Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inspiration and exasperation at the old marsh

Artist laments area 'destruction'

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DELTA MARSH -- Most days, artist Peter Ward, who will soon be 92, drives his red pickup truck to his Delta Marsh home, leans over his easel, and paints his marsh landscapes for two to three hours.

He tried painting from his temporary rental home near Portage la Prairie but it didn't work. The marsh gives him inspiration. But it also gives him exasperation now. Ward, like many people along Lake Manitoba, has been flooded out of his home since early July.

"It's the destruction of a way of life," he said, of last summer's deliberate flooding of Lake Manitoba. Up to two-thirds of the flow of the Assiniboine River was diverted into the lake, raising water levels by at least a metre, to prevent Winnipeg from flooding.

Sump pumps are still turning on every 15 minutes in people's crawl spaces here, even though the fields are now black ice instead of water. Most of the roughly 200 residences in the area had their septic tanks pop out of the ground due to an elevated water table. Trees fell down everywhere. Mould inside residences is another big concern.

About 15 homes or cottages are complete writeoffs, and another 25 or more suffered severe damage. One home was knocked off its centre pilings and split in half. Two cottages had their walls pushed right in. Several residences have notices tacked to their doors declaring them condemned.

People here are waiting to see how the province will compensate them. About 50 residents who live in Delta Marsh year-round are still displaced by a mandatory evacuation order. Residents like Larry Muirhead visit home regularly but don't want to move back until they're sure it won't flood again next spring.

In addition, the University of Manitoba announced last week it's shutting its Delta Marsh field station for good. The U of M has operated the station since 1966.

Ward backward spells draw -- as one of his grandsons pointed out -- and that's what he's been doing at Delta Marsh for going on eight decades. He's chronicled the marsh in all its seasons and lights -- in all its glories, really--and the waterfowl that fly there, on his way to becoming one of Manitoba's most prominent artists. The famous marsh -- more famous in the early part of the 20th century when the sky would go black with skeins of waterfowl -- is about a half hour's drive north of Portage la Prairie.

Ward moved here with his Scottish parents in 1926 at age six. He's lived here ever since, except for stints at art schools in Minneapolis, and New York, boarding at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway. His paintings are in collections from Australia to Great Britain, with many in the United States, and he has received up to $4,000 for his larger canvases.

He helped support his family by working as director of the Delta Waterfowl and Wetland Research Station, a smaller-scale Ducks Unlimited-type organization headquartered in Bismarck, N.D.

Philip Frederick Grove penned the famous novel, Settlers of the Marsh, that takes place in the Big Grassie Marsh just west of Delta Marsh. Ward and his children are like the "Family of the Marsh" out here.

Daughter Laurel Ward was a successful singer, particularly in the folk scene of the 1960s and '70s. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2009 and returned home to live with her father. Son Miles worked with a contractor all summer erecting boulder dikes to protect homes and shoreline.

Another son, Kevin, also lives in Delta Marsh. He was in charge of maintenance at the same place his father worked, now called the Delta Waterfowl Foundation. But flooding forced it to lay him off, and he's been on employment insurance since August. That pays 55 per cent of what he was earning. He is unsure whether the province will top him up, considering his unemployment is directly due to rerouting the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba. The provincial government promised 100 per cent compensation to people on Lake Manitoba in the run-up to the election campaign.

Kevin is also still waiting to be reimbursed the $16,000 he spent to erect a boulder wall in front of his home to fend off flooding.

That's marsh life now, waiting and recovering. But there must be something in the Delta Marsh air. Ward's good friend, Bill Hutchinson, lived here until he was 96. The evacuation this summer killed him, or at least the stress of it did, some people say. As for Ward, he still went hunting and cross-country skiing last winter -- very carefully -- and worked out in a gym.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2011 A8

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