A popular description of the North American prairie is “monotonous” – endless flatlands and a conspicuous absence of trees and hills. Yet it is apparent to anyone who has spent time on the prairie that this is untrue. Surprises are everywhere; a sudden creek or river valley unseen until you are at its rim; a line of bare hills or a brilliant blue lake where there ought not to be one: massive rocks left over from the ice age; a prairie dog town; a herd of mule deer or antelope. But there is the one homely feature of the prairies that is ubiquitous and a reminder of the extraordinary biodiversity that a visually barren topography can deliver. There are thousands upon thousands of these features and no two are the same. It’s the prairie slough.
In the Wetland Classification System – yes, there is such a thing – there are five wetland classes with over 100 forms and subforms. They are fens, bogs, swamps, shallow water, and marshes. Sloughs are marshes.
On the Canadian prairies and the bordering US states, much guesswork has gone into how many sloughs there are at any given time; hundreds of thousands is the usual estimate, even with thousands annually disappearing in favor of tillage and decreased moisture levels. On the plus side, Ducks Unlimited works tirelessly to promote the nurturing of wetlands, pointing out correctly that they are the number one breeding ground for water fowl in North America. Moreover, many farmers and ranchers are beginning to appreciate how the ecosystem found in sloughs ultimately affects them.
The word ‘slough’ comes from old English and has a assumed connection with an old Middle High German word ‘slouche’ meaning ditch. It has a pejorative air about it, as in ‘ a slough of despond‘ or ‘That’s not a lake; that’s a bloody slough‘. The word may be humble, but when it comes to providing life, the slough is the undisputed king of the prairie.
Being raised in a small prairie town, Wainwright, Alberta, I am very familiar with sloughs – an understatement if there ever was one. And this is my memory of sloughs.
Wainwright is a divisional point on the CN Railway ( originally the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway) that runs 3,500 miles from Moncton, New Brunswick, to Vancouver, B.C. Before diesel locomotives robbed the railways of most of their romance, steam locomotives were forced to stop every 120 miles or so to either refuel, take on water, check for hot boxes, or change crews. Hence, the bureaucratically-opaque phrase ‘divisional point‘. Being defined as one was a big deal, not the least of which was guaranteeing the town’s survival when the vagaries of weather and crop yields put every prairie town’s future at risk.
That was arguably our lone good debt to the railroad. Heading up the bad started with they didn’t much care where they put this divisional point. The sole factor was distance. Only locomotive endurance mattered. The fact that 7 miles west of the Wainwright town-site lay one of the most beautiful river valleys in North America was a matter of total indifference. Instead, Wainwright was built on (in?) a slough. When spring arrived, the ensuing snow melt from a watershed that extended many miles to the north and east fairly inundated everything except the railway track and the station.
By the 1950’s, the town managed to rise above the water line, so to speak, and confine the sloughs to two sizeable ones southwest of town and one pesky small bog on main street. I speak knowledgeably about this because our home was the sole residence located between those two sizeable sloughs.
So, as a child, I spent many hours around sloughs. A big regret is I knew so little of its riches and its astonishing biodiversity.
In any event, those two sloughs well represented the four seasons: spring, we watched the migratory birds return; summer, the sloughs became a yeasty concoction of plant and insect life; autumn, more migrating waterfowl passed through on their way south; and, winter, skating and hockey returned.
Obviously these two sloughs enjoyed year-round lives. Many did not, drying up in the summer and leaving a tangle of matted grass until the following spring. Nesting birds are pretty good at identifying these “false hopes” and either hurry to raise and fledge their young before the water disappears or they choose a more robust slough. How they know this is a mystery. To we humans, all sloughs are wonderful to behold in the spring, the snow melt lending them a deep blue, and producing a welcome sight after five months of grey and white.
The waterfowl return any time after mid-March, often to shiver through another six weeks of winter. They may know a lot of things but they’re no better at predicting the weather than we are. Mallards, blue-wing teals, canvasbacks, gadwalls, snipes, phalaropes, and terns booked into the two sloughs. Nearby, robins, crows, meadowlarks, and song sparrows made preparations for new families. North of town, another large slough lay hidden, surrounded by thick groves of willow, the perfect home for hundreds of blackbirds and red-winged blackbirds (Oddly, no yellow-winged blackbirds – no idea why. I didn’t even know there was such a bird). The only sour note to this plentiful bird life was the conspicuous absence of raptors – DDT was still a factor in the 1950’s.
I should say that “our” 2 sloughs, being so close to town, weren’t choice nesting places for waterfowl. The birds would appear, spend a day or two, then opt to nest elsewhere, some place less populated by small boys keen on egg collections. “Our” sloughs were left to the lowly Mudhen or Coot, the one waterfowl that can evoke the critical question – Why are they on this earth? They’re ugly, they can’t fly worth a damn, and their swimming looked more like an awkward dog paddle. Moreover, they were inedible. Loons, on the other hand, wouldn’t even think of nesting in a slough – they needed a lake. We never saw loons. And, in a way, you could say those two birds, one beautiful and haunting, the other homely and seemingly useless, were metaphors for lakes versus sloughs.
For young boys, it was a time to collect eggs. For reasons I never quite understood, there seemed to be some bragging rights accruing to the most zealous collector of eggs, even if no one really cared about anyone’s collection. No, the search was the thing, wading in the slough without going over the tops of rubber boots, and avoiding the frantic and shrill protestations of distraught avian parents.
At this busy time of the year, it never occurred to most of us that an astonishing confluence of birds, amphibians, plants, and insects was taking place, a small ecosystem of startling variety that simply escaped our narrow notice. We were preoccupied boys collecting eggs and throwing off the dust of winter.
The explosion of plant and insect life was staggering in its scope. Researchers have identified over 350 different varieties of plant life in the prairie slough ecosystem. Our sloughs had an abundance of wheat grass in clumps, sedges, and cattails. Some were surrounded by willow, chokecherry, and Saskatoon, often so thick as to make any attempt to wade into the slough impossible.
And when the teeming insect population was factored in, it wasn’t difficult to see why so many millions of birds would fly a thousand miles or more to raise a family.
Prairie sloughs teem with insect life, a smorgasbord of fine dining for any self-respecting insectivore. Common invertebrates included amphipods, dragonfly nymphs, mayfly nymphs, pond snails, water boatmen, and, oh yes, mosquito larvae. Oh yes, mosquito larvae. And when they hatched, the swallows, purple martins, and nighthawks appeared to gracefully swoop and dine.
One spring, my best friend, Donny, and I put together 2 rafts. We scrounged stubs of telephone poles and tacked some shiplap to connect them as a crude sort of a catamaran. They were eminently sloughworthy, if a tad awkward, but we soon discovered that the thick mats of wheat grass and sedge made navigating a tortuous exercise. Yet we persisted. We had an objective.
The aim was to collect a tern’s egg. Tern nests were well-disguised and the parents were ferocious defenders. This wasn’t a case of an annoying noisy bird flapping and yapping. This was a genuine physical threat. More than once we retreated with bloody heads. Now, we employed the human decoy ploy, one of us fending off the vicious attacks while the other slipped in to rob the nest. Alas, even when we got to where we thought the nest should be, it was still invisible and after a few seconds, the enraged parents caught on and became even more violent in their attacks. Screeching like banshees, they’d swoop up and down, deftly dodging our waving raft poles to jab at our heads with their sharp beaks. We, on the other hand, looked like demented gondoliers, pushing our ungainly rafts with one mad thrust while ducking our heads and then yanking the pole from the water to flail about in defense. Talk about your 1950’s version of Angry Birds. Like as not, they would follow us all the way back to shore, hovering menacingly until it was clear we were quitting the field.
We never did get a tern’s egg. But what we saw while struggling across the big slough was just how full of critters the slough was. Privately, we sometimes wondered what really might be lurking in the midst of all those weeds and mud. No one ever taught us anything about insects other than swat, mash, stomp, and spray so we were pretty much left to young and vivid imaginations. Actually, the worst we had to worry about were leeches. In addition to the insects and invertebrates, there was a hefty frog population. The only sizeable vertebrate was a family of extremely shy muskrats.
As summer wore on, the birds quieted down, raised their families, and either decamped for fresher water, or kicked back and took the rest of the summer off, stirring every so often to wolf down another snack of limitless bugs, frogs, or freshwater shrimp. Both of our sloughs could survive the summer without drying up but they took on a gray sheen, looking tired and spent. We lost interest until late August when the first of the migratory birds began to arrive.
When our noses began to tickle from the air-borne chaff from freshly-cut crops, autumn had arrived. Soon, the “Northern Birds” would drop in for a day or three on their way to Texas or Mexico. We were happy to see the Mallards, Blue-winged Teals, Gadwalls, Canvasbacks, Grebes, and Mergansers. Geese, both Canada and Snow, stuck to a flyway east of town. We rarely ever saw them. What we did hear and sometimes see, were the huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes that drifted by thousands of feet above the town, their presence made known by incessant, faintly-heard squawking.
As it turned out, the Mallards enjoyed sunning and sleeping on the rafts, which put murderous thoughts in my semi-formed brain. Maybe a young boy could help out here putting food on the table.
What I did wasn’t very sporting, I know, but it was effective and I was only 12 years old. At dawn, I would crawl up on our garage roof and with a clear view of ducks dozing on a raft some 50 to 60 yards away, quietly dispatch one with my trusty Cooey .22 repeater. So quiet was the assassination that the other ducks slept through it and I could repeat the exercise and remove yet another duck from this mortal coil.
By noon, I was able to present my mother with 2 cleaned mallards. I thought my mother was pleased but I might have been mistaken because after the duck dinner that night, which was tasty in my estimation, she suggested strongly I find some other way to put food on the table, like get a paper route. I put up little argument. Anyone who has ever plucked and cleaned a duck will appreciate why I put up little argument. The reward of a duck dinner doesn’t quite match the disagreeable steps from shooting to eating. The situation was greatly aided by a visit from the Town Constable who calmly pointed out I was shooting a rifle in town limits, had no license, was underage, and, worst of all, was very unsporting – shooting sitting ducks, as it were. Would my mother mind having a word with me? She would not.
Soon November arrived and it was time for me to begin testing the ice on the small slough. Every morning before school, I would slip down and toe test the ice, so keen was I to resume a hockey career that would surely culminate in a blaze of glory with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But, testing ice was slow going, akin to watching paint dry. Nevertheless, it was vital work. Half the boys in town were waiting for my announcement.
Finally the day arrived when I could walk across the slough both morning and evening. The ice was ready! Out came the skates (having checked they’d still fit), the stick (likely missing some wood on the blade), and the puck (someone had carved their initials on it and hack out chunks from the edge).
So, on one glorious day in November, hockey was back. Ankles burning from rust, we’d play until herded home by our parents. From then on and weather permitting, we’d rush home from school to grab our gear (Can skates and a stick, gloves and a toque constitute “Gear”?). Saturday’s we’d be sitting on our porch steps waiting for the sun to make its tepid appearance. The slough was an icy magnet.
The popularity of slough hockey dropped when the arena ice was finally ready but boys played as often as they could until the freeze-snow-melt cycles eventually turned the slough surface in a lumpy grey ice field. No amount of shovelling or scraping was about to make the surface playable. It happened every year.
The two sloughs are gone now, filled in as so many others on the western prairies. The good people of Wainwright likely have no idea those two sloughs were ever there. But for the dozen years in which I was raised in this small town, the prairie slough was an important part of both my education and recreation.
All these years later, I still love to return to eastern Alberta in the spring to see other sloughs re-generated and the waterfowl return. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear a meadowlark or a red-wing blackbird. Long live the prairie slough!
Robert Alan Davidson