Nine-year-old Caleb Lalonde scampers alongside the gravel trail, in pursuit of a thirteen-lined ground squirrel he’s spotted in the prairie grass. He’s enthralled by the animal’s antics, a natural curiosity he’s likely inherited from his dad, Craig Lalonde.
Caleb and Craig, along with Craig’s older brother Chris and their father Leonard, are on a special multi-generational family trip to Manitoba. It’s a sunny afternoon at Oak Hammock Marsh in September 2022, and Craig is thrilled to share the story of a trip 25 years in the making, one that began on the very trails and boardwalks that his son explores.
Lalonde was only six when he tagged along with dad Leonard to local Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) fundraising dinners. His involvement with DUC only grew from that early introduction. As a youth in his hometown of Dunnville, Ont., he started a “Greenwing Club,” enlisting the help of his peers to build and install nest boxes, remove invasive purple loosestrife and plant trees on the site of what is now the Thompson Creek Eco Centre.
In 1997, at the urging of his brother Chris, the then 16-year-old Lalonde entered a DUC contest that required him to identify birds and other wildlife species, as well as answer a few essay questions. As one of the contest winners, his prize was a trip to a week-long Great Greenwing Adventure youth camp held at DUC’s national office at Oak Hammock Marsh near Stonewall, Man.
Lalonde’s mentors — his father and late godfather — had already sparked his love of the outdoors and turned him into an avid birder and hunter, but he also credits his Oak Hammock experience with his young peers with reinforcing his connection to nature, wetlands, waterfowl and conservation.
Lalonde later pursued post-secondary studies in fish and wildlife technology, although his career path eventually led him elsewhere. Still, in his community of Waubaushene, Ont., where he lives with his wife Kerrie and their two sons, Caleb and Cameron, he is known as “the DUC guy” for wearing his heart for the duckhead on his sleeve as a longtime DUC volunteer.
And so it was that this DUC guy decided to bring his son, brother and dad on a once-in-a-lifetime 25th anniversary trip — first to Oak Hammock Marsh and then to duck hunting hotspots on a professionally guided prairie waterfowl hunt.
Their first overnight stop was at the famous Eaton Lodge at Delta Marsh before heading out to hunt over pothole wetlands in the Shoal Lake region.
Lalonde says that the “sheer volume of ducks was incredible” on this prairie landscape. Amongst the hills and DUC projects, he saw birds everywhere he looked.
“There were ducks and geese like crazy, non-stop. We saw pintails, teals and Canada geese, and line after line of cranes,” says Lalonde.
They took 14 ducks between them on their first day. And despite recent health challenges, 77-year-old Leonard was in his element, notes Lalonde. “My dad was so happy to be out there. He got out every single day.”
Lalonde savoured the moments too. “Once, as everyone was sleeping, I headed out and just sat there by myself with the blind open, watching the birds,” reflects Lalonde. “Those nostalgic fall smells of mud and swamp take me back to being a kid out with my dad.”
“The trip couldn’t have gone any better. It was pretty special. And since Caleb is a sensitive kid, even he understood the weight and meaning of this trip.”
The 25 years Lalonde has devoted as a DUC volunteer have been his way of giving back to the organization that sparked his curiosity, wonder and passion. He spends much of his free time with Kerrie (who also serves as a DUC volunteer) and their Midland volunteer chapter, organizing fundraising dinners and securing donations. And he gets his boots dirty in wetland projects wherever he can. Earlier this year, DUC recognized him as Volunteer of the Year in Ontario for his efforts.
“Being awarded means the world to me,” says Lalonde. “DUC is my passion and I believe in what this organization stands for. When you consider the scope of the work done and the benefits of that work, you can’t help but respect DUC. I’m so honoured to be a part of the DUC community.”
“I can honestly say that everything that I have now I can attribute to the Great Greenwing Adventure.”
And it looks like Caleb may follow, quite literally, in his dad’s footsteps.
While DUC no longer offers the Great Greenwing Adventure camp that Craig Lalonde attended, Oak Hammock Marsh is still a hub for wetland learning and experiences. And soon, those experiences will be even better!
The Harry J. Enns Wetland Discovery Centre, renowned for its award-winning environmental education programs and hands-on nature activities, will temporarily close for an exciting multi-million-dollar renovation that will completely re-imagine the 30-year-old space. DUC’s national office is also located in the building and will also undergo renovation. When it reopens, visitors can expect to enjoy interactive exhibits in a state-of-the-art facility that will leverage innovative technology, demonstrate cutting-edge conservation science, and fully showcase the beautiful surroundings. Learn more at oakhammockmarsh.ca
There are more than 700 DUC volunteers in Ontario, and 3,500 across Canada. DUC is proud to recognize each of them—including outstanding leaders like Craig Lalonde — as volunteer champions and conservationists who serve with generosity, passion and dedication.
Joining forces to protect the largest private grassland project in Canadian history
Peatlands have a critical role in boreal ecosystems amid the growing threat of wildfires in northern Canada. Can research and knowledge-sharing help restore a sustainable future for this vital region?
Wetlands are nature-based solutions for safer landscapes in an era of increased natural disasters.