by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
You probably hear them before they are seen. But gazing skyward, searching for the source of the plaintive calls, one of the more common sights of a Manitoba fall is soon revealed. Geese at this time of year migrate from Canada’s north along ancient flight paths that pass over Manitoba, preparing to eventually wing their way southward in order to reap the warming benefits of a more intense sun. As the geese pass overhead, they fill the air with their continual “honks,” seemingly warning those below of winter’s impending triumph.
Just before snow geese, blue geese and Canada geese head south, they arrive in the hundreds at staging areas in Manitoba to refuel during the daylight hours with grain gleaned from adjacent farmers’ fields. The geese take advantage of the rich pickings provided by swaths of grain laying on the ground to dry out prior to combining. In the process, the geese may consume a portion of the anticipated harvest. Farmers plagued by thousands of bird beaks furiously nibbling at their grain are entitled to compensation from a specific provincial government fund.
As the evening approaches, the geese return to their chosen sanctuary — free from the threat of death-dealing pellets fired from shotguns — in order to roost.
Among the safe havens for thousands of migratory birds, representing many species, is Oak Hammock Marsh, which was termed: “Manitoba's world-class attraction ..., a wetland preservation and education site that serves as an example of how an ecotourism site can be sustainable and respectful of the environment,” by Eric Robinson, the Manitoba minister for culture, heritage and tourism, when the marsh was the recipient of the prestigious 2002 British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award.
“The Tourism for Tomorrow Awards are now firmly established as the global showcase for sustainable tourism development,” said David Bellamy, chairman of the judging panel in London, England.
After receiving the award, Bob Laidler, the general manager of the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, said he considered the Tourism for Tomorrow award to be the “Oscars of ecotourism.”
“Receiving international recognition as a model for sustainable ecotourism is one of the highest accolades we ever hope to receive,” added Laidler. “This award is testament to the positive benefits that can result when public and private sectors unite under the common goal of increasing environmental awareness.”
The year 1972 was the first year that the newly-created Oak Hammock Marsh (St. Andrew's Bog) held water. More than 20 kilometres of dykes — curved instead of straight — were built to hold waters on public lands for the benefit of wildlife.
Originally, St. Andrew’s Bog was once so large and water-filled that steamboats carried passengers across it between Selkirk and Stonewall. At one time, the bog stretched from south of Lockport to north of Teulon. By the late-1960s, the bog had been reduced to a mere 60 hectares through land drainage projects that began in 1897.
Wavey Creek, which runs through this area, was long ago transformed into a series of straight-line channels that sped up the drainage of flood waters flowing east into the Red River, permitting farmers to sow crops sooner.
The name Oak Hammock is derived from Fort Garry and St. Andrews picnickers, who first gathered on an oak-covered knoll bordering the bog in 1886. According to local folklore reported on the RM of St. Andrews website, landowner Adam MacDonald’s preferred name for the knoll was “Oak Hammock.”
“Legend has it that some of the picnickers strung hammocks from oak to oak and relaxed in the shade. As a result, the picnic site and surrounding area came to be known as ‘Oak Hammock.’”
MacDonald’s preference was reinforced when the Oak Hammock Post Office was established in the early 1900s.
A cairn was dedicated on July 19, 1986, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first picnic.
To make the re-established wetland more attractive to wildlife, DU created 58 islands, roughly 10 metres by 30 metres, constructed in the late summer and fall of 1972 to provide special nesting and loafing sites for waterfowl. Surrounded by open water, these sites provided protection against predators. One of the islands was covered with gravel to attract colonial nesting gulls and terns. Some of the islands were seeded to develop grassy nest covering while others were allowed to regenerate naturally.
Two pits were built to resemble the outlines of a giant goose and a giant duck visible from the air.
In 1973, a localized spring drought shifted goose staging from traditional sheet water areas in the Meadows-Marquette district to the new marsh. In 1974, a late spring planting season and rain-delayed harvests reinforced this new trend.
For several weeks during September and October of that year, more than 200,000 geese (100,000 Canadas and 100,000 snows and blues) and 105,000 ducks came to call Oak Hammock Marsh home.
Following the drought, eight artesian wells were drilled to ensure that the marsh will never again dry up.
The centre marsh was intentionally drained during the fall of 1982 and the spring of 1983 in an attempt to cure a chronic shortage of bulrushes and cattails which make prairie marshes attractive to wildlife. The shortage of vegetation was caused by the gradual uprooting of marsh plants by wave action — Oak Hammock had become too “lake-like.” Muskrats also contributed to the shortage by eating out stands of cattails and bulrushes.
The period of drawdown for a couple of years allowed seeds of bulrushes and cattails and other marsh plants to germinate on exposed mudflats. By the fall of 1984, the marsh was reflooded.
When the marsh commenced to dry, a surprise find was several practice bombs which had to be cleared by the Department of National Defence.
The bombs had apparently been dropped by Commonwealth pilots during training missions primarily during the Second World War, although it is believed the bombing range was in use until 1952. The bombs each weighed five kilograms and contained a small explosive charge which activated a smoke-marking device upon hitting the ground. None of over 120 bombs found by the DND were deemed dangerous. Before the unexploded bombs were found, fragments of the munitions were recovered.
Ernie Webb of Stonewall wrote an account of his days as an aircrew trainee that used “Ridgeley Range,” as it was then known (Stonewall Argus/Teulon Times, July 27, 1883). When he dropped his last bomb as an air bomber trainee it was at the range in December 1944.
“I remember it well,” he wrote. “It was a low-level exercise the morning before Christmas, just at sunup, and we passed between Grosse Isle and Stonewall as we approached (flying from No. 7 Observers’ School based at Portage la Prairie). Because the sun on the horizon was right in our eyes, our pilot swung upwards towards Balmoral and then back towards the target so I could see it better ... checking the angles of this manoeuvre on the map, it confirms the location to be just where the bomb parts have been found.”
Webb said after the bombs were released from the twin-engine Avro Ansons: “The sheet metal tail and explosive charge usually were blown to shreds on impact ... But the nose seldom broke away.”
He correctly predicted that “unexploded” practice bombs would be recovered “among the thousands (of fragments) that must be there, and I am certainly glad that a search for them is to be made.”
One hundred military personnel were charged to scour the marsh for unexploded bombs. At the time, Maj. Don Marsh said some of the 5.175-kilogram bombs might still contain a live charge (Cecil Rosner, Free Press, July 12, 1983) of between a half and tree-quarters of a stick of dynamite. Once the charge was set off on impact with a hard surface, smoke was released to mark how close the devices landed relative to a designated target.
In the same article, Winnipegger Harry Pauls, a former bomber pilot, said as a trainee with No. 5 Air Squadron of the British Commonwealth Air Training Command, he flew from Winnipeg to Oak Hammock Marsh on practice missions during the Second World War. “There must have been thousands of bombs dropped in the area — it was a major bombing range.”
Members of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry based in Winnipeg (now in Shilo) gave the all-clear to Oak Hammock Marsh by the end of August. They cleared the public area and plowed parts of the marsh until the last round was found. The Argus related on September 7, 1983, that a total of 128 practice bombs had been found since the original 33 were first discovered in the spring.
“Operation Mallard,” as the bomb disposal was nicknamed, also uncovered a five-metre-high target. The Pats found that some of the practice bombs they uncovered had landed well off the target, a testament to the need for further bomb-run training.
All the bombs uncovered were subsequently detonated.
On January 11, 1985, Ducks Unlimited (DU) Canada and the province signed an agreement to cost-share the construction of an improved water management system for the marsh. The “plumbing” improvements were designed to help develop better marsh habitat for breeding, nesting and staging waterfowl.
Under the agreement, nearly $2 million was committed to develop marsh and grassland habitat and facilities for people.
The key portions of the improvements were the Wavey Creek Diversion to direct spring meltwater into any of four cells, and the Dewar and Parks Creek Drains to allow surplus water to be released from any cell. The diversion and drains are an attempt to stimulate the natural drought and flood cycles of the prairies.
Oak Hammock as it appears today was opened in 1993 through a joint effort of the private wetland conservation group Ducks Unlimited (DU) Canada and the province.
It would undoubtedly surprise most of today’s visitors to the marsh that there was initially controversy surrounding the construction of an interpretive centre as well as the national headquarters for DU Canada.
The intent to build the Conservation Centre was announced in December 1989 by DU Canada and the Wildlife Branch of Manitoba Conservation. The facility was designed by Number Ten Architectural Group of Winnipeg. DU Canada said that the design was “an outstanding example of applying environmentally-friendly priorities to structure planning and construction. The facility in its own right will serve as a model for future developments where environmental empathy is of foremost importance.”
Early planning for the centre included an environmental assessment study by J.D. Systems Limited of Winnipeg. The study found that the centre would only create minor impacts which were “insufficient reason to object” to the project.
“We have always proceeded with the intent that our actions would not only protect the environment in the area, but actually would enhance it,” said D. Stewart Morrison, the executive vice-president for DU Canada, when a provincial licence was granted to build the centre in 1990.
For a two-year period, critics, such as the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh, charged that DU was not living within its construction licence for Oak Hammock Marsh by extending its plans by adding offices and other facilities.
The original ruling of the Clean Environment Commission (CEC) was for 3.5 hectares of the 3,642-hectare site be used for an interpretive centre. Two years later, the revised plan called for 18 hectares to be used for additions, although DU and the province claimed that most of the land would be returned to natural habitat.
According to an April 8, 1992, Winnipeg Free Press article by staff reporter Donald Campbell, “It was revealed ... that substantially more land at Oak Hammock Marsh will be disturbed by the construction of the office complex and interpretive centre than is specified in the licence.
“One of the reasons for that, it has been explained, is that the sewage lagoon needs to be expanded to better treat the waste generated by the facility.”
Critics accused the provincial government of Premier Gary Filmon of prematurely approving the project.
Among those originally opposing the plan for a $6.5-million, two-storey, 2,100-square-metre office complex and conservation centre was the Manitoba Naturalists' Society.
“The government of Manitoba has a fundamental responsibility to protect and preserve the Oak Hammock Wildlife Management Area as a natural resource and ensure ... that it is not compromised,” according to a prepared statement at the time provided by the society.
“As a critical resource ... the Oak Hammock Wildlife Management Area is, in our view, vulnerable to significant damage from the construction and operation of the proposed development.”
In the April 1992 article, John Shearer, a research biologist and spokesman for the Manitoba Naturalists’ Society, said “the amount of land adversely affected by the project is an important factor for environment hearings to determine — especially as it is a sensitive nesting habitat for ducks.”
With criticism mounting in the wake of the first CEC hearing two years earlier, the provincial government had taken the usual step to amend the Wildlife Act to prevent the Manitoba Naturalists Society from taking legal action against the project.
But, the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh went to court to stop the construction, initiating a two-year-long legal battle. Among the documents filed in court, according to an April 14, 1992, Free Press commentary by Arlene Billinkoff, was “a memo from a government planning analyst indicating there was no basis for the office complex at the marsh.”
(Next week: part 2)