Road Trip!

Guest Author – Rich Smith

“How would you like to go see whooping cranes train?” I asked my friend over the phone.
“Huh?” he said. 

“Yeah, they’re over in White River Marsh, about 1/2 hour this side of Oshkosh. It’s only about a 3 1/2 hr. drive from your place.” 
“Whooping cranes?” 
“Yup, they’re only about 2 months old, won’t be able to fly yet, so we can watch them follow an ultralight aircraft up and down the runway. They’re being trained to follow the trike so in the fall, when it’s time to migrate, they’ll follow it to their wintering grounds in Florida.”
“Sure! When?” he said, while I smiled into the phone.

My friend is almost always up for anything. He restores and rides motorcycles, he boats, he’s flown small aircraft, he collects skulls and he loves to travel. In a way, he reminds me of Neal Cassady; always busy, enjoys living on the edge, inquisitive, always game for something new. That’s fine with me. I’ll co-star as Jack Kerouac and before long we’ll be on the road.

The day before we left from our homes on either side of the Mississippi River in southeast MN and west-central WI, I called Doug Pellerin to touch base and ask a few questions. He told me that we were in for a treat – that the chicks would be getting their inoculation’s the next morning after the training session and we’d be welcome to see that as well from the blind.

Late Tuesday morning we were heading east, out of the Driftless Area of western Wisconsin and into the relatively flat expanse of the south-central part of the state, with its cranberry bogs, swamps, and pine trees. As we drove through Wautoma and past the McComb/Bruchs Performing Arts Center I recalled to my friend that I had missed an old ‘Byrd’ here last year by about 14 hours on my way to the Whooping Crane Festival last September. Another Craniac and I were heading to Berlin and as we went by I noticed on the scrolling marquee that Roger McGuinn had played there the night before!

Instead of driving straight through to Green Lake, we wanted to find the spot where we’d meet Doug the next morning. When we passed through Neshkoro the light went on. “This is where they are!” I thought to myself. I’ve never knowingly seen whooping cranes. I’ve only seen a handhill of sandfulls… Or handful of sandhills! Okay, I was getting excited. Would we see any today? It was already early afternoon when we reached the rendezvous spot and actually did see a couple of sandhill cranes as well as a whitetail doe and its spotted fawn.

Wednesday morning I was up at 4am, a half-hour before the alarm went off in our room at the inn in Green Lake. By 4:45 I was dressed and went outside to have a look. High clouds littered the lightening sky, a light breeze and mosquitoes were in the somewhat chilled air. By the time we had our bags packed and were on our way, the sun was up and the clouds were thinning. It looked to be the first day since Sunday that the chicks would be let out of the pen to follow OM Pilot Richard van Heuvelen in his bright yellow flying machine!

On the way to the pen site I was telling my friend what to expect. The sun will be low over our right shoulders. The trike will most likely make its approach from the right side. The costumes will let the birds out after getting the okay from the pilot. They’ll follow the trike off to the right first.

Before we knew it we were there. Doug and Tom Schultz were already at the gate on the road. My friend and I got out of the car and introduced ourselves. We’d wait until Barry and Naomi from ICF arrived before driving past the gate and onto the property where we’d park a safe distance from the pen site then we’d walk the remaining quarter mile or so to the blind.

The White River Marsh Wildlife Area is a 12,000 acre expanse in the northwest corner of Green Lake County and northeast corner of Marquette County.  The area consists of open marsh/wet meadow, swamp hardwoods/tamarack swamp, upland prairie/oak savannah and shrub carr.

Barry and Naomi arrived soon after we did. Doug opened the gate and we all drove in onto the gravel road that took us to our destination.  We all got out of our vehicles at the end of the gravel, donned our boots and grabbed our gear; meds, costumes, cameras, etc. We quietly walked the path to the blind, past six-foot tall cattails, the sunlight glistening off the still-wet grasses. There were still patches of low fog out beyond the north end of the runway.

We entered the camouflaged blind from the rear. It was roomier than I thought it would be, with two benches in the front, and standing room behind. Naomi, my friend, and I took up about half of the bench space. Tom and Barry stood behind. A costumed Doug took up his position on the runway. A few minutes later Geoff emerged from the south end of the runway, and Eva and Brooke silently joined us in the blind.

As we waited for Richard and the trike to arrive, we watched as sandhill pairs flew over the marsh and pen area. What little fog that remained was dissipating, the morning sky was clearing and all was still. At about 6:40 I spotted the trike over the pen, silent now, flying in from the west. Doug and Geoff crossed the runway to the pen doors. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries played between my ears. “There’s Richard!” I whispered. He swung out to our right and approached the runway, banking left, then right, then straight onto the dew-covered grass, taxiing to the pen before turning the trike back toward the north end. He stopped, waited a few seconds then gave the okay to let the chicks out.

I saw the first whooping crane I’ve ever seen at 6:44am on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Before the training was completed for the day, I had seen eight, or about half as many as it is estimated there were in the world in the early 1940s. Thanks to Operation Migration and other like-minded groups and individuals, there are now over 100 wild whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population!

I knew the birds hadn’t been out of the pen since Sunday. I guess I expected them all to escape their enclosure like kindergartners at recess. Instead, they leisurely left the pen. Number 1-13, who had recently found out what her wings are for, flapped into the marsh beyond the runway fence and another flap/ran toward the south end. Eventually, they were all following Richard up and down the runway, although 1-13 flew off again into the tall grass toward the northeast end of the runway, only to have her own personal escort back to the pen.

Having all the chicks back in the pen, Richard walked to the blind. Those of us in the blind got out and stood behind it as he, Eva, Brooke, Barry and Naomi whispered between themselves what I assumed to be the strategy they’d use to quickly and efficiently handle the birds. Soon they were heading back to the pen, where they proceeded to don their costumes and take their positions.  One by one the chicks were taken out, examined, inoculated, and given another band before being returned to the pen. The entire process took less than 20 minutes.

After Richard took off in the trike, we left the blind and returned to the parking lot, where we talked for a bit before saying our good-byes. As we approached the gate to leave, Doug kiddingly started closing the gate ahead of us, then swung it open, smiling. I smiled back. “I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be locked up in.” I said as we drove past him, turned, and returned to the road.

Ed. Note: Rich Smith lives in Winona, MN and has been a craniac since the summer of 2012 when he found our CraneCam. He’s a music fan, has a perpetual smile and in the past year has become a very good CraneCam ‘zoomie’ for Operation Migration.

If you would like to schedule a visit to the viewing blind to watch the young Whooping cranes in the Class of 2013 go through their paces, please contact Doug Pellerin pelican0711(AT)


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  1. MsSmith57 August 8, 2013 9:03 am

    I feel like I just visited the pen site. Thank you for the big smile plastered on my face now!

  2. Lu Duncan Frank August 6, 2013 11:46 pm

    Such a wonderfully written entry of an awe-inspiring day! For those of us who aren’t able to be there, we can live it thru your words! Thanks!

  3. Judy August 6, 2013 1:16 pm

    That was a wonderfully written account of your day with the cranes. Aren’t they just so heartwarming? Will be coming through our area sometime this fall. Keep up the good work team.

  4. Margie Tomlinson August 6, 2013 9:36 am

    Yes, ditto other replies, very nice! Thanks for sharing Rich!

  5. LindiLovesBirds August 5, 2013 7:43 pm

    Very interesting to read, thanks for sharing. So glad you got to be there to see it all 🙂

  6. JeanneAH August 5, 2013 4:43 pm

    Rich, your writing is wonderful, I felt that I was right there with you, just fabulous! Thanks so much for sharing your amazing experience with all of us who can’t make the trip.

  7. chasspaddler August 5, 2013 4:02 pm

    Sitting here smiling. 🙂 NOTHING like your “first time”. ~

  8. Christy August 5, 2013 1:10 pm

    What a wonderful day you had, Rich! Thanks for sharing it. Very well written. See you at Whooping Crane Festival 2013!

  9. barncat11 August 5, 2013 12:11 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. Great reading. I felt like I was along for the trip with you.