Finding Magic in the Madness

What is it about the month of March, seemingly an annual body blow to the gut after a long snowy and windblown winter? And why does it have to continue into April? To borrow a term from the sports world, this is another form of  “March Madness.” We have rarely had a break between blizzards. Snow on top of snow with more snow on the way. Squirrels worked to destroy yet another bird feeder, and many migrations were still holed up south of us. Pasque flowers, one of our first spring wildflowers to appear, were still dormant beneath acres and inches of snow.

I was more than ready for a break from the madness by mid-March, so with my appropriately named Rogue packed with photography gear, it was off to the Platte River in the midst of Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration.

Once I crossed from South Dakota into Nebraska in midtown Yankton, my curiosity was focused on where and when would we run out of snow. It would be 60 miles due south at Norfolk, NE, meaning there was no white stuff hiding beneath bushes and prairie crevices. Reading my car thermometer caused me to lower the windows to feel the blessed beauty of fresh, warm air. The temperature continued to rise until rolling into Grand Island, my first night lodging, with an afternoon temperature of 70 degrees. My driver’s side window was open and a CD was playing some prairie soul by my buddy Charlie Roth. I was suddenly thinking I’d finally escaped from all of the madness when my cell phone suddenly erupted with a warning: A winter storm warning.

A foursome of Sandhill Cranes in a colorful Nebraska sunset.

Awaking to a drop of some 50 degrees overnight, a glance outside my motel window showed my windshield covered with a layer of sleet. Outside, a wind was blasting in from the northwest with flakes of both ice and snow. Fortunately the predicted snow didn’t last, and by the check-in time to Cheryl Opperman’s Sandhill Crane Photographic Workshop at Crane Trust, it had warmed to the mid-40s. Sun was peeking through a cloudy sky. We were just a few hours away from heading to the blinds on the bank of the Platte for a different kind of madness! 

If you’ve never experienced the crane migration, this is a healthy kind of madness. Opperman has worked with Crane Trust for several years in establishing a series of photography workshops, and apparently my invitation came thanks to a cancellation. My original intent was to secure a plywood blind where I had experienced my best crane photography to date. This is what led me to Opperman, an incredible freelance nature photographer from the Denver area. Besides the crane migration, she offers excursions to the Kansas prairie for Prairie Chickens as well as trips to Iceland, Africa and the Antarctic among others. ( 

Estimates placed the number of cranes in the valley at the time close to a half million birds, so the skies were full of sound and fury.

Actually, the old blinds are no longer, for in her agreement with Crane Trust those were replaced by a couple of larger blinds surrounded by a hay-bale fortress to prevent the cranes from seeing humans despite our steely subterfuge of arriving an hour or so before their flights in from the fields in the afternoons, and we would traverse the grassy trail in total darkness when entering in the mornings, reversing those strategies on the way out. 

The workshop was a whole new world for me. I had nearly left my tripod at home, yet here I was among folks with lenses as long as my leg and tripods with strange heads. Once in the blind that first afternoon, Opperman helped set up my tripod properly for my 600 mm, and we then settled in to await the show. It wasn’t long before the familiar and heavenly sounds of the cranes began coursing in from overhead. At first they seemed headed for the shallow waters upriver. Meanwhile, I was in dire straits working my rather inflexible tripod, and finally in frustration pulled the camera to record the flyover with my smaller zoom. “Just do what you’d normally do,” she finally said. A certain comfort settled in, although one that would soon be challenged.

As interesting as the evening fly in is the departing of the river come morning, especially if eagles and other threats seem nearby.

After the shoot the following morning, Opperman challenged me to change. One, pre-set to auto focus. Two, change the head of the tripod to a devise called a gimbal. Three, use the fastest shutter mechanism you have (which sounded like an AK-whatever). And, four, before we return to the blinds, go outside and practice. Which in itself was a bit of a challenge for my practice was on a stagnant, browsing bison herd. This was when fellow work-shopper Tom Dietrich, of Laramie, WY, looked across the table and said, “This isn’t photojournalism. It’s a whole different discipline.” Opperman was pushing me completely out of my comfort zone. Putting this new “madness aside,” when we returned to the blinds for the night shoot I was adamant to do it her way.

The gimbal is an interesting and incredible tool. Complete maneuverability with the lens, and she had also given me hints on how to better track or pan with auto focus. No, this was not what I was used to, although it was fun and different. Unfortunately, thanks to this madness of March, for I must place blame somewhere, the cards containing my images from both the afternoon and morning shoots weren’t initially recognized by my reader. West Photo in Minneapolis came to the rescue, and when I finally saw the results of stepping out of my comfort I was rather pleased. 

A presistant eagle above the Platte early in the morning seemingly surrounded by flying cranes.

High among the reasons was that overnight the temperatures had dropped into the single digits, and one of my blind mates, Vicki Von Loh, informed us in a near whisper that the wind chill was a -7 degrees. I recalled photojournalist Dec Haun explaining why one of his prize winning images from the Detroit riots in 1967 was blurry. “I was shooting at 500th of a second but I was shaking at 1000th!” With northwesterly winds blowing straight into the blind my shiver was way more than my shutter speed, yet, about 95 percent of my images were free of shivering shake! Like Tom had said, “This isn’t photojournalism.” Ice plates were floating on the surface of the Platte, and by the time we headed to the vans for the last time, the river was basically a cocktail of hypothermia. 

Back home the madness of March had remained in full beast. More snow. More blizzards. Drifts had become long and picturesque dunes crossing our lawn from the woodland to the prairie. One that formed over our walkway was higher than we are tall, and would blow shut overnight. Every night! 

Cranes feeding in the nearby fields are always interesting and add to the experience and draw motorists who stop along the rural byways with camera and long lenses.

Yet, there were some beautiful moments within the madness. Besides chasing the cranes in Opperman’s workshop, there was my “artist’s opening” for my exhibit at the Kouba Gallery at the Isaac Walton League in Bloomington where many friends, old and new, ventured through the tail end of yet another blizzard to help celebrate. One was a former colleague at the Wisconsin State Journal where I spent a brief time working in 1967-8. 

Now, as we head into April the weather madness continues. That snow dune on the walkway had shrunk quite a bit until this latest blizzard, and with the drifting it was nearly as tall as before. The wind sounds like a freight train, and a trio of Juncos leaving tracks in the overnight snow on my deck convinced me to refill a feeder salvaged from the latest squirrel attack. As we headed to bed a look outside found a beautiful full moon peeking through the ice covered branches of the trees. So, yes, there is magic even in this most trying of times of a forever winter, yet as long as we can find magic and beauty we can see through the madness.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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