Saturday, February 05, 2005


Duck Mountains Survey

The Duck Mountains! Ha, ha, ha!! Being from British Columbia originally, I laughed at the very thought of mountains in Manitoba. Having flown past Mount Robson, elevation 12,972', in the Canadian Rockies, I figured any mountain in flat Manitoba was nothing more than just a B.C. toboggan hill.

My friend Rick from Riverton Airways asked me if I could help out his company by doing an aerial moose and elk survey in the Duck Mountains. I checked with Ed, the owner of Blue Water Aviation, who I am employed with, and he said to go ahead and help Rick and his company out. This is how I ended up in the "Ducks" in winter, 2005.

The "Ducks" are part of the "Manitoba Escarpment". This escarpment starts in South Dakota and runs north and emerges as the eastern edge of the Riding Mountains, Duck Mountains, and Porcupine Hills. The "Escarpment" was the western beach-edge of the glacial Lake Agassiz, a massive 700 by 200 mile lake formed from glacier meltwater, which was restricted from flowing north due to the Laurentide Ice Sheet. When the ice sheet finally melted, the water flowed north into Hudsons Bay, leaving fertile plains of silt in the low-lying areas. Today, lakes Winnipeg, Manitoba, Winnipegosis, and Lake of the Woods are remnants of Lake Agassiz.

The survey was to commence towards the end of January, with the southern half of the survey being conducted out of Dauphin, Manitoba. We would survey the south half of the "Ducks" first, then do the north half later. Our survey lines would run north-south, and would be 1 mile apart. We would fly slowly between 500' and 700' and count all the animals we could see. There would be me plus 3 observers.

Manitoba Natural Resources routinely conducts aerial surveys for game in different areas of the Province every year, with the results being used for a variety of purposes. Obviously, restrictions and regulations in the Game Hunting Areas (GHAs) were derived from what we found. Also, the Resources Officers are very vigilant regarding Chronic Wasting Disease and TB in elk. CWD has never been found in Manitoba, but TB has been found in elk in the Province. Obviously, the more info on the herds and numbers, the better.

The aircraft we were using is registered C-GULA. ULA is a 1962 Cessna 185, and has just over 6,000 hrs. airframe time. A nice working machine. She has fixed-penetration Kehler skis, and a new Continental IO-520 CI engine, and a Robertson STOL kit. Just what we needed for flying slow and looking for game, and an airplane that could also honk through the sky when you poured the coal to her!

The first day went well, though we started late because it was -38*C that morning. Cold enough for me to put a toque on. We flew 3.3 hours that day, and saw a number of animals, nothing spectacular. That evening, the weather hit. The temperature went up and we had light snow, wind, and in the morning freezing rain. Due to the weather, and the elevation of Dauphin being roughly 1000' asl, and Baldy Mountain, the highest point in Manitoba and the "Ducks" at 2729' asl, we were grounded for 4 days. Beer drinking time! The weather did clear, and we finished the survey rather uneventfully, except for the ice on the runways at Dauphin, and the blown tail-wheel we experienced on landing in Roblin on the last day of the survey. Murphy's freakin' law, of course. I then went home for a couple of days, as the second part of the survey is done by helicopter. They pick a smaller area that we surveyed, and then do a high-intensity count on the animals in that plot of land specifically. Hence, the need for a chopper. Tony from Taiga Air Services Ltd. and his Bell 206 Jet Ranger would be performing this part. Before I left, I thanked Glen and Gerald, our two Natural Resources observers, for their uncanny ability to see animals from the air, and also their ability to not get sick or have to piss when shoe-horned into the back of a Cessna 185 for 3.5 hrs. at a time. Both real good guys. Ian, the other observer, would be with me for the second part of our survey.

A number of days later, Ian, the Natural Resources Wildlife Technician called, and said that the C-185 was needed for the north half of the "Ducks" survey, as the helicopter had finished in the south. Ian is a real good guy, and has a Masters Degree in biology, and is very dedicated to his work. Just the kind of guy I like working alongside.

We flew the north part of the survey out of Swan River. Day 1 went well, until less than 2 hrs. into the survey, one of the observers had to piss. I told him to hold it, and he said he couldn't. His buddy came to his rescue with some sort of zip-lock bag, and he filled it up and held onto it for another 1.5 hrs. Day 2 went well until after lunch, when the other rear observer decided to share the sounds and smell of the Denver sandwich he had for lunch with everybody else in our cramped quarters. I pained him with another hour of survey, and just when it looked like he was recovering, he started to retch until his breakfast, and every other iota of matter, had exited his stomach, and the lining was inside out. We cut short and returned to the airport. Day 3 saw one observer only make it to lunch, and he retired for the day due to oncoming illness. God, am I glad I have a cast-iron stomach, always have.

In defense of the observers, the "Ducks" can be quite turbulent. Some days we would experience 30-35 knot winds, and it did get rough, with the varied terrain contributing to the mechanical turbulence. Anyway, the north part of the survey went very quickly, with the only real problem being a leaky brake on C-GULA. Nothing MacGyver couldn't rectify.

I returned home to let Tony and his chopper totally complete the survey. For my part of the survey, I was impressed with the number of animals in the southern portion of the "Ducks". We counted roughly 250 moose and 360 elk, and there were deer everywhere! Not bad numbers considering. The northern part of the "Ducks" seemed to be good habitat for animals, but "logging" had allowed road access, and everyone knows what happens to moose when a road is opened up. Good-bye moose. The wrestle between man and nature. Also, apparently a lot of First Nations hunting had gone on in the past few years, and the moose and elk populations had really suffered because of it in the northeastern part of the "Ducks", and in the extreme northern part, Manitoba Resident hunting had also taken it's toll on the elk. All in all, what we saw will have an impact, I'm sure, on next year's hunting regulations.

I enjoyed my time flying the "Ducks", I enjoyed good old C-GULA, and I really enjoyed working and watching hockey games alongside Ian. I hope to work with him in the future. Flying in winter can be nerve-wracking, but also interesting and rewarding. The plane ended up in one piece, we are all alive, and nothing was bent! ( Except for a puker's pride!) Who could ask more from flying? Until next time, "keep your stick on the ice", and if you see "frost" on a chain-link fence, make sure you stick your tongue to it!!!

The "ice" on the runway at Dauphin, Manitoba, can be clearly seen, along with the good ships C-GULA and C-GSUL... Posted by Hello

C-GSUL would pick up where C-GULA left off, flying lower and slower.... Posted by Hello

C-GULA is a fine machine. A '62 C-185, made to rock and roll through the skies. She has seen her share of "pukers" and "pissers".... Posted by Hello

All that talk of animal sightings has left me longing for hunting season, which for me is bow hunhting for spring bears as of April 1st.
Bears are one species of animals we didn't see many of, asleep, I guess. We saw a number of wolves, some nice pitch-black ones, lots of coyotes, lots of deer, and the moose and elk I mentioned. The moose looked very healthy, nice and dark, with thick-looking hides, and a bouncy gait when they moved. There wasn't a lot of snow in the "Ducks", therefore much easier for the moose to find forage, and also much easier for them to get around.
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