We traveled only a few miles when our tracking receiver beep beeped to life and our pulse rates climbed accordingly. “She’s close!” Colleen said quietly. Stephen and Jo led us off the highway and onto a dirt road overlooking a large wetlands area. It was bordered on the other two sides by wooded uplands, while just to the east a giant radio tower stood ominously, it’s supporting guy wires radiating out like the tentacles of some malevolent alien. “Never stare directly at those radio towers,” my old flight instructor once counselled. “They’ll suck you right in. Really!” The beeps grew louder, but sadly, no white spots appeared. We swallowed hard as reality began its indifferent assault.
Our large tracking van antenna sniffed the air, then assumed a bird dog point in the direction of a small, heavily wooded hummock rising up from the marsh a few hundred yards away. Our spirits fell. Whoopers don’t usually frequent such places unless they are having a very bad day. We attached the smaller antenna to our tracking receiver and the four of us were soon following the beeps down the gentle hill towards the hummock.
As our journey progressed, our senses sharpened and our sense of threat deepened, fueling our perception that the hummock was, in fact, growing ever larger… into some dark, storybook kingdom of menace. Our steps involuntarily slowed and shortened as if approaching a mine field. And that’s when we saw it… just a few feet ahead. It lay across our path like an invisible castle mote, like the door to a doctor’s examining room or the reading of a jury verdict… that all too familiar point of no return, past which things will never be quite the same.
We continued, and were soon at the hummock, staring into its collage of shade and shadow as if trying to discern a number on a Rorschach Chart. And then the music stopped. Just ahead in the dirt and leaves, under the dark canopy of vegetation, two transmitter bands lay before us in full color and function amidst the scavenged and scattered remains of our 8-14. We stood for a moment in quiet shock and reverence… and processed.
Then, as if on automatic pilot, we replaced our collective sense of loss with sudden purpose and began our crime scene investigation. Our senses reawakened as we moved through and around the hummock assembling clues, though in the full knowledge that definitive answers would remain just out of reach. The nearby radio tower grew larger, its guy wires less visible as did the power lines that lined the dirt road just up the hill. And the condition of the remains suggested the end came many days before, most probably at the time of first arrival from St Marks. Possible scenarios began to form, dissolve and form again. But it would be up to the Health Lab in Madison, WI. to hopefully provide the final pieces to the puzzle.
As I began placing the remains of 8-14 in the plastic bag, I was suddenly mindful of just how maddeningly familiar it all was. I had performed this ritual twenty four times during my fifteen years with the project. Still, each time was like the first. We assembled and as we headed back up the hill, I had the sense that each of us was comforted by a sense of peace and consolation in knowing that she was attended by four people who really cared. And many more who could not be present.
Then, at the top of the hill, we heard a unison call ring out. It shocked our senses as its blanket of sound reverberated across the wetlands below. We turned back just in time to see a pair of adult whooping cranes, their bodies a blaze of white, as they stood in triumphant pose, necks outstretched, calling out against the sky. How could we have missed seeing them? And who were they? We stood in fixed amazement as they lifted off in perfect harmony and began spiraling up in wide circles above the marsh. As they did, they called to each other continuously, their conversation raucous yet somehow soothing. Higher and higher into the perfectly blue morning sky they climbed, growing ever smaller, their calling less audible. Then there was silence as one bird broke from the spiral and headed north on migration while the other continued higher and higher towards a patch of the purest, most comforting shade of blue imaginable. And then it was gone.
The drive back to Florida was long and dark and quiet… the kind of ride that seems to last forever but is so full of thoughts and memories that when it’s over, you wonder if it was all just a dream. And through it all, I had the sense we were not alone… that back there in the darkness, next to the dead bird box, our old friend Sisyphus sat cross-legged, also lost in thought. Did he ever get used to it, I wondered?
Then I remembered the story. One day, while he was straining and struggling, his shoulder hard against the boulder as he inched it up the hill, an American tourist who just happened to be standing there trying to deploy his beloved Selfie Stick for a smartphone Facebook picture asked him, in utter confusion and disbelief, “How do you do it, man? I mean… Really?” Sisyphus stopped for a moment and looked up at the man, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and with the half smile of resignation answered, “You just got to learn to roll with the punches Big Guy. And don’t forget to smile.” And with that, he resumed his quest of rolling the boulder up the hill.
The long, dark miles continued to roll out beneath us as my mind considered it all with the quiet determination of a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. And I guess like most things, it was all pretty simple really. But the knowing of something is one thing and the acceptance of a thing is quite another. In the end, the only thing I’m really sure of is that in my next life… I’m going to take up golf. After all, it’s just gotta be easier to PUTT than it is to PUSH.
The following afternoon, back at St Marks, we were walking out from the blind when Bev called from the airplane as she circled above White River Marsh. “Guess who’s just below me foraging in the marsh?” she asked. It was 4-13.
And two weeks later, at the end of another long drive, I arrived back in White River Marsh to begin the new season. The next morning, Bev and I looked out expectantly across the marsh for the nest we hoped would be there. And there it was. #3-14 was sitting on her first nest with 4-12 in attendance foraging nearby. And so it begins.
A special thanks to our long time Stop-over Hosts and dear forever friends, Stephen and Jo Lewis… who continue to care.