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Bill Lavalee of Sports Afield Lodge in Manitoba's Delta Marsh. (Jake MacDonald for The Globe and Mail)
Bill Lavalee of Sports Afield Lodge in Manitoba's Delta Marsh. (Jake MacDonald for The Globe and Mail)

Jake MacDonald loads up his shotgun and heads for the marsh Add to ...

It's six o'clock on a chilly October morning and we're riding in a wagon drawn by an all-terrain vehicle, bouncing down a muddy trail towards Manitoba's famous Delta Marsh. It's still dark, and the constellations are sprayed brilliantly across the night firmament. The wind is cold, and the 3.5-metre-high cane grass alongside the trail sways and rattles in the wind. The bed was warm this morning, but now that we're here, I feel sorry for anyone who's missing this.

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At the end of the trail, we climb off the wagon and unload the gear. Our hunting guide, Bill Lavallee, drags a duck boat through the mud. He has brought along a pair of trained Labrador retrievers and they are coursing through the high grass, whining with excitement. Bill pushes the boat into the water and steps aboard. He is 51 years old, quick and strong after a lifetime of working outdoors. Rowing into the waves, he sets the decoys in a U-shaped pattern. When he has finished, he drags the boat out of sight, and leads us down the mucky shoreline to a point where we will hide in the long grass and wait for the ducks. Bill's mastery of this dark and forbidding place is so apparent that we don't bother asking questions. If we need to know something, he'll tell us.

As the eastern sky begins to turn pink, coyotes celebrate the end of night, their high pitched howls and yips erupting from every quadrant of the marsh. Soon it's light enough to see the artfully deployed decoys bobbing in the water just a few yards downwind. No one has moved or loaded a gun, though I can see ducks flickering past in the gloom. Finally, Bill decides that it's legal shooting light. "Load up," he murmurs. From the other blinds come the clicking transactions of machined steel. Reaching into my pocket, I remove two shells and feed them into my Remington 12-gauge shotgun. This gun belonged to my father. He used it all his life, and when I was 10 years old, sitting at his side in a marsh like this, he succumbed to my silent pressure and allowed me to try it out, and with my first shot I crumpled a speeding teal, my first duck. That was 50 years ago, and the moving parts of this old gun are now as familiar as my own hands.

A few minutes later, a squadron of bluebills rips overhead. Bill sends a chorus of trills and chuckles after them. As if trained, the birds swing back toward the decoys. Bluebills are fast and erratic and difficult to hit, but Bill has planned this setup well. Ducks always land into the wind, which brings them toward us head-on, with cupped wings and landing gear lowered. Boom, the old Remington thumps back against my shoulder and a fat drake hits the water. The dogs gallop out and make the retrieve. After two hours we've collected our limit, and we climb aboard the wagon for the short ride back.

Sports Afield Duck Club Lodge is one of the oldest hunting lodges in Canada. It can only accommodate a dozen people, but the varnished walls of its interior are covered with photographs of the hundreds of famous and not so famous guests who have come here to hunt. The Duke of Windsor, Robert Stack, Babe Ruth, Joseph Coors, Robert Taylor, Mary Hemingway, and so on. For some quaint reason media outlets of the day respected the privacy of celebrities and most of these visits went unreported. But the Lodge's guests sometimes made ripples. According to local legend, one day an unshaven guy in a beat-up leather jacket walked into the hardware store, bought shotgun shells, and quickened the pulse of the girl behind the counter when he filled out his hunting licence. Height: 6 feet one inch. Weight: 200 pounds. Name: Clark Gable, Los Angeles, Calif.

Gable had just finished filming Gone with the Wind and was what modern periodicals would describe as "the sexiest man alive." During his four days at the Lodge he got high points from Edna and the other waitresses by insisting on helping them with the dishes every night, and his bedroom is still called "Gable's room." The waitresses were all local women then, whose husbands worked as guides, and their kids and grandkids uphold that tradition today. They are all Metis, descendants of the Red River Metis, who moved up here after the Riel Rebellion. Our guide, Bill, guides for the entire autumn as do his father, Alfred (71), who has guided all his life, and his brother Al, an RCMP officer who takes his holidays in October to guide hunters. "I love duck hunting," Bill says. "My family has been guiding duck hunters now for five generations."

Bill says there are lots of ducks this year, but there weren't always as many. Waterfowl populations crashed during the middle decades of the 20th century, when intensive farming practices wiped out wetlands and drained marshes throughout North America. The conservation group Ducks Unlimited, supported mainly by donations from hunters, restored the continent's wetlands and now ducks and geese are back. In some places they are numerous enough to be regarded as a nuisance.

But they're not a nuisance around here. Inside the Lodge, every square foot of space is covered with waterfowl paintings, waterfowl lamps and hand-carved antique duck decoys. Ducks are worshipped here. Especially at dinnertime, when it's time to step into a plump, roasted canvasback duck, served with local cranberry sauce and wild rice. The memory of the morning shoot, the passing flocks, the wind, the beauty of the changing leaves, they're all tied together with this meal, the bounty of autumn.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Sports Afield plucks and cleans your birds so you can take them home.

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