A 1937 photo of Waterhen Marsh is astonishing. In the foreground, four men stand on ice, staring intently at the horizon. Out there, beyond low grasses, a fire is raging across the entire horizon of the image. Black tendrils of smoke fill the sky. Close to the ground, the blaze roils like an oncoming storm, ten miles wide and covering 25,000 acres. It’s a relentless peat fire that had been burning for months, unstoppable and endangering the health of neighbouring farmers and the residents of the nearby town of Kinistino. The dense peat smoke hugged the ground so tenaciously that townsfolk had to stand on their cars’ running boards to see above it as they drove.
Drained, and disappointed
Twenty years earlier, the marsh and nearby Waterhen Lake was drained by settlers certain that it would reveal more of the rich, black loam of the surrounding farmland. “Instead, they found that the marsh had a deep layer of organic matter and not soil,” says Kelly Rempel, the head of habitat asset management for DUC in Saskatchewan. “It was spongy peat without enough nutrients for growing crops. It was just used for pasture and hay land.”
After that disappointment came the droughts, turning the spongy peat into a hair-trigger tinderbox that finally erupted into the month’s-long hellscape the men in the photograph beheld in the distance.
Restoring Waterhen Marsh, restoring hope
By 1938, the good people of Kinistino decided the only way to put out the sky-blotting inferno was to reflood the marsh completely. Earlier in the year, DUC had tackled the creation of Big Grass Marsh, dubbed “Duck Factory No.1” in southern Manitoba. Now, ironically, the fledgling organization had a possible second duck factory under its wings. DUC told the Kinistino and District Board of Trade it would take on the restoration, knowing how important it was for nesting, brooding and migrating waterfowl, which were on the decline. After six months of negotiation, DUC did just that for a mere $5,610. It wasn’t easy.
Local workers, using teams of four heavy horses, plows and sturdy timbers, built a 1341-metre (4,400-foot) long permanent dam across the Carrot River at the northern part of what became a 4,100-acre (1,660-ha) marsh on Crown land. Barbed wire fences prevented livestock encroachment, and out on the marsh itself, the workers used rocky fill to create 32 islands for nesting waterfowl, each island topped with stands of willow. Willows were also planted along the dam itself to help with its stability.
Residents help with Waterhen Marsh restoration
One of the workers on the dam was Dick Porter, a farmer who lived south of Kinistino. “My father and his six brothers got six dollars a day working on the marsh,” recalls Dick’s son Russell Porter, 76. “You had to bring your own draft horses. Guys would plow up the peat, then other guys would come behind with things called slushers to scoop up the earth and pile it on top of the dam.”
In the early days of the restored marsh, Russell remembers his Uncle Fred, who was a DUC volunteer Keeman for 40 years, excitedly encouraging him to tramp into it to see a snow goose. “He said I might never see another one,” Russell says, laughing. “Now there are millions of them, but back then it was all mallards and gadwalls. The mallards were everywhere.”
Maintaining the marsh
Over the years, DUC maintained the dam, repairing damage that the keen-eyed Porter and others reported. New control structures were put in place and in 1980, DUC added 51 islands and 12 “loafing bars”: small raised areas for waterfowl to safely rest in open water areas.
“It’s a vital habitat for nesting, brood rearing, and staging during migration,” says Rempel. “All three are important but with staging, in the fall you’d see thousands if not tens of thousands of arctic geese on the open water.”
According to DUC conservation programs specialist Gerry Letain, “in years where we get really high runoff, the marsh can flood several acres of pastureland in the south end of the basin. Depending on the time of year, the flooding can actually be a good thing as the flooding acts as a backflood irrigation for the remaining pasture and hayland acres.”
Waterhen Marsh links DUC’s past, present, and future
“It’s the longevity of the project that’s remarkable,” says Rempel. “The fact that we’ve had it and maintained for 85 years shows that it has been a top priority that provides important waterfowl habitat, and we plan to retain the project into the future.”
Russell Porter has two children of his own now, Rusty and Meagan. He hopes they’ll appreciate the marsh as much as he does.
“To love it you have to see it,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t get the opportunity to visit, but I hope they do. It’s beautiful out there.”
DUC's Film Archive Project
See rare film footage of Waterhen Marsh's construction in 1938 in "A Dam Site."See history in the making.