Featured Article | Spring 2016: Water

Down on the Current River with Aldo

By Stanley Temple

Most readers of The Leopold Outlook are familiar with Aldo Leopold’s Shack on the banks of the Wisconsin River, but few know that before he had the “Shack” he had his “shanty” on the banks of the Current River near the Missouri-Arkansas state line.

Discovering how little was known about Leopold’s Current River connection, I decided to see what I could uncover. I retraced a 1926 float trip Leopold made down the Current River and, guided by his journal accounts, I was able to explore the places he had described 89 years earlier. And finally, after a fair amount of detective work, I managed to uncover details of his long-forgotten shanty.

Leopold’s Original Trip

Leopold’s first connection to the Current River was in 1926 when Aldo, his brothers Frederick (“Fritz”) and Carl, and their dogs embarked on a ten-day float trip down the river from Van Buren to Doniphan. The Current River probably had the same allure as other rivers Leopold visited: the promise of adventures in a wild place, with hunting as part of the trip. Aldo kept a detailed journal describing the Current River trip, excerpts of which later were published in Round River.

On November 27, 1926, Leopold and his crew reached Van Buren, MO, loaded a jon boat with 10 days of grub and headed down river. By the time they camped for the night they already had bagged enough bobwhite quail to prepare dinner. He noted “We had quail and sweet potato—not a bad first night supper, and spent a comfortable night.”

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Aldo Leopold (at left), his brother Fritz, and Aldo’s dog Flick, on their float trip down the Current River in 1926.

Details of exciting game hunts and meals cooked over an open fire featured prominently in Aldo’s journal, along with interesting natural history observations.

Meals were recounted in detail: “A wonderful dinner of squirrel Julienne with a big loaf of hot sourdough that had raised the lid of the Dutch oven during the day…” The weather was mostly kind to them so late in the season: “A fine sunny day to ride down the river. Ate lunch in a marvelously pretty cutoff with a deep blue-green current flowing under an avenue of stately sycamores.”

There were encounters with interesting wildlife and plants: “After breakfast we idled around an hour setting fish lines…Caught a hideous water-dog [a now critically-endangered Hellbender salamander] on one line almost as soon as we set it.” On December 5, he “Rigged up a fine camp in half an hour, including a cane bed. This cane makes excellent bedding… It has a faint fragrance that is very agreeable.” Extensive canebrakes of river cane are now uncommon along the river.

The last day of a memorable trip is always bittersweet, and Leopold recorded his emotions on December 7. “A sad morning packing up and wrestling with temptation to hunt another day… I sit here on the cane bed, the stripped camp around me and the boys waiting to be off, while the Pileated [woodpecker] taps on an oak limb and the last oak coals of our last camp smoke faintly and die away. Providentially, it rained all the way down the river to Doniphan, taking some of the edge off our desire to be hunting instead of leaving.”

The Author’s Trip

My river trip didn’t feature many quail sightings. Bobwhites are now much less common than they were in 1926, when the region was in the early stages of succession after clear-cutting of hardwood forests and failure of hardscrabble farms had temporarily created abundant quail habitat.

The forest has now regrown, but landmarks that Leopold described were still easy to discover. I was able to pitch my tent at most of the same places the Leopold brothers did. Just as when I have spent time alone at the Shack, those summer nights on the river, serenaded by hooting barred owls and dueling bullfrogs, conjured up echoes of Leopold’s time there.

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Aldo Leopold on the steps of his shanty in the 1930s.

My Current River adventures couldn’t end without locating Leopold’s long-lost shanty and uncovering its story. I suspect Leopold fell in love with the Current River valley during his 1926 float trip. He next visited in January 1930 while collecting data for his historic Game Survey of the North Central States. This time there was only a brief stop in Doniphan to garner information on the status of local game populations from a local gundog trainer named Andrew Brooks.

Although their conversations weren’t documented, I deduced that Aldo was so enthralled by fond memories of his earlier trip and excitement over what he was learning that he asked Brooks to be on the lookout for riverfront property.

The Shanty

Title records, which we eventually found later in the search for the shanty, show Brooks and his wife bought an old cabin on the river later that year and then in 1931 sold it to Leopold and three of his hunting buddies from Madison who were already members of Leopold’s Riley Game Cooperative (Ray Roark, Howard Weiss and George Bryan).

Aldo now had a base from which to explore the Current River country and hunt quail. His sons Starker, Luna, and Carl regularly accompanied him on his annual quail-hunting trips.

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The author, Stan Temple, on the shanty’s steps, which he rediscovered in 2015.

The first visit to the cabin, which Leopold named his shanty, was in December 1930, and as usual Aldo kept a detailed journal documenting his times there. Regular December visits were made to the shanty until 1941 when the shanty was sold.

Leopold’s shanty journals were filled with vivid accounts of good times hunting, interesting wildlife observations, and explorations of the countryside, and there was an emphasis on recording data. As quail were the principal quarry, there is much detail about where coveys were found, and each bagged quail was weighed and sexed and its stomach contents examined. Many of the insights about managing wildlife habitat that Leopold wrote about in his 1933 book, Game Management, seem to trace back to observations and notes he made while hunting quail in Missouri.

In spite of all the details in the journals, however, there was no description of the shanty’s exact location. Leopold’s notes suggested it was in Missouri, but there was no record of Leopold ever owning land in the state.

Determined to find out where it was located, I looked at several 1930s photos of the shanty that had landscapes clearly visible in the background. Knowing that it was on the left bank of the river and superimposing the camera site-lines on an early air photo, I found that the lines converged in one spot.

To my surprise, it was not in Missouri but just across the state line in Arkansas! History buffs from Doniphan, Ray Burson and Ordell Gibson, ran down title records in Arkansas and introduced me to the current owners of the land where the shanty once stood.

Although the shanty had been demolished to make way for a modern home, an indisputable remnant of it remains. A 1930s photograph shows Aldo, 20-gauge shotgun in hand, descending the bank of the river down rough stone steps with the shanty behind him. Those stone steps are still there, and although there is no shanty in the background, my friends took a photo of me standing in the place where Aldo had stood 85 years earlier. My Current River quest was complete.

An emeritus professor at University of Wisconsin and a senior fellow with the Leopold Foundation, Stan Temple held for 32 years the professorship once held by Aldo Leopold. Stan writes and speaks frequently about Leopold, wildlife ecology and conservation, and environmental issues. Contact him at ude.c1534476159siw@e1534476159lpmet1534476159as1534476159.

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