Man out of Time

By Joel Vance | November 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 1997

Ralph Duren has only one problem in a life filled with fun.

He was born 100 years too late.

Duren should have been crossing the far ridge with Jed Smith and John Colter. He should have been in Yellowstone with old Jim Bridger, carrying the tales back to civilization.

Though all the mountains have been crossed and the rivers run, Ralph Duren is carrying on the tales and the tradition of the mountain men.

Ralph Duren is a public relations specialist with the Conservation Department. He has been an animal damage control agent, an outdoor skills specialist and now his job is to share his outdoors with those who don't know it and to help them fine tune their perceptions.

Simply, Duren is the voice of the outdoors. He can recreate for an audience a morning in the woods, with all its sounds. His voice becomes a distant crow, a barred owl, the first birds of morning, then a waking gobbler.

So realistic is the gobbler that old ridge-running turkey hunters simply shake their head in disbelief.

"I gave my first turkey calling demonstration when I was in the third grade," Duren says. "I had to get up in class and do it, using just my voice. By then, I'd had a lot of hours of turkey hunting seminars just listening to my dad teach other people.

"Box calls squeaked when I didn't want them to and they'd get wet and wouldn't work. We had a mean old tame gobbler and I'd imitate the hens with my voice and make him gobble. It worked with the wild ones too."

Not surprisingly, the Lead Belt refugee from Crystal City has picked up a bounty of turkey calling awards, including the national gobbling championship. If you think that's a dubious honor, you try it sometime. Stand in front of a huge audience and all your turkey calling peers and imitate a wild turkey gobbler, using just your throat.

No problem. Duren has been voicing the wild to Missourians for years. He can grunt like an antelope and whistle like a bull elk. From chickadee to cardinal, Duren's calls are indistinguishable from the real thing. The national convention of Quail Unlimited recently named him first in their world quail calling contest.

Duren travels the state, giving programs to groups as diverse as wide-eyed kindergartners and wizened senior citizens. His patient good humor and showmanship have turned what started as an amiable hobby into a career.

It's a long way in time and circumstance from a small 55-acre farm in Jefferson County to the lecture circuit. Give credit to a family which, itself, is out of time gone by.

Duren's father, Robert, always trapped, hunted and fished. "He took me on the trap line from the time I was a little guy," Duren says. "And he got a turkey in the first modern season in 1960. I didn't." (There were only 94 turkeys taken statewide that first season - Ralph didn't kill his first turkey until he was nine years old, three years later.)

"Dad retired after 30 years at the Crystal City Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company," Duren says. "He does something - fishing or hunting - every day. He's been important to me, not only teaching me woods lore, but about conservation, too."

Duren is the oldest of five children (he has a brother and three sisters). "My brother is a hunter education instructor and so are two of my sisters," he says.

"We had a lot of birds - turkeys, peacocks, ducks, show chickens," Duren says. But that was only one facet of the family's life. Robert Duren trapped pest animals for local landowners. Not only did that solve a problem, it also created a debt of gratitude that resulted in hunting and fur trapping access. "There were three different farms that had over 200 turkeys. We'd see the flocks every day," Duren says. "We had lots of places to hunt."

With livestock, furs, a garden, wild edible bounty and fees from pest animal control, the Durens lived off the land as efficiently as Jed Smith himself (Duren often appears before audiences garbed as a mountain man, with fur trim clothing and furs to show).

Food was where you found it. Barbecued young groundhog was no stranger to the Duren table. "All the kids hunted. We always had a 'coon dog and a couple of beagles and my uncle kept bird dogs. Mom didn't hunt, but she fished.

"My dad taught me a lot about reading sign," Duren says. "When you trap, you're out there every day and you learn much about nature. You know what's new. You're there in every kind of weather."

Vacation, if you could call it that, was a trip to Big River for several days each summer. The family would camp and fish. Sometimes the trip was to Lake Wappapello or Clearwater Lake - but it always was outdoors.

Robert Duren also traveled to Colorado each year to trap for coyotes, bobcats, kit fox and the occasional badger. Fur prices were good, so the income was important. Maybe it's coincidental, but the mountain men once gathered in Colorado to exchange stories and information. Some things don't change.

Each Duren kid had chores. Hard work was part of life - but not all. "I was playing drums in the band, too," Duren says. "There was marching band and concert band and the jazz band. I ran track in high school. Before that there was the Cub Scouts. There always was plenty to do around the farm, but since the third grade I had a job."

It's tough to see how there were enough hours in the day to take care of the diverse enthusiasms of the family. "We hunted everything. If we weren't hunting, we were fishing or trapping."

Duren knew anatomy long before he took biology. "When we started dissecting frogs it wasn't anything new to me - I'd been cleaning frogs we caught for years. The teacher'd tell us what needed to be done and in about 30 seconds, I had the parts whipped out. By that time I was skinning furbearers and making scent lures. We did that in the evening in the wintertime."

Another influence besides Dad and his interest in the outdoors was the Festus-Crystal City Conservation Club, Duren says.

The club has been a stalwart in the Conservation Federation of Missouri for years and had its own grounds, where Duren played as a kid. "It's half a mile from our house. My dad was a board member for 35 years and chairman of the turkey calling contest for 20 years. I called in that contest when I was nine years old. I never did win."

It probably was inevitable that Duren would join the Conservation Department. He earned a degree in animal husbandry at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1976 and was working for the university, taking care of 250 sheep. Graduation was an interruption in his hectic schedule: he fed and cleaned up after his sheep on graduation day, hurriedly scrubbed off the worst of it, attended the ceremonies, then hustled back for the afternoon sheep chores.

"I was looking for another job," he says dryly. Finally, there was an opening with the Conservation Department for a wildlife damage control agent. Duren spent seven years, beginning in 1979, in that position, traveling at least 30,000 miles a year.

Along with his skills as a trapper, he honed his people skills. Most who complain about wildlife damages are angry and it takes a diplomat to cool them off, as well as to solve the problem.

The outdoor skills job was right down Duren's gravel road. No one has more outdoor skills. That tour lasted nine years until his present job as a public relations specialist, which evolved from many seminars on outdoor skills. More and more he spent time turning people on to the joy of the outdoors, rather than its mechanics.

And now the mountain man's son shares his lore with those who see the outdoors ... but don't really see it.

"We have so much in Missouri," Duren says. "I do calls that people recognize. Then I do calls that they've heard, but can't identify. And then I do things that they probably won't ever hear in Missouri, but may somewhere else, like elk."

Duren challenges his audiences: "How many heard some kind of wildlife on your way in to the auditorium?" Most haven't heard anything. Duren then tells them what they should have heard.

He did a program in St. Louis, at a church. "We were standing around outside beforehand," he says. "There were some geese and ducks, there were a half-dozen songbirds, a flock of crows. In the hour before I spoke, I could identify maybe a dozen different critters."

No one in the audience had heard anything. But all left with ears tuned to a different frequency. They would pay more attention to wildlife calls in the future.

Duren can imitate a moose, and Missouri has had several young bulls that have migrated south from Minnesota over the past 30 years. Perhaps some farmer who has attended a Duren show-and-tell will step out his farmhouse door some frosty night and hear an unfamiliar sound and exclaim, "By golly, that sounds like a bull moose grunting!"

Or maybe not. But the show does accomplish what it is supposed to: it tickles the fancy of people who are not attuned to the outdoors. "I try to show them what's out there and that there is nothing to be afraid of. The outdoors is there for people to enjoy. I encourage them to sit and listen, at different times of the day and the year in different habitats."

Teaching turkey calling is fun, talking about trapping is instructive, outdoor lore is informative, but the lesson of personal example may be the best lesson of all.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer