Manitoba's Oak Hammock Marsh is a prairie jewel just minutes from Winnipeg
OAK HAMMOCK MARSH, Man.—The morning was absolutely miserable—cold, cloudy and windy—and banding birds or getting into the heart of the marsh by canoe wasn't going to be an option.
"The wind is quite strong this morning," Jacques Bourgeois wrote in an email. "Can you postpone your visit to tomorrow?"
A longtime interpreter and naturalist at Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, Bourgeois works in marketing and communications and had hoped to showcase a couple of the center's more popular outdoor offerings—banding birds and canoeing into the marsh.
Unfortunately, we already were in Manitoba and had exactly one day to play with; this was it.
Turns out that wouldn't be a problem.
Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre about 15 miles north of Winnipeg offers plenty to see and experience even on days when it's too blustery to spend much time outdoors.
The interpretive center is a veritable museum of natural history, filled with interpretive displays and interactive learning opportunities pertaining to the marsh, its history and the wildlife that live there.
Oak Hammock Marsh has 25 species of mammals and 300 species of birds depending on the time of year, Bourgeois said, not to mention amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates.
"The whole continent has about 600 bird species, so that's half the birds on the whole continent," he said during a mid-May tour of the interpretive center. "In Canada, we have about 460 species so three-fourths of the species are found right here.
"We have anything from the smallest hummingbird to the largest" bird in Canada—the white pelican.
Reclaiming and restoring
Originally known as St. Andrews Bog, the wetland complex known today as Oak Hammock Marsh historically covered 181 square miles of Manitoba prairie but was drained and developed for farming in the early 1900s, according to the Oak Hammock Marsh website.
By the late 1960s, the marsh had dwindled to less than a square mile, Bourgeois said.
"You can imagine the impact it had on wildlife, especially waterfowl," he said. "The same thing happened all across the province, all across the prairies, so they said maybe we'll try to rebuild the wetlands just to bring back some wildlife."
In an effort to restore at least some of the habitat, the province with federal assistance purchased more than 8,500 acres from area landowners in the late '60s and early 1970s.
Work to restore the four wetlands that comprise Oak Hammock Marsh was completed in 1973.
Today, the provincially administered Oak Hammock Marsh WMA covers about 14 square miles.
"It's not as big as it used to be, but birds have come back," Bourgeois said.
A joint venture between Ducks Unlimited and the province of Manitoba, the $11 million interpretive center was completed in 1993. The face of the center is constructed from local limestone, and the building's sleek design, complete with native grasses that grow on each level of the roof, blends in with the landscape.
A prescribed burn had been conducted on the roof and lawns surrounding the building just a couple of days earlier. In a few days, the charred landscape would turn a lush green.
DU's Canadian headquarters is on one side of the building, and the other side houses the interpretive center.
The center, an architectural masterpiece, is a far cry from the humble cabin at the south end of the parking lot, where Ducks Unlimited got its start in 1938. DU eventually expanded from its Canadian roots to the U.S., Mexico and Australia, Bourgeois said; New Zealand and Latin America also have chapters.
"Basically four guys, four hunters got together and said, 'You know what, there's no more ducks to hunt so what should we do?' " Bourgeois said. "There was a big drought at the time, and the whole prairies was like a big dust bowl."
Touring the center
A walk through Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre begins with a diorama depicting a wetland scene in the marsh and the farmlands that surround it.
The diorama offers a lifelike view of flora and fauna both above and below the water.
"This whole diorama is called a welcome back for a few reasons," Bourgeois said. "We're welcoming back the birds in the springtime. We're also welcoming back people to see what wetlands are all about.
"For so many years, wetlands were seen as wastelands, so we try to show that wetlands are actually important."
One of the most popular areas in the interpretive center—and Bourgeois' favorite—is the Nature Nook, a long hallway with glass windows overlooking the marsh. A perennial hit is the "Fascination Station," where visitors can scoop up water from the marsh and see the bottom of the food chain through a high-powered microscope that projects onto a big-screen TV.
This time of year, the water literally swarms with such tiny critters as daphnia, freshwater shrimp and mosquito larvae. On a big-screen TV, they look quite impressive.
"This is all the food the ducks and the birds are eating when they come here," Bourgeois said. "It's lots of fun—kids love doing that."
Another favorite is a simple piece of string that allows visitors to learn what kind of bird they would be based on the width of their outstretched arms.
Stretching out his arms, Bourgeois' "wing span" compared to a tundra swan.
"It doesn't look like much but this thing is really cool," he said. "It translates your arm length into wingspan. This is fun for all ages. Seniors, they love doing that; kids, they love doing that."
Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Center is open every day except Nov. 11 (Remembrance Day in Canada), Christmas Day and New Year's Day. A variety of classes and interpretive programs are offered throughout the year.
The blustery weather put a damper on the day's "Bird in Hand" program, which offers visitors the opportunity to experience songbird banding and then release the birds, but it's a good reason to make a return visit.
"Safety of the bird is No. 1," Bourgeois said. "If it's raining or too cold, we won't do it. If it's windy, there's no point because the birds will see the net."
The Canadian government promotes Bird in Hand globally as a "Canadian Signature Experience," Bourgeois said, and he traveled to London two years ago to promote the program.
"It kind of shows people Canada is not just moose, mountains and mounties," Bourgeois said. "There's more to do in Canada. Especially in the prairie region, often we get overlooked. People want to see the Rockies, they want to see the East Coast or Niagara Falls, but I think there's lots to see here, too."
Travel Manitoba has designated Oak Hammock Marsh as a provincial Star Attraction, Bourgeois said, making it one of the province's showcase destinations.
Besides interpretive center amenities, Oak Hammock Marsh offers nearly 20 miles of walking trails, photography blinds and canoes for paddling into the heart of the marsh. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except for Sept. 16 to Oct. 22, when the hours are extended until dusk so visitors can witness migrating waterfowl.
"It's an international destination," Bourgeois said. "People from all over the world come to see us."
• On the Web: