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Snowy Egret, Vol. 75, #1
Snowy Egret, Vol. 75, #1

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Tales of a River Rat“As I passed through the small wooded lowland hollow, a couple of gray squirrels and a fox squirrel ran and climbed up various bur oaks. MMM - I'd have to remember this. Might get one for supper some day next fall.”

from"Tales of a River Rat"

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

from "The Spring That Runs Forever"

Tales of a River Rat
Adventures Along the Wild Mississippi
by Kenny Salwey
Fulcrum, 2012

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

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

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

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

Fog Over Upper Mississippi River
Fog Over Upper Mississippi River

Picking Morel Mushrooms

Kenny Salwey describes morel picking and trout fishing as his two favorite activities of early spring in Wisconsin's hill country along the Upper Mississippi where "cricks flow through narrow valleys shaped by the feet of wooded hills, so trout-rich waters and morel-laden forests are not far apart. In a day of fishin' and pickin', my attention alternates between the underwater lairs of trout in the valley's crick and the morel mushrooms found in the nearby hills."

Morel season is a short three to four weeks, according to Salwey, and the supply depends on weather conditions and the number of dead or damaged American elm trees in the area.

"The best place to locate a morel is in the vicinty of an elm tree stricken with Dutch elm disease. I say 'vicinity' because I have found morels fifty yards or more from their parent tree. Spores are what cause morels to grow; they come from the tree's bark. At times, these spores ride the tail of the wind for quite a distance before choosing a place to land."

When it comes to spawning morels, the most productive time is the two to three years between the time bark on an infected elm begins to crack and when it falls off completely. Once the elm loses all of its bark, few morels will be found nearby.

"At times, morels grow near elms that have been damaged by lightning strikes or windstorms, when branches have been broken off or bark loosened. I have also found morels near other damaged trees, like cottonwooods and even apple trees. By the vast majority grow close to dying elms," Salwey explains.

To harvest a morel, pull it up from the earth, cut off the root end with a sharp knife or pinch it off and place in a bag. Once harvested, split the morel lengthwise and wash thoroughly to remove grit or bugs. They can be eaten fresh or storied for months with proper preservation.

To preserve morels, freeze in water or dry-freeze in plastic bags or containers. They can also be dried in the open air or in a dehydrator and then stored in sealed jars. Reconstitute in water when ready to use.

"Folks prepare morels in a whole host of different ways: deep-fried, roasted, pan-fried, and blanched," Salwey points out. "My personal favorite is to get a large cast-iron skillet full of smoking hot bacon grease. Dredge the mushrooms in a mixture of cornmeal, salt and pepper, and garlic powder. Drop them into the grease (they should be covered with it). Turn them with a fork until they are brown and crispy on all sides. Take them out of the past, and let them drain well. Eat them piping hot. Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! That's what I call mighty mouthwatering morel morsels!"

A Morel Mushroom

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Upper Mississippi by John Frederick Kensett
Upper Mississippi

by John Frederick Kensett
Indian Canoe on the Upper Mississippi
Indian Canoe on the Upper Mississippi

Muskrat for Supper
Muskrat for Supper

Exploring the Natural World with the Last River Rat