Searching for Sandhill Cranes

Radio stations break and fade when you cross the mountains in Washington.   As you head east, introspective indie tunes are replaced with rabble rousing country and channels of salvation.   This transition always takes me back decades into my memories of home.   I didn't bother throwing in a cd, because it was fitting for the landscape.    

I was headed east to remind myself of my love of sound.  I wanted a desert amphitheater to focus my attention on a sense that is constantly overburdened and assaulted in the city.   My friend Emily had invited me to join her crew in search of the Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis, as they migrated through Othello and the neighboring Columbia National Wildlife Refuge on their way north.  This was our only goal: to hear the distinct call of the Sandhill Cranes.   All we needed were big skies and time.  

Emily and I had met a couple years before this trip.   I was at a book signing hosted by Braided River, where Emily works, and a conversation sparked between us over my Xtratuf boots.    As with any conversation that begins with Xtratufs, we began swapping stories of Alaska and subsequently stumbled upon a wonderful small world connection.   My next door neighbor when I lived in Alaska, Hank Lentfer, was soon to have his book, Faith of Cranes, published by Mountaineers Books and Emily was familiar with the work.   We spoke passionately about cranes and how incredible it would be to find them again.  The idea stuck.   

I drove across a series of cattle guards and met Emily and her friends, who had already set up camp overlooking Sage Lake just east of the Refuge.  We spent two days playing with our dogs, sitting, eating, warming up to cow chip fires, and exploring the landscape - all while watching the sky with a curious eye.   It was a relief to be on a trip where slowness was promoted and where we could spend time connecting through stories.   As we spent the days chatting about life, I began to think back on my introduction to cranes.  

The audio recording was kindly provided by Hank Lentfer at Corvid Creations

My family had moved to a remote town in Northern British Columbia when I was 11.   We lived in Fort Nelson, BC for three years.   Each year we had the luck of hosting cranes as temporary visitors when they gathered on our property to rest and feast on insects and grains.  My memories of these visits were faded, so I asked my parents about their impressions of the cranes.  My Mom remembered that hundreds of cranes would fly to our small pasture to the northern lot on our farm. On multiple occasions a pair would stay for the summer.  She said that she could remember clearly that the cranes were calling and gathering on our land the day she heard that Princess Diana died; the memories are tied together.   My Dad remembers the cranes both in the lower 48 and in Canada,   "Man, that's a hell of a journey coming all the way from the south."  The birds became a part of my life.  

Cranes revisited my life in Alaska.  For three years I spent my summers in Gustavus working as a sea kayak guide for Spirit Walker Expeditions.  This is where I had met Hank, a champion of cranes, who celebrated the birds place in the Crane Flats which was just a short walk from my canvas tent home.  My time in Gustavus caught the end of the spring migration and the beginning of the fall migration.  The birds were a rare and cherished hello and goodbye to a place I loved.   


On our trip to the area around Othello, as with any trip, the best way to find your way around is to ask the locals.   We stopped at several locations and asked about the best times and areas to spot the cranes.    We left the campsite and took to our cars. Resembling storm chasers we chose roads that brought us closer to the thin line of birds in the sky - we watched the road and the birds simultaneously and were dismayed each time the cranes would change direction cross country where we could not follow.  An arm would appear from a car window in our caravan signaling the sighting of a close group and we would all pull over and hop out of the vehicles.   We would catch small lines of cranes moving quickly through the sky as well as large collections of birds circling together and splitting off as they moved from one region to another.   We would hop back in our cars and begin the process again, taking time to hike in some well know areas with hope of finding a group on the ground.     


I was on my way back home when my friends pulled up in their car, window down and told me to turn back.  I had missed a faraway group of cranes, hidden in a rancher's pasture among a herd of black angus cattle.   During the mid-day heat the birds came to roost in the field which was well protected from gawking birders and tourists by the rancher's barbed wire fence with redundant No Trespassing signs.  I sat next to the fence with my dog watching the birds in the distance as the light started to fade and the air cooled.   Around 6pm, small groups of 20 birds began calling and taking flight towards the far ridge.  The groups grew exponentially until the field was once again left to the cattle who were seemingly unfazed by the migratory bird's stentorian departure.     


During the trip someone mentioned that watching the cranes catch a thermal was like reading morse code. As the birds turned in and out of unison, they wrote a series of dots and dashes across the sky while their bodies banked to the side and leveled out, catching the flow of the air.   The sight was captivating.  As the siege of cranes disappeared from sight the soft rattle of their call remained for a few moments, helping to once again set the sound in my memory.