throwing ducklings to the muskies

2002 (updated : 2021.02.21)

On the surface, what follows is a story of a sad thing I once witnessed. But I try to draw a lesson from it as well.

In 2002 I visited the small town of Bala in Ontario. Bala is on the canal system that traipses across central Ontario, and is one of those towns where you go with a camera. It's developed now into the art-galleries-and-cafes kind of place, but for the most part it's still worth a visit if you're in the area.

The canal and lock system is one of the attractions, of course, because in Bala the water tumbles down some of the last of the rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield, and enters the Great Lakes system. Naturally there are waterfalls. And of course lift-locks to raise and lower boats that are navigating the difference in elevation.

It was at one of these sites that I witnessed the separation of a duckling from its mother. A separation that I had to imagine was both permanent and, perhaps, fatal.

The family of ducks was above the waterfall, paddling about in the still waters held back by a weir. The mum had done well, raising five or six ducklings through the course of the Summer. It was, by now, already late July here) and the ducklings had lost the tufty yellow look. They were long-necked teenager-style ducklings, I suppose.

The mamma duck was quacking away furiously, and it turned out that one of the ducklings had been swept over the weir.

I spotted it just as the duckling was thrown by the current into the plunge pool below the rapids, tumbling about in the froth. It surfaced well enough, and while visibly shaken it had avoided having its gangly neck broken.

We all cheered when the duckling splashed out on the dry (or drier, anyway) rocks and began to shake itself off. It was quacking noisily, looking for its mother. Back above the weir, the mother was also still quacking desperately, and motoring back and forth along the length of the weir.

That's when it occurred to me that the duckling was now hopelessly separated from its mother. It seemed to eventually occur to both mother and the lone stray duckling, too, because they both strayed away in different directions. The mum had the rest of her brood. The lone duckling had .. well, the wide-open watery world of the lower canal system.

I would never know what happened to that duckling. It didn't seem to be old enough to fly, so I couldn't see it reuniting with its family. Nor did it seem quite old enough to fend for itself. I don't think its odds were very good. As I revise this telling five years later, it remains a vivid impression: the lost duckling facing the big world, its skills untested but not for long. It would either get good fast or face a very harsh end - pike and muskie prowl those waters eating ducklings all day long. That duckling likely went thrashing, slashed and stabbed and then stuffed face-first into stomach acid to die.

My point is that sometimes you have to see something happen and there's nothing you can do. Here I think of a time I happened upon the scene where an elderly woman had driven over the foot of another woman; the driver turned the wheel while it was on the pedestrian's foot, tearing the skin. What can you do but dial 9-11 and sit with the person–sooner or later you're moving on. But other times, such as injustice in the workplace, you do what you must. Stand up for people, stick out your neck, fight the good fight. Be a pain in the ass. Because while we can't help with every case, sometimes we don't have to actively throw the ducklings to the muskies.

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rand()m quote

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

—Martin Luther King Jr