Back in the days when Brigitte Bardot and my mother were young, pretty, and proud to wear fur – mink and muskrat respectively – Winnipeg was in the habit of injecting apparently untreated sewage into its own dark heart, the Red River. Winter was when you could most easily see where this was being done. The river was frozen solid, but every few hundred yards along the bank you would come upon a steaming brownish black semi-circle of unnameable liquid. Steaming, bubbling, almost heaving, and on the surface a pizza-like miscellany of unidentifiable things and easily identifiable condoms, presumably used. Of course I’m speaking here only for the WASPish Fort Garry riverside; the picture may have been entirely different across the ice, in the more exotique St Vital and St Boniface.
I don’t know what the resident muskrats made of this strange brew, through which they had to dive to get at the tainted but tasty swimmers beneath the ice. But they were rats after all, at least to us non-zoologists, and were most likely born with the requisite insensitivity to the putrid. As uncute as you’d expect an oversized sodden and smelly rodent to be, the muskrat did provide a surpassingly beautiful fur for the Mounties and my mum. Warm as toast and silken to the touch, much more so than that of the cuter and costlier mink favoured by BB.
As if the lethally toxic water and noxious beasts weren’t enough to feed a lifelong Red River nightmare, there were trolls, and immense unnamed tentacled creatures ready to pull you under should you dare dip a single baby toe into the Red. But everything would be alright, because the River had you now, and soon you would join the others…
Whoops. Back here in 2014, I imagine the Red has been cleaned up, and someone’s probably bottling its water for sale to the sort of people who buy bottled water. You can probably even swim in it – something you wouldn’t dream of a generation ago. On balance, though, I prefer to stick with my memory of the Red River’s more sinister incarnation, murky and mysterious, deceptively calm and meandering; dangerously beautiful. Always at your side, but never your friend.
As for our suburban riverside rodents, well, they’re free of fear now – no one’s going to slaughter them but an occasional frostbitten Mountie, or a lost and hungry bobcat – so those muskrats can poo into the Red to their hearts’ content and at their leisure. I find this somehow comforting to know. And I’m sure we’ll all find it comforting to know that the famous song is indeed about our Red River Valley, not that l’il crick down Texas way.