I never knew Jamalee Fenimore or Stephne Staples.  Nobody who reads this knew them, either.  Both of them loved the Sandhill Cranes, as do I.  Both have a viewing blind named for them at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska, at the southern bend of the Platte River.

Every spring, the Sandhill cranes and the Whooping cranes, the most and least common of the 15 worldwide crane species, begin their 5000-7000 mile migration to the subarctic in North America and Siberia.  Their final staging area is on the Platte River.  They go to the Platte because there is food nearby–formerly small animals but now mostly corn–and because of the safety that one of the largest braided rivers in North America offers.  They feed in the adjacent fields by day and roost in the river by night, where the shallow water allows them to hear predators approach.  Before the Platte was dammed and water used for irrigation, recreation and drinking, it was a mile wide and an inch deep, too thick to drink, too thin to plow.

Now, the Platte in many areas contains less water and has invasive species and many trees growing nearby, limiting the habitat to 50 usable miles from the formerly 200.  Rowe Sanctuary owns 4 miles of river and 1900 adjacent acres, which has been preserved as habitat.  Every night in March, up to 600,000 Sandhill cranes, 90% of the world’s population, roost in the river.  And every morning, they leave.  It is a spectacle that Jane Goodall has called one of the world’s best.  I’ve been fortunate to have seen many great sights in nature.  This one is in my top three, seeing a solar eclipse and a wolf in the wild being the other two.  I love seeing it so much that I volunteer at the Sanctuary, along with dozens of others, helping the full time staff of four–that’s right, four–show visitors the cranes from viewing blinds, for cranes are hunted in every one of the 17 states they pass through except Nebraska.

Many talk about the cranes that migrate to Arizona.  I just say, “You don’t understand.”  And you can’t, until you witness the occasional flocks of fifty thousand cranes, darkening the sky.

Stevie Staples mentored one of the Rowe Staff and lived 74 years, dying in 2006 from cancer.  She was a former canoe racer and a real character.  I once raced canoes, and I would have loved to have discussed racing with her.  She touched the people at Rowe.  She knew that, for she did live to see a beautiful picture of a Sandhill Crane in flight with her volunteer tag with “9 years of service” on it, because a picture of her receiving the picture is on a desk of the person she mentored.

Jamalee Fenimore grew up in Nebraska and practiced veterinary surgery in Washington state.  She died of cancer far too young at 49, donating her estate to Rowe.  Nobody at Rowe knew or remembered her being there.  But obviously, she was touched by the river, the cranes and the sanctuary.  We volunteers learn that we may touch visitors in ways we never know.

When I volunteer at Rowe, I work 17 hour days, sleeping on the floor in the sanctuary so I can hear the cranes on the river in the middle of the night.  I guide people to the viewing blinds, I clean toilets, paint, greet people, and now am setting up “Nature by the Numbers,” where we hope to show teachers and students how math and science are used in the real world, so we don’t lose our connection to nature.  The escaped, illiterate slaves used the North Star on the Underground Railroad.  How many of you readers can find the North Star?  How many of you have slept under the stars, how many bird species or constellations can you identify?  What is the Moon’s phase tonight?  How many large mammals, excluding deer, have you seen?

On my last tour, I took a disabled person to Stevie’s blind in an electric golf cart.  Had he been able to walk, all of the group would have gone to Strawbale blind, which was the plan.   But we still saw many cranes, American white pelicans, and unusual behavior.  My rider loved the view and tried to tip me, which I of course refused, asking him to put the money in the container at the sanctuary.  I planned to talk to other clients, because as the lead guide, I hadn’t spent time with them.  But I spent time with this man.  He was originally from Singapore; when I told him I had been there twice, his first comment was “Thank you for saving my country.”  I’ve never heard that before, and it did me good.  I hope I and Rowe did him good.

We touch each other in ways we may never know.  Good people spread kindness throughout their world.  The lucky ones receive that kindness or are those who live long enough to discover that their kindness was deeply appreciated and honored.  But all who spread kindness are fortunate that they have the ability to do so.  Stevie knew in her final days that her kindness was appreciated.  I hope Jamalee Fenimore did, too.  But if not, I know she knew she was doing the right thing.  I deeply appreciate what she did.  And every time I guide people to either of the two blinds, I tell them the story. Both women deserve to be remembered.  And to have a viewing blind named for you on a river where a half million cranes visit every March is a wonderful honor.  It also reminds me of my duty.


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