Ducks migrate south from the Canadian Boreal Forest in the fall, as marshes freeze solid. However, for the last couple of years Ducks Unlimited's Brad Karel has migrated north from North Dakota in the winter months to assist Ducks Unlimited Canada's engineering staff with wetland habitat infrastructure projects in the cold, frozen northwoods.
Karel is a construction manager for DU's Great Plains Region (GPR), out of the headquarters in Bismarck. For the next six weeks to three months, he will be helping Ducks Unlimited Canada near The Pas, Manitoba, about 400 miles or seven hours north and west of Winnipeg. The Pas is near the Saskatchewan border on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Pas, pronounced paw, is French for pass, and this community is where early fur traders came to ship their furs down the Saskatchewan River to Winnipeg and markets in the United States.
The project is to modify a 30- to 40-year-old water control structure on a marsh in the Saskatchewan River Delta in the Boreal Forest, a densely forested area full of marshes. Waterfowl enthusiasts call the Boreal Forest "The Other Duck Factory," as it is the second highest waterfowl producing area on the continent, next to the Prairie Pothole Region. The area is particularly important when conditions are dry on the prairies.
Average morning temperatures are around -20 F. Karel has to be on-site all day every day when the contractor is working on the project.
He grew up in Neche, N.D., a small town in Pembina County on the US/Canadian border. As a young boy, he did not realize he was preparing for this cold weather assignment while delivering newspapers in the early 70s.
"Sunday morning paper deliveries were extremely cold in January and February, and I can remember the -30 F temps delivering the Grand Forks Herald in the dark morning hours," Karel said. "I think this is where I built a tolerance and toughness for the cold."
Modern winter cold weather gear has advanced to keep you warm. He says good pack boots and mitts (choppers) have advanced from childhood days to protect him in the below zero temperature ranges. "But you must always be prepared for the effects of the cold extremes," Karel said.
He will be living in a government cabin built by Manitoba Conservation for seasonal employees and firefighters on the shore of Grace Lake on the outskirts of The Pas. Grace Lake Airport is nearby, serving floatplanes and a small aircraft runway. Brad says when he drives down the frontage road to the bunkhouse, he has to watch for planes as they taxi to the airstrip and ice runway, having had a close-encounter with a twin-engine plane crossing his path going to the airstrip.
"In our planning process, we created a window where we could loan Brad to our sister organization," said GPR Chief Engineer Roger Smith. "They are in need of his expertise and as is typical of Brad, he was willing despite the potentially brutal conditions. This is his third winter where he has spent some portion in Canada so he knows what he is up against."
Becky Jones Mahlum