Smoke curling from the end of a cigarette dangling from his lips, a finger-smudged glass of bourbon nearby, the writer hammered out his latest story on the Underwood Standard late into the night. A looming deadline and the anticipation of the next adventure, the rapid key strokes had a sound of urgency.
A little cliché perhaps, but you get the idea.
Long before the World Wide Web, Google, and the shadow of social media, knowledge and information about hunting, fishing, and conservation were delivered through articles and stories printed in magazines, newspapers, and the occasional book. Carefully and thoughtfully written. Researched. Artfully embellished. Rich. In the author’s words you’ll find all that came before and the meaning of the phrase “the good old days.”
A few years ago, an email exchange with outdoors writer Paul Smith of the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel led me to a phone conversation with Wisconsin Outdoors News contributor, Dave Zeug. The purpose of my call was to gain some knowledge about fishing the Bois Brule River in Northwest Wisconsin, as Dave has a deep personal connection to the river. During our conversation, Zeug said, “You must be a Gordon MacQuarrie fan.” The comment caught me off guard. Did I just fail a test?
Gordon MacQuarrie (b. 1900, d. 1956) is credited with being the first full-time, professional outdoors writer in America. His writing appeared in many magazines as well as the Milwaukee Journal for whom he worked as the outdoor editor for 20 years. MacQuarrie also grew up just down the road from the Brule River and wrote extensively about his time and experiences on this water famously known as the River of Presidents.
While I knew of MacQuarrie’s writing, my age placed me in the era of Jay Reed (b. 1928, d. 2002) another legendary Milwaukee Journal outdoors writer whose column I regularly read when I was growing up. I had never, to the best of my knowledge, read a MacQuarrie story.
Dave’s question was a good one. Up to this point in my life, I’ve spent a lot of time reading mostly technical writing on conservation, and the occasional popular piece in a magazine. What was I missing? Before reading MacQuarrie’s work, I needed some background – who was Gordon MacQuarrie?
Keith Crowley’s well written and researched biographical book Gordon MacQuarrie – The Story of an Old Duck Hunter more than adequately supplied the answer to the question. I learned about the man and his upbringing. His passions and a few of his foibles. He lived during an important and complicated time, and in a part of the state I had enough familiarity with that I immediately found a connection. Most importantly, I was introduced to drivel, and pine knots, the Brule, Hizzoner, and the Old Duck Hunters Association. I also discovered I did know of one MacQuarrie story, his oft re-published account of the 1940 Armistice Day disaster. A day when duck hunters and others along the Upper Mississippi River and elsewhere would unexpectedly meet the wrath of a winter storm. A storm which killed many and introduced others to the limits of their own mortality.
Now I was ready. It was time to invite Mr. MacQuarrie to Missouri. A little online shopping brought me the well-known trilogy Stories of the Old Duck Hunters; More Stories of the Old Duck Hunters; and Last Stories of the Old Duck Hunters. For the next few weeks, I would take a dive into the mind and imagination of Gordon MacQuarrie.
Having spent time in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I was familiar with some locations, history, names, and traditions, and by the time I completed the books, my understanding, or lack thereof, of what hunting, fishing, and Northwoods living was all about back in the 1930s and 40s was deeply enriched. The stories made me dream, laugh, remember, weep, and wish.
Follow-up books of selected Milwaukee Journal columns, edited by Dave Evenson, Right Off the Reel and Dogs, Drink & other drivel added depth to MacQuarrie’s writing, as well an understanding of how he treated some of the more mundane topics of the times.
For me, the MacQuarrie stories as well as the writing of others, old and new, provide a grand intersection for everyday life and dreams. And while I’ll not be kneeling before his typewriter as some have been known to do, I continue to find Mac’s work fun reading as well as inspirational. Consequently, I now know with some degree of certainty, I was born thirty-five years too late.
The Stories of the Old Duck Hunters left a mark. I now have wet flies named McGinty and Parmacheene Belle in my fly box. I see things a little differently when I step into the Namekagon River, and the Brule River has just begun to seep into my soul a bit. I have joined a group called the Old Duck Hunters Association Circle as a way to honor the pursuit of fur, feather, fin and those participants who came before my time leaving footprints for me to follow. And these days, I am lucky to be part of a group of avid duck hunters who hunt together on a north Missouri wetland. Stories told in the blind and boats would have been MacQuarrie worthy. The characters we recall and conjure are every bit as legendary in our minds, and our traditions and camaraderie likewise run deep.
This past October I journeyed a little further into the MacQuarrie legend. On a day I would fish the Brule near locations mentioned in his writing, I stopped by the Barnes Area Historical Association (BAHA). The building, once a corner tavern, is now a charming little museum dedicated to area history. It also houses a neat display of a few of MacQuarrie’s personal belongings, including his skiff, decoys, and typewriter. Steve Lynch, President of BAHA enthusiastically greeted me and gave me a personal interpretive tour of the museum. It was a pleasure to hear his account of the MacQuarrie items and see the dedication of BAHA as a curator of that history.
Like the characters in so many of Mac’s stories, we all hope to be remembered fondly with a smile or jovial laugh; to have our stories told, achieving some degree of immortality. I am reminded of a quote from David Eagleman’s book SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives: “There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
May we all live well forever, and thank you, Mr. MacQuarrie.