin wrote which says in part: “… allot me some small earthly spot/Where I may feel the rain and wind and sun./ If Heaven be lovelier than the soil I stroll/I could not hold it in my shallow soul.”

OWAA adopted its prayer/poem on June 22, 1967, Margaret Menamin’s birthday.
“OWAA’s acceptance and use of the poem has been an ongoing honor to me,” she says.
Today she lives in Pittsburgh and wild turkeys come to her driveway to be fed. “They watch for me and as soon as I open my side door they come running.”

She never has been a member of OWAA, though she belonged to two regional outdoor communicator groups, Missouri Outdoor Writers Association and Great Rivers Outdoor Writers.
After her court clerkship she and her family moved to Rolla, Mo., site of OWAA’s 1954 conference, the hottest on record. There she did just about everything for the Rolla Daily News, including writing all the paper’s editorials for several months. The editorials and her personal column both took first place in the Missouri newspaper competition.

Today she works from home, transcribing medical reports, a job she did full time for 14 years. She has won several awards with her poems. OWAA freelancers can identify with one facet of her career: She was established with a magazine which had published a number of her poems – but it went out of business.In addition to her husband, there are two children and four grandchildren.

Although it wasn’t written for OWAA, the last two lines of a poem titled “Death Watch” could be a caution not just for her family, but also for everyone:

“The earth has grown too fragile./
Must it break along with all things loved for beauty’s sake?”

Goodbye Margaret and rest in peace.

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  • Blog
  • September 8th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

A few years ago I wrote most of a book about eggs. I’m fascinated by eggs. They are the beginning of all animal life and they permeate our lives like few other food items. But the egg book idea was greeted with what I can only call massive indifference and it rests in my computer today like a tired old dog in the sunlight.

So, in the interest of educating you about all the intricacies of the egg, here is one chapter of a book that very likely never will see the light of day—at least in the form of royalty checks made out to me.

Stupid egg tricks

Check any fourth grade classroom in America and chances are you’ll find something going on with eggs, from the kids watching a chick hatch to doing science experiments like changing the air pressure in a bottle to suck a hard-boiled, shelled egg into the bottle.

Actually, the egg is pushed from the outside when you burn a piece of paper inside the bottle and that causes the air pressure inside to lessen, the outside air pushes the egg inside and everyone goes, “Ooooaaahhhh!” and the science teacher preens.

The bottle neck has to be just slightly smaller than the egg. Larger and the egg merely falls in and no one is impressed; too small and no matter how much the eggs huffs and puffs it won’t go in. Anyway, that’s just one of a host of tricks more interesting that seeing how fast you can make two over easy disappear at the Dine In Diner.

You can do Stupid Egg Tricks at parties, too, especially if you don’t care whether you’re ever invited to one again. While most egg tricks reveal a scientific principle, they rank with putting a lampshade on your head and reviving the Dr. Pepper jingle (“I’m a pepper; you’re a pepper; etc.”) while everyone at the party desperately grabs for another stiff drink.

Of course there are commercial egg tricks—make eggs supposedly come out of your mouth or your ear, or disappear. But either you have to buy the paraphernalia or learn prestidigitation. Both involve more work and expense than the average half-drunk party clown wants to invest.

It’s always fun to try to balance a hard-boiled egg on its end. Supposedly eggs balance better on the equinox, so you might want to wait for a Spring Fling party to try this. Do it before everyone sheds clothing and cavorts around the May pole because it’ll be easier to get people’s attention. Some claim that it doesn’t matter when you balance the egg as long as it was laid on the equinox. There are many, many other partygoers who don’t give a shit either way.

Here’s another one to send your friends into terminal apathy: boil an egg for five minutes and let cool. Dissolve alum in a tablespoon of vinegar and write a message on the egg (“Yes, I know this is stupid” might be appropriate). When you peel the egg later the message should be on the white of the egg. But it doesn’t always work and if it doesn’t the failure might discourage you from trying future egg tricks.

That would be good.

But aficionados of egg tricks are not easily discouraged. You’ll find a life-of-the-party who insists on demonstrating the incredible strength of the egg by squeezing a raw egg with all his strength. The egg will not break. This works because of the egg’s resistance to equally-applied force (we’re getting into physics here and I barely scraped by high school physics, so just trust me, okay?). But if you are wearing a ring or if the egg has a crack, your hostess is going to be hysterical when she sees a raw egg splattered over the carpeting she just had cleaned for $1,000.

Cry, “Never fear!” before she goes for the .38 used to terminate burglars and idiot party clowns. “I’ll just scrape up the excess and wash the carpet.” Scrub with dishwashing liquid, a teaspoon to a half-pint of warm water, followed by a solution of a tablespoon of ammonia to a cup of water.

“See! All gone!” Then get the hell out of there.

If the burly husband of your hysterical hostess grabs you by the scruff of the neck and hauls you to the middle of a large body of water, then pushes you overboard, better hope it’s the ocean because you’ll float more buoyantly in salt water than fresh.

So will an egg. There are several tricks involving eggs in salt water and eggs in fresh. Tell a friend you have magic powers (make sure the friend is either young, dumb or incredibly gullible). Slip an egg into a glass of water and watch it sink. Then tell your dumb friend to close his eyes (“his” because girls are far too intelligent to fall for something like this).

Substitute a glass of salt water, fish the egg out of the plain water and hide that glass, then slip the egg into the salted water. Depending on the amount of salt the egg will float partly or all the way to the top of the glass. Mutter “Abracadabra” or some such nonsense, then tell the friend to open his eyes.

“Sumbitch!” he exclaims. “I need a drink of water after that.” And he goes to where you’ve hidden the fresh water glass, smirks at you, and drinks it. If you can think to say, “I hope you didn’t taste the arsenic in there,” you have a future as a class clown.

Of course egg throwing is a time-honored way to express yourself—possibly more demonstrative than writing inflammatory rhetoric that no one reads; certainly better than fulminating in the woods where only the rabbits cower in fright.

The Chinese consider egg throwing a time-honored method of expressing displeasure at official activity, although engaging in it in Tiananmen Square under the Chinese Communist regime is not a wise idea.

Works fine in Poland, though. Former President Bill Clinton once was hit by an egg and it wasn’t even thrown by a Republican Congressman. It was a Polish teenager who apparently disagreed with the idea of economic globalization. The cops arrested the kid, but didn’t simply shoot him.

The United States is not exempt. In late January of 2004 a disgruntled citizen lobbed an egg at the mayor pro tem of Houston. Robert Horton, who apparently is a frequent visitor to City Council meetings, said, “I’m the one who pays the cops. But, hey, they can’t seem to recognize the boss.”

Another familiar at council meetings is a man who claims he is going to record an album with Michael Jackson and yet a third who claims to be the president, only prevented from taking office by the Mafia. Clearly Houston is the seat of alternative government. Humpty Dumpty would have been completely at home among all the other crackpots.

But Houston isn’t the only city with egg on its governmental face. Three juveniles and an older man egged the homes of four Oxford, Ohio, city council members back in 1998. The council was involved in the demolition of a 76-year-old water tower that, apparently, the quartet of egg lobbers did not want to see demolished. “Democracy has failed,” read notes left on the doorsteps of the egged politicos. “Save the water tower or die.”

Egging is somewhat less ominous than a death threat and the four were arrested for (and I love this legalese) “aggravated menacing and criminal mischief.” Mischief always is such a rollicking word, carrying the implication of good fun. “Aggravated menacing” sounds like in-your-face carried to the point where your face has cleat marks on it.

That’s just one example of egg throwing to make a point. It’s possible Proto Man threw eggs at the cave of his rivals, but more likely he bonked his drooling enemy with a sizeable rock. Carries more authority than a fragile egg.

Bath, England, had a rash of egg throwers some time back. One target, not fully explained or at least not to my satisfaction, was “a group of tap dancers.” I don’t know if they were targeted as they danced or not, but it would have made a great show. “Some one is getting hold of copious amounts of eggs and throwing them around,” said a policeman. “I’m fed up with this.” He asked shopkeepers to keep an eye out for anyone buying eggs in bulk, though he didn’t specify when egg buying became copious.

In yet another English to-do involving eggs, the police stopped a bunch of youngsters trying to egg participants in a parade at Tranent. An American cop would have commented stiffly, using cop jargon: “The juvenile perpetrators were observed in the act of throwing eggs and were apprehended.” But PC Pamela Black summed it up this way, “There was a bit of a carry-on but we spotted the culprits, gave them a flea in their ear and confiscated the eggs.”

Less amusing was a confrontation in North Hollywood when some young males in a Suburban began throwing eggs at a documentary producer named Michael Craven. He blocked their vehicle, got out…and they ran over him. Egg throwers can be guilty of more than aggravated menacing.

Egg throwing even has changed the course of government. In 1917, the prime minister of Australia, on tour in Queensland, was egged by demonstrators at Warwick, possibly Irish nationalists or members of the International Workers of the World, the IWW or Wobblies. Queensland at the time was a rebellious province and the police refused to arrest the egg throwers.

The PM, William Morris Hughes, formed a commonwealth police force to protect him and future PMs—an agency similar to the American Secret Service. That force evolved into today’s Australian Federal Police who helped Warwick celebrate its splattery past in 2001 with a reenactment of the egg throwing.

Earlier I spoke of eggs squeezing without breaking it as a cute parlor trick. As a matter of fact, YouTube features a video of a burly guy cradling an egg between his hands and squeezing as hard as he can—without breaking the egg. Apparently it depends on how the egg is placed with the ends in the hollow of the palms.

And there is a video of some guy showing various egg tricks including the sucking-into-a-bottle showstopper and trying to pile weights on an upended egg to see how much it takes before the egg shatters. He also mixes some sort of substances in a bottle, places an egg end on atop the bottle and waits for a chemical reaction to shatter the egg like a hand grenade. But there is an on-screen caution. “Don’t try this at home”. Not recommended for viewing by elementary school kids who are notoriously curious.

Given a kid’s insatiable curiosity about forbidden pleasures (Swiping a sip of Mommy’s martini when she is so blasted she doesn’t see you do it, sneaking a peek at Daddy’s Hustler magazine), it’s wise to shield them from instructions on how to make an egg bomb. We should also probably deny the fourth-grader in the White House from access to YouTube lest he point an exploding egg in the direction of North Korea and inadvertently start World War III.

If you’re into egg throwing as a sport, see how far you can toss one without breaking it. The Guinness record is 317 feet 10 inches. That’s a throw from right field to home plate, but it had better be into a barrel of goose down, not a catcher’s mitt. If your arm is shot, try for the record of standing eggs on end. Taiwanese elementary and junior high students stood 602 eggs on end in 10 minutes in 2001 to make the Guinness book.

This proves the often-quoted belief that Asian students are far advanced over American youngsters because the Taiwanese little kids beat the previous record of only 467 set by a bunch of Colorado elementary school kids.

Asian teams usually win the Little League World Series also. What this proves I don’t know and, like most stupid egg tricks, almost no one cares. Especially publishers of books about eggs.

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  • Blog
  • September 1st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Maybe the analogy is flawed but those of us who have an addiction to wild rice cherish our connections to that delectable dish as avidly as does a crackhead cherish his back alley connection.

My guy quite likely has gone to the great rice beds in the sky by now— last time I saw him he looked as if they were a day or two away from paddling his canoe into eternity. But he was our connection to top-quality wild rice. And that is a connection to be as cherished as a map to the exact location of the Lost Dutchman gold mine. You would not have recognized his place as a retirement home for a Fortune 500 entrepreneur. The front yard was decorated with a collection of rusted out pickup trucks defunct refrigerators and other obsolete appliances that, we found out, served as repositories for his annual harvest of wild rice.

The house and yard basically defy description. If you have seen the movie Deliverance, you’ll get some idea of what the place looked like. Every time we stopped to buy rice, I expected to hear the sound of a banjo and see a genetically impaired kid sitting on the porch. I had my guitar in our truck, but I wasn’t about to get it out— I was there to buy wild rice, not to buy trouble with people who looked as if trouble was a major hobby.

God knows what was inside the house— when we knocked at the door, more than a little apprehensively, he would appear behind the screen which had holes in it big enough to admit small birds, looking as if he were in the throes of a massive hangover, but when we asked if he had any wild rice to sell, he would totter over to one of the decrepit pickups pry open a rusty door and retrieve bags of rice in whatever amount we wanted.

It was the prime stuff—wild rice varies in quality from almost black colored farm raised rice, to almost white prime rice from remote lake beds where Native Americans still thrash it into canoes. His was a pale tan color, obviously the best of the best and the taste was incomparable. My son-in-law, Ron DeValk, tried for years to inveigle his way into the house to see what was there, but the guy guarded his entryway like the gatekeeper at the castle of the Great Oz. We’ll never know what other treasures might have been inside because the last time we stopped to buy wild rice, there was no one home and the house and yard seemed abandoned. It was as if we had finally stumbled into the Lost Dutchman mind to find that, instead of gold, it was filled with rusty tin cans and empty beer bottles.

Rice beds also serve as hotspots for duck hunting. One avid rice bed hunter says,
“You have to enjoy paddling. From the beginning of the day until the end (minus a few snack breaks) we paddle. It’s not hard work and the thrill of going around the next turn and anticipating a flock of woodies or teal jumping keeps the adrenaline going.

“Since you paddle through the wild rice camouflage isn’t nearly as important as it is to the duck blind guys. The ducks we hunt aren’t looking down on us. You have to be quiet and keep below the top of the rice stalks. I prefer plastic boats because they’re quieter than aluminum, fiberglass, or Kevlar. The gunner has to be ready at all times and listen for ducks jumping because most of the time ducks see you before you see them.

“Rice seems to grow in cycles: some years a pothole can be so full of rice that it looks like a wheat field and other years it is too thin for ducks. Scouting is part of the fun of hunting–drive around the weekend before opener and find your spot. We’ve set up decoys maybe five times. Jump shooting requires the guy in the front to be ready. Ducks are flying away from you so they don’t need much lead and the breast meat never gets shot up.”

You also can park your boat in a rice bed, concealed by the towering rice stalks, throw out a few decoys and hunt as if from a traditional blind. Three of us were hunting in a rice bed in a northern Minnesota lake, our boat tucked into the thick golden grass with a few decoys in open water. It was a sharply cold morning with a good breeze to tickle the decoys, but the ducks were scarce. My half-asleep buddy reacted instinctively when a ducklike bird flashed in front of the decoys, made a beautiful right-to-left crossing shot….and picked up a defunct coot to the derision of the rest of us.

We, of course, insisted he cook and eat it and I suggested the traditional coot recipe: Place coot on a plank and roast for several hours, then throw away the coot and eat the plank. A gourmet cook, he instead marinated the coot breast along with woodcock breasts in olive oil spiced with Cavender’s Greek seasoning, then lovingly wrapped each chunk of dark meat in bacon, roasted the result and served it on a bed of wild rice.

We loved it, not knowing coot from ‘cock. When he sneered that after all our insults we had relished his cooked coot, I suggested it wasn’t the coot but the wild rice that we were cheering. Maybe it was—we’ve had wild rice at every wild game dinner since but no more coots.

Actually wild rice is not a rice and much of it these days isn’t all that wild, but wild rice is a boon both to man and duck. It is an aquatic grass unrelated to rice. Today much wild rice on the market actually is grown in carefully established beds and harvested by machinery.

But traditionally, as done by Native Americans and old time ricers, wild rice was a two-person operation in a canoe. One poled the canoe and the “knocker” used two sticks, one to bend the rice stalks into the canoe, the other to knock the seeds off. That method takes only a fifth of the available seed and the rest falls to the bottom to generate the next year’s crop.

Some wild rice grows in nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains, but northern North America is the heart of the seed and Minnesota among the Lower 48 states is the heart of the heart. No state produces as much wild rice as Minnesota and the preservation of rice beds and traditional ricing is a cooperative venture between the Department of Natural Resources and Native American tribes. Various conservation groups also chip in money and time.

Worldwide there are four species of wild rice—one in Asia; the other three in North America and of them all the one that grows in the temperate and boreal regions of the United States—think Minnesota—is the most cherished. It has been a staple in Native American diet for centuries–archeologists find traces as far back as 12,000 years. Many varieties of Zizania aquatica, the most-cherished species, exist, depending on water depth and other conditions. Most flourish in from three to eight feet of water, with a mud bottom.

The traditional method of harvesting wild rice now totals about a half-million pounds annually nationwide, far less than the estimated 18 million pounds raised commercially. Traditional ricing has declined steeply in the past 30 years, but Minnesota protects its historic methods by law. Even so, ricing permits have declined from a peak of about 12,000 annually to 2,000 today (an estimated 3,000 Native Americans who don’t need permits, swell the ricer total to about 5,000). Blame it largely on commercial competition, but also on competition from television, MP3s, cell phones and the other electronic addictions that seduce today’s youngsters away from the outdoors.

Today real wild rice (and by Minnesota law the label has to state it was collected by traditional methods) sells for as much as $10/pound. Of that the ricer gets between three and four dollars, the processor another dollar. Add in transportation and other pre-market costs and the profit margin is not great. Ducks are but one wildlife family that homes in on wild rice at dinnertime—an estimated 17 species that the DNR considers “species of greatest conservation need” eat or procreate in rice beds.

Given the state’s many wild rice lakes, it’s no wonder Minnesota is a duck magnet. So it makes sense to manage the rice beds both for human and avian food. The most cherished duck species—mallards and wood ducks, as well as ring-necked ducks—thrive on wild rice, but it also is food for black ducks, pintails, teal, widgeon, redheads and lesser scaup. One study indicated that wild rice is the most important food for mallards in the fall.

Sixty percent of the natural rice lakes in Minnesota are in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itaska and St. Louis counties and they produce 70 percent of the traditionally-harvested seeds, but there are wild rice lakes in 55 Minnesota counties, some 1,300 of them totaling more than 64,000 acres. Before 1970 Minnesota accounted for half the global production of wild rice; now, thanks to commercial beds in other states—notably California—the Minnesota contribution is 10 percent.

The relatively few dollars dedicated to wild rice management have two intertwined aims—managing water levels to promote rice health and control of the beavers that raise water levels. It wasn’t so long ago that beavers, the furbearer that sucked the pioneer trappers westward, were almost extirpated from much of their range. Now they are a scourge on wild rice, damming small streams and flooding wetlands so deep that the rice can’t germinate. Coupled with wet years that raised lake water levels, the beaver invasion aided a precipitous drop in wild rice production in the 1990s.

Consequently rice and waterfowl managers have declared war on the flat-tailed busybodies. Ducks Unlimited and the DNR have cost-shared on beaver control. The object is to keep water levels low enough to germinate the rice and keep beavers few enough to stop them from plugging wetland outlets. A return to more normal rainfall years has helped lower lake levels to the depths rice needs to germinate and thrive. DU in 2008 spent more than $61,000, mostly to pay trappers to terminate beavers on 123 Minnesota wild rice lakes totaling nearly 39,000 acres. The DNR chipped in $6,500 in 2007 for rice seeding.

But compare the money for traditional wild rice bed management with what the federal government authorized for the commercial rice farmers: nearly $323,000 for research on shattering resistance, disease prevention and seed storage. Funds for rice lake management depend on sales of ricing permits and matching funds from conservation groups. Wild rice is to Minnesota is as corn is to Iowa. It is a symbol of the state and a cash crop as well. A DNR report says that unprocessed rice has ranged from a dime a pound in 1940 to $2.17 in 1966 and that 1966 figure in today’s dollar is a $12 million crop.

To a duck wild rice is as good as it gets and a rice-fed duck on the table is second to none. Historically, canvasbacks from Chesapeake Bay fed on wild celery and were a staple in the finest New York restaurants, the best of the best eating duck. But the celery declined as did canvasbacks (and the ducks abandoned their vegetarian ways for an animal diet and became less tasty).

In traditional ricing the team member in the stern poles the canoe through the rice, picking the route to maximize seed collection and minimize running aground or getting tangled in the thick vegetation. The raw seeds are a long way from the dinner table. They go to a processor who tumbles them to remove the outer husk. Depending on how much of the outer coating is removed in the processing, the seed can be black or nearly white. The blacker the seed the longer it should cook.

Cooked wild rice should retain a bit of crunch. Cook it too long and it turns to mush. “There’s no set time to cook it–it’s a matter of experience. Always use chicken broth instead of water—makes a much richer dish. And if you make your own stock all the better. Like regular rice it puffs up when cooked at a ratio of four or five to one. So a cup of wild rice will make at least four cups of cooked.

There’s no shortage of recipes for wild rice—Google “wild rice recipe books” and you’ll find a library’s-worth. Leftover rice, assuming there is any, can be turned into soup to die for.

Wild rice has filled some of the void left by wild celery. As good as wild rice is inside a duck, it’s equally as good outside, as a side dish to a duck dinner. So, any waterfowl hunter owes it to himself to try sneak shooting through a wild rice bed….and to serve the day’s bag on a bed of wild rice.
It goes great with coot.

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  • Blog
  • August 25th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Two little boys about six years old, blond and wearing overalls, standing side-by-side stiffly self-conscious in front of the camera. Each is holding a stringer aloft and each stringer has a tiny sunfish on it, the product of a fishing trip to Little Birch Lake—probably off the rickety town dock which no longer exists.

The site is Birchwood Wisconsin and I am the taller of the two little boys. The other one is Pat Catman, my first cousin and 24 hour playmate anytime I was in Birchwood. We are in the front yard of our grandmother’s house.

Pat is older than I am, a fact he loved to point out. He was born on August 7, 1934, and I was born September 25, 1934, which made him about seven weeks older than I am. I would like to say that my tiny bluegill or lake perch (they are so small it’s impossible to tell the species) is larger than his, but neither one is in the ballpark of much larger fish we will catch during the next more than seven decades.

Pat died July 5 and there may be some obscure symbolism in the fact that it was one day after the nation’s most revered patriotic holiday because Pat was a Marine veteran of the Korean War. He never shared any of his memories about the war with me, although he possibly did with his widow Kathy and his son Rocky and daughter Terri. But it is a fact that few if any Marines escaped Korea without seeing intense combat. If the US Marine Corps, as it always says, is looking for “a few good men” it certainly found one in Pat.

He had every reason to avoid the Marine Corps because his older brother Mike was a Marine in World War II and island hopped across the Pacific engaged in the horrific battles that the Corps endured. They didn’t call it PTSD in those days— shell shock or battle fatigue— but the effect was the same and Mike suffered from it to the end of his days. My father picked Mike up at the railroad station in Chicago after he was mustered out and when a car backfired as they were walking down the sidewalk, Mike reflexively hit the dirt— not the dirt of some obscure Pacific island, but the grit of a Chicago sidewalk.

Pat and I shared childhood together before we diverged and rarely spent time together over the next seven decades. Sometimes there are echoes of shared experience that sound over the passage of time and one such was a night in Birchwood when my wife and I were spending a vacation there. I was just leaving the Bluegill Bar, which was founded by my uncle Hud Soper, brother of my mother and Pat’s mother. The Bluegill (called Hud’s Bar then) was where Pat and I swiped a couple bottles of beer from the store room and scuttled out to the outhouse behind the bar to enjoy a forbidden pleasure. The third member of this preadolescent Three Musketeers was Sam Soper, another cousin, younger than Pat and me, and the little kid who tagged along and considered himself lucky if Pat and I included him in in our adventures.

The beer tasted awful, hardly worth the effort we put into swiping it. And here I was 75 years later going out the front door of the bar instead of the back door. A bulky stranger blocked my way and I stepped to one side to get around him and he did the same and I thought “uh oh!” There was a second guy with this bruiser who just grinned as if he were anticipating the enjoyment of watching me get beaten to a pulp. I knew that if the fight that appeared to be brewing started I was doomed.

“You don’t know me do you?” Asked the big guy and I quavered “Nnnnnnoo.” He grinned and said, “Sam Soper— and this is Pat.” They were all grown up and, fight avoided, we went back inside for more beer—and this time we didn’t have to sneak it out of the back room and drink it in the outhouse (the Bluegill had upgraded to an indoor toilet by then).

I saw Sam and Pat one more time some years later when our whole family stayed in Birchwood for a week and we gathered at Pat’s house on Little Birch Lake and talked over old times. Sam especially was convinced that the fictional boys in my book “Grandma and the Buck Deer” were the three of us and that the outrageous adventures I created for the boys actually were true. Some of them, as outlandish as they were, weren’t that far off from what actually happened.

Sam died a couple of years ago and now Pat is gone and the memories crowd in. There was a time that Pat picked up a ladyfinger firecracker that didn’t explode and he stuck it in his mouth and said “look at me! I’m smoking!” In an instant he was because the firecracker went off searing his mouth and stopping up my ears. He healed after a few days and my ears unplugged and we went back to roaming the streets of Birchwood and doing things that our parents would’ve been horrified by if they had known we were doing them.

We jumped out of the hayloft of a barn behind Pat’s mother’s house into a skimpy pile of hay, never stopping to consider that something like a pitchfork may have been hidden in the hay. Fortunately, we survived that leap, no doubt imagining we were Superman or Batman, rather than two goofy kids trying to survive adolescence.

Some of our adventures bordered on illegality beyond swiping a couple of really bad beers. Once, we were prowling in the attic of a barn behind Uncle Hud’s house when we discovered a couple of slot machines. Maybe there had been a day when slot machines were legal in a drinking establishment, but they weren’t at the time we made our discovery. So Uncle Hud had stashed them there perhaps against the day when they would be once again be legal. And he hadn’t even bothered to empty them from their accumulated coins.

So Pat and I liberated a stash of quarters and then there came the problem of how to account for them. If we got an allowance from our parents it was minimal and we had no independent source of income to account for a sudden flush of wealth.

That night my mother walked up the road into town with us and I pretended to find a quarter in the weeds alongside the road. My mother appreciated my good fortune, but when Pat pretended to find another quarter a few feet farther, on even though my mother was not noted as a world-famous detective, she quickly deduced that such coincidental good fortune was suspicious. It doesn’t take long for a mother to break down a flimsy alibi hastily concocted by a couple of juvenile slot machine robbers and we both were hauled before the stern presence of my uncle. Apparently we escaped a life sentence.

The sinew of the Soper family is threaded through the history of Birchwood. Grandma and Grandpa Soper emigrated to Birchwood at the beginning of the 20th century, coming overland from Argyle, Wisconsin, in a covered wagon. My grandmother ran a restaurant for the loggers who were busy cutting down the forested hills around the 20 mile chain of lakes on which Birchwood and a couple of other towns were established. My grandfather served the loggers two ways— he was the town bootlegger and if they got too obstreperous from his strong drink, he also was the town marshal.

The Soper grandparents had nine children, four boys and five girls. One boy, Orville, had his leg amputated on the kitchen table after a tree fell on him and his fascinated sister, Viola (Vic) was inspired to become a registered nurse. In the 1930s, Howard (Hud) opened Hud’s Bar, now renamed the Bluegill Bar, and his brother Foster (Bud) was the bartender. Later, Hud would build a resort on the north shore of Big Birch Lake and Bud would open a bait and tackle shop across the street from the Bluegill. The fourth brother, Myron, left home during the Depression and never was seen again. My father hired a private detective to track him down and the detective reported that a hobo killed somewhere out West, either by falling or being pushed from a train had papers identifying him as Myron Soper, but that’s where his story ended– except for a family legend which Bud’s son, Foster (the Second as he terms it) tells it: “Urban legend has it that Myron, known to be an especially “capable” boxer, took on two of Al Capone’s men who had come to Birchwood seeking drinks and adventure. After Myron dutifully handled them to a point of submission, they are said to have threatened that if Myron was still in town by the time the sun came up, he’d be snuffed out! That night, Myron vanished and was never heard from again, and Gramma Soper would look for him every time there was a knock at the door!”

One of the girls, Nellie, died in childhood from a minor wound which she got while swimming at the dam on Little Birch Lake which became infected— there were no antibiotics in those days and infection often was a death sentence. Three of the girls migrated to Chicago–Vic, Margaret (Mugs) and my mother (the only one of the girls without a nickname). Pat’s mother Lillis (Pill) stayed in Birchwood. Ultimately, Vic and Mugs ended up in old age living together in a house on the south shore of Big Birch Lake entertaining an endless stream of family and friends—it was the social epicenter of Birchwood.

Pat and Kathy would retire to a tidy home, on Little Birch, across from what once was the town dock where Pat and I caught our little fish. Pat’s sister, Mavis (of course she also had a nickname—Sammy) was my babysitter for a time before I became big enough to catch little bitty fish with Pat.

After he left the Marines and retired to Birchwood, Pat continued the Soper dominate presence in the town–he drove a school bus for 20 years and also served two terms as what they call the president of the town–the mayor. In addition to Rocky and daughter Terri, Pat and Kathy had three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

After Pat’s memorial service at St. John’s Catholic Church in Birchwood, family and friends did the only logical thing to celebrate the life of the man who had become the patriarch of the Soper clan— they gathered at the Bluegill Bar to swap stories and anecdotes about Pat’s life. Maybe some of them involved three little boys and their youthful adventures, but who was left to tell them?

Rocky wrote and read a eulogy to his dad that says in part:

“When we were kids, he used to tell Terri and me that the Marines were the strongest men—and I believe my dad was the strongest Marine. My dad was my hero. He taught me how to throw a football, baseball, how to shoot a basketball, catch a fish, shoot a deer, how to drink a beer, and most importantly, how to treat people, and how to conduct myself as I went through life. In other words, he taught me how to be a man.

“Terri was always “daddy’s little girl” he used to call her “Mutt”. In high school the boys started hanging around. They had a pretty high bar to meets Dad’s standards.

“Mom was his rock, his reason for living. With her at his side, he was invincible, and he was her knight in shining armor. A love story, worthy of a Hollywood movie, it was love at first sight. She was his high school sweetheart. They had to sneak away to get married–and they stayed in love to the very end.

“If done right, the bond between father and son is stronger than the strongest steel. Dad did it right, he’s the man that built me, and every day, I will try to live up to his standard. We will all miss you, though your presence and influence will always be felt. You fought the good fight, Marine. You earned some R&R.”

When I read Rocky’s eulogy, through tears, my mind went back more than seven decades to two little boys and two little fish. Our paths widely diverged over the years but they always seemed to lead back to Birchwood and I hope that wherever Pat’s R&R is, it includes catching a lake perch while fishing off a rickety town dock, miraculously restored, and, Pat, I admit your fish is bigger than mine.

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  • Blog
  • August 20th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I started bird hunting in my 20s but only started keeping a diary or a daily log of my adventures in the field I half a century later. 50 years lost. Not totally lost, of course. The years cough up bits of themselves. The memories are conveniently skewed so my shooting recalls better than it was, and the dogs of recollection are far more efficient than the dogs of actuality.

The real value of a diary is in the narrative, that spot, however extensive, where you relive your impressions of the day. I tried to go beyond the dog-and-shot brags to the real meaning of the hunt.

Golden hemlocks flaming in an alder bog? A grouse fanned on the ground in front of the dog? The pup tentatively bug-eyed on his first woodcock? The ghost buck that you glimpsed, but didn’t shoot at (or the snort in the night just before dawn and legal shooting hour)? The turkey that came in behind you so close you could hear his measured footsteps in the dry leaves and his spit-and-drum?

“Really nice day,” I wrote back in 1986. “Good dog work, good shooting, good guys to be with. Andy is so much fun to hunt with. I’m lucky to have such a fine son and good hunting buddy.”
Andy is halfway through his 40s now and I am half way through my 80s. And 1986 was more than 30 years ago. It’s not so much what was written but that it is a remnant of life of importance to me, certainly, but potentially for those who will read it long after I am gone.

This is the stuff that needs telling so you can recall it once again…or so someone else can. Maybe you never again will crack the pages, but someone will. Your son or daughter, your mate, maybe your hunting buddy, grown old and with eyes too dimmed to see the flicker of a buck’s tail in the dark woods, but not dimmed to where he can’t read about those times you enjoyed together.

I remember the first quail I shot. It flushed under my feet as I struggled out of a Chariton County gully and I got the old Stevens single shot half-mounted and pulled the trigger.

That gun was the bastard child of the Missouri state animal–my all time favorite equine, the mule. It kicked me back down the slope of the ditch and the top lever ripped a chunk of meat out of the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. My memory tells me I killed the bird and perhaps I did, but it’s more probable that I created a dead bird as the consolation for having maimed myself.

Memory is far more certain of the fact that a large Labrador retriever ate the first rooster pheasant I ever shot, filching it from the tailgate of my station wagon where I’d left it while I went looking for someone to brag to.

And I remember shooting two boxes of shells on my first dove hunt without scratching a feather. “That’s all right,” said my host. “It’s not uncommon at all.” “Then why do you have a limit?” I grumbled sourly, indicating the pile of defunct doves on the tailgate of his vehicle, and he had the grace to blush.

I should have been writing all that down, the defeats as well as the triumphs, but I didn’t, not for all those lost years. There were the thousand and one hunts that Foster Sadler, my best friend, and I made together–trips to the Dakotas for prairie grouse, camping along the ridge in north Missouri where the turkeys prowl.

Foster’s pointer, Joe, was the first bird dog I hunted behind. I spent half of the hunt jumping when Foster or his father would scream, “Joe! Cut your head in, dammit!” thinking they were shouting at me. Mr. Sadler not only was the school superintendent, but also our basketball coach and I was not his most apt benchwarmer.

Most hunting diary entries are dull enough to put an insomniac to sleep: “Two coveys. Big one in beanfield flushed wild, up to road. Ginger pointed 3 birds. Guff found dead bird. Andy missed, I missed….” And so boringly on.

Nothing much changed in my shooting, I see (one for five that day), but Andy certainly is better than the 0-for-2 of that 1984 opening day of quail season. Later on that year, I see we put up a bunch of woodcock at the Stringtown access. It was a consistent woodcock producer then, but the pole thicket grew out of favor with the little bogsnipe and now you won’t find them there (which is why I have no compunctions about naming the place–you couldn’t have dragged it out of me with white hot branding irons in 1984).

There are other reasons for keeping a journal. There always is the chance that you’ll become famous and someone will plunder your past for archival material. Thoreau would be just another nut living on chokecherries if it weren’t for his journals. Lewis and Clark are familiar to us because of their daily jottings. Journals don’t have to be literary efforts. They are a sketch of your thoughts, your experiences. They recap the day as you saw it, in whatever detail you care to supply.

For the literal-minded, a journal is a dry recitation of statistics. My father, not given to imagination, carefully recorded the weather conditions in his journal. He might mention that he and Chaps had treed and shot two or three squirrels in the Bend. Little Chaps was the product of an affair between a cocker and a springer spaniel. She was the quintessential squirrel dog. She treed them and barked until my father appeared with a .22 single shot Winchester.

That team accounted for many a squirrel over the years, but what did my father think about his relationship with the faithful little dog? I’ll never know, for he didn’t write it down, only that it was dry, but looked like rain, and the temperature was 75 degrees. The corn was made and the beans looked good. My father was a farmer first, a hunter second.

But my dogs raced through my journal pages, muddy and bloody, triumphant and chagrined, sometimes heroes, sometimes goats. They were my partners and I wrote their entries for them. It was a ritual. Each evening, after I cleaned birds and ate, cleaned the shotgun, took a shower, I got the diary out. I always paused a moment to collect my thoughts–but as much as anything to savor the pleasure of this ritual. There was a woodstove in the family room and I would open the doors to let the flames flicker hypnotically.

I could feel the soft warmth of the stove, the pleasant ache of my legs and arms after the long day. Sometimes I would read the previous hunt’s entry, though it still was fresh in mind, just to contrast that one and today.

Occasionally, some event is so transcendent it leads my entry, but mostly the writing is chronological, a progression of events. “What a wonderful day! Hunted deer early and shot at a spike buck at 30 yards. Had crosshairs right on his chest and missed. Saw a huge gobbler on way home running across Highway C. On to quail at H-C. Bumped a river bird and dumped it nicely. Ginger found it in the prairie grass. Missed an easy shot at another, then doubled on a double point. Missed a pointed bird on first shot, nicked it on second and lost it. Scrivner Road–saw a covey fly out of milo and land, circled them and Guff pointed nicely. Hit one of two on covey rise. Didn’t follow. Then saw about 40 turkeys and another covey that flew out of milo across river. No shots. Beat Andy one-on-one in basketball…twice!”

I found later the scope on the deer rifle had been mis-mounted and the gun was shooting ‘way off. The “river bird” was one from a covey that invariably flew a sizable river out of range. Killing any of this covey is a triumph.

Andy was 16 then, lean and tall, and I was 52, short and, well, flabby is a fair word. But I nailed him twice on the basketball court. That day was a jumble of unrelated events that, in total, brightened my life for a time.

Lined Big Chief tablets or a three-ring binder notebook will work as a journal, but they aren’t exactly pretty and they deteriorate. A formal log is an incentive to use and it also is more durable.

One hunter I know uses accountant’s ledgers, bound in pebble-grain imitation leather. There also are commercial shooter’s diaries. What you put in a diary is subjective. Some enter weather, scent conditions, the minutiae of fishing and hunting. It may help to know that the water reached 62 degrees on April 17 last year if you’re trying to figure out when to start crappie fishing. But it may not if this year is colder or warmer than last year–a thermometer will do you more good than year-old information. On the other hand, it will be of interest to read that “today I caught the first crappie of the season in shallow water, earliest ever.”

Covert locations and detailed maps are helpful if you have a brain like a sieve and are prone to forget where you killed a limit of woodcock in 45 minutes. I may forget my children’s birthdays, but I damn sure never forget a limit covert. Sketch maps are most helpful when there aren’t many landmarks and the turns are tricky. I’ve been into some northwoods coverts where you either know the exact route, within a couple of yards, or you flounder hopelessly in alder bogs. One involves a beaver dam crossing; another is through a hemlock thicket. There are no alternative routes. There is the right trail or there is the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Here is what should go in a shooter’s diary: the date of the hunt, weather conditions, companions (most important), the area hunted, guns and loads used, the hunt results. If it’s a bird hunt, list the dogs and if you’re box score oriented, you can list finds and retrieves (and backs, too, which are like assists in hockey and basketball), and shots fired and species bagged for yourself.
I’d rather rely on memory when it comes to shooting success. Time blunts hard edges. Actual figures tend to depress.

Sometimes one mood overrides everything and it is the bulk of the entry. “The pits! Dropped Nikon motor drive in creek. Then Ginger rolled in something long dead and stinking. Guff and/or Ginger bumped the only covey we found and the birds vanished. Jo rolled in something worse than Ginger did. Toby rolled twice in cowflops and ate horseapples twice in the first 200 yards of the hunt. It’s a wonder lightning didn’t flash out of a cloudless sky and the last voice we hear is huge and booming, growling, ‘I don’t know, guys, there’s just something about you that ticks me off.'”

I suppose the super-organized keep a log for each activity: Hunter’s Diary, Angler’s Diary, Shooter’s Diary, and so forth. There even are computer database programs which invite you to fill in the pertinent information for a given outing. Then you can call up information in various relationships, even print it out. But that seems stiflingly technological. I don’t want a journal to help me kill more or even kill better; I want one to help me remember.

One friend is meticulous. His log is a model to which the rest of us can only aspire. He draws neat sketch maps of grouse coverts that look as if Rand and McNally did them. His printing is monastic, elegant and ornate. I suspect he’d decorate with gold leaf if he could afford it.

My diary, in contrast, is a scribble which looks like the prescription file at a pharmacy. There are blots and beer stains and what looks suspiciously like shreds of last year’s woodcock dinner.
But it is legible to me most of the time and that is what counts. There is an entry from Nov. 21, 1984, which tells me it was “Beautiful–sunny and 40s.” My hunting partner was Foster Sadler, first time we’d hunted together for a long time. He’d had some problems and we just hadn’t gotten together. But now we were out and he had his old Parker and I shot my L.C. Smith.

Just a couple of old friends with old guns. The dogs didn’t work well. Foster shot a wild flushed quail for the only bird of the day. But I didn’t mind. It was enough being out with a friend of nearly 40 years. We found a small stream on the back side of nowhere and made plans to fish it come spring. A few weeks later, I find an entry that begins: “The perfect day…” and goes on to detail a long, solitary hike across the ridges of a favored hunting area. “Everything was simply fine,” I wrote. “I’m proud of my pups and feeling more relaxed than for a long time.”

The next entry was five days later and it is terse: “No hunt. Today is the day I lost my hunting buddy, Foster. There’s no space here to record 37 years of memories.”

It was cold and cloudy.

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  • Blog
  • August 12th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Non-migratory wildlife being, well, non-migratory is subject to the same problems as people when the neighborhood goes to ruin. It’s difficult if not impossible to pick up and move to a better ‘hood.

Ducks, geese, other peripatetic types, can light a shuck for new territory—but how can you fill a wildlife vacuum with animals that don’t want to move?

Fortunately wildlife biologists have invented an array of methods to get wildlife from here to there and the result is a series of remarkable comebacks of endangered or threatened wildlife species by trap-and-transplant. They’ve been trapped by an array of schemes, some right out of a Three Stooges comedy.

It all started with a device designed for a migratory species. Sir Peter Scott, son of the famed explorer Robert Falcon Scott (who froze to death during an Antarctic expedition in 1912) devised a rocket net that could be fired over waterfowl.

The birds then could be banded, aged, sexed and otherwise studied. Rocket nets worked when they worked…but often they misfired or tried for a space launch. Scott wrote about his adventures and misadventures with the rocket net and a pair of innovative wildlifers at Missouri’s Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, manager Herb Dill and staff member Howard Thornsberry, read what he wrote.

Thornsberry, a mechanical marvel, devised a “cannon” which more resembled a mortar. It fired a dependable missile at a dependable trajectory. The “missile” was a weight attached to the leading edge of a net. A pair of mortars, fired in unison, would launch the net over baited birds.

Since Dill and Thornsberry began using their net in 1950 to capture Canada geese for tagging and study, the cannon net has become a staple in the wildlifer’s arsenal, used to capture both deer and turkeys. Sandhill cranes and tundra swans also have fallen for bait and been netted.

Box traps are as old as the country and still are in use—in fact, box traps were the trap of choice for Dill and Thornsberry before the advent of the cannon net. But the drawback for flock creatures was that box traps don’t catch enough animals. Instead of one goose or turkey at a time, the cannon net can catch 25-50.

Trapping gathers animals for transplant to suitable, but uninhabited habitat also allows researchers to equip the critters with tracking devices so they can be studied. Sometimes the motive is to thin a population of animals that have become nuisances.

Urban wildlife problems are a relatively new phenomenon and, faced with increasing incidence of people vs. critter, biologists have two choices: either kill the offending animals or relocate them. Relocation is the usual (and more desirable) choice.

What do you do when a 1,600-pound bull moose invades your city? Anchorage, Alaska, has faced this situation. Other than hunters, the only predators on moose are wolves and vehicles (about 160 collisions a year in the Anchorage area). Wolves by their nature are rural residents, not city dwellers…which leaves the Anchorage moose with only one predator, the SUV, and as powerfully-built as four-wheelers are they don’t stand up well to a collision with a moose.

Alaska sees a thousand or more car-moose encounters each year and the moose toll is more than 500. Several people also die. So, while back country moose populations in Alaska have declined in recent years, the city herd has increased dramatically…and with increasing friction between the animals and those to whom a moose is an accident waiting to happen.

Gray wolf restoration in Yellowstone is a fact. Controversial or not the reintroduction there produced a rare alliance against the project between the Sierra Club and ranchers—Sierra arguing that the introduction of trapped and transplanted Canadian wolves would dilute the gene pool of any indigenous wolves remaining, and ranchers simply not wanting large predators. But the project went ahead, beginning in 1994 after a number of court challenges.

There even was controversy over how to catch wolves: trap, live-snare, tranquilizer darts from helicopters, or nets fired from helicopters. The biologists decided to dart wolves in Alberta and supplement with wolves neck-snared by trappers (the snare has a stop to prevent strangulation). After all the court battles, biologists captured 33 wolves in the first go-around, one of which died.

Two decades later wolves still are at the center of a controversy over whether they should be managed as trophy animals or “delisted” in much of the state, to be taken at any time in any numbers. Regardless, the capture methods and the reintroduction both were highly successful.

Some years ago a wolf release in Minnesota involved transmittered animals. When one signal became stationary, wildlife officers investigated and found that a farmer had shot the wolf, discovered the transmitter collar and then panicked. Not realizing the transmitter continued to broadcast, he buried the wolf in his manure pile. He was fined but he got to keep his manure pile.

In Wyoming the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contributed nearly $400,000 through 2003 to wildlife management, which includes elk transplants. Counting cooperative contributions, the total is more than $1.5 million.

Wyoming Game and Fish used cannon nets for sage grouse. Researchers studying West Nile virus in sage grouse in Powder River Basin night netted sage grouse with a spotlight and a big dip net. Wyoming also has used just about every capture method for a variety of wildlife. Including pronghorn antelope caught for relocations to other states where large numbers (more than 30) are needed are driven into a big corral trap by helicopter. Other big game animals are generally darted, but researchers used clover traps for some things like deer and elk and have used drop traps baited with apple pulp for capturing large numbers of bighorn sheep. Ferrets are live trapped with a special long, narrow trap that looks like the usual Havahart or similar live traps.

Grizzly bear relocations (usually related to human/grizzly or livestock/grizzly conflicts) within the Yellowstone Ecosystem are via culvert traps or snares and then immobilization via dart gun or jab stick.

As retired Montana game warden Louis Kis found out in 1987, a culvert trap can work both ways. He was relocating a grizzly bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Photographer Richard Smith was along to record the release. The bear, instead of heading for the woods, turned on the trap and dragged it, and Kis who was standing on it, out of a truck bed.

The bear grabbed Kis by the leg and Kis grabbed his .357 pistol and emptied it, somehow managing to avoid shooting himself in the leg. He killed the bear, thankful to be alive, although his leg was broken. Smith, whose first instinct was to help, realized a motor-driven camera wasn’t much of a weapon against a ticked-off grizzly bear and did what photographers always do—he kept shooting until he ran out of film. Kiss got mauled, but Smith made considerable money off the photos of the attack. Usually the trappers win, but not always.

Some years back a Canadian moose tagging team was working from a helicopter. The procedure was to herd the moose into a lake deep enough that the animal had to swim. Then the chopper could hover above the swimming moose while a biologist leaned out and clipped an ear tag to it.

The idea worked well…until the moose reached a submerged island and lurched out of the water, dumping the helicopter on its side. Fortunately no one was injured, but the pilot and biologist had to swim to shore and hike for help.

Among the more unusual trap ideas is a mailbox, used to snare ruffed grouse. Male grouse use a “drumming log” to advertise their virility. The male finds a downed tree, preferably with a bit of overhead cover to discourage hungry horned owls, and “drums,” a wing beat that sounds like a distant tractor starting up.

Mating males are competitive. Grouse trappers placed a common rural mailbox with a mirror inside on or near the log. The grouse would glance inside the box, see what appeared to be a competing male, and charge in to do battle, tripping a door behind it. The device worked on male birds, but a population of males won’t proliferate. So the trappers devised a miniature version of the corral, used by Westerners for decades to trap wild horses. Grouse prefer to walk unless they must fly, so the trappers placed 50-foot, 18-inch-high chicken wire fences or “leads” which led to a wire cage on either end.

A wandering grouse would reach the fence and, like someone looking for a gate, amble along it into the cage from which it couldn’t escape. A similar technique is used for geese during their molt period or before goslings can fly. They’re herded into a corral, chased down, captured and tagged or transplanted. It’s a raucous scene, often involving bloodletting—that of the biologists who are flogged and clawed by angry geese (wrestling an eight-pound Canada goose has many similarities to wrestling a bobcat).

Earlier researchers relied on tagging (a leg band or a visible colored plastic tag on the wing), hoping that observers would report sightings or dead animals. These days radio telemetry is the key method. Transmitters allow biologists to track the activities of everything from timber wolves to bobwhite quail.

Wildlife capture inevitably runs afoul of animal rights activists who focus on the stress and occasional mortality associated with capture. An elk that wandered into Missouri some years ago was dart tranquilized because of local fears about Bangs disease. The elk died…and proved negative for Bangs. But wildlife management is predicated on the health of the population, not the individual. While some individuals may die during a trap-and-transplant project, the ultimate judgment rests on the establishment of a viable population—and there have been far more successes than failures.

In fact, some of the successes have become problems. Giant Canada geese, which once were thought to be extinct, now are thriving to the point of being pest animals, especially in urban areas where they can’t be hunted. They munch on gardens and foul golf courses with droppings. And a 15-pound gander protecting a nest can be a ferocious adversary.

River otters (captured with leg hold traps which are, according to animal rightists, cruel) have been transported hundreds of miles, released…and have established healthy populations in 18 states. Lee Roy Sevin in Louisiana used leg hold traps to capture river otters which he sold to wildlife agencies around the country. Missouri’s river otter restoration has been so successful that the animals have become a localized nuisance.

Since an initial release of 20 otters in 1981, the Missouri otter population has reached at least 10,000 animals and they are being accused of depredation on fish hatcheries and the smallmouth bass population in small streams. A couple of otters loose in fish hatchery pools can do major damage and otters in steam headwaters will eat fish as long as the fish are available

“If an otter wants to catch a fish in open water the fish doesn’t stand a chance,” said the late Glenn Chambers, retired wildlife biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department, and “father” to captive river otters for 30 years. Missouri’s otters are a remarkable wildlife restoration success, despite the problems. More than 5,000 otters have been trapped for their fur, yet the population remains healthy—a population that did not exist 20 years and more ago.

So it is with the mammal version of catch-and-release: today’s triumph may be tomorrow’s problem…but that’s better than having nothing left to create the problem.

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  • Blog
  • August 5th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

There is a poignant moment in the television series “Band of Brothers” when Capt. Richard Winters, the commander of a company of American soldiers and his fellow GIs engage a group of German soldiers in a firefight.

Capt. Winters is by himself when he surprises a German soldier whose back is turned to him. He raises his rifle and the German turns and he is perhaps 14 or 15 years old. There is a moment, suspended in time, when Capt. Winters as to make a moral choice. The young boy looks at him with a mixture of terror and hope- and Capt. Winters pulls the trigger. If this actually happened, there is no doubt it haunted Richard Winters to the end of his long life which ended not that long ago at 92.

There is no doubt that similar choices faced soldiers on all sides in every war since history began to record their bloody trail. That’s what war is—kill or be killed. It’s all about which side has the highest heap of dead bodies.

We, as a nation, are making a somewhat similar choice every day we continue to brutalize children at our southern border whose only crime is not that they have been drafted into an enemy army, but that they have been caught seeking refuge in our country. We are not physically killing youngsters at the southern border, but we are doing something equally as reprehensible— we are killing hope.

And yet, some 40%, of our population supports,fervently, every savage edict of our president. Many of them are evangelicals who claim, with a straight face, that Donald Trump has been installed in the oval office by God. He has, they maintain, been chosen by God to lead us. Given the often demonstrated perverted lifestyle of Donald Trump, and the evangelical concept of good and evil— not just a God, but also a Devil— isn’t it feasible that it wasn’t God who chose Trump, but the Devil?

What are we are doing to families whose only transgression has been to seek asylum in our country after having traveled in many cases hundreds of miles to get here, hoping to escape tyrannical cruelty in their home country, only to find themselves torn apart by the same sort of authoritarian tyranny that they fled to get away from?

The administration, which has separated children from their parents and sent them to what amounts to a fenced in reform school, has the audacity to defend this policy with the assertion that the separated children are really having a good time. Matthew Albence, the acting number two official at the immigration and customs enforcement agency, said that detention centers set up to imprison migrants are “more like a summer camp.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono a Democrat from Hawaii, and one of the few Senators with courage enough to be outraged and let the world know it, asked Albence if he would send his children to one of the centers predictably Albence fumbled his answer because there actually is none, To equate what amounts to a concentration camp with a summer camp is ridiculous on the face of it.

Is this what we have become as a so-called bastion of freedom? Are we now a country that does not welcome oppressed, believing in the words etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty? Are we, as evangelicals so fervently maintain, a Christian nation— in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”?

Apparently, liberty and justice for all, applies only if you pledge fealty to Donald Trump, and his increasingly arrogant and out-of-control border security troopers, and to that 40% of the population who think that what they are doing along the southern border not only is true blue American, but necessary to protect us from some vague, perceived threat to our national security from refugees seeking only to find liberty and justice for all.

It will take years and probably history books yet to be written to sort out the many injustices that have been perpetrated on these poor folk whose lives went from bad to worse when they got to the United States. Almost daily there are new outrages reported and the list is so long and so depressing that those of us who live in comfort and security should feel a national shame.

Kids in cages like zoo animals, parents deported without their children, children that the authorities who took them from their parents can’t even find, abuse of the children to include dosing them with psychotropic drugs— all these and many other outrageous crimes against morality have been happening since Donald Trump took office and began his campaign against anyone who doesn’t kneel to his royal presence.

We didn’t elect a president (well, I sure as hell didn’t); we elected a despot. This is a depraved man who in the manner of the crazed Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland, shouted “Off with their heads!” every time something offended her. We are in a sort of Wonderland without any of the redeeming whimsy of Lewis Carroll. It is a national nightmare unfolding at the southern border and the only way to wake ourselves from it is to head to the polls in November as an outraged majority and clean house.

We once had an infestation of termites in our home and had to have the exterminators come in and get rid of them. Another person I know is facing the prospect of fumigating his home to get rid of brown recluse spiders. The problem with brown recluses is that you can never get rid of all of them; you can only kill perhaps 40% of them. Brown recluse venom is nasty stuff.

It is a hemotoxic venom which, in the worst cases, produces necrosis of the skin and erosion of underlying muscle tissue much as does the bite of a rattlesnake. I’ve seen the results (though, thankfully, not through personal experience) of both types of bite and they are nothing you want to suffer.
If you can stand to watch Trump exhorting his slavering 40%, and think of brown recluse spiders and rattlesnakes, you can almost see the venom poisoning the crowd. We need a political fumigation and the only way to do it is for everyone eligible to vote in November to oust those who enable Trump and his execrable cronies from power. But it’s not enough for each eligible voter to vote— not only should you go to the polls but you should inspire at least one other potential voter who otherwise would not cast a ballot.

You can bet that the 40% will be energized by their collective hatred, and will be fueled by money from special interests. That’s what seems to drive elections these days— anger and hatred and unlimited money from people and groups who have no interest in the public good. Politicians elected to office that way are not likely to do the right thing or to oppose His Royal Lowness Donald Trump.

Most of what gets passed around on the Internet is garbage especially the venom posted by the craziest of the 40% but every now and then there is a gem and I am indebted to a high school classmate for the following joke which is almost too true to be funny.

“I met a magical fairy yesterday who said she would grant me one wish.
“I wish to live forever,” I said.
“Sorry,” said the fairy, “I’m not allowed to grant that particular wish.”
“Fine,” I said, “then I want to die the day after Congress is filled with honest, hard-working, bipartisan men and women who act only in the people’s best interests!”
“You crafty old bastard,” replied the fairy.”

All too true. We have a Congress that has abdicated any semblance of responsibility and any semblance of acting in the best interests of its constituency. The Republicans are drunk with power; the Democrats are timid with indecision. All are gridlocked in incompetency and subservient to the Criminal in Chief in the White House. The Republican majority seems paralyzed by the rage of the increasingly savage 40 percent

Of course we need border security. I’m not saying we don’t. But good security comes from common sense not from building incredibly expensive and basically useless walls and not from barring those who truly need kindness and caring. Try going to Canada sometime if you want to find out how border security should work. And, by the way, the Canadians don’t much care for us anymore—with good reason, considering that the Idiot in Chief as managed to alienate them along with the leaders of virtually every nation once considered our closest allies.

Instead of pouring endless dollars into building a great big dumb fence, why not spend those dollars on drug interdiction and coming down hard on the other border intrusions (like, for example, human trafficking). A recent story points out that the proposed border wall would be an impossibility because it would have to cross countless ravines that in flash flood time “(a fairly common occurrence) would wash the fence out or require millions if not trillions of dollars to maintain, not to mention the enormous cost of construction in the first place.

Trump cozies up to every despot that he can find. Birds of a feather etc. Cosying up to Putin, Kim Jong-un and others of that murder of political scavengers is not diplomacy, nor is it leadership. Donald Trump is a schoolyard bully the quintessential big kid who steals lunch money from the little ones, cheats when he doesn’t have to, lies when he’s caught, sucks up to the tough guys, the gang leaders, and talks a far better game than he is capable of playing. Despite what he thinks he is, he is not a leader. He is a cowardly sloppy big fat boy hiding his insecurities behind bluff and braggadocio.

He should never have been president and he should now be impeached, though he probably won’t be. The only way to rein in his paranoia and his unhinged presidency is to bring some balance back into our democratic system by installing a Congress with some sort of accountability and conscience.

And for those who think that God sent Trump to lead the country, consider that one young migrant child said that he saw another being shot with drugs and was afraid he would be next. Then there was the 15 month old baby who was forced into a courtroom for a hearing as if she were a criminal facing charges. 15 months old! She has taken her first step and said her first word while detained, but her father was not around to hear it— he was deported leaving behind his pregnant wife and young baby.

These are not isolated incidents. Children from babies to teenagers are being traumatized almost on a daily basis and any of the so-called Christians who think that Donald Trump is an emissary from God and who continue to tolerate such behavior toward children are not Christians— they are hypocritical deviants for whom the pit of hell is not nearly punishment enough.

On the other hand, the number of Christian denominations were active in separating Native American children from their parents and forcing them into schools—the historic equivalent of charter schools— so they could be converted from what the good Christians considered heathen religion to what the good Christians considered good Christian religion. And we all know how slave families were separated and sold during pre-Civil War times.

A Jewish poet, the descendent of immigrants, wrote some lines in a poem which have become famous because they are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That is a lesson from the past worth remembering, not the transgressions against immigrants in our history and certainly not the transgressions being committed today by our bigoted and mentally and morally impaired president.

Just because we did it in the past, does not mean we should do it now.

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  • Blog
  • July 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

For a quail hunter, a dog’s nose is the animal’s most important component. For the dog, his dick is paramount. Consider how much time a dog spends licking it. Which brings to mind the old joke about the two guys who see a dog self-laving and one says, “Gee, I wish I could do that,” and the other guy replies, “Don’t you think you should pet him a little first?”

Hollywood has Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, but only Missouri has a famous dog with a painted penis. The dog is Old Drum and the appendage in question actually is on an anatomically-correct statue of him in the courthouse square at Warrensburg. It probably would make more sense, historically, to have the statue with its fangs buried in a bleating lamb, but instead Old Drum stands in a noble pose as if he were Rin-Tin-Tin on a mission of mercy.

Mark Twain, Missouri’s most famous ironist, no doubt would have appreciated the incongruity of erecting a statue to a dog that almost certainly was guilty of sheep-killing and whose only notable accomplishment was that he got killed for it. And, to compound the irony, the fellow who shot Old Drum was nicknamed “Dick.”

And, with his notoriously bawdy sense of humor, Mr. Twain would have commented with unbridled zest on the repeated assaults on the dignity of Old Drum. Unfortunately for the world of pungent comment, Twain had been dead for many years before the bronze likeness of Old Drum came to rest on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn in 1958.

Warrensburg not only is the site of the courtroom trial that made Old Drum famous; it also is the home of Central Missouri State University and it is a well-known fact that any animal statue with paintable parts erected (pardon) in a college town is going to get enhanced by artistically-inclined students. No matter how many times the town fathers darken Drum’s dinger, it shortly regains its non-canine glow.

Twain did write this about dogs: “”If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” Think what he could have said about a dog with a decorated dick. I also have a T-shirt with a quote by Groucho Marx which says that “Outside of a dog a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it’s very dark.” Real wisdom is not limited to the insane tweets of our insane pretend president.

The living Old Drum went to the great Sheep Meadow in the Sky in 1870. He belonged to a fellow named Charles Burden, but strayed onto property owned by Leonidas Hornsby, whereupon Hornsby’s nephew shot him. Burden then sued Hornsby and set in motion the events that led to immortality for old Drum.

Burden ultimately won $50 in damages after the case went all the way to the state supreme court, but it was in the lower court that Drum made history. Burden’s lawyer was George Vest, later a U.S. Senator. Vest delivered what has come to be known as the Tribute to the Dog and everyone has heard parts of it: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world…is his dog.”

It went on from there, presumably bringing tears to the eyes of the sentimental and dog-loving jury. There was no direct transcription of the speech, but it was pieced together later on by the recollections of various onlookers and no doubt refined, the way a good story always is. Let’s face it, had Drum not been whacked, he would have been no more than a sheep-killing hound lost in history.

Wikepedia, the sprawling on-line encyclopedia of mostly useless facts, offers a list of famous dogs, including such luminaries as Sam, a Chinese Crested hairless dog which was a three time winner as the World’s Ugliest Dog.

But the list does not mention either Old Drum or Jim the Wonder Dog, Missouri’s most famous dog, perhaps the most famous dog ever. Both arguably are more deserving of lasting fame than, say, Millie, the springer spaniel owned by the George H.W. Bush family. Millie wrote a best-selling book with considerable help from the Bush family (kind of like what George W. would need were he to write a book). Jimmy Carter has written many fine books and Obama also is literate. Donald Trump, without ghostwriters, couldn’t write graffiti on a toilet wall, although he is eminently suited for it.

Well, Jim the Wonder Dog also wrote a book that did not become a best-seller through no fault of Jim’s. If ever a dog could write a best-seller, it would have been Jim, not that uppity Republican bitch. Jim was something else and theories abound from extraterrestrials to reincarnation.

Where Drum was notable for the words of his eulogist, Jim was an awesome presence in himself. There also is a statue honoring Jim, dedicated in 1999, in the Jim the Wonder Dog Memorial Park in Marshall, site of Jim’s grave and much of his life. And there is a college in Marshall, but so revered is the Wonder Dog that the students leave Jim’s nether regions alone.

Jim was a Llewellen setter, owned by Sam Van Arsdale, a Missouri hotelier and quail hunter. Jim was a superb quail dog, but that’s like saying Monet also was a good cook. While Jim excelled in the field, it was in town that he dropped jaws with his decidedly un-canine talents.

Jim the Wonder Dog was from a kennel in Louisiana and came to Sam Van Arsdale as a free puppy, a gift from a traveling salesman who had stayed at Van Arsdale’s hotel. The puppy seemed uninterested in being trained, but a local trainer said he felt the dog had intelligence that seemed almost human.

But what he did transcended intelligence and skyrocketed into the realm of the supernatural. The list of his mental exploits is almost unending and if it was some sort of trickery or exceptional dog training, the evidence escaped thousands of witnesses over a number of years, including a joint session of the Missouri Legislature (normally politicians fool everyone else, not the other way around). Jim, in short, was the most spooky dog in history.

He obeyed commands given in foreign languages or Morse code, neither of which his master knew. And he predicted the future, although picking the 1936 Yankees to win the World Series wasn’t much of a trick, given a lineup featuring Ruth, Gehrig, et al–but how many dogs were making predictions of any kind? (Jim predicted seven Kentucky Derby winners in a row.)

Werner Nagel, longtime writer for the Missouri Conservation Department, once met Jim and said, “He had strange eyes.” A photo of Jim, glancing sideways at the camera, would agree—Jim has the expression of a creature that knows more than you do.

Van Arsdale’s niece played with the puppy and said the little dog seemed to understand what she was saying. By November of 1925 Jim was eight months old and Van Arsdale took him to the field. Jim walked into a field and went on point—no fooling around looking for birds. He seemed to know exactly where they were and he did this for the next 11 years.

Van Arsdale said he had shot more than 5,000 quail over Jim, a figure hard to believe—Jim lived a dozen years and that would have required Van Arsdale to shoot more than 500 quail a year. Judging by the accomplishments of our bird dogs, I sometimes feel there aren’t 500 quail and the whole damn state.

Jim’s other incredible talents became apparent when it appeared he would respond to anything Van Arsdale asked him to do: “Show me a black oak tree, Jim,” and Jim would amble over to a black oak and sit down. Van Arsdale would write down a license number and instructions to find that car and tell Jim to do what the paper said…and Jim would find the car. Tap out a Morse code message and Jim would do what it asked. Or ask him a question in French and Jim would respond.

The dog appeared before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature and pointed out people who were described to him. A friend of Van Arsdale’s said, “Let’s see if he can show me the car in which I came from Jefferson City.” Of course Jim did by walking to the car and putting his paw on it.

Van Arsdale ran a hotel in Marshall, and also in Sedalia. It didn’t take long for Jim to become a canine phenomenon. His puppies, three males, two females, showed none of his talents. Van Arsdale kept all the puppies and turned down a thousand dollar offer for one—big money today, much less in the pit of the Depression.

Van Arsdale could tell the dog to find a DeSoto (tougher to do today than it was then) and Jim would find the car that matched. Could be a trick, said doubters. Some said Van Arsdale was giving Jim body language hints but if he was he didn’t know it and no one ever caught him at it. “I don’t know the explanation,” Van Arsdale said. “Some say it’s mental telepathy. Maybe it is. It’s certain Jim won’t make a move unless I know what he is being asked to do.”

You’d be more suspicious if Van Arsdale had been collecting admissions or peddling Jim’s hairy body in the movies, but he never made a dime from his uncanny best friend. The New York Times offered to bring Jim and Van Arsdale to Washington to meet President Franklin Roosevelt, but Van Arsdale declined (apparently no one asked Jim). Van Arsdale also turned down an offer of $365,000 in Depression dollars (today, millions) to take Jim on tour for a year. “Some people said I had a trick with the dog,” Van Arsdale once said. “Was there ever a man who wouldn’t sell a trick for $365,000?”

All things, good and great, come to an end and they did for Jim and this world when he quietly died on March 18, 1937. (Will Rogers said, “If dogs don’t go to Heaven when they die, I want to go where they go.”) Van Arsdale was devastated by the loss of his longtime friend who meant more to him than anything in the world.

The story goes that Van Arsdale wanted Jim buried in the family plot in Marshall’s Park Ridge cemetery, but the cemetery authorities turned him down. So Van Arsdale buried Jim just outside the cemetery boundary in a specially-built casket…and the cemetery has expanded since Jim died in 1937 and the grave now is inside the cemetery, with a headstone reading “Jim the Wonder Dog.” There often still are flowers, left by fans of the remarkable dog.

And no sleazy desecrations on Jim’s private parts. Drum, however, is a dog of a different color…..

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  • Blog
  • July 25th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

And then there was one.

In the late 1950s two brothers from Salem Missouri and a buddy formed a bluegrass band and enlisted a local disc jockey as their bass player, acquired an aging 1950s Cadillac, loaded it with their instruments and with virtually no money, headed to Los Angeles to make their fortune.

After scrounging up traveling money along the way by stopping off to play music in the kind of places where there was chicken wire between the band and the audience to shortstop thrown beer bottles, the Dillards landed in Los Angeles, got a gig at one of the city’s renowned folk music venues, and within two weeks had been discovered by a talent scout for the Andy Griffith television show— probably the most popular show on television, then and still an enduring favorite in reruns now.

As the Darling family they were in a half-dozen episodes over the next three years and if nothing else their appearances were notable for exposing the nation to the finest bluegrass possible. The Darling family supposedly consisted of patriarch Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle), sister Charlene (Maggie Peterson) and the boys— the Dillards who never spoke (and it must’ve been crippling for Mitch Jayne not to be able to talk– if there was any attribute Mitch had other than his musical talents, it was storytelling, both written and spoken).

The real life brothers were Rodney and Doug Dillard, the third Dillard and third Darling brother was their buddy Dean Webb, and their elder statesman fourth Darling brother and band spokesperson and bass player was Mitch Jayne. When Dean Webb, the mandolin player, died on June 30, it left only Rodney Dillard, the original guitar player as the sole remaining member of a legendary and much loved bluegrass quartet.

Over the years, the band not only splintered, but one by one except for Rodney they have died. Mitch was the first to go in 2010, and Doug, the banjo player, followed him in 2012. Now Dean Webb, victim of a heart attack, has joined them. In his final days in the hospital, someone asked Mitch Jayne how he was doing. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never died before.”

In Mitch’s obituary Doug and Rodney Dillard’s Aunt Dollie is quoted as saying about their impetuous emigration to California, “You boys sure are going a long way to flop!” But they didn’t flop and have endured in one incarnation or another for 60 years.

I’ve had a long love affair with the Dillards and was fortunate enough to be a close friend of Mitch’s. I heard about him long before I knew him. My boss at the conservation department, Jim Keefe, told me that he had been driving through the Ozarks one day when he tuned into the Salem radio station and heard the announcer giving the snake and tick market report. That was a signature tall tale of Mitch’s where he would emulate the stock market reports often given on local radio stations of the time and substitute the latest market report for “Who Boy White Dot Crush Proof Dry Valley Wonder ticks as well as futures for black, copperhead, coachwhip, garter and rattle snakes.”

When the group dispersed after their stand on the Andy Griffith show Mitch retired to Missouri, first to Columbia, then back to the old home country, settling in Eminence, just down the road from Salem. He made occasional forays to other towns, giving talks to various groups and telling his stories and keeping alive the legend of one room schools (his first job was teaching in one), of horseback rides just to get to school, and children speaking what amounted to Elizabethan English, a heritage from the Scots Irish immigrants who settled much of the Ozarks.

And he wrote—he had always written. In 1970 his novel Old Fish Hawk was published and subsequently became a 1979 movie starring Will Sampson as a remnant Osage Indian, an alcoholic, who hunts down the bear that killed his favorite hunting dog and subsequently saves a young boy from a wild Russian boar that has terrorized the town.

Oddly, the movie was made by a Canadian director and has very little resemblance to the Ozarks or to the spirit of the novel itself which, thanks to Mitch Jayne’s Ozark roots, is filled with the local color and flavor of his old home place. The novel is light years from the methamphetamine suffused plot of the recent novel Winters Bone and you won’t leave the theater feeling as if you need a period of detoxification.

Between trips to the post office, and stopping to talk to probably half the people in Eminence, every day, Mitch wrote a column for the local newspaper, the Current Wave which, collected, would be worth a book by itself. He also wrote another novel and an account of the Dillards time on the Andy Griffith show— all entertaining all written with verve and humor. Shortly before he died he dictated the last chapter of another novel, knowing that he would not live to see it published but unwilling to die before he finished it.

Doug Dillard is considered one of the godfathers of the five string banjo, along with Earl Scruggs and Don Reno. He’s credited with being a major influence on John McEuen who became the Godfather and backbone of the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band and who in turn was a mentor to Steve Martin, all around Renaissance man— writer, actor, and now almost a full time banjo man.

In 1991 McEuen was inspired to produce a documentary on the Dillards titled A Night In the Ozarks which featured the original gang reunited in Salem for, first, a concert in town and then a gathering at a rural farmhouse where people wandered in and out, playing music, and re-creating the sight and sound of an old time front porch picking. Homer Dillard, father of Doug and Rodney, fiddled, and Rodney’s wife, Beverly Cotten, clog danced with Homer.

The DVD has become a collector’s item, still available here and there if you have deep pockets. I was lucky enough to attend the first half of the filming in town, but stupidly passed on a chance to go to the farmhouse for the finale, something I will regret forever. I remember Rodney before the concert started snarling in rage at faults he found in the sound system, but whatever they were, they were sorted out by the start and on a hot summer night in Salem, Missouri, where it all started many of the same people who were there when that legend formed were in the audience to cheer for their hometown heroes.

With what I suspect was usual , Dean Webb said little and stood unobtrusively until it came time for him to pick. He doesn’t get the press that, for example, Bill Monroe, the father of the bluegrass mandolin, has always gotten—but if you listen to him you realize that he was like Doug Dillard on the banjo one of the giants of his chosen instrument.

He and Mitch were roommates on the road and the two brothers took a second room. Dean Webb was in charge of approving where they would stay and once rejected a motel, explaining to the puzzled band that he had found bullet holes in the door between the adjoining rooms and considered that “not a good sign.”

Over the years the band morphed into something considerably different than the music that formed its musical roots. Doug Dillard left in 1968 to form the band Dillard and Clark. Rodney became the de facto leader of the Dillards and over the next decades formed and reformed the band many times with many musicians.

And the Dillards as a band are credited with being the leaders in the 1970s folk rock movement involving such legendary outfits as the Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. As an example of how tangled the web can become, Samuel (Buddy) Brayfield was a founding member of the Daredevils and our family doctor for several months before he moved his practice back to Lake of the Ozarks.

The Dillards are considered pioneers in folk rock and are credited with influencing some of the biggest names in music history–they toured with Elton John and had a major influence on the Eagles, the Byrds, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin who said Dean Webb influenced his decision to play the mandolin.

Even as the Dillards except for Mitch roamed far from their musical roots, they never got traditional bluegrass out of their system. They reunited for an Andy Griffith show special in 1988. A few days after Mitch died, Rodney and Maggie Peterson appeared on stage together to talk about Mitch and sing There Is a Time, the song that Mitch and Rodney wrote together. The Dillards toured together in the 1990s and appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002 and in 2009, the band was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame with all four members in attendance.

Fittingly, in 2010 Mitch’s friends and neighbors gathered at Alley Spring State Park to honor his memory. It was there that Mitch and his wife Diana were married. It also was the last time I saw Dean Webb who was present with his band Missouri Boatride.

It could have been no other way— Webb and the band gathered on the front porch of a restored one room schoolhouse (could it have been anything else for Mitch?) filled with memorabilia about Mitch and the Dillards/Darlings and played and sang songs from the good old days including The Old Home Place, the song that he and Mitch wrote together.

The theme of one of Mitch’s books is “everybody back on the truck, a reference to the way the Darlings came to town to pester Andy Griffith. Now, many years later, virtually all the cast of that iconic television show have gotten on the truck and gone down a dusty country road to who knows where?

Now there is but one.

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  • Blog
  • July 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1922 John Flaherty documented the life of an Inuit family in Alaska on film. He called the documentary Nanook of the North. In one memorable scene (Flaherty cheated—he faked the scene for dramatic emphasis) Nanook and four of his family and a sled dog all exit a kayak. About 60 years later kayak mania seized me like a virulent disease and I bought a kayak.

My sensible family of five children and any of our several dogs absolutely refused to share the kayak with me, with good reason as it turned out since I spent much of the time in the inverted position, also known as “in danger of drowning”. I did, however, become an expert at what we veteran kayakers call “wet exiting”.

While Nanook almost certainly did not share his kayak, a flimsy vehicle at best, with his family or even the dog, he probably did learn to do what is called “an Eskimo roll” this is a tricky maneuver by which the capsized kayak can be brought back upright. Considering that an upset in Alaskan waters which, at the best of times, is not like boating in a hot tub, the Eskimo roll is a good trick to know.

Nanook was no fool and, in real life, rather than in a documentary made for theater audiences who didn’t know any better, he probably used something closer to a regular boat to transfer his family from place to place, saving the kayak as a one-man vehicle for him alone. Still, even today, the sight in grainy black and white of Nanook, the four family members, and the dog popping out of the flimsy kayak makes good theater— something like seeing a long extinct Tyrannosaurus lolloping through the jungle in one of the many Jurassic Park variations. You know that logically it can’t happen but it sure is fun to see as long as you don’t have to participate.

Boating enthusiasts with half a brain have seen kayaks in action –in the Olympics, for example, when there is competition on turbulent whitewater or in documentaries about intrepid explorers challenging river rapids never before successfully run. Those enthusiasts then quickly run to their nearest Bass Pro dealer and plop down many thousands of dollars for a bass boat equipped with an 80 horsepower engine and forget they ever saw a kayak, not to mention someone rolling the craft upright after upsetting in it. You don’t upset in a bass boat unless you try to cross the Atlantic in it during a category five hurricane.

But some few of us, deranged by reading too much adventure fiction and crippled by an inability to utilize common sense, succumb to the lure of a white water craft. Two friends and I eased into the world of raging river running by building our first boat, a whitewater canoe. Since none of us had any idea what the finished product should look like our approach could best be appreciated by watching any given episode of the Three Stooges.

I don’t recall many of the details of the shaping and finish of the canoe since much of the time we were working in a small enclosed building amid the billowing fumes of fiberglass resin. I have a feeling that brain damage is the byproduct of long-term exposure to such an atmosphere.

The resulting watercraft looked like something that had been put together by the Marx Brothers under the influence of an especially fearful hallucinogenic chemical and I’m not sure we ever put it in the water possibly because we were afraid the thing would sink like a lead balloon. Eventually it got stored in the woods behind the cabin where we built it and the two friends returned home more than 100 miles from their creation, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein fleeing the birth place of his monstrous creation before the guys with the torches and pitchforks showed up.

The whitewater canoe moldered there in the weeds until Dacques, a burly French Brittany discovered it had become the home place of an opossum which he engaged in combat and eventually reduced to his trophy list. Dacques, in addition to seeking out game birds, bagged an impressive list of wild creatures— a half grown raccoon, a half-grown wild turkey, more than a few rabbits, some squirrels and, for all I know, grizzly bears and mountain lions that were too much trouble to bring home.

Briefly, the difference between a whitewater canoe and a kayak is that the canoe has a larger cockpit and you kneel in it whereas you basically wear a kayak. Putting it on a Laurel and Hardy basis, big Oliver Hardy would fit in a whitewater canoe and Stan Laurel would be suited for a kayak—although both probably would turn over within 50 feet of the launch.

You slide into a kayak, feet extended and sit. You are wearing what’s called a spray skirt a sort of tutu. The first time I tottered down to the water’s edge as a chaperone on a Girl Scout canoeing trip, wearing my spray skirt, I noticed that the girls were seized by a fit of uncontrollable giggling and realized they probably thought I was auditioning for Swan Lake. It did not enhance my macho image, although I did manage to avoid flipping the kayak and having to ignominiously wet exit. I also managed to get locked in the bathroom of the bus when I was chaperoning a YMCA ski trip for teenagers but that’s another story for another dismal day in the life of Joel M Vance, Klutz in Chief of any given outdoor adventure.

I practiced executing the Eskimo roll as assiduously as if I were Nanook himself capsized in the Bering Sea in near zero water temperatures, seconds away from perishing. But no matter how many times I struggled with what is supposed to be a relatively simple maneuver I simply could not pop back upright. I would get three fourths of the way back, my head out of the water glimpsing the amused faces of those on shore and then I would slowly sink back into the depths. I have to admit it was sort of peaceful suspended beneath the kayak, glimpsing curious bluegills swimming around me. But inevitably, I would begin to run out of air and would frantically tug the spray skirt free of the kayak cockpit rim and porpoise to the surface blowing and whooping like a grampus.

I consulted an expert kayaker in a swimming pool in Arkansas, watching him flip the kayak upright with more no more effort than if he were scratching his ear. And then I would try to do what he had done and it was the same old story. “I don’t know why it doesn’t work,” he said. “There must be something wrong with you.” Yes, there was— I didn’t have enough brainpower to realize when I was whipped. I was like a little boy who refuses to cry “uncle!” in a schoolyard fight until the bully who is beating him to a bloody pulp finally quits in disgust. The kayak was my bully and I figured that sooner or later it would have to give up. But it never did.

And so it came to pass that Joel donned his tutu and tucked his kayak under his arm like a businessman going to his office with his briefcase and traveled to where the fast water flows, namely the Spring River of Arkansas. Icy water, gushing from Mammoth Spring, feeds the river across the border from Missouri into Arkansas and supports trout as it winds its way south often over small rapids and many rocky ledges. It was here that I skirted the edge of disaster when I sailed over one of these ledges, somehow turned sideways in the current, and wedged under a submerged limb which stuck up stream like one of the water obstacles planted by the Germans to deter the allies from landing on the Normandy beaches in World War II.

Fortunately, I was canoeing with several guys who were infinitely more rational than I and who realized that not only the kayak but I would be pinned beneath the water by the limb and they splashed into the river and dragged me and the kayak free. The narrow escape called for a beer so I had several.

Proving that experience, even bad experience, is no cure for a lack of common sense, I launched my kayak into the Flambeau River in Wisconsin after perching my daughter ,Carrie, on a rock outcrop high above a 90 degree turn in the river where there was a daunting rapids. My idea was that Carrie would photograph me as I negotiated the rapids and then I would write an article with dramatic photography and become wealthy. The idea that I could also become drowned did not occur to me.

I negotiated the first set of rocks with all the aplomb of an Olympic contestant and then the river inconsiderately changed course 90 degrees with the water piling up at the bend, a tsunami of conflicting currents that grabbed the kayak in a giant hydraulic claw and flipped it over neatly with me underneath. I didn’t hesitate one second to see if somehow I had subconsciously learned the Eskimo roll, but frantically clawed at the tutu, ripped it free and squirted out in an explosive wet exit leaving the kayak which, as far as I was concerned, could careen on downstream to hell. At least, I knew that Carrie would have gotten several dramatic photos of me courting aquatic disaster. After I gathered my errant kayak and my wits I shouted up to Carrie, “Did you get that?” I had risked my life for a memorable series of dramatic photographs and had survived.

“I didn’t take any,” Carrie said. “I didn’t think you wanted me to take any photographs if you did it wrong.” I’m afraid I said some things and it is a tribute to her forbearance and forgiveness that she still claims to be my daughter.

My love affair with the kayak, much like an operatic libretto where the hero winds up with a dagger in his heart, came to an end on a searingly hot day in the mountains of Colorado. As if I hadn’t already tickled disaster in Arkansas and Wisconsin, I thought to pit my dubious kayak expertise against a real whitewater stream—namely, the Roaring Fork, the name of which alone should have given me pause.

I called a local floating shop and said “I’m a semi-experience kayaker and would like a short trip on local stream of several hours.” The helpful fellow directed me to a quick and what was supposed to be an easy 3 ½ mile float and said “This is a good stretch for an intermediate kayaker” and so it was for perhaps the first 200 yards. After which for the next 3 plus miles, if you have seen the movie Deliverance, you can understand what suddenly confronted me.

It was nonstop rapids and the only thing lacking was some inbred halfwit playing the banjo and a guy high on the banks above me (too high incidentally for me to climb out of the damn river and hike the rest of the way) with a rifle and a grudge against city fellers. The water was numbingly cold, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, although the day time temperature was in the 90s. But I wasn’t in the daytime—I was in the water and I quickly realized that if I ever flipped the kayak I would be upside down in the coldest water this side of one of those charity polar plunges where people raise money for hopeless causes. In this case of course I was the hopeless cause but I didn’t need money–I needed a warm bed under about four feather comforters where I could curl in the fetal position and forget Nanook and his damn kayak and especially my damn kayak.

I felt like a Chihuahua would feel balanced on a 2 x 4 rocketing down the Niagara River, nearing the lip of the Falls. To capsize would be the end of Joel M Vance as I knew him. Finally, a half hour after I optimistically entered the water on what was to be a several hour fun float, I rocketed at warp speed the last few yards to where my car was parked. I was so cold I couldn’t get my hands free from the paddle (possibly because my fingers were panic-welded into the aluminum shaft). Somehow I finally struggled out of the canoe, a cartoon caricature of hypothermia, staggered to the car, somehow got it started and turned the heater to full wintertime power and began to defrost.

It was the end of my obsession with kayaking and I loaded the thing on top of the car, tied it down and have never used it again except as a potential home for possums.

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