Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Quasi-Sad Saga of the Rhinelander Ducklings

For the past 25 summers, my family and I have spent a week in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  North Wisconsin has a lot of plusses, including but not limited to:  Awesome Wildlife, Great Fishing, Beautiful Country, Fascinating Accents, and Cheese Curds*.  Because I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and half of my extended family lives in Wisconsin, I knew about the plusses of this great state since I was a small child.  Thus, our annual trip to Rhinelander was one I looked forward to more than any of our other vacation to Touristy, Tropical Locations.

If you don't think this is gorgeous, you're probably stupid.

We stay at Holiday Acres, a family-owned resort situated on a beautiful lake.  This resort sports comfortable cabins, a lodge with hotel rooms, a great bar and restaurant that combines the best of the Northwoods and a chic jazz-club vibe.   In our many visits to this serene place, we’ve befriended the owners who make the resort even more incredible than it already is.

To date, every time I go to Holiday Acres I end up having some sort of unusual wildlife encounter.  Every year, no matter my chronological age, I find my inner 10-year old and wind up hanging out in saw grass looking for frogs and snapping turtles.  I become giddy when I see bald eagles, or the Northern loons that live on the lake.  Don’t even get me started on the flying squirrel.  I feed the mallard hatchlings bread, even though I know they are all supposed to be on some kind of Atkins diet.

What my inner 10-year old still looks like.

And so, this story focuses on a special year in which I finally did something right for the mallard population of Lake Thompson.

It was 2006, and I had just started my job as an apprentice trainer at the Miami Seaquarium.  I’d already had my Rhinelander trip planned before I’d taken my position.  Now wait, before all of you Trainer Hopefuls roll your eyes at me (how could I sacrifice an entire week my New Dream Job for a Lame Family Vacation?!), remember that this place is where I stoked my passion for animals.  Up until Rhinelander, my only wildlife encounter was Antface The Wonder Spider in Chicago.

I digress.  So during one afternoon of sitting around on the beach, watching people yell at their kids and flocks of ducks swim by, my family and I noticed a mallard hen with four very, very young ducklings.  So late in the summer, these ducklings had a chance of survival that was slim-to-none.  They could not fledge in time for the mallard migration.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time my family had witnessed a late mallard clutch.  While it made us all sad to think of the ducklings’ fate, we never intervened with “Mother” Nature**.  Well, I suppose we did intervene with the sheer tonnage of bread we stuffed into those cute little beaks.  But at least their last weeks were spent in my favorite State of Mind: Carbo-Load.

Mom with her four ducklings in August 2006.

Towards the end of our week however, my mom (she is much nicer than Mother Nature) and I noticed that the four ducklings’ mother was missing.  This was highly unusual, and we all feared the worse: the mom had abandoned the ducklings or had died.  In fact, after a full 24 hours and no mom, that is likely what had happened.  It was very, very heart-breaking to watch four miniscule ducklings swim aimlessly up and down the beach.  They rarely went into the saw grass, where many-a muskie and northern pike lay in hopes of swallowing a tiny duckling whole. 

I called a local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation clinic.  I explained the situation and was told what I already knew: if the ducklings were left as they were, they would soon all die.  What choice did I have? 

It was our last day in Rhinelander, and I went into Operation Duckling Rescue mode, which involved gathering supplies completely inappropriate for such an event.  For example, if I had to do it all over again, I’d use the following supplies:

A large butterfly net
A plastic terrarium with a locking lid
Swim fins

Here is what I actually had:

A tiny net which had no utilitarian purpose
A garment laundry bag
A Need to Save the Ducks

What I needed: a big, deep butterfly net that could safely and securely hold any squirming animal.
What I had: dumb, shallow, totally useless for anything other than capturing and holding rocks.

Luckily, I’d had years of experience in childhood going from door-to-door asking for money to Save the Whales, Girl Scout Cookies, and Wrapping Paper.  So asking people for pity was no stranger to me, and I began asking other Holiday Acres patrons if they had a cardboard box.  Much to my dismay, I’d overlooked the little-known factoid that no one seems to carry cardboard boxes with them on vacations.

Finally, a lady in a cabin nearby heard about what I’d planned to do and brought over a box.  She wished me luck and told me if I needed anything else, to let her know.  I appreciated her help, and for the life of me (and my hair color), I can’t remember her name.

So I went about trying to catch Terrified Baby Ducks (TBDs).  TBDs act much differently than normal Baby Ducks, in that while they are still incapable of flight, TBDs can easily approach swimming speeds that defy laws of hydro-and aero dynamics.  They turn into little water airplanes when they Sense Danger.  And when you are the size of a lime, there are a lot of Dangers.

I tried to be clever when sneaking up on the flotilla of ducklings, but my clumsy human form stood roughly 68 times higher than the ducklings’ heads, and they saw me coming.  So what was intended to be a swift and graceful rescue resulted a Beastly Blond slapping the water in sloppy strokes, barging under floating docks, and clomping through shallow water, to herd these small, fuzzy bullets towards a  barrier row of small row boats.

As the boats got closer, two of theTBDs got wise to my herding plan and wiggled away at 95mph.  The others were trapped.  Aha! I thought, I’ve got them now!  I pulled out my Pathetic Excuse for a Net and gently plopped it on the now trembling duckling.  But there was no way to pull the opening of the net closed.  If I had man hands the size of dinner plates, I could’ve placed my hand over the opening of the net, but alas.

The four TBDs.

So I had my mom bring out a red laundry garment bag, which had a way to cinch the opening closed, and I gently placed the duckling in there.   He only had to be in there for a short trip from the water to our lakeside cabin.  In no time at all, the little TBD (now a Petrified Baby Duckling) was sitting on a towel inside his cardboard castle.

The second duckling rescue was surprisingly easy, and I once again sequestered the youngster away from his (her?) siblings towards the beached row boats.  He joined his pal in the box, and I felt somewhat accomplished.  

Me with the ducklings and their luxurious box apartment.

And that was when it got Crazy. 

The other two TBDs were so terrified that they swam totally out of sight for the first time in a 24 hour period.  I worried that they’d get gulped by a large mouth bass, and so spent several hours waiting on the beach for the little guys’ return.  By this time, many of the resort guests were curious about the rescue, and most people were excited about the mission.  Someone else donated a box with a lid, which I placed on the beach in anticipation of the final two captures.

In the late afternoon, the TBDs swam back towards the beach and I had a couple of people helping me drive them towards the boats.  I captured the third duck, and placed him in the box and carefully placed the lid on it.  I turned to the lake, now more determined than ever to get the final TBD to his breathren.  

This poor little TBD was, as the kids would say today, Legit Freaking Out.  For all I knew, he probably thought I’d skewered his pals and fed them to raccoons.  His erratic swim pattern and strained squeaks indicated to my zoologically-trained-mind that he was Facing A Conundrum: save himself, or stick around for his siblings (his only source of security)?  He frantically swam into the saw grass and back out into open water, over and over again.

I went after the TBD with everything I had. A group of Grumpy Tourists on the beach started to chastise me for capturing the ducklings, saying I should let nature take its course.

Grumpy Tourist 1: Leave that duck alone! His mother will smell you on him and will reject him!
Grumpy Tourist 2: Let nature take its course!
Me: Thanks for the relevant, scientific, and oh-so-helpful commentary!  Go eat a bratwurst.

Bratwurst.  Go eat it.

I could not let this little dude face his sad fate on Lake Thompson, especially not now that he was utterly alone in the world.  I dove, I swam, I ran, I skulked.  But try as I might, he out-smarted and out-maneuvered me.  I could not catch him. 

I walked up the beach, defeated for the time being.  I knew that as long as the last duckling’s buddies were not with him, the last TBD would return, and then I’d catch him.  I walked over to the box and gently picked it up.  I was surprised to not feel the little duckling panic and run around inside.  When I got into the cabin, I opened the lid.  The box was empty.

Based on what my Napping Father witnessed before he lost consciousness in the afternoon sun, I extrapolated what had happened.  My father clearly remembers a kid approaching the box sitting on the beach containing the third TBD.  My dad recalls the kid peeking inside, then quickly closing the box and running away. 

So I’d bet that at some point during this viewing, the third TBD hopped out and skittered away to join his renegade sibling.  And the human child, overwhelmed with guilt at letting go this tiny organism, ran away to prevent detection.

Heartbroken, I was forced to take the two rescued ducklings to the wildlife rescue without their unlucky counterparts.  The rescue’s closing hours fast approached, and we had to leave very early the next day to catch flights.  I delivered the scared but safe ducklings to the rescue personnel, who were very attentive and kind.  They told me I could call to check on their progress at any point.

I know this story is sad.   So here's a cute picture of a duckling who is probably very happy and old and lives a fulfilling life.

When I got back to the cabin, my sister and I belly-bombed on Pizza Hut, eating our feelings.  At sunset, I saw the two evasive ducklings only one more time, swimming far away from our beach.  I did not see them the next morning.

Two of the TBDs and their very healthy, natural duck diet of white bread.  
The rescued two ducklings fledged and were released the next summer.  As to the fate of the other two, I have the option of imagining them in two scenarios.  The first one is the “Mother” Nature scenario, in which they make a bass very happy for the 0.0005th of a second it takes them to swallow something.  In the second (and I submit to you, the most likely of all) scenario, the two ducklings hitch-hiked their way to Milwaukee and had a moderately successful off-Broadway theater career.  Their production of The Blond Beast and Our Heroic Escape has had mixed, but mostly positive reviews from local duck communities.

To those of you who’d like to criticize my efforts in saving the lives of two ducks, please submit your complaints in writing and describe in 300 words or less what it’s like to live without a soul.

*Not to be confused with Cheese Heads

** For the record, I think Mother Nature is a jerk.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. I, too, have been to Holiday Acres many times. Kim is a great guy and always has been. One thing you really should see is the county courthouse at night during a good snow. It's so beautiful with the light showing through the green glass. Take care. Bill