The entryway to the museum I work at features an exhibit on local bird populations around Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park. This is to say, I spend a lot of time looking at these birds and eventually had to break down and make a trip out to see some in real life. Fortunately, this was easy enough to do. White pelicans migrate from the southern USA to Fort Smith every year for mating season around the town’s rapids (bom-chica-wa-wa). While most of the nesting grounds are a couple dozen kilometres out of town, the birds often come up to the Rapids of the Drowned to eat, flap around and whatever else pelicans like to do. Basically, this means that you’re about a 15-minute hike away from prime pelican territory from anywhere in town as Fort Smith literally backs right on to the rapids – there’s even a lookout on the side of the road over them.
The rapids were named after a group of explorers who, as you can probably guess, drowned trying to cross them. In the 1700s, European explorers travelled across Canada in search of ever-fashionable beaver furs (Gucci’s got nothing on these furs, they were the be all end all of style). Their travels would often take them up the Slave River and across the 4 sets of rapids near Fort Smith. At each of the rapids, the explorers would have to get out of their canoes and carry them around the rapids because they were often too dangerous to cross. Since there were so many of them, many explorers got tired of this portaging nonsense by the time they got to the Rapids of the Drowned and would instead try to paddle through. This was done by sending the more experienced paddlers in a separate canoe to test the rapids and getting them to send a gunshot signal if they were deemed passable. While this system would have worked quite well for reasonable paddlers, reason was not common among many explorers and one ended up getting distracted by a passing duck (yup, just a duck, not even a pelican or something cool) and decided to shoot at it after making it through the rapids (which ended up being particularly crazy that day). The rest of the team mistook the duck-shot as the signal that the rapids were safe and were unwittingly lured to their doom.
To add insult to injury, the duck-shot missed the animal and the explorers didn’t even get duck soup as a consolation. They did however, become eternally shamed, as since then, the rapids have been named after their mistake.
With this, some buddies and I decided to take an afternoon, pack up the chequered blanket, stock up on some tortilla wraps and hit up the rapids. After a short but steep climb through the woods and down to the water, we ended up on a small outcropping of rocks over looking a group of pelicans diving around the waves about 2m from the shore.
After a serious photo session, I decided to join the birds for a quick dip in the rapids. While it looked like they were all just casually floating around in one place, the current was deceptively strong and even staying still in the water required quite a bit of effort. To say the least, I now definitely understand why the pelicans spend so much time eating if it takes that much energy to stay in the water!
Altogether, pelicans definitely know how to choose their picnic spots!