Chapter 28

We have led them into a pauper’s mental state – a most degrading result.

Mackenzie Delta 1947

Ward Stevens and Muskrat

Ward Stevens and Muskrat

Ondatra zibethicus, Aklavik, NWT, 1947. Photograph by Cowan Image Cowan_PH_299 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Cowan in boat Aklavik, NW

Cowan in boat Aklavik, NW

1956. Photograph by Ward Stevens. Image Cowan_PP_320 courtesy of Ward Stevens and University of Victoria Special Collections.
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The big event at the time was the Twelfth Annual North American Wildlife Conference, held in San Antonio, Texas, which Cowan and Aldo Leopold both attended. Cowan was giving a talk on his Rocky Mountain fieldwork.84 As was the tradition, the ‘B’ withdrew to a private room at the hotel where the conference was held, to have their annual meeting at the same time. It would have been an historic moment, as assembled ‘B’ members heard Aldo Leopold read, for probably the last time, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. It was to become one of the most cited essays from his classic book A Sand County Almanac:

It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that man is only a fellow-voyager with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution… and that his captaincy of the adventuring ship conveys the power, but not necessarily the right, to discard at will among the crew.85

It was Leopold’s last Lesson to the ’B’: he died April 21, 1948, while fighting a grassland fire on a neighbour’s property. A Sand County Almanac was published posthumously the following year. Fittingly, a Leopold quote was used for the last chapter of Cowan’s last major collaborative work, The Birds of British Columbia:

We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.86

Cowan left for Edmonton on June 4, 1947, then caught another plane to Fort Smith, where he met up with Stevens and the superintendent of Forest and Wildlife Services, E.G. Oldham, to sort out arrangements. They caught the milk run plane via Great Slave Lake to Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River. There they bought an outfit of skiff, outboard and canoe with other supplies that would follow them by riverboat at spring breakup, when Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River became navigable. Stevens describes their final leg together and arrival at the tiny settlement on the Peel channel of the Mackenzie delta, 100 kilometres south of the Beaufort Sea:

On the 7th of June, 1947, [Cowan] and I took a Norseman plane out of Norman Wells and landed in Aklavik, NWT. That was the first time I spent some time with Dr. Cowan. The plane was on floats and we pulled up to shore and the fellows on the shore said, “Just a minute while we get the plank up between you and the shore,” and Ian said, “Oh I can jump that far.” That was a mistake – he soon realized – after he jumped and landed in the mud up to his knees. That was something we learnt about – the Mackenzie mud. In the delta, everything is mud.87

84 Ian Mctaggart Cowan, “Range Competition between Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep and Elk in Jasper National Park,” in Transactions of the Twelfth North American Wildlife Conference, February 3–5, 1947, edited by Ethel M. Queen (Washington, DC: Wildlife Management Institute, 1947), 223–227.

85 Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” B. of V. ed. Some Lessons, vol. 2, 47. [An annotated version appears in Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.]

86 Aldo Leopold, quoted in Birds of BC, vol. 4, 679.

87 Stevens, interview, November 14, 2012.

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