MANITOBA, Canada -- The official start of Duck Trek was only a few minutes old and already an argument had broken out.
The Duck Trek is no stranger to adversity. Try to follow the paths of the continent's waterfowl as the birds make their way through all kinds of marshes and fields that interconnect with rivers and ponds that eventually interconnect with small and big towns and all the people and critters in between and eventually you will have some kind of conflict. But nothing like this.
This conflict was between the writer and the photographer. Both are 225-pound plus (and I'm being nice to the photographer) and stand in the 6-foot, 3-inch range, a little heavy in the middle but nimble in the feet.
Both were thrown into the same canoe as it slid into the edge of Delta Marsh and floated and wiggled its way into the bulrushes and cattails, an example of two gorillas trying to ride a basketball in (unison) while fearing for their lives that the water below them would surely suck them up.
That's when the argument broke out. A litany of exchanges broke out that went something like this (minus the expletives):
"Don't dig in so hard, you're going to dump this thing."
"Paddle on the other side, you idiot."
"Don't lean so much."
"What are you doing? Dude, I am not opposed to wallowing around in this mud with you if I have to."
"I'm going to slap you across the head with this paddle."
"You do, and you'll be picking splinters out of your … for a week."
The vessel of discontent had a slough of expletives and epitaphs pouring out of it for the 30-minute hellish canoe trip.
The grousing and grumbling was complemented by the cacophony of sound that poured out of the bays and ditches in the marsh. The music of sassy mallards quacking, widgeons peeping and redheads growling in the darkness, were partially in unison to what came from the canoe.
Hell of a way to start a Duck Trek, but an appropriate example of strangers in a strange land learning a little something new. For the record, little-bitty canoes are not the optimum mode of travel for the Duck Trek crew.
But it was worth the pain and suffering.
It's funny how ducks buzzing and whizzing about can change the mind and attitudes of a duck hunter.
Even with all the grousing and the wiggling and wobbling in the vessel of discontent, ducks filled the sky, tossing in and splashing down all around as we crossed a shallow bay within the Delta Marsh.
In the canoe leading the way, Carly Michie and Jim Fisher glided effortlessly across the water into a canal and then into and across a larger bay. The action, though, was behind us, where the bays narrowed and the canal connected them.
Like a funnel connecting both bays, ducks of every species imaginable were constantly interchanging. A quick set of canvasback decoys with a few mallards and Canada geese floaters mixed in, and the canoes were abandoned for the mushy muck bottom of Delta Marsh.
Within seconds, ducks were skirting around the opening of the canal, the first winging by so fast there was no time to get a bead on it.
"Holy cow, what was that?"
Michie and Fisher are both waterfowl biologists with Delta Waterfowl, so their skills at identifying these birds were unquestionable.
"That was a Goldeneye," Fisher said.
"Are you serious? Always wanted to shoot one of those."
That thought was a consistent part of shooting in the Delta Marsh. Growing up in Arkansas where the primary species are wood ducks and mallards, this was a treat. For the ducks that you grow up wanting to see and possibly shoot this is the place to do it.
The night before, Michie had explained the history and importance of Delta Marsh.
And there's a lot of history. We were staying in Delta Waterfowl's Kirchhoffer Lodge, built by then-senator John Kirchhoffer in 1914 in anticipation of a return visit by King George V (who never did make it).
The Delta Marsh got its name from the Greek alphabet. Which is ironic since the word "delta" in the duck world conjures up images of marshes and estuaries; places like the California Delta or the Mississippi River Delta. They are areas known for waterfowling. Their proximity to a river gives those areas the distinction of being a delta.
The Delta Marsh, though, has no rivers. It does lie near the southern end of Lake Manitoba, a body of water that is about 125 miles long.
When the railroad was being built across Canada, the fourth stop (delta) along the way was situated not far from this marsh, giving not only the train station the name Delta but that marsh as well. Interestingly enough, its name has carried over to the waterfowl organization Delta Waterfowl, which was started on the edge of the marsh in 1911.
In those days, James Ford Bell, the founder of General Mills, would come to the marsh to hunt canvasbacks.
Local duck hunters haven't changed much over time. And those around the Delta Marsh would get upset that this American would come in and shoot their ducks. Bell took note of the grumbling and rather than dismissing it decided he would do something to put back three canvasbacks for everyone he shot.
He bought 50,000 acres of the Delta Marsh and began raising and releasing canvasbacks. He was so successful that Aldo Leopold, who was completely against captive-rearing ducks, gave him a $1,000 grant that created new levels of duck research and ultimately created the organization known as Delta Waterfowl.
To date, Delta's student program has produced some 350 alumnus who have written more than 730 research papers that have advanced our understanding of waterfowl. The list of students who have passed through Delta's research program reads like a Who's Who in waterfowl management. They include Michie and Fisher.
Delta Waterfowl's primary image shown in its logo is of a canvasback, known in these parts of the world as the "King of the Marsh."
Today, the Delta Marsh is regarded as one of the premier waterfowling areas in the world. The Ramsar Convention has named it as a Wetlands of International Importance.
Here's where it comes into play for those of who hunt south of the border. Unlike many of the prairie potholes that actually produce ducks, Delta Marsh is a staging area for ducks getting set to migrate.
Every species of duck you can name enters the marsh when they are in their eclipse plumage. They are all varying shades of brown, and rather than hiding in the grass are able to go about their daily business in the shallow bays and ponds with a protective wall of bulrushes and cattails around them.
They feed on patches of sago pondweed, which is the life force of the marsh. Mallards dabble on the seeds at the top, while divers eat the root system and others eat the invertebrates that use the weed as home.
For the most part, the clean water of the marsh produces enough sago. But in the last few years, high water and invasive carp are starting to muddy the water and threaten the food source.
Efforts are being taken to thwart the invasion of carp, but it's just another attack that waterfowl have to endure. One that could ultimately see reduced populations coming south.
It's important that the marsh produces enough so the ducks are healthy when they decide to spread out in all directions.
The canvasbacks head east and down the Atlantic Flyway, while many of the rest (mallards, teal, pintail, scaup, redhead and widgeons to name a few) head south into the Mississippi Flyway. The staging area is like a modern-day train station or international airport with folks all over the world trying to get some place different, with the canvasback being the king of all of them.
For the duck trek, though, the canvasback eluded us. Not because they weren't there, but because we were never ready. Like missiles skimming the surface, there were no less than a half dozen times when a flock of canvasbacks could have literally knocked our hats off if they had been speeding over us a foot lower.
The fact none of them fell to our gun didn't cross our minds until the end of the hunt, when we were counting up our bag.
When you are in a place with such a variety of things to hunt, it's hard to keep up with all of them. The limit included mallards, green-wing teal, bufflehead (a first for us southern boys) redheads, blue bills, pintail and widgeons. And we may have missed some in the counting. Basically, almost everything you can think of, with the exception of that pesky Goldeneye.
For a morning that started in conflict, it ended with a view of one of the more special places in the waterfowling world.