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Cranes wake up during what some yogis call “the ambrosial hours” that precede dawn. While I’ve practiced yoga for many years, I still haven’t embraced this time of day. So it was with bleary eyes that I set out on my crane safari with the Crane Trust.
Lest you think safaris are just for Africa, let me be clear we’re talking about central Nebraska here. Every year, a half million sandhill cranes stop over at the Platte River, fattening up on corn waste before continuing on to their nesting grounds in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. A few whooping cranes also come through, though sadly very few are left in the world.
On an early morning in late March, my group of birdwatchers was fortunate the temperature was almost 40 degrees. First we attended an orientation at the visitors’ center. A guide explained birding etiquette, including no talking and no flash photography. Also, no bathrooms in or near the blind. So beware the coffee or tea you might otherwise turn to as an early morning pick-me-up.
Educated, we pulled on our gloves, hats and coats, and filed out into the dark morning. A few stars twinkled through the cloud cover as we walked silently to the blind. Tiny solar lanterns lined our pathway. Inside the blind, Plexiglass walls protected us from the Nebraska wind. We could open small windows for a better view, standing and peering into the dark river before us. Or we could sit on the two-tiered wooden benches, like a cold sauna, closing our eyes and listening to the waking cranes calling to each other.
As the sun rose, we could see what we’d been hearing: tens of thousands of sandhill cranes filling the sandbars in front of the blind. Some still slept, standing up. Others danced or called to each other. As the sky lightened, they rose up in their small family groups, flying off to the nearby corn fields.
We all gazed out through binocular or telephoto lenses or our naked eyes, talking in whispers or practicing silence. This is why we’d come to Nebraska. To see the great crane migration.
Sanctuary and Ecotourism
The Crane Trust was established in 1978. Its mission is to protect and maintain the Big Bend area of the Platte River so that it remains habitable for whooping cranes and other migratory birds. The trust carries out its mission through scientific research, managing habitat and doing outreach and education.
Until four years ago, the Crane Trust functioned as a private research center. No hiking or sightseeing was allowed. But now it’s entering the ecotourism business. The CT acquired a new visitors’ center in 2012. More than 25,000 people visit annually. For $25, guests can spend a morning or evening in a bird blind overlooking prime crane roosting sites. Or they can now sign up for a crane safari, which includes birdwatching, guided tours, meals, overnight stays in one of the trust’s brand new cabins, and maybe even an evening of entertainment from a singing cowboy.
My group was taken around the property by the trust’s head honchos: CEO Chuck Cooper and senior director Brice Krohn. These two impressive men give the impression that there’s nothing they can’t do. Cooper burned with commitment as he described his decision to leave private, corporate life, taking a 50 percent pay cut to save a string of suffering nonprofits. He’s headed the Crane Trust since 2010, which entailed leaving the big city of Omaha to come to a speck on the prairie outside Grand Island. Cooper loves it here.
He feels great personal responsibility for preserving the 70 miles of the Platte where the cranes sojourn. Already this is less than half the ground the birds covered before water and habitat was lost to human agriculture and general encroachment.
In addition to migrating birds, the Crane Trust also wants to see bison on the prairie. They just acquired a herd of 41 genetically pure bison that will soon roam free. Cooper’s eyes shine as he talks about the spiritual connection between bison and cranes, two animals who filled the prairies before white people first showed their pale faces in these parts.
It’s a thrill to see the massive, wooly heads of these animals up close. But not too close. As Cooper reminds us, bison are huge, wild animals who could easily decide to jump the fence and trample us. So show a little respect.
Cabins and Meals
The new cabins had only been open a month when I stayed a night there. So far, there are two identical cabins, with plans for two more deluxe cabins in the works. The cabins have four bedrooms, each with a private bath – one in each corner of the building – and a central kitchen area. They are very comfortable, yet simple. Two rooms in each cabin have a queen-size bed, the other two have two twins. The twin rooms offer more floor space for yoga practice, so that’s what I picked.
We had our meals in a nearby building. I’d told them ahead that I was vegan. When traveling to beef states like Nebraska, I aim for vegan then happily settle for vegetarian, since many people are unfamiliar with my preferred diet. Not the Crane Trust. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a big container of pancakes marked “vegan” at breakfast. But they were real and delicious. For dinner I got a very nice mixed green salad – Nebraska is also a land of iceberg lettuce – steamed veggies, wild rice and mushrooms, and a plate of strawberries for dessert. Now that is luxury! So if you go on a crane safari, notify the Crane Trust ahead of time if you have special dietary needs.
While I love looking at nature photos and videos, there’s no substitute for standing in a blind at dawn, hands cold as they clutch binoculars, and witnessing the wonder of all those cranes taking off. Or opening the window of the Crane Trust cabin and listening to the purring sound the cranes make all night.
The Crane Trust staff want visitors to take away the feeling that habitat preservation is up to all of us. “If you care about what you see, it is a personal, individual responsibility, not the government’s,” Cooper told us emphatically. “If you want this habitat to survive, if you want these birds to survive, it’s up to you.”