RESPITE


When I volunteer at the crane migration in March, I guide morning and evening.  I like seeing cranes, I’ve learned a lot, and I especially enjoy watching people get as excited as I, at seeing a few, a score, a hundred, or … twenty thousand simultaneously in the air.

 

PART OF 20,000 CRANES SEEN OVERHEAD.  ROWE SANCTUARY, 2011

PART OF 20,000 CRANES SEEN OVERHEAD. ROWE SANCTUARY, 2011

 

CRANES LANDING AT EVENING, ROWE SANCTUARY, 2014

CRANES LANDING AT EVENING, ROWE SANCTUARY, 2014

When I talk about the birds before we leave for the viewing blinds, I have everybody’s attention.  I am enthusiastic describing the migration, the distances the cranes travel, why they come to the Platte, and that it is one of the great sights of nature.  I am careful not to tell them what to expect, except they will see “cranes, plural.”  I tell them that we are not in control of the view; the cranes are.  I tell them that I’m going to learn something in the blinds:  I will learn about cranes, people, or myself, sometimes one, sometimes all three.

 

The last night I guide for a season is bittersweet.  I enjoy the trips, but I am physically exhausted.  I get up at 0440, make coffee, spend a little quiet time eating breakfast, for in 30 minutes, all the morning staff at the visitor’s center will be there.  Within an hour, there will be more than 100 people present, 85 of them tourists.  After the morning trip, I may be a roving naturalist, talking to people, I may be cleaning toilets, picking up people who went to the photo blinds, using an ATV, or running errands in Kearney.  I will get lunch and a 10 minute nap, answer questions.  Before I know it, the evening group is there.

 

My last evening, I was groggy from a longer than usual nap, a sign I was very tired.  When my group appeared for the short drive to Tower Blind, I told each of the 6 cars where we were going, and where we would park.  It is a short drive and a short walk, but I didn’t say much else other than to introduce myself.

 

When we parked, I let my co-guide talk.  She is a sharp Nebraskan who knows her stuff.  She quickly laid out what the birds were doing, completely in sync with me about what was and was not allowed.  I was beginning to get less groggy, and the evening air, full of the haunting sound of cranes, was starting to energize me: last tour of the year, my 101st time in the blinds. I spent the first four with my father and wife, others alone, in pre-season, when I have been alone with a hundred thousand birds in the vicinity, shivering with the cold and wind that the Nebraska plains throws at one, but also with excitement, too.

 

ONE OF MY TRIPS ALONE IN THE BLINDS, FEBRUARY 2010.  "CRANE MOON"

ONE OF MY TRIPS ALONE IN THE BLINDS, FEBRUARY 2010. “CRANE MOON”

We parked and walked 500 yards through a field and woods to 2-story Tower Blind, overlooking the Platte, back from the river, affording a panoramic view the other blinds didn’t.  I had been there three times that week; the other two OK, but spotty for cranes.  I was hopeful, however, for the previous night I was at East Blind, a mile upstream, no cranes landed there, but down near Tower, because of nearby eagles, which spook cranes.  I’m not responsible for the quality of the show, but I want my clients happy.  In any case, I will spend time by the river, see cranes, and I be outside.  That isn’t bad.

DANCING CRANE. THEY DO THIS TO RELEASE HORMONES.  CRANES HAVE THE SAME NEUROTRANSMITTERS WE HAVE.  LEARNING HAS BEEN PROVEN.

DANCING CRANE. THEY DO THIS TO RELEASE HORMONES. CRANES HAVE THE SAME NEUROTRANSMITTERS WE HAVE. LEARNING HAS BEEN PROVEN.

 

I had time to point out the flight of the cranes flying in, the group learning the asymmetry, a slow downbeat with a faster upbeat of the wings, so distinctive to these aerodynamically marvelous creatures, who may fly a quarter of a million miles in their lifetime and can, in 4 months, make a nest, lay eggs, incubate them for a month, and have the chicks flying several thousand miles south.  I found myself poetic that night, calling cranes “other nations, with senses, abilities, and feelings we will never have, experiences we will never share, and a language we can only begin to understand.”  I was getting people interested, and with cranes flying overhead, I am in my element.  I was getting energized.

CRANES OVERHEAD. THIS IS LIMITED ONLY BY THE CAMERA'S VIEWFINDER

CRANES OVERHEAD. THIS IS LIMITED ONLY BY THE CAMERA’S VIEWFINDER

 

 

“Mike, turn down your voice.  They’re on the river.”  My co-guide, more observant than her talkative partner, had noted the first birds landing at 7:25, 30 minutes earlier than I had seen all week,  I shut up and let nature put on the show.

CRANES LANDING, FROM TOWER BLIND, 2014

CRANES LANDING, FROM TOWER BLIND, 2014

 

The birds arrived in enormous numbers, clumped in gray islands on the river, each with thousands of cranes, from the Gibbon Bridge to well upstream of us.  Twice, they flew off, perhaps spooked by an eagle.  That’s common morning behavior; to see it at night is special.  There were cranes everywhere, the noise, echoing across 9 million years cranes have graced the Earth, was essential to the visual show.  Like the loon, the call of the crane is every bit as important to the experience.

ENORMOUS NUMBERS.  I HAVE SEEN FAR MORE, BUT I NEVER TELL THE CLIENTS THAT.  THIS IS WHAT I CONSIDER "A GOOD NIGHT".

ENORMOUS NUMBERS. I HAVE SEEN FAR MORE, BUT I NEVER TELL THE CLIENTS THAT. THIS IS WHAT I CONSIDER “A GOOD NIGHT”.

When dark, we quietly left the blind, walking to the vehicles.  I was in the rear with a couple my age, discussing the show.  They were thrilled, asking me what I once did.  I told them I once practiced neurology, and they discussed their aging parents, 90 and 87, the same age as mine, when they died.  Their parents were demented; when I mentioned how I hoped might volunteer, not just to show people the beauty of life, but to give others help for the decision making how to die, the man said, “You’re preaching to the choir.”  We were almost back to the vehicles, when his wife said they were here for a respite from their caregiving.  Their gratitude for both the show and what came after on the walk was palpable.

 

The couple has a long road ahead of them, like the cranes. The road will not be easy for both;  one in twelve cranes will not return in 2015.  But the couple had seen something remarkable, life and hope, saw it together, glad they came, knowing they had a special memory to fall back upon during the hard times ahead.

 

I don’t usually say that a blind is “The best I’ve ever seen it,” to clients. But I said it about Tower that night. Paul Johnsgard’s “special conjunction of spring, the river, and a bird” mirrored my conjunction of learning about myself, others, and Sandhill cranes.

 

Godspeed to the cranes, on their way north, far from the Platte Valley, for it is time they must go.  Godspeed to the parents of the couple, on their way out of a long life, for it is time they, too, must go.  In the past, I helped many leave life with dignity; today, I helped others see the cranes on their way north to create new life.

 

I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to my guiding season.

 

NEBRASKA SUNSET AND CRANES.  ROWE SANCTUARY.

NEBRASKA SUNSET AND CRANES. ROWE SANCTUARY.

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