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Omaha Magazine

A Gathering of Water & Cranes

Apr 27, 2018 11:41AM ● By Doreen Pfost

The bald eagle is unusually loud. From the riverbank, just beyond the trees, comes a descending whinny, then a high-pitched kree, kree, kree. That’s not what I came to the river to find, but sometimes you get what you’re not looking for.

It’s a sunny afternoon in late February, unseasonably warm, and I am looking for sandhill cranes. I’ve heard reports that a few are about, and this is the sort of day that should make a crane spread its wings and coast on wind currents near the river. At least that’s what I would do, if I were a crane.

Descending the soft, sandy slope to the river, I’m startled to see right before me a huge dark mass in an old tree whose branches stretch over the water: the eagle. No, wait. A pair of eagles, sharing a branch. Eagle chicks may soon be on the way.

The eagles fly off one at a time, with powerful, stiff wingbeats, and I am alone on a river bank with neither eagles nor cranes. I gaze at empty blue sky and at the sandy north bank and the sandbar where cranes often congregate—when they are here.

I know that 600 miles away, someone like me is standing near the Platte River where hundreds or even thousands of cranes are feeding in cornfields and rattling the air with their calls. But I am at the Wisconsin River, not the Platte, and to see sandhill cranes here, I will have to wait.

The dry switchgrass stirs in the breeze. A chickadee sings his descending three-note courtship song: DEE dee-dee. I turn away from the river and walk back up the small slope. There, nestled between a stand of pines and a patch of restored prairie, is a tiny brown building with a white door and shutters. If not for the brick chimney and the lean-to wing on the south side, it would look like a chicken coop, and in fact, that’s what it once was. But not just any chicken coop. This one is a National Historic Landmark.

An old pump stands out front; its water once nourished the nearby pine that, even in this robust stand of trees, is especially large. And just outside the door is a lilac bush, covered with tiny yellow-green buds that await the spring. Whenever I find old lilacs like this near unoccupied buildings or empty foundations, I think, “Somebody once loved this place.”

And indeed, the shack is a place that many still treasure. This was the weekend retreat of conservationist Aldo Leopold and his family, and it’s the setting for the 12 consecutive months’ worth of essays that begin his beloved book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.

Leopold purchased the 80-acre “worn out farm” in 1935, and the following year he and his family began the long, slow process of restoring the land’s health. Depleted by drought and over-farming in the 1930s, the land was so stripped of plant life that it seemed the Leopolds could see for miles in every direction. They planted pine trees over much of the ground to stave off erosion. They started a vegetable garden. And on the field in front of the shack they set to work “creating” a small prairie, learning as they went. Leopold, one of the first practitioners of ecological restoration, used the farm as a sort of laboratory.

But apart from the sometimes backbreaking work, this was a place for the family to fish, hunt, and enjoy reprieves from city life in Madison. The Leopolds formed a deep connection to the place—a connection built on their shared effort and also on the joy they shared here.

Leopold, who had been a prolific writer throughout his life, was also a prolific note taker. In the Sand County Almanac’s July essay, “Great Possessions,” he describes rising before dawn, sitting on a bench before the shack with coffee pot and notebook to record the chorus of birds as they chimed in one by one: the field sparrow, the robin, the oriole, and indigo bunting. Year-round notes from the shack became essays that made up the “almanac” part of his book. Then he added sketches from other places he had known. The book concludes with Leopold’s “Upshot,” an essay about a concept he called “the land ethic.” He wrote, “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

Since its publication in 1949, A Sand County Almanac has sold over 2 million copies, and many conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, natural resource professionals, and scholars regard it as a touchstone. Many Sand County Almanac readers, upon learning that the shack is a place that actually exists, want to visit, as a sort of pilgrimage. They’re able to do so because the Aldo Leopold Foundation, whose mission is to advance Leopold’s land ethic and conservation legacy, now owns the Leopold property and welcomes visitors.  Some people want to see the scenes of their favorite essays: the place where the Great Oak was felled, or the hillside from which the family observed the Wisconsin River’s spring floods.

My own favorite essay is “Marshland Elegy,” in which Leopold lyrically describes the interconnection between sandhill cranes and central Wisconsin’s ecology. First published in 1937, when the eastern population of sandhill cranes was near its nadir, the essay raises the possibility—which was then quite real—that cranes might vanish altogether from Wisconsin’s wetlands. I picture Leopold sitting on his bench before the shack, scanning the sky and listening for that distant, far-reaching bugle.

Happily, his prophecy did not come to pass, and sandhill cranes in this region have instead gradually recovered. Birds now regularly nest within earshot of the shack. And in the late fall, southbound cranes migrating from their northern breeding grounds gather here in such numbers that the Aldo Leopold Foundation hosts “Crane Congregation” evenings, allowing visitors to enjoy a spectacle that would surely have gladdened Leopold’s heart. Before leaving, I scan the sky one last time, not with regret, but with the knowledge that cranes will be here in Wisconsin soon, because they are now a part of this place.

I’m walking down the old Levee Road toward my car when a sport utility vehicle comes bumping along behind me and stops. An older man wearing work clothes and a big smile calls out, “When’re you heading south?” As I raise my sunglasses and start to respond that I’ll soon head not south but west, he realizes that he has mistaken me for a Wisconsin River neighbor and apologizes. On hearing that I have been looking for sandhill cranes, he exclaims, “They’re here!” and beckons me over to stand in the middle of the road while he scrolls through photos on his phone, looking for the one he simply must show me. As he searches I watch for oncoming cars and ask myself, “What is it about cranes?” They are like a universal language, connecting humans who might otherwise think they have nothing in common. They are like something primal, like the headwaters of a river that we have almost, but not quite, forgotten.

Before dawn on March 1, I am in my car, driving toward the full moon—toward Nebraska. It is a trip I have made every spring since moving from Nebraska to Wisconsin eight years ago. As I drive, I picture sandhill cranes on the move, on routes perpendicular to my own.

In my rearview mirror is part of the breeding range of the sandhill crane’s eastern population. These birds, now numbering perhaps 100,000, spend winters in the southeastern U.S. and are now en route to breeding grounds in Michigan, Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, and points north and east. By the time I return home to Wisconsin, they’ll be staking out their respective nest territories.

Far ahead of me, streaming toward the Platte River, are some 600,000 sandhill cranes, mostly of the lesser subspecies, which is about three-fourths the size of the greater sandhill cranes that make up the eastern population. These birds of the mid-continent population winter in places like Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. They are just stopping in Nebraska on the way to nesting territories in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.

From what I have seen, the cranes’ behavior on arrival at their various destinations seems to mirror our own response upon reaching a familiar or beloved place: their jubilant trumpeting sounds like joy.

My route crosses rivers large and small, and I mentally check them off, like a roll call or a countdown: the Pine River, which feeds the Wisconsin; the lower Wisconsin River on its way to the Mississippi; then the Mississippi River itself at Dubuque, where the water looks endless. Next come rivers that feed the Mississippi from the west: the forks of the Maquoketa, the Wapsipinicon, Cedar, and Iowa Rivers. At each crossing, I peer over and around bridge railings for glimpses of rivers I’ve seen countless times, checking the banks, trees, and water levels. In western Iowa, the countdown continues with rivers that, like the Platte, flow to the Missouri and thus also join the Mississippi.

In Nebraska, Interstate 80 enters the Platte River valley, and I start watching for birds. The migration is only beginning, but small flocks in flight lace the sky and most brown corn-stubble fields hold a few gray birds.

Though their winter and breeding ranges cover vast regions, at this point in their migration route, sandhill cranes are pouring into an area that is barely 100 miles wide, and their numbers will soon swell until it seems birds are everywhere. This is the place of convergence, because here they find suitable habitat: broad, shallow channels where they can roost safely at night, fields of waste corn in which to feed, and wet meadows along the river where they can gather at dusk to dance and to round out their diet with invertebrates, grubs, roots, and other wetland delights.

Snow geese are here, too, in hundreds of thousands. Their spring stopovers vary from year to year, but this year they’ve chosen the Platte, and I’ll get an even bigger spectacle than I was looking for.

After pitching my tent at the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, I amble over to the walking path with its trestle bridge across the Platte. Countless geese overhead serenade me. Honks, squeaks, and yelps mingle with bugles of cranes, which fly over in flocks of 10 and 20. At the bridge I gaze east across rushing water with its sandbars and sandy banks. The Platte’s channels intertwine, separating and merging, carving new pathways and building new sandbars. I sometimes think of this spot when looking at the Wisconsin River.

As the sun sets, hundreds of geese and cranes in mixed flocks fly overhead and swirl in the orange-tinted western sky before settling on the water. About 300 cranes circle briefly and then fly off to the west. Downstream, a flurry of white geese buffets the sky. Like kerchiefs fluttering on the breeze they drift down, down onto the water. A glowing orange mound swells on the eastern horizon and soon the full moon rises, fiery orange, crisscrossed by the black silhouettes of flying cranes. I watch streams of birds interweaving and merging above me until it is time for sleep.

Days later I am in an observation blind with a dozen other people at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary, just downstream from Fort Kearny. Situated on the water’s edge, the low wooden structure with large windows offers a wide view from west horizon to east. Several species of ducks—northern pintails, mallards, green-winged teals—paddle about and occasionally take flight when spooked by one of the half-dozen bald eagles on patrol.

The sinking sun paints the clouds’ undersides lavender and magenta, and cranes land by the hundreds on the north-bank meadows. We speculate about whether they’ll be spooked by the eagles as well.

This is how my connection with the Platte River began. As a volunteer tour guide at the sanctuary, I soon realized many visitors were making a long-planned pilgrimage to the Platte. It’s a strange responsibility to play host to another person’s pilgrimage. My first responsibility was simply to be hospitable and, to some degree, stay out of the way. But I also wanted to be knowledgeable, hoping to add meaning to their visit. Thus I began a systematic study of the river that continued for the six years I lived in Nebraska. I took hundreds of riverside walks, read books, and interviewed people.

In time, I thought less about what I could share with others, and more about what I needed to know and understand about the Platte. 

And I promised myself that if I ever returned to Wisconsin, the state where I had lived most of my life, I would make a similar study of all the places I should have learned about—and learned to love—before moving away.

Outside the blind, in gathering darkness, cranes rise from the north bank, swirling and gradually settling in the river upstream. Some fly low over the blind and we can hear the whoosh, whoosh of their wing feathers. Their calls, more vigorous now as they make for the river, seem to vibrate through everything and shake the air. This, perhaps, is the sound that led Leopold to describe sandhill cranes as “wildness incarnate” and to write, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird.” To me at least, the call is a visceral reminder of our connection to everything else on earth.

On the Platte we witness a staggering number of creatures as they cross our continent. On the Wisconsin River there’s the satisfaction of seeing thousands of birds in a place where Aldo Leopold and others once feared they might cease to exist. In both places, the birds are emblematic of a precarious balance in which some wild species are able to coexist (and even thrive) with humans. But the delicacy of that balance tells us that we should take nothing for granted.

A great roar draws our eyes west toward Fort Kearny, where the pink horizon is suddenly clotted with swirling black flocks of geese. Meanwhile, more cranes thunder toward us from the east. The sky is dark with birds and we know why we came here.

Later, walking slowly in the dark on the way back from the blind, we whisper about all that we have seen. I answer a visitor’s question about where I am from. In Wisconsin, I tell him, I lead tours at Aldo Leopold’s shack, inspired in part by my time on the Platte. And previously, Leopold’s writing inspired my study of the Platte. Sometimes, we agree, life can be like that: like a river where various streams merge in gathering waters.

Inside the visitor center, we all bid each other good night. On my way out the door, I glance at the bookrack in the gift shop and among the books about cranes I spy a small white volume: A Sand County Almanac. I would not have thought to look for it here. Perhaps a visitor to the Platte will read it and, feeling the tug of distant water, will someday make a pilgrimage and stand with me on the bank of the Wisconsin River.

Places Where Doreen Pfost Has Volunteered to Guide Crane-Watching Tours

Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary

Phone: 308.468.5282

Address: 44450 Elm Island Road, Gibbon, Nebraska

Proximity to nearby cities: 40-45 minutes westbound from Grand Island; 20-25 minutes eastbound from Kearney

Aldo Leopold Legacy Center

Phone: 608.355.0279

Address: E13701 Levee Road (Rustic Road No. 49), Baraboo, Wisconsin

Proximity to nearby cities: 15 minutes northeast of Baraboo; 15 minutes southeast of Wisconsin Dells.

Crane-Watching Sites within the Nebraska State Parks System

Note: Fort Kearny is the primary viewing site of Nebraska State Parks.

Fort Kearny State Historical Park and State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.865.5305

Address: 1020 V Road, Kearney

Buffalo Bill Ranch State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.535.8035

Address: 2921 Scouts Rest Ranch Road, North Platte

North River Wildlife Management Area

Phone: 308.535.8025

Location: From Hershey, drive three miles on North Hershey Road, turn right, and go almost two miles east on gravel to find the blind.

Additional Nebraska Crane-Watching Sites

Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center

Phone: 308.382.1820

Address: 9325 S. Alda Road, Wood River

The Central Platte NRD maintains two crane viewing sites, both of which are free: 

1. The Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site, 1.5 miles south of I-80 at the Gibbon exit (No. 285)

2.The Alda Crane Viewing Site, two miles south of I-80, off the Alda exit (No. 305)

The following Nebraska Parks sites are on the periphery of sandhill cranes’ primary roosting areas in mid-February through mid-March; each offers convenient camping and easy access to Fort Kearny (the Nebraska State Parks’ primary crane-viewing destination).

Mormon Island State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.385.6211

Address: 7425 South US-281, Doniphan

Windmill State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.468.5700

Address: 2625 Lowell Road, Gibbon

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Read editor Doug Meigs' review of Doreen Pfost's book, "This River Beneath the Sky: A Year on the Platte."

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