One of Her and Eleven of Us

As happy as I was to have hiking guides and transportation for my last day on the island, I was a bit disappointed to see a dog in the car when they arrived to pick me up. I love dogs—especially labs—but my main goal on Kodiak (and the main reason I extended my trip two days) was the opportunity to see more brown bears. Earlier in the week, I had seen a sow with two cubs, but at such a distance that even through binoculars they were little more than specks. Now, with a retriever along, I couldn’t imagine getting close enough to a bear for a decent look, much less a photograph. But I wasn’t going to let what I perceived as decreased odds prevent me from enjoying a hike on Kodiak.

Coming on the heels of several days of heavy rain, this second day in a row of clearing skies made for near perfect October hiking weather. The trail began in what is most accurately described as a swamp. Emerging from the swamp, it followed—and often shared—the path of a steep drainage. Our destination was a small natural lake with views across the bay. Borrowed Xtratuf boots proved to be best friends when I more than once sank nearly a foot into the muck as we criss-crossed in and out of the shallow creek. Throughout the climb, the retriever took great delight in flushing, chasing, but never catching snowshoe hares through a seemingly impenetrable tangle on the slopes up either side of the draw. Watching the giant rabbit appearing thirty yards ahead of the dog, I couldn’t help but think of br’er rabbit saying, “Please don’t throw me in the alder patch!” Though only a mile-and-a-half, the trek was strenuous enough at times to work the lungs and make arrival at the picturesque Heitman Lake feel earned.

heitman-lake

Following a brief rest and lakeside snack, we decided to hike to the upper end of the basin and summit a rocky outcropping my hosts assured would provide the best views. Pausing to take some photos before climbing the peak, I couldn’t imagine the perspective from the peak to be any more spectacular than where we were. The lake formed a wavy-edged trapezoid, tapering away from us toward Broad Point—a rough and rocky spit of land separating Middle and Kalsin Bays. Beyond the point, the much larger Chinak Bay reached towards the edge of the earth where it merged with a dramatically layered, cloud-filled sky. The nearest layer of clouds, a patchy mix of cottony cumulus, was mirrored in the calm lake at our feet.

As we photographed the scene, distant voices from over my left shoulder caught my attention. I turned to look across a narrow, shallow valley expecting to see some hikers, but the voices were carrying from farther up the trail than I could see. Turning back towards the lake, movement across the valley caught my eye. A single brown bear was following the far ridge. Our plans to summit the peak changed.

big-brown-bear-7

Our first order of business was to corral the dog, which was easy to do with the exceptionally well-behaved lab. Second order of business was to move a little closer and find a good vantage point for photographs.

We had not been watching the bruin long when the source of the voices appeared. A pair of hunters, accompanied by a dog and packing out a deer, were heading our way, paralleling the path of the bear. They were a safe distance behind the bear and would soon meet up with us on the trail. As the hunters reached us, we heard a second set of voices coming from the opposite direction, and a young couple with their dog appeared on the trail ahead. Soon there were eleven of us—seven Homo sapiens sapiens, three Canis lupus familiaris, and one very dead Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis which we figured must smell mighty good to one quite large Ursus arctos middendorffi.

big-brown-bear-6

An easy decision was made to stick together, and we followed the bear from behind as she browsed, sniffed, ambled and shat her way along the valley, choosing a perfect route and exhibiting great behavior for photo opportunities. She crested the low ridge for stunning profiles, sat for a while to survey the bay, and occasionally looked over her shoulder at the twenty-six legged beast following her. When she stood on hind legs for dramatic effect, she looked like a giant teddy bear—dark brown legs contrasting a much lighter brown body and head. From a distance she looked darn near cuddly until I raised the binoculars to see the three-plus inch claws curving out from the ends of her giant paws. Always aware, she never showed any concern and never posed any threat to us. The dogs were well-enough behaved, and the couple who had been hiking in the other direction decided to cut their hike short and walk out in the comfort and safety of numbers.

Big Brown Bear.jpg

We were an interesting lot, to say the least. The hunting party was comprised of a young novice, and a not much older mentor who mostly talked about how he would come back and “drop” that sow or “stick” her. He was confident that he had seen this same bear the year before and it was only a matter of time before he skinned her in an act of great masculinity. On the other end of the spectrum, the young couple was not comfortable in such close proximity to a great Kodiak bear and was more than relieved to have found us before the bear found them. As for our party, I think we were all simply in awe of such an animal and honored to have the experience. For my companions who live on the island and work for Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, I suppose hiking alongside such a magnificent creature might be routine, even old hat. For me, however, it was an unforgettable experience. It was not my first big bear, but it was the closest I have been to one that big, and I do believe it might have been the most beautiful bear I have ever come across. (Although the honey-colored little grizzly I saw on the Russian River in 2015 certainly comes close.)

Big Brown Bear-4.jpg

We stayed with the bear until she… I should pause here to say that I was not able to identify the bear as a female. I say “she” throughout this writing only because that is what the hunter said. When I researched the difference between male and female grizzlies, I was led to think this might be a male, but I don’t know. Perhaps a reader with more experience and knowledge can weigh in with a definitive answer. As I was saying… We stayed with the bear until (she) crossed the ridge in front of us, passed through the top of the drainage we just hiked, and disappeared over the other side.

Our hike back down was a bit of a circus. Out of harms way, the dogs were let loose and they took full advantage of their freedom—running, playing chase, nearly knocking people off their feet more than once. They had earned it, and nobody complained.

Next time I visit Kodiak, I hope to return to the Heitman Lake trail. Next time I want to continue beyond where we turned back. According to Alaska.org, it is a strenuous ten mile round trip beyond Heitman Lake to Raymond Peak and Heitman Mountain. And and if they are interested, I would love for my hiking companions—all three of them—to join me for the trek!

big-brown-bear-2

Birding by Ear in Anchorage

I am downstairs, sitting in the rocking chair next to the hearth where the wood stove used to be. It is early morning. I am thinking about the next three weeks of travel, and writing. To my left is a small table. Beyond the table, a sliding glass door leads to a tiny patio. The world outside is dark and quiet. I stop writing when I hear, from the direction of the door, a remarkably loud birdsong. The voice is unmistakable—an American robin. Then it sings again. On the second verse I realize how unusually raspy it sounds and begin to question my quick identification. Perhaps it isn’t a robin at all. Perhaps there is a resident Alaskan songbird whose call is similar to a robin but rougher, harsher. Some people describe the scarlet tanager’s song as “a robin with a sore throat,” but I don’t think I would confuse a tanager with a robin. I hear both birds often enough back home on the farm to have a good grasp of their distinctions, plus Alaska is a long way from scarlet tanager range.

Leaving journal and pen on the table, I walk to the door. It is still dark out on this Anchorage morning, but the lights in the condominium parking lot provide more than ample glow to see a bird, were one perched on the fence. I scan the patio, the fence, and parking lot beyond. There is no bird in sight, everything is quiet, and I don’t hear the bird again.

Returned to my seat, I keep thinking about that voice. I listen to the morning silence, hoping it will sing again, and wondering. Perhaps it wasn’t a robin… I retrieve my computer from the bedroom upstairs and search for fall Alaska songbirds. There is nothing to be found online that fits the description other than robin, but with no more songs I can’t be sure. I wonder why it stopped singing so soon after it began. Was the raspiness due to a sore throat? A sore throat would make me stop singing. Or did the resident cat rear its head, cutting short the morning hymns? 

I walk back to the door to have another look. Overhead, I hear the ticking of a clock and look up to mark the time. My host Jerry knows his birds, and if I describe the song and the approximate time I heard it, he will identify it. Directly above the door, the clock is a large, round, white analog model, bearing the familiar logo of the National Audubon Society. Representing each hour is a different common North American bird. One o’clock is the great horned owl, 2:00 — northern mockingbird, 3:00 — black-capped chickadee, 4:00 — northern cardinal… It is now a quarter past seven. Fifteen minutes ago… at seven o’clock… the clock struck… the American robin.

I am still chuckling at my morning encounter with the not-quite-right roborobin when Jerry comes down the steps. Soon, he is laughing with me. We have a cup of coffee, and discuss plans for the day. Jerry reads the paper while I finish my writing. Before long, the digitally reproduced, unusually loud, raspy voice of a song sparrow brings another chuckle and reminds us it is time for breakfast.

As we walk out to the car, I am pretty certain I hear a real live robin across the parking lot. Jerry does not hear it, but confirms that some robins do overwinter in Anchorage, though most migrate south, and that fall would be an odd time to hear them singing. I can tell he doesn’t believe I heard what I think I heard, but I am convinced. Everybody needs a friend, and I suspect there must be one robin in Anchorage who recognizes the lone, raspy voice in Jerry’s condominium. There must be one robin willing to sing out of season, offering friendship to an unseen, two-dimensional bird on a cool, dark Alaska morning. Or, maybe an unseen voice inside my head is hard at work helping me avoid being the only one — bird or birder — to be duped by a singing clock.

Yellow Skies and Silver Rainbows

Through dense, steep forest the gravel road climbs and winds for two miles before peaking and descending slowly into the gorge. In total, the drive is five slow miles. I rarely see other people on this road, and I like it that way. Today, I am the only one.

Halfway to my destination, a rat snake stretches across the road. Cloud cover denies her the heat she desires and I worry for her safety here should another car come along. I slip my hand under her cool belly and she curls into a ball, allowing me to gently lift her without protest. She never even flicks her tongue, and I consider putting her in my shirt to warm her, but realize the futility of such a gesture.  Instead, I place her at the edge of the forest in the direction she is traveling, and head on my way.

 

Rat Snake CLump
Safely Off the Road.

The sky is alive and fluttering yellow when I reach the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Tigers in the sky tell me it will be a good day on the river, and the clouds open enough to dapple the streamside parking area with agreeing sunlight.

After donning waders I make a sandwich, sit down on a log, and absorb the scene. Sitting at the edge of wilderness and looking in is, in equal measure, both stilling and exciting. I suspect the chance of seeing a black bear is as high as or higher than the chance of seeing a person up here, and that is all I need to know to feel at home and alive.

As I dine on smoked salmon and avocado, a bird I cannot identify sings from across the river: The tree, tree. Love it, love it! it seems to sing. I want to find this little one who praises the forest, to meet the one who shares my sentiment, but today is about fishing. Binoculars and big camera will stay in the truck; only the point-and-shoot will accompany me up river.

 

Sandwich
Smoked Salmon And Avacado Sandwiches Are Always Better Streamside!

The trail is nearly choked with dog hobble. A narrow footpath is all that remains of this designated horse trail. Trails left unmaintained are not long for a wilderness world such as this, but I, being neither horse nor rider, do not mind the encroachment. Knowing that soon I will leave this trail for the river, I carefully direct my seven-foot-nine-inch fly rod through the hobble and continue on.

Soon I find a navigable path to the river, and slip through a tangle of rhododendron. Boot deep in the water, I strip line from my reel and assess the casting situation. Along with the rhododendron and dog hobble, alders hang their limbs close overhead. Presenting a fly on this little river will not be easy, and I find myself kneeling in the water to flip a dry fly to a riffle a few feet upstream.

My second cast hits its mark and the fly dances down the far side of the current until it meets the silver flash of a rainbow trout and disappears. My reaction is too slow and I pop the fly out of the water and into the waiting arms of an alder. Silently, I implore the tree to be kind to me, and it releases my lure without struggle—a gesture I do not take lightly. Must remember to be nice to the trees, I think.

Easing upstream, I drop a fly at the top of the riffle where it disappears immediately. Unlike the first one, I feel the tug of this trout for an instant, but only an instant. It is the fourth or fifth fish to be fooled that finally makes it to my hand—a tiny brook trout, beautifully adorned with orange spots and speckled dorsal fin. This is what lures me to the wilderness!

Brown
Brook Trout!

Despite the name of the trailhead, I am fishing the upper Bald River. Two miles upstream, Brookshire Creek is an aptly named brook trout haven. Introduced brown and rainbow trout took over these waters after brookies were lost during the heyday of over-logging our southern mountains. Today, a fifteen-foot waterfall protects the reintroduced natives from those encroaching interlopers. I consider hiking above the falls where these little guys should be abundant, but days are short in mountain gorges, and one day is all I have. A two-mile hike would only cut into fishing time, so I stay on the Bald with hope there will be more brook trout down here among the dominant carpetbagging rainbows.

The yellow that filled the sky on my arrival now swirls around me as I creep up the river. Just ahead, on a bare spot atop an otherwise moss-covered boulder, several tiger swallowtails have gathered, and I ease their way to see what all the fuss is about. Not being much of a scatologist I can’t say for sure, but I think the yellow sky was drawn to earth by a pile of otter feces—an interesting juxtaposition to be sure. I have never seen an otter on the upper Bald, but a reliable source has assured me they are a few water miles away on the North and Tellico Rivers, so it is not unlikely. Then again, this is a very small river for an otter, and it could be raccoon scat. Either way, the tigers love it and I stop for a couple photos before they return to coloring the sky.

 

Tiger Swallowtail on Poop
Tiger Swallowtails Gather Around Scat

It takes more than four hours to fish a mile of the river, and the fish never stop taking my fly. The afternoon is filled with one rainbow after another—most of them measuring four to six inches. Occasionally, deeper water nets me a ten inch beauty—small by many standards, but no slacker in this little water, and more than enough trout to delight me. That first trout of the day proves to be my only brook trout, but I am not disappointed as I secure my fly and reel in my line.

Rainbow
One Of The Nicer Rainbow Trout I Landed On The Upper Bald River

Back on the dog hobbled trail, I hear the same song I heard at the trailhead, this time preceded and followed by some attention-getting chips. Hey! Hey! Hey! The tree, tree. Love it, love it! Hey! Hey! Hey! Twelve feet off the trail, a little bird bobs and turns, and bobs and turns. His tail seems to pull his whole body down and back up as it drops and lifts. A strong white eyestripe couples with the behavior to allow for quick identification. The Louisiana waterthrush is a delight to behold in any riparian zone, but like all other experiences, it is even better in wilderness.

Doghobble Trail
The Trail Disappears Into Dog Hobble

I enjoy the company of the waterthrush until he moves on, and I do the same. My attention now piqued, I scan the trees and listen closely as I walk. A few songs in the canopy are left unidentified, but one bird drops down for a good look—a black-throated blue warbler says hello just as the end of the trail comes into view.

The warbler does not stay long, and I look down to negotiate a wet spot in the trail. At my feet the sky is beautifully reflected in a pool. Beneath the surface, hundreds of tadpoles are in a race against the weather. With no rain in the immediate forecast, I hope these little guys grow legs before their home grows dry!

 

Tdpole reflection
Earth Meets Sky On The Brookshire Creek Trail

Not quite ready to end the day, I drop a fly in the final few yards of river left between the truck and me, and find the day ending the way it began—with a silver flash and an empty hook. Again, I am not disappointed. The land of yellow skies and silver rainbows has been generous today. Next time I will go the extra mile to find out if the benevolence of the Bald River rainbows will be shared by the brook trout of Brookshire Creek. Until then, I can only hope for more yellow skies!

Note: I refer to the Upper Bald as “wilderness,” as it is managed as such by the National Forest Service, but legally it does not have that status yet. The Tennessee Wilderness Act, cosponsored by Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker would change that designation and protect this magical place in perpetuity. Visit http://www.tnwild.org or email me at jim@wildsouth.org to find out how you can help!

 

Lindsay’s Point

The playa was littered with a sea of colorful shotgun shells and brass casings left behind by hunters and sport shooters, but there were no sportsmen there in March, and Lindsay had the desert largely to herself as she wandered away from the group. Part of a bird watching group visiting the Blanca Wetlands of south central Colorado, Lindsay was not there for the birds. Rather, she was there watching the bird watchers, photographing us for a magazine article.

I, too, had strayed from the group and was watching a handful of American coots on a small pond when I heard Lindsay’s voice forty yards behind me. She was talking with Chuck, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, and the two of them were focused intently on Lindsay’s outstretched hand. Intrigued, I walked over.

At first I thought she was holding some trinket from a gumball machine—so clear, colorless, and perfect. It must be a plastic toy replica, I thought. It couldn’t possibly be real… But I quickly realized what they already knew: the perfectly-knapped quartz arrowhead she held was very real.

Lindsay
Lindsay showing her find to birdwatchers.

The little point, roughly an inch-and-a-quarter long had no visible nicks or chips. It was flawless. In her hand, it appeared slightly milky white, but when Lindsay held it up to the sun, light passed through barely hindered. It was nearly as clear as a diamond.

I have seen plenty of flint-knapped points, and found a couple of them over the years, but never had I seen anything like this. A piece of quartz, worked by a master craftsman into a form that was, to my eye, more appropriate for exhibition as art, than for hunting.

Soon, a small crowd of binocular-wielding tourists was gathered around us, passing the wonder from hand to hand. An announcement that it was time to board the bus interrupted the show-and-tell, followed by an expected but unwelcome follow-up from Chuck: “I marked the spot with my jacket… Time to put it back.”

The three of us walked out to the spot where Lindsay had first seen the point. Chuck picked up his jacket and turned back towards the bus, trusting that Lindsay would do as instructed. Lindsay surveyed her surroundings, as I looked over my shoulder at Chuck who was back out on the dirt road and paying no attention to us. We looked down at the point, clearly thinking the same thing.

After a silent moment, she set the point back on the ground where I photographed it. We said nothing, but I was certain she was thinking the same thing I was. I looked back at the bus. Chuck was nowhere in sight. Nobody was watching.

Arrowhead 1

As we walked back to the bus, I picked up a 12 gauge shell and smelled it. The sweet smell of gunpowder was still faintly present. I thought it curious that this modern tool served the same purpose as Lindsay’s point and, like that artifact, was left behind by a hunter. Yet nobody would have complained had I walked off with this one. I suspect, in fact, I would have been thanked for picking up “litter.”

The next day, I considered driving back out, parking at the gate, and walking the mile or so to find the point. I was confident I knew exactly where we had left it. After all, I reasoned, it is only a matter of time before it is found by another, and I am equally confident that when it is, without Chuck there to police the situation, it will be pocketed by someone, and taken home.

I appreciate the value of protecting archaeological sites from looting. There are things to be learned by uncovering snapshots in time from cultures long extinct, migrated, or evolved. But Lindsay’s point wasn’t part of a site to be excavated. It was a solitary artifact on a hunting ground. I could understand requiring Lindsay’s point to be turned over to the BLM for display in a visitors center or museum. But a single arrowhead lying in the desert isn’t going to serve to enlighten archaeologists about ancient life in the San Luis Valley. Left behind, it is far more likely to end up on that mantle beside a piece of petrified wood, beneath some mallard, teal, or wood duck, to be shown off to friends.

We want to honor the people who inhabited the land before us—especially after the unspeakable atrocities we committed against so many of them, but do we honor a people or a history by lugging weapons of mass duck destruction into the wilderness, and littering the landscape with hunting detritus, then leaving their ancient art in the dirt for anyone to trample, pocket, or sell on the black market?

I wish I had slipped Lindsay’s point into my camera bag, and slipped it away unnoticed, taken it home, and later, mailed it to her. Not because she has some inherent right to it, but the BLM wasn’t interested in giving it any place of honor, and at least Lindsay is an artist who appreciates things of beauty. Personally, I would rather it be on display in a museum honoring a time, a people, and a way of life long past. If the BLM hasn’t such interest, however, I would prefer that it in the hands of a photographer from NY who will treasure it, protect it, and photograph it, than for it to end up on the mantle as one more trophy harvested.

Perhaps, next time I am in Colorado, I will revisit the Blanca Wetlands and go on a treasure hunt. If I do, and if I am successful, I will not write about it.

Cranes on the Platte

A small red light flashed over my head, signaling one of our guides to tap me on the shoulder. “Time to put away the camera,” he said in a hushed voice. For a couple hours we had huddled quietly in a simple wooden structure roughly the size and shape of a school bus with open, square, paneless windows on three sides that let in a cold breeze. Greeting our ears through those windows, were the primordial bugles of tens of thousands of long-legged birds. The late conservationist Aldo Leopold described the sound of sandhill cranes as a combination of tinkling little bells, the baying of deep-throated hounds, and the far clear blasts of hunting horns, “a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shake the bog with its nearness,” but Leopold never saw this many cranes in the great marsh near his farm in Wisconsin. In the nineteen-forties Leopold estimated there to be fewer than 100 cranes in that whole state, while here on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, innumerable birds spread out over hundreds of river miles.

Now, after decades of water diversion for agriculture has rendered the river overgrown with ash and cottonwood, it is no longer an inch deep, a mile wide, and perfect for roosting. Most of the river is no longer provides safe refuge for migrating cranes to spend their nights, but thanks to the Audubon Society’s management of a small section of the river prioritized for bird habitat, bird watchers enjoy the concentration of nearly a half-million cranes packed into fifty river miles. On either side of the river corridor, acres of corn and the occasional remnant of wet meadow provide food during the day within a short flight of safe roosting ground.

Sunset cranes 3

Standing three-and-a-half feet tall, dressed in drab gray feathers and wearing bright red crowns, sandhill cranes are nothing if not majestic, but in spite of our best efforts, they had evaded close photographing this evening. Even with the giant lens on my camera, they stayed far enough from our blind to allow for only large flock photos. Sunlight now faded, they are close, but my camera cannot gather enough light, and soon it will soon be time for us to go.

Before the light escaped, we witnessed flock after flock taking off from their feeding grounds on the horizon to form living black clouds against a thin strip of orange beneath a heavy gray sky. As they rose, each nebulous form undulated like a raucous, colorless aurora borealis, twisting and folding into itself across the sky until another cloud, lifting from another wet meadow or corn field, folded into it. These great clouds divide, string out along the river, and settle by the thousands onto sandbars and shallows. Shoulder to shoulder, they find safety from predators in their isolation from the shore. But on this evening, the shallows in front of our blind are some of the last to be inhabited, and now it is dark. Through binoculars, I see faded, ghostly images continuing the rich, dense chorus, and I chuckle at the contrast between our respectfully hushed whispers and their incessant, guttural squawking.

After warming my hands in my pockets for a few minutes, I put the cap back on my lens.

* * *

We are in the blind before sunrise on a piercingly cold morning. My gloves and scarf missed the flight west, and my face and hands skipped over cold, jumping quickly to numb.

Like the night before, a large majority of the birds were in the air while there was not yet enough light to make use of my camera, and as the sun finally crept onto the horizon over my right shoulder, I nervously checked the red light, hoping to get the go-ahead to shoot while there were still cranes in front of me. Until the light turned amber, my camera would remain off as thousands of cranes at a time lept into the air, flapped wings stretching six feet from tip to tip, and circled above the river. Some groups eased back down again, deciding that whatever threat had set them off—a far off eagle perhaps, or a coyote on the shore—was not sufficiently threatening to warrant relocation. Most disappeared, heading to their favorite dining spots where, over their brief stay on the Platte, they will increase their body weight by twenty percent to fuel their migration north to nesting grounds ranging from the Grand Tetons to the far reaches of Alaska and Siberia beyond.

Landing Crane 2

By the time I get the nod to begin shooting, I am unable to feel my shutter button, and my cheeks and mouth are too numb to speak, but I am undeterred, and focus my lens on a few hundred birds directly in front of my window. As the light grows, I am constantly monitoring ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop, adjusting to maintain the fastest shots possible. My goal is to stop birds in flight as they take off a couple at a time.

In a few weeks these birds will be ritually engaged in courtship dancing—jumping, flapping, spinning, and throwing sticks over their shoulders—but the season is still too early for that behavior, and I settle for cranes standing, taking off, flying, and landing.

Cranes in Flight 2-4

As the light grows I notice a few birds with splotchy iron-colored stains from last year’s breeding season. When it comes time for building this year’s nests, adult birds will cover as much of their plumage as they can reach with iron-rich mud, staining their feathers the reddish-tan color of an old baseball mitt. Leopold noted in his essay Marshland Elegy that early settlers called the cranes “red shitepokes” for this artificial coloring, but on this spring equinox, most of the birds are still a light milky-gray that does not catch the golden sunrise in quite the same way as they will after their wardrobe change.

Forty-five minutes prior to our scheduled departure, one of our guides whispers that if anyone wants to escape the cold, we can head back early. When fingers fail to respond to repeated requests to retrieve my lens cap from my pocket, the decision is made. As we made the quarter mile walk to hot cocoa, my face was frozen and numb, and I can’t be certain, but I think I was smiling.

Cranes in Flight 7-1

 

A Finch, An Oil Lamp, and A Little Ice Road Truckin’

Five days after a near miss with ice and snow in Northwest Georgia, winter weather followed me across the country last week to the High Plains Snow Goose Fesitval. At least that’s what the folks in Lamar, CO told me as temperatures were forecast to drop precipitously, and the clear sky expected to become heavy with snow. Never mind the fact that I came from the east, and the impending blizzard from the west. As a visitor from afar, I felt obliged to accept the responsibility. And I didn’t feel too bad about it, reckoning that snow was appropriate for a festival celebrating Snow Geese, after all, but a weekend of birding would surely be tough in a blizzard.

Fortunately, the snow took its time reaching us, and my first morning in Lamar began with a clear sky and a very pleasant morning walk even if the flickers, juncos and downy woodpeckers that highlighted the outing could have been more easily seen from my kitchen window back on Lookout Mountain.

As the winds picked up and the skies darkened later in the day, I experienced a rather ironic high point in the weekend when a couple white-crowned sparrows, and a northern cardinal joined a small flock of juncos we were watching along a riparian zone on the edge of town.

All of these species are common in the Southeast, of course, but while the Coloradans in the group oohed over the lone female cardinal, we caught a brief, fleeting glance at a little songbird flashing yellow on its throat as it disappeared into a thicket. Juvenile dickcissel? I wondered. When the little fellow re-emerged and paused for a decent look, there was no mistaking that I was looking at a rather curious morph of a very regular visitor to nearly every bird feeder in the country. A male house finch, usually red around the cheeks and breast, sometimes verging on orange, had shown up looking quite dapper in bright yellow duds.

I later learned in an article on the website for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch that the yellow coloring is not that unusual in the Southwest and Hawaii where the carotenoids that cause the reddening is less present in available foods. In other words, the yellow variation is a normal coloration which every male house finch has the potential to exhibit if given the right diet. Fascinating… if you are into that sort of thing. I found the little guy so beautiful that I might have continued watching him had the wind not picked up, the sky darkened, and a light rain begun to fall. The edge of the storm was upon us.

Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, but my recollection is of a bird with much bolder coloration than the one pictured on FeederWatch.org. Who would have thought I would fly all the way across the country to be wowed by a house finch? I was eager to see what the next day might bring.

* * *

The next morning I joined about twenty other birders for a half-day raptor watching outing that began with a leisurely and delicious breakfast at Triple T Steakhouse in Grenada, CO. After we were fed, we headed out to a flooded gravel pit along the Arkansas River, stopping along the way when our ever-attentive driver hit the brakes hard and pulled the bus over to the side of the road for us to watch what turned out to be a flock of a hundred or so snow goose decoys. They were so convincing from the bus that, as we pulled away, a gentleman behind me was zooming in on a photo he had taken to convince himself they weren’t alive. The single black leg attaching each one to the ground ended up convincing him. I am still not sure if the driver was in on the joke or not. Raptors were scarce at the gravel pit, but there were several species of ducks including a couple dozen ever-graceful northern pintails that flew in to join several hundred snow geese. I was particularly enamored with the handful of blue morph snow geese in the mix who retained the white head, but were otherwise similar in color (at least to my eye) to great blue herons.

Our driver made several more abrupt stops on our return trip to watch a handful of kestrels and redtails, three or four harriers, and one serenading western meadowlark for which I couldn’t resist opening the window, even in the cold, for a better listen.

* * *

The afternoon following the field trip, I met a group of volunteers to load in and set up for my evening performance. Set up is always a difficult part of a gig for me mentally, as I lay out the “ideal” conditions for the show, and then figure out how to make the best of what is almost always a less than perfect space, and this time was no different.

Can we get a black backdrop? Is this the best lighting you can come up with? I really don’t want to keep the house lights on… I’m sorry but one spotlight won’t do it. Do we have to have all these tables? The audience is too far from the stage! Can we rearrange the room? Why don’t we eat in the other room so we can set this room like a theater? This stage is nowhere near big enough; we can’t use it. Somebody get these green M&Ms out of my bowl!!!

Can you say “prima uomo?”

I always try to make it clear that while I hope for “ideal,” I don’t expect it, and I really am appreciative of whatever they can do for me, but at the same time I fear that I come across as a divo, and find myself apologizing after every request. (By the way, do the male forms of prima donna and diva adequately carry the connotations as the better known female forms? If I am to be a pain in the ass, I would at least like to wear a masculine label…)

Fortunately, the team on hand, under the direction of festival director Vince Gearhart could not have been more pleasant, agreeable and happy to acquiesce to my every request, completely rearranging the room twice to create a wonderful space for the show. In fact, Vince’s smile seemed to only broaden with every request I made, and soon I was back in my room rehearsing and resting up for the evening.

When I returned a couple hours before showtime, heavy snow was blowing and I worried that the audience might stay away. These folks, however, were hardy plains folks, and they turned out in spite of the weather for a delicious meal, and stuck around for my show which was going great until…

With five minutes remaining in a performance I was proud of, the house lights flickered, a bright light flashed through the window, and the lights went out. A dim emergency light and the two lamps on stage provided the only vision for the audience, and the final words of Aldo Leopold were delivered by a dim silhouette of a man.

Nevertheless, everybody remained seated and quiet as I finished my lines and turned around to blow out the lamps. The first one out, I approached the second lamp for the dramatic conclusion of the play. The extinguishing of the flames represents a finality, a resolution, a completion of Leopold’s ghost visiting his shack and learning his lesson.

I could hear the murmurs in what had been, for an hour, a pin-drop quiet audience. I paused, my back back to the audience, and considered the moment. This is when I usually begin to tear up as I extinguish the last flame and let go of the book my character has been clutching tightly for forty-five minutes. I would have to trust the audience. They had made it this far with me, even in the darkened house. I had to believe that they didn’t need that final dramatic act to seal the deal. I left the flame burning, and left the stage, disappearing into the darkness.

Arousing applause brought me back to the stage, but the Q&A was reduced to one long answer to one short question. Some folks headed straight for the door, but a line of people waited to purchase Sand County Almanacs, many of whom even took the time for me to sign them by lamp light. After most of the crowd was gone and I had gathered my things and donned my coat and hat, one last audience member requested an inscription. Vincent, who had been so helpful during setup, saw the scene, grabbed his camera, and snapped off a quick shot that well captured the spirit of the evening.

lamp light signing

The power never came back on, and conditions were near whiteout as I drove the mile back to the hotel in several inches of snow that was still blowing hard. Expecting a cold, dark night, I was relieved to see the lights of the hotel emerge through the white, and my night was warm even though “a February blizzard toss(ed) the trees outside.”

* * *

Our Sunday outing was cancelled due to the weather, and between a delightful four-and-a-half hour breakfast conversation with a core group of folks including festival organizers John Koshak and Vince, and an equally engaging dinner with some of the same folks, I spent a relaxing day at the hotel that included napping, television (my guilty hotel pleasure), and a long hot bath.

At 5:00 the next morning, I began the long drive back to the Colorado Springs airport for my journey home. The reverse trek on Thursday night had been entirely in the dark, the unmistakable smell of feedlots being the only clue to my surroundings along the way, and though I looked forward to at least a little light on the return, I began this trip an hour-and-a-half before sunrise in the same darkness.

A mere fifteen miles in, as I carefully navigated a road patch-worked with ice and snow, what might have been seen as an omen brought travel to a stop. A semi had slid through a turn, coming to rest with its cab off the road in a shallow ditch, and now a tow chain blocked the road in front of me. Twenty minutes later the big rig once again had all eighteen wheels on the road and was able to continue under its own steam. As a small line of pre-dawn traffic slowly made its way westward, a black-tailed jackrabbit who was certainly unaware of the omen watched from the sideline.

For the next four hours, there was no point it checking the speedometer as road conditions necessitated slowing, speeding, and slowing again but never allowed nearing the posted limit. Eventually I hit Pueblo where I looked forward to a snow-free and flowing Interstate 25 north for the final hour of my road journey, only to find my hopes dashed. The Interstate along the front range was covered in snow, and traffic crept at 30 miles per hour all the way to Colorado Springs where I found the road to the airport completely unplowed and untreated, slowing progress even further.

Fortunately, there was little traffic to COS and I snailed my way west with only the occasional spinning tire, and parked in a snow-filled rental return lot at a ghost-town of an airport. A couple hours later I was on a plane for Dallas, TX–a city under siege by an ice storm. Somehow, in spite of several delays and two reschedules, at 7:45 p.m. I cracked open a beer somewhere between Dallas and Charlotte and could smell home on the horizon.

It would be another four hours before the plane door opened in Chattanooga, and around 2:00 Tuesday morning I finally made it to bed. When I awoke six hours later, I looked out the window to see (you guessed it) snow on the ground. I think the good folks of Lamar might have been right. It is following me.

* * *

As grits simmer on the stove this morning, I am happy to be home with fond memories of the high plain. Here in the South we pride ourselves for our hospitality (bless our hearts) but I have to wonder if given the same conditions–heavy snow, power outage, a demanding visitor from afar–we would carry ourselves with the same genuine smiles as the folks in Lamar, CO where there is no sugar in the tea, no alcohol in the restaurants (at least the ones I visited), and an expectation of prolonged oppressive winter weather.

The inch of snow we complained about here will surely be gone tomorrow, but in Southeast Colorado folks will be greeted by another storm piling more snow on top of more snow, and I suspect folks will be smiling as they shovel their walks and plow their roads. And hopefully they will put out some seed for a little yellow house finch. With any luck, I will make it back some day.

A Standard of Change Heads West

One month from now I will be performing at the beautiful KiMo THEATRE in historic downtown Albuquerque during the National Wilderness Conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Ninety years ago, Aldo Leopold’s vision of designated “roadless pack country” was realized with the establishment of our first federally-designated wilderness, the Gila in Gila National Forest. It is an honor to be performing in such a great venue so close to the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas! If you are in the Albuquerque area, please come see me. If you know anyone in the area, spread the word. Thanks!

ABQ poster