Migration of mythic proportions

Here are some great new insights and reflections from Mike Biltonen (my darling husband). Last month, he had the opportunity to experience the migration of the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska with one of his oldest and dearest friends. He took quite a journey to experience their journey.

crane migrationIn what seems like a lifetime ago I was very involved in the protection of the environment. Most specifically, I was focused on the protection and expansion of wildlands – not just wilderness – but any large, open expanse of wildness where old trees could linger and critters could roam. My journey at that time got me thinking about the native prairies and massive bison herds, the vast expanses of eastern old growth forests, and the unfettered oceans, rivers, and streams. It was truly a dream of where the wild things roam.

Not too long ago a friend of mine invited me to accompany him on a journey to Nebraska’s Platte River region to watch the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes. Having only a text book understanding of what this experience would be like, I jumped at the chance. In my mind, the Sandhill Crane migration was a thing of mythic proportions: Hundreds of thousands of cranes moving up from down south to their summer breeding grounds in northern North America. Nebraska, I learned, was just a stop-over for them to get a bite to eat and some rest on their journey. What I experienced was far beyond anything I could imagine and brought back my dream of a wild America long lost. It had been tucked away far too long.

I flew into Minneapolis on a Thursday night. On Friday Michael and I spent the day driving to Nebraska. It was great time, as we hadn’t seen each other in a number of years. We got caught up on our families, careers, and lives in general. During this part of the journey we both saw a part of America’s heartland that neither (or at least me) hadn’t seen much of. By Friday evening we checked in with the rest of the group and headed out to the blind on the river. The temperatures had started to drop and the wind picked up making standing in a blind on the Platte River a toe-numbing experience. But we were here to see the cranes, and so nothing else mattered much.

The last few hours of the day before sunset brought thousands of cranes circling above and up and down the river. We saw snow geese mixed in doing their own dance looking for a place to bed down for the night. This went on for several hours until, just as the sun started to go down, the cranes got lower. And lower. Continually circling, dipping down, then flying back up in an amazing dance of natural wonder. Eventually, just as I felt they were going to keep this up all night, a few cranes began to drop down (or “cup” as it’s called) into the tall brush on the other side of the river. And when the first cranes begin their descent, they all follow suit. Over the next hour or so (really, I lost track), they kept coming and coming and coming. At one point prior to their initial descent we thought that they were going to land somewhere else on the river. So, when they all finally began to land right in front of our eyes, the miracle took on a new perspective for me.

Check out Mike’s video of the Sandhill Cranes.

So many things in life – good and bad – happen by pure chance. When it comes to nature, you never know, as well. We could have picked the wrong site, day, or whatever and totally missed this event. I’ve missed too many great things in life to forget that you never, ever give up a chance to witness a miracle. And with this happening right in front of me, I felt blessed.

Nighttime eventually came and we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before getting up very early the next morning and heading back out to the witness “lift off.” And so it was. We rose at 4AM, headed out to the blind in the freezing cold, and waited for what seemed like forever for the cranes to wake up and take off. As the sun rose (and almost on queue) the cranes began to lift off with the break of dawn. In what seemed like a reverse of the landing sequence the night before. The cranes took off in waves, coming down, going up, and coming down. For the next few hours they did this, until…..until….until the bald eagles came in looking for an early breakfast. As soon as the eagles came in, the cranes took off in a mass exodus, feeling safer in the skies than on the ground, I suppose. It was a wonder that yet again reminded me of the delicate balance in nature. For eons this dance between eagles and cranes has been going on. It’s only in the past few centuries that we humans have begun to disrupt this balance, and only in the past few decades that we’ve knocked it off its perch. The protection and expansion of the world’s wild areas may be a crazy dream. But it’s the only way that we’ll ever protect the cranes and have the opportunity to witness wild nature on its own terms. I’m not sure who said it, but “Dream Back the Bison, Sing Back the Swan” is a mantra every lover of wild nature should have. That goes for the cranes, too.