Guest Author – Mary O’Brien
The first time ever I saw the cranes…the planes…
Roberta Flack’s iconic melody, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, is one of my favorites and it was going through my mind as I reminisced about the first time I saw Whooping cranes soaring behind an ultralight aircraft on migration. The upcoming Whooping crane festival seems to trigger sharing stories and memories about what has brought us all together in the first place and what we are celebrating – I like that.
While I had watched some training sessions at the Necedah refuge in the early years, it wasn’t until 2006 that I saw a real migration flyover. In the early days, flyovers weren’t structured or advertised. Rather, they were witnessed only by the lucky few who knew the host families or who found out where they were located.
Here’s my story. My best friend, who at the time was a teacher in rural Dane County, heard that one of the host migration sites was in Green County, near New Glarus. One day we set out on a mission to get a look at these cranes and planes. Not being shy, I called a restaurant in New Glarus and boldly asked “do you know where we can find those crane people who are supposed to be in your area?” We were told that we might be able to find them somewhere near the New Glarus Woods State Park. So, on a cold September morning, we left Madison long before the sun came up and headed there.
After driving around for some time, we finally noticed a small Cessna airplane circling in the distance and it hit us at the same time – Operation Migration has a top cover airplane and this could be it! Oh, before I continue, let me step back a bit and mention that this unglaciated part of Green County is stunningly beautiful with rolling hills and valleys and fall colors that kick you right in the pants. We careened up the hills, down the hills, and through the valleys trying to follow that Cessna which finally disappeared into the distance. Then, just as the sun was rising but not yet strong enough to burn off the morning fog hanging in the valleys, we came down a hill and there they were, the whole OM entourage of trailers, trucks, planes, a few cars parked on the narrow gravel shoulder and some people standing near them.
It took a moment before we got up the nerve to get out of the car and chat with the few folks who had gathered near a small shed that fronted on a mowed strip serving as a runway. The owner welcomed us and asked everyone to tuck into the shed and stay very quiet when and if the planes and cranes came by. After what seemed like an eternity of watching Joe Duff and the other pilots, whom we had not yet met, scrape frost from the ultralight wings, kick the tires, and wiggle some strange white gowns over their ski jackets, one of the ultralights took off for a test run.
Finally, the signal was given that there would be a flight and we tucked ourselves just inside the shed where it was so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Suddenly, a plane came swooping down through the jack-o-lantern colored valley followed by a string of magnificent Whoopers that seemed to be at eye level and almost close enough to touch.
As we turned toward each other and teary eye contact was made, something passed between each of us that mere words can’t adequately describe or explain. I now know that this was a special bond that would be shared many more times by many more people in the coming decade. I will treasure this first time memory all the days of my life and I hope you enjoy it too.