The Day of the Storm

Charlie McPherson, IBA Caretaker for Netley-Libau Marsh reminises about an especially memorable birding outing in 2012….

‘Tess, you’ll still need to dress warm and bring a change of clothing and rain gear and such.  You can run into soakers and sudden drops in temps. out there in June, even July’.

When I first met Ray he asked if I’d take him into the Netley-Libau Marsh (warm, sunny day – July 29, 2012) so I included him in on the counts I was having to do for Canada’s Important Bird Area program. We ended up counting birds all day from the Netley side of the marsh, along some of the beach ridge, and through the maze of marsh channels in the north end to the Libau side of the marsh when, around about 5:00 pm, I noticed a storm brewing in the west and I didn’t like the look of it – had never seen anything like it.   We were oh, I’d say, 20 km. from the truck. I advised him to pack up his birding gear and slap on his rain gear because we were going get it, and GET IT we did.

Like when my boys (8 and 10) asked me, years ago, to take them fishing one evening. I was too tired to go through the song and dance of loading and unloading the canoe and they were still too young to be of any help, really, especially paddling it, so I took them to the beach ridge and we fished from shore. Good thing too! The wind was very mild out of the south but it started shifting west, then turned into a violent tornado  with sweeping arms trying to suck us into it’s ugly, saliva dripping mouth.  We were getting sand blasted  and the boys started crying and  I hardly had but a few seconds to  grab them up and throw them into a stand of cane willows in a bit of swale along the lakeside of the ridge  and lay over top of them while THE MONSTER did its thing. It touched down at Gimli ten miles north but it sure would have blown us to ‘who knows where’ had we been in the canoe.

Because the wind was slight out of the south when we first started fishing, the water along the shoreline lay smooth and calm. By the time ‘The Thing’ did its thing in swinging west, gaining momentum,  then letting us have a taste of its rage from the north west, the quiet, smooth, ever so pleasant waters to fish in turned to a steamy, boiling pot of violence. As I lay there squint/peeking out over the lake, I wasn’t sure if the airborne gulls were fleeing for their lives or just dancing around in the wind having fun. I wasn’t having any, although I was kinda enthralled by the awesome wonder of it all. Had the torn touched down where we were, it might have torn us apart, or we might have been seen dancing around in the wind ourselves and, who knows, touching down in the middle of the lake or wherever it decided to spit us out.  Moral of the story? I had been eating lots of garlic with my bacon and eggs in the morning and storms like this don’t like garlic so eat lots of garlic and they’ll look for some other victims to gobble up – hee, hee!

Our back yard during the storm - July 29, 2012

Windswept cattails during the storm

So Ray and I  dawn our  full body rain gear and start beating’er back west across the marsh through it’s maize of channels to the Hughes Channel and it’s ‘tempt me into risking a 1/2 mile shot from it’s mouth, west to the Salamonia Channel via Lake Winnipeg’ for just an itsy, bitsie, teenie, weenie, speedy cruise along the shoreline where, once at the Sal.,  it’s an easy walk west along  the beach ridge to the truck,  the wind on the lake still being slight from the east so it’s, ‘not all that bad’ yet. But you can’t trust L. Wpg. when a storm is brewing. We weren’t but a couple hundred yards from the lake where Fran and I had those ’35 in one hour’ Sharp-shinned Hawks crashing our picnic the other day when a squall of wind turned dirty and came barreling up the channel stopping us dead in the water.  “Don’t you dare!” in other words. I pulled into the weeds along the bank and said, “The wind isn’t going to let us out Ray! We’ll have to go back south to the Passwa Cross Channel, then to the Sal., then to the beach ridge to the truck.” He said, “You know the marsh. It’s your call!”

So we boot it south up the Hughes, west and north  along the Passwa,  and attempt to cross Hughes Lake (a small,  shallow inner marsh lake) north west to the Sal. and the BIG STORM  hit with a soaking, violent vengeance.  We were no more than 100 ft. into  Hughes Lake and, had we had arms of elastic, we could have stretched’em  out  and touched the banks of  Sal. and pulled ourselves ashore –  we were that close –  about 1/2 km.! But we had to turn’er back. I sped the boat south up the Passwa about 100 yds. and rammed’er into a big, tall stand of cattails on the Passwa’s east bank.

There’s shelter in a big block of  cattails. I learned that as a young teen while hunting with my dad. I’d be standing  on the seat of the boat looking out over the tops of the cattails scanning the sky for ducks and getting about as cold as an improperly dressed  teen can get  in a  late October wind and would have to  tuck down out of the wind to warm up; doable, sorta, but  best if there a bit of  sun to beat  down on ya. Later in life, as a courtesy to my young, pre-teen/pre-hunting boys who’d be along for the ride whenever I went out for a hunt,  I built a box to keep them dry and off  the dog shaking/dog dripping wet floor of the boat and stuffed it with blankies and extra socks and mitts and scarves and hats and changes of clothes and hot soup and wagon wheels.  Wagon wheels:  1/2″ x 4″ round, chocolate coated wafery thingys –  kinda like a Kit Kat, only better (marsh mellowy, not crunchy,)  and  kinda common way back then.

As I’m yelling for Ray to pull’er up into the cattails, the wind sucks the  boat length/boat width piece of vapor barrier up and sends’er sailing 60 yards into the cattails.  I use that piece of tarp to keep wind spray from soaking me and my birding gear when tooling it into even slight winds over even tiny marsh lake/marsh channel wind driven waves, let alone even tiny L. Winnipeg wind driven waves. So I drop everything and disappear through the 8′ cattails –  torrential, drenching rain pounding me into the yucky, mucky marsh pavement –  chasing this piece of plastic hoping the wind won’t suck it up and send’er flying again.  Thankfully, I got it, and ran back and called for Ray to grab our comfy lawn/boat birding chairs. We tucked the plastic under the back legs and pulled the sheet over top of us and ‘iglood out the storm’ nice and safe down low below the howling wind and nice and safe from the deluge of rain. Did it ever come down, pelting at us for a good 35 minutes.

IBA Birders huddle under vapor barrier 'igloo' during Netly-Libau marsh's   vicious, July 2012 storm.

So we sat in comfort yacking above the roar of the rain getting to know each other. It was here in the Igloo that I told the Inuit about the Pembina Valley Hawk watches where he could get one of the Lifer’s he was lusting after – a Golden Eagle. Come spring the following year, we drove to the Valley and the first raptor on his first step out of the vehicle was a Golden Eagle. Imagine that! We had to bail the boat once the storm let up but floating around in the back was the water proof plastic tub where I keep my rusty camp stove and coffee pot,  and my  coffee making supplies. Best coffee I had in a long time, although it was iffy trying to coax the matches that I keep in my wallet to light. You want Boat Coffee Tess? Then it’s Boat Coffee you get. But don’t worry about the rust. The coffee grinds are the same color and you won’t even know it’s there. Ray brings his own, all new shiny camp gear now but I still do rustic.  It’s the Cancer in me. I’m a June baby. And besides, evening light on ‘rusty’ makes for better photos. So we survived, got out, got to the truck and found our way home. I picked a shivering wet Robin squab off the ridge when we got to the truck, cupped it in my hands and blew warm, yummy garlic breath on it for about half an hour to revive it, fed it dog food and hard boiled eggs (the right protein mix for birdies) for a couple of days, found a pair of adoptive parent Robins with kids the same age a couple of blocks over, got them to sign the paper work and let them take it from there. Robins will adopt. The highlight of our counting was when we came across the Forster’s Tern Colony between Pruden Bay and Parisian Lake (both inner marsh bodies of water) and scattered numbers of juvenile Franklin Gulls.

The western sky clears over Cochrane Lake after the July 2012 storm

The western sky clears over Cochrane Lake after the July 2012 storm

Moral of the story? Don’t go birding with Charlie on a day in July no matter how tempting the  yellowy, slanty/streaky evening light texturing and  warmly washing White Pelicans and coffee pots can be.  If you do fall into temptation, bring the extra clothing that he’s been tellin’ya to bring. And eat lots of garlic.  Ray skipped breakfast that day and look what happened to him. I didn’t, and the storm only ‘touched us.’ He can thank me for that, and for saving his life.

Our Journey