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Be Kind to Your Web-footed Friends
Coles Phinizy
October 21, 1957
Sports Illustrated sends an emissary 1,700 miles to the bogs of Saskatchewan for a report on a biologist who toils in the bulrushes to provide the sort of homes ducks need to raise more ducks
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October 21, 1957

Be Kind To Your Web-footed Friends

Sports Illustrated sends an emissary 1,700 miles to the bogs of Saskatchewan for a report on a biologist who toils in the bulrushes to provide the sort of homes ducks need to raise more ducks

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When Sterling reaches Carrot River he feels the ache of flu, and hunts up a doctor for a jab of penicillin. The doctor prescribes, instead, three days in bed and pink pills to promote sweat and sleep. Sterling takes the pills, drinks coffee to offset sleepiness, and contracts a bush pilot to fly him in to the airstrip that a raw fur buyer, Bert Hutton, has cut on the edge of the Indian reserve. Fur Buyer Hutton greets Sterling with the news that flu is epidemic on the reservation. Sterling helps carry Hutton's sick 81-year-old father to a plane. Hutton has lived thereabouts many years, and from him Sterling learns that in the terrible droughts of the '30s, when Duckdom along with many other things was at rock bottom, the area was very dry—you could walk across Redearth Lake. Now, except for the narrow silt banks of the river, all is water, much of it hidden under deceptive, quivering muskeg. The government has put a dam on Jam Creek, impounding water to improve muskrat habitat. There are plenty of ducks, Hutton attests—a good variety of dabblers and divers, in fact, an occasional wood duck. How are the broods? Hutton does not recollect seeing many young. Hutton's mother reports that she sees a few hens and ducklings walking toward the river (women are forever seeing ducks walking). A Cree Indian, Lionel Head, takes Sterling by cart a mile and a half to his canoe. For two days Sterling explores shore lines and presses through the phragmites into side sloughs, from Redearth Lake to Bourassa Lake, then winding 25 miles down the Carrot River to Buffalohead Lake and another unmapped lake, which the Indians call the Water-That-Has-Many-Puddles. Mallards jump up from the sloughs and diving ducks rise from the open water, but these are the ducks of the present—marshaling, feeding and moving south. Sterling is concerned with the future. Over the Carrot River, riding a rising wave of air, hundreds of sand-hill cranes bear to the south, their bugle sound lingering behind. Sterling tosses a chunk of meat to a coyote basking on the riverbank (here is one reason why there would never be duck nests on the narrow, wooded bank). Sterling takes water samples and also samples of milfoil, sago pond weed, bur reed, three-square bulrush and another seemingly tasty aquatic that he does not recognize. Noting Sterling's interest in plant food, Indian Guide Lionel Head suggests the Indians might buy corn and feed the ducks. Sterling smiles and explains. There is plenty of food. He is looking for dry land fit for nesting ducks. Sterling has come quite a distance, helped an expectant mother and a sick man, tossed meat to a coyote, and seen a fine muskrat area. The place has too much water for ducks.

When winter locks him in, Sterling will file a full report on the Carrot River lakes to his head office. The area now has too much water, but some day the muskrat industry may die. Inevitably there will be terrible drought again, and the data will come out of the file and engineers will go to work.

The job of trying to save a wildlife species, Sterling observed recently, while staring at the shrinking wilderness on his office map, usually does not get started until it is too late. It makes some sense, he figures, to be working while there are plenty of ducks still around.

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