ST. AMBROISE, MANITOBA — Last Saturday, a vintage radio in a duck-cleaning shack in this village of 200 pulsed with Métis music broadcast by NCI-FM in Winnipeg, the “Voice of Aboriginal People.”
The jig tunes were arranged in compound meter, and would tap the toe of a cadaver. Floyd Lavallee, fast by a whirling duck-plucking machine, its rubber fingers sending feathers flying, was taking to the beat, as were his wife, Noella, and three of their five children: Margaretann, 23, Gregory, 35, and Samantha, 42.
“This program is on every Saturday morning,” Floyd, 70, said, grinning. “It’s called ‘Métis Hour Times 2.’ ”
Since 1961, Floyd has cleaned mallards, bluebills, canvasbacks and other waterfowl at the Sports Afield Duck Club in St. Ambroise. The club, or camp in Canadian parlance, was founded by the late Jimmy Robinson, whose initial operation was begun in 1935 in an old farmhouse on the edge of nearby Delta Marsh. In 1958, he moved the outfit to St. Ambroise.
Floyd signed on as the camp’s chief duck plucker in 1961, and every morning since, from mid-September to freeze-up, he has reported to his labors in a building that sits behind the camp’s lodge and measures about the size of a large ice-fishing shanty.
Swinging open the shack door at 8 a.m., he flips on the old-time radio and builds a wood fire in a cast-iron cooking stove.
A couple of hours later, Noella and others in the family show up, and together in the cozy, warming shelter, they listen to music, talk, laugh and tell stories while waiting for the camp’s guides and clients to return from the morning’s hunt — and waiting also for the 100 or so ducks that the guides and hunters will bring with them for cleaning.
“When I first started, the limit was 12 ducks a day [it’s eight now], and we’d have 12 hunters in camp,” Floyd said. “So every day, we had 144 ducks to clean. Back then we did everything by hand, all of the plucking.”
The motor-driven plucker Floyd uses today was bought 32 years ago from a camp on the other side of the marsh. Floyd accompanied Jimmy’s late wife, Clara, on the plucker purchase run, and watched as Clara peeled off $100 in Canadian bills for the used machine.
“Best one we’ve ever had,” Floyd said. “Still works.”
Floyd’s boss, Jimmy, was diminutive in stature only. A fast talker, cigar chomper and elbow rubber to the rich and famous, Jimmy was, first and foremost, a duck lover who raised millions of dollars for conservation, often by hitting up well-heeled friends for contributions to Ducks Unlimited and other groups.
Jimmy’s Canadian credentials were well-earned. But he came by them circuitously.
Born in Kent, Minn., in 1897, he moved to Winnipeg in 1900 with his mother and brother after his father died. As a kid, he played hockey, and later was a semipro baseball player.
In World War I, Jimmy served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and when he returned from the war, he joined the Amateur Trapshooting Association as a statistician, a job that led to his later appointment as trap and skeet editor of Sports Afield magazine.
At the time, deadeye shotgunning was an admired skill, even among society’s big wigs, and soon Jimmy was hanging out with Annie Oakley, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Ernest Hemingway, Barron Hilton and European royalty, many of whom wanted to be seen with, and accredited by, Jimmy Robinson in his Sports Afield dispatches.
Settling in the Twin Cities (St. Louis Park), Jimmy and Clara returned seasonally to their Manitoba camp, where over many decades they befriended, and employed, residents of St. Ambroise and the surrounding area. Many of these people were, and are, Métis (pronounced May-TEECE), who trace their mixed ancestry to the mid-1600s when French-Canadian and British fur traders married native women.
Lavallee is among common Métis names.
“The thing about Jimmy,” Floyd said, “was that he was a talker. A big talker. But he was a good guy. And he could shoot.”
As Floyd spoke, he held a mallard horizontal to the spinning rubber fingers of his 32-year-old plucking machine. Rotating the duck slowly, he defeathered the bird’s front and back. Then he handed the mallard to Samantha, who together with Noella, Gregory and Margaretann excised one of the bird’s wings and both legs before dipping the featherless fowl in a bucket of melted wax that sat atop the by-now hot wood stove.
Finally, the bird was placed in cold water for 10 minutes to harden the wax, after which the wax was broken off, along with the bird’s pin feathers. When eviscerated and washed inside and out, the mallard was slipped into a plastic bag.
“We mark the bags [noting the species of duck],” Noella said, “and put them in the freezer.”
Outside the shack, the morning was chilly. Ice had formed along the marsh’s edges the night before, impeding the relatively few late-season hunters who remained in the area looking for ducks.
No longer a “club,” as such, the camp is open to the public, and its remaining hunters would soon return to their homes in Minnesota and beyond.
Soon also the duck shack would close for another season. The radio would be unplugged, and the cast-iron cooking stove would grow cold.
Jimmy Robinson can no longer be found at his namesake camp. But good times still roll there.
And during duck season, every Saturday in the shack out back of the lodge, Métis music plays for two hours, the jig tunes lively, the stories upbeat.