Fall seems terribly slow in arriving this year, but when it does, it becomes my favorite time of the year. The weather FINALLY cools, the Kansas State Fair is held, fall farm crops are harvested and fall mountain man retreats and rendezvous begin. A couple years ago, we attended the annual fall mountain man get-together known as a Prairie Rendezvous at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, near Canton, KS.
The pungent smell of campfire smoke teased my nostrils as we sauntered into camp. It hung like a faint blue haze beneath the trees in the crisp October air. Teepees pointed skyward like white canvas steeples against the blue morning sky. Camp was tucked into and around a small grove of trees, and bordered behind by a creek. It crouched like an oasis amidst miles of rolling hills carpeted in prairie grass.
During the 1800’s, the hub and headquarters of most fur and trading companies was St. Louis. Since mountain men and trappers were the main source of fur and revenue for these companies, annual meetings were organized all across this part of the country to more easily bring both groups together. Known as “rendezvous,” they also became the social event of the year for most mountain men. Here they would exchange their hard-earned collection of furs for rifles, ammo, traps and another year’s worth of supplies and equipment. Here also they met old friends, found temporary female companionship and hot baths, and were offered liquid refreshments to wash a year’s worth of mountain dust from their throats.
As we walked into camp, we met “Lone Wolf.” He was a towering man weighing all of 300 pounds with beautiful long white hair tied behind his head, He wore full length leather leggings, and was bare chested with a strand of bear claws around his neck. On a leather belt around his waist was a bear hide pouch with a flap made from a real bear paw, claws intact. The handle of his knife was the lower jaw bone of a bear. He said his ancestry was Lakota, Sac Fox and Cherokee on his mother’s side, and German on his father’s. I asked his English name, and he replied that his Wa Che Chu (Lakota for “white name”) was Ken Feudner. Ken lived in Newton, where he worked 30 years as a postal employee. Lone wolf’s rendezvous specialty was flint knapping, making tools, and weapons from flint, which he did from a leather tarp spread in front of his gray and red teepee home.
Farther into camp, we met “Spoon Thrower,” aka Debby Stoddard, from Halstead. She made her traditional Native American tunic herself from Elk skin purchased in Utah. Around her waist hung a small leather pouch, plus a knife and a sewing awl, representative of what Indian women would have carried. When asked about the name Spoon Thrower, she explained that each rendezvous regular is eventually given a “rendezvous name,” usually according to some specific incident. It seems that she had a bad habit of forgetting about the silverware in the basin when washing dishes, and was constantly throwing it out onto the ground with the dishwater. Debby said that the gathering at Maxwell was an annual getaway for her, where she would set up her little pop-up tent and camp for the weekend, using it as time for herself where she could enjoy the get-together with no responsibilities for a change.
This event was billed as a “Prairie Retreat,” so we saw people garbed in a variety of period costumes. Talking Bear, however, was the real deal! His thick, bushy beard complimented the authentic wolf hat that spilled down his back and across his shoulders, with its face centered over his forehead. Tall leather moccasins completed the buckskin outfit, complete with fringe, making it completely authentic mountain man garb. AKA Gordon Welch, he was a computer tech. with Honeywell Aircraft in Wichita, and spent his rendezvous time telling stories about Beaver trapping and other mountain man survival skills to anyone who would listen. His rendezvous name came from an incident in which the wolf hat scared a little girl. The girl’s mother told her to think of him as a “big ole’ fuzzy teddy bear,” to which the little girl questioned, “A talking bear?” Gordon sponsors a web page at www.talking-bear.com. Where he lists and updates mountain man get-togethers all around the country.
I love mountain man lore. Yes, there were some disparities there, like the row of blue and green “porta- potties,” or the DeWalt battery drill in Lone Wolfs teepee, or the fact that Talking Bear had never set a Beaver trap in his life. I’ll bet Spoon Thrower even ate lunch with plastic ware just so she could purposely throw it out! Even so, you have to admire these people’s devotion to keeping alive the spirit of a time that helped to shape this country. Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.
Steve Gilliland can be reached by email at [email protected]