Something about October’s blue-grey skies makes me feel nostalgic. The fog that hangs heavy in the pre-dawn dark has set the stage for countless waterfowl hunts with friends and family over the years. Today, I’m remembering a special person who won’t be joining us this season.
This week marks one year since Ducks Unlimited Canada’s (DUC) good friend Neil MacKay passed away. And while I never had the privilege of taking a trip afield with Neil, I know that he, too, lived for these October days. Beginning as a youngster and right through until his 85th year, hunting and conservation were what made him tick. These are traditions he passed on to his son Gord. And because of this, a rich conservation legacy lives on.
Neil and Gord are special members of the Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) community. They are what I call a “Ducks family.” Neil spent 35 years volunteering for DUC, with several of these serving on our national board of directors. Gord works for DUC as a member of our Native Plant Solutions consulting division. Their journeys to DUC are different, as are the talents they’ve shared. Yet, their connection to one another and to our mission are both unifying and inspiring.
Neil grew up in Clanwilliam, Man. in the heart of prairie pothole country. Here, hunting was an integral part of life. The summer before he was to head off to university, he decided at the eleventh hour to forego his plan of attending the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. The promise of the approaching waterfowl hunting season was weighing on his mind. Instead, he enrolled at Brandon University so that he could travel home and hunt on the weekends that fall.
Years later, Neil became a lawyer and set up his practice in Winnipeg. Volunteering with DUC was a way to stay connected to the outdoors and the traditions he loved. Both his passion and his professional skills became critical to the organization.
Neil was an active volunteer when DUC was building its national headquarters at Oak Hammock Marsh, located about 20 kilometres north of Winnipeg in a provincial wildlife management area. Plans to build the structure were met with significant controversy. Concerns about how the building could affect the surrounding marshland and wildlife had created some strong opposition to the project. Gord remembers his father being on the phone almost daily with DUC’s then executive vice-president Stew Morrison. Neil’s sound legal advice helped DUC leadership navigate those challenging waters and follow through on the construction of what is now a world-class birding destination and award-winning outdoor educational facility.
As you might imagine, Gord was introduced to DUC at a young age. He remembers attending fundraising events with his parents, running between the tables to help gather up bid slips. Their family home had more than its fair share of DUC merchandise and a flag featuring the signature green duck head proudly flew in the backyard. They were, indeed, a “Ducks family.”
Before joining the ranks of DUC as an employee, Gord spent 25 years in the golf course industry. His childhood backyard butted up against one of the most prestigious private golf clubs in Winnipeg. While quite different from the pothole country where his father grew up, it was a place that gave him perspective about plants and nature and the solitude of greenspaces.
Growing up hunting and fishing with his father had instilled an appreciation for the natural world within Gord. His employment as golf course superintendent up until that time had helped fulfill his connection to the landscape. Accepting a position with DUC’s Native Plant Solutions took this to a new level.
Native Plant Solutions is DUC’s consulting division that creates natural and sustainable landscapes for a wide variety of clients. Gord and his colleagues use wetland and environmental science to deliver a range of services like naturalized stormwater systems, green roofs and treatment wetland systems. They’re changing the way nature is incorporated into infrastructure, business and urban planning. The work Gord and his colleagues are delivering is a vastly different approach to conservation than what Neil grew up with; it’s a telling example of how conservation and people’s connections to it evolve over time.
In many admirable ways, Neil represents the kind of stalwart supporters who built DUC. His conservation ethic was born from a life amid the wilds of rural Canada and never left him. Gord, much like my own son, represents a new generation of conservationists. Raised in an urban environment, but connected to the outdoors through the sharing of family hunting traditions, he has different experiences. And the work he’s championing is taking DUC in exciting new directions.
These kind of family connections within DUC are something truly unique. When parents pass down their passion for the outdoors to children or grandchildren, it creates a special bond. It’s a bond that connects family members to one another, and individuals to the land.
So as I head out to greet October’s moody skies, memories of good times and good company take the chill from the air. And when the sun eventually bursts from the horizon, my feelings of nostalgia will shift to simple feelings of gratitude. Gratitude for people like Neil and Gord, and for all the “Ducks families” that support conservation to ensure the legacy lives on.