A ‘Bumpy’ Ride of 400 Horses

It was several years ago when my artist friend, Dan Wahl, approached my cheeseburger and me at a table at Marshall’s Brau Brother’s Brewhouse with his sketchbook. “Here’s what I’ve been up to,” he said, opening the white pages to some of his first drawings of a huge personal mission. “My intent is to draw 400 horses.”

A couple of years later we were both part of a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC) exhibit at the Hutchinson Center for the Arts. Dan had created a huge four foot by four foot “poster” of all 400 of his drawings and I found myself starring at the “postage stamp” images for much of the opening. Intrigued, and also somewhat stunned. There was so much to comprehend. Later during the initial Hinterland Art Crawl in Redwood County area, he strung fencing wire across a praireland pasture down to a small wetland and back where he hanged his drawings. Now they’re hanging on several cords across the second floor of a re-purposed building at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove.

This is an “interactive” exhibit, meaning that, as always, Dan is asking all who enter to create their own drawings of horses, which he is cataloging and keeping in a collection.

Before anyone comes to a conclusion about the exhibit they should realize that if they’re looking for 400 drawings that perfectly portray beautiful or famous horses, don’t. For this exhibit isn’t so much about the art as it is for the artist, and Dan’s artist’s statement offers such an explanation. He initially decided upon the arts project to “better understand the equine body structure” within the time line of a single year … 2015. For the record, each drawing is numbered.

“Why 400?” he asked. “Because 225 or 360 didn’t seem right. Four hundred seemed like a good, round number.”

Then something happened. And it’s all there, within all in those 400 drawings of an exhibit he calls “Don’t Doubt Your Horses.” “All” meaning the struggles he faced as an artist. This is the beauty of a well intentioned artist’s statement, where an artist treats us intimately to what and why of what they’re doing. A few years back artist Sarah Eckel had an exhibit of her paintings at the Prairie Renaissance Cultural Alliance in Morris that defied understanding until her artist’s statement was read … her paintings of hands searching over mounds of flesh, all hidden behind small black curtains, was a view you had to pry back the curtains to see and illustrated her frustrations of self image. 

Dan Wahl’s honesty was no less sobering, as reflected in both his statement and in his works … which vary from childish scribblings containing his notes of frustration to near “perfect” renderings of horses one might expect in such an exhibit, to some that would remind a viewer of a Bonnie Timmons illustration or a Picasso-like inked effort contained in flowing lines of artistic poetry. 

A few months into the project he faced what he describes as an “artist’s block. I didn’t know where to turn, or what to do. I was committed, although at that point I couldn’t continue.” Within the exhibit is drawing number 76, which looks like the circled sketches of a four year old over which he writes, “Haven’t drawn horses in a long time. I am forty-nine years old!” It was dated April 28, 2015 … a mere 69 days into the project. Wahl was some 324 horse drawings short of his projected goal. 

Dan said he journaled and meditated, and perhaps even said a prayer or two before realizing that the project wasn’t about making horse drawings, but “liking the horse drawings. If this project was to be completed at all, I would have to accept all the horses. Regardless of how they looked This was easier said than done.” Yes, it is all there in the 400 drawings, all of his angst and artistic frustration. And of the joys of mental freedom!

Yet that shift of focus from the act of drawing to the act of liking “necessitated a deeper appreciation of the horses themselves. In order to accept them I had to let them be who they were. Who they are.”

Yes, some would certainly be considered “bad art.” Those drawings an artist might either hide in their sketchbooks or perhaps even crumple up and ditch into a waste basket. “In the end,” he said, “it seemed right to include every single drawing into the one exhibit.”

To his credit this is precisely what he has done. At some point in the process Dan created a “limbo” box he used as a “repository” for his drawings. “They wanted to come out into the world but they weren’t quite ready,” he said, smiling his neon smile. “So I made them a resting place, a repository for waiting. It took me awhile to trust my horses enough to show everyone!”

The Hutchinson show was the initial “peek into the box” and thanks to a new SMAC grant, he and an aide are working on compiling both his drawings and the hundreds he has requested each and every viewer to draw. At his Walnut Grove showing a table has been set up with colored pencils and crayons and blank “postcards” for those so inspired, and many are. Along the outside walls he has hanged the drawings of the those efforts.

Every once in awhile there comes an exhibit by one of the prairie artists that requires a bit of time and effort to fully appreciate, to devour in depths of thought and eventual appreciation. Sarah Eckel’s exhibit at the PRCA gallery was one, and Dan Wahl’s is another. I have serious doubt that you can cross Wilder’s infamous Plum Creek on the way home without reliving and feeling some of the frustration, wonder and sighs of relief echoing from that second floor “repository” of Dan Wahl’s 400 Horses.

A ‘Blame’ Game

Those visible dirt particles were bellowing upwards of a couple hundred feet. With gusts up to 50 mph a brownish “fog” kissed the near horizon. Make “horizon” as just down the road not even a mile distant. And those light tan spots poking from the former prairie? Those tan spots of ever-growing exposed subsoil? We’re simply watching them grow, inch by inch, acre by acre, year after year.

It’s easy to blame the wind. Next to our small Listening Stones Farm prairie, though, my neighboring farmer, Travis Sandburg, has his soil perfectly protected with his row crops easing up through the radish and rye grasses he had recently sprayed. That 50 mph gusty wind? It was merely tickling the browned grasses while his soil remained protected from the winds as it had all fall, winter and spring. No-till planting into a cover crop. Travis even gained some of his neighbor’s dirt down the road where he had no-till planted into a stalk field. On this windy afternoon his field was mostly shrouded by a brownish haze ­— a neighboring dirt. Luckily for him he’s not an organic farmer, otherwise his status might have been compromised.

A towering haze of blown dirt outside of Clinton, MN, created by gusts up to 50 mph on soils unprotected by cover crops. Tan subsoils poke through the haze.

Millions of tons of dirt left fields across the vast opened prairie on this Tuesday afternoon, all from fields left unprotected. Those driving through the area noticed and spoke of it. It’s easy to blame the wind.

On a field just west of Clinton dirt was blown airborne in dense, swirling clouds. In the greater gusts towers of particles rose high into the sky. Through the dense darkness of the dirt cloud tan spots in the field poked through. A woman who lives in Clinton said, “It’s the ‘Dirty Thirties’ all over again.” She claimed to taste the fine particles. It’s easy to blame the wind.

Now is not the winter when snow provides a contrast to perfectly show blown and misplaced dirt. Most of it is black. Fine topsoil. That mixture is called “snirt,” and a few years ago poor farming practices provided me with a “canvas” for my photographic show, “The Art of Erosion.” I could duplicate the imagery every winter. In one field stretching across two miles of roadway about 20 miles east of here the erosion was so severe this winter that the farmer used two “tracked” tractors equipped with blades to scrape the blown black dirt back into his field before working it for planting. They worked the two-mile stretch on his side of the paved highway for days. His dirt on the ditch shoulder across the road remained untouched likely due to an inconvenience of transporting it somehow across the highway and back into his field. It’s easy to blame the wind.

Neighboring farmer, Travis Sandburg, planted a soil protecting cover crop after harvest last fall, then no-till planted his new crop into the chemically-treated grasses.

One of his neighbors further down the highway also scraped bucket loads of topsoil from a meadow overlooking the Pomme de Terre river. I don’t know what it costs to run a tractor over several acres of a meadow to collect dirt blown from a field, although it seems it would be far less expensive and convenient to simply plant a cover crop. It’s easy to blame the wind.

About the time these farmers were working to recoup their blown dirt a picture made its way into the printed media of a beautiful ancient mosaic that was discovered under tons of eroded dirt somewhere in the Mideast. This was one of many such images of past civilizations found beneath eroded sands and dirts over the years, all from cropping practices on fields cropped long before the switch from BC (a calendar era based on the traditionally reckoned year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth) to AD (after his death). It’s easy to blame the wind.

As W. C. Loudermilk’s wrote in his published paper, “Civilizations and Soil Erosion”: “Present day archaeologists, in their postmortems on excavations of ruins of ancient civilizations, have revealed some very illuminating information. They now tell us that some former civilizations, one revelling in a Golden Age of prosperity and surrounded by magnificence and opulence, are crumbled in ruins, half buried in the dust and debris of their own destructive exploitation of the lands they once cultivated.”

A dusty haze hung over much of the ‘black desert’ as winds blasted the topsoils.

Such was a compelling and frightful theme in David R. Montgomery’s “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” that, according to a published description, traced the role of soil use and abuse in the history of Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, China, European colonialism, Central America, and the American push westward. He described how each granule of dirt was pretty much historically ignored as it blew away until it was too late, adding to the end of previous civilizations. He warned that we’re now farming the “last frontier” of tillable soils on our planet. There is no more. It’s easy to blame the wind.

It’s the same as folks saw yesterday as they drove through what in our neck of the prairie is called the “black desert.” Fields left basically tilled and barren from the past harvest until we reach protective crop canopies in mid-June; where dirt is susceptible to blowing for nearly eight months over the course of time. Very few of those commodity farmers have adopted the practices of Farmer Sandburg by planting cover crops or even leaving stalk fields unplowed until spring, meaning they leave their and much of humanity’s soils vulnerable to the winds of winter. We watch the tannish brown areas, those hilltops of subsoils, grow ever larger, year after year. Where will the soils be when humanity reaches a point where those soils will need to produce foods we can actually eat? It’s so easy to blame the wind.

A portrait of a moraine “terra quilt” with blocks of subsoil on the rises mixed with “shashings” of black topsoils in the lowlands and valleys.

A friend who runs a grassed beef operation on an organic farm in the former glacial moraine about an hour east of here talks about how the landscape around her is now being converted from grasslands to commodity cropping. “They’re bringing their cultural farming practices up from the black desert to here on the hilly moraine, and every year there are more gullies washing away soil, and you can just watch the dirt blow away,” she said. “There is really no excuse nor need for row cropping the moraine. None.” 

As you drive through the moraine, or the “glacial shield,” even the recently converted fields have those telltale tan areas to create a terrain quilt with “blocks” of subsoil on the slopes and hilltops mixed with “shashings” of black topsoils settled in the lowlands and valleys. “Chemical farming” brings a semblance of somewhat balanced crop yields, yet those tannish brown areas grow ever larger, year after year. It’s easy to blame the wind. 

There was very little snow contrast on this two-mile stretch of highway where you couldn’t distinguish the field from the road ditch. Two tractors were used to scrape the blown dirt back into the field prior to planting, although the dirt that settled in the adjacent ditch across the road remained.

Travis Sandburg and other farmers like him, including my nephew in Missouri, Mark White, are learning the means and necessity of saving their soils from such heady winds that blasted the prairie on a Tuesday afternoon. There is even a Facebook group called “Everything Cover Crops” with lively forums and discussions among the adopters. Back in my farm journalism days we called these folks “early adopters.” Those are the folks willing to seek change for the betterment of the earth’s resources. Otherwise we have a shallow depth of life-sustaining topsoils for humanity being put at risk while we simply sit back and watch the black soil blow and the tan spots grow. It’s so easy to blame the wind.

Cluck, Cutt or Putt?

Our foray on Sunday morning was, in truth, a ritual of spring! At least for me. We were in search of the small reddish star-shaped lobes of prairie smoke, one of my traditional spring prairie plants. The site? The Lake Johanna Esker, an uneven swath of protected prairieland between Sunburg and Brooten on a curvy narrow country gravel road that courses past the Ordway Prairie, numerous unnamed wetlands and some dense stands of timber. Traversing the gravel road is a joy in itself. Then there is the esker, an untamed relic of a glacial past.

We had come on a May morning, one that was a bit chilly though beautiful. A great day for a saunter. About halfway through our sauntering foray a “clicking” sound became ever more audible. While I was knee deep in the hillside grasses focusing on a small purplish ground plum blossom poking through the duff, Mary had taken a seat on a broken branch of an old oak when we both heard the sound. Was it either a cluck, cutt or putt of an unseen possible wild turkey? Both of us heard it. If so, it seemed one was rather close with another off in the distance.

“I think that’s a wild turkey,” she said. “But I don’t see one, and I don’t know how close.”

It seems we were part of a nervous cutt rather than a fearful putt, for the wild turkey simply strided to the crest of the esker.

She was right. One was quite close though unseen. Those who brag of beard lengths and scratch slate to entice them may have deciphered whether these “clicks” signified whether the bird was simply announcing its presence to another in the flock, was aware but unafraid of something strange being in its vicinity, or if that oddness was actually a security threat. Apparently there is a subtle difference between the three differentiating “clicks”  …  which sound about the same to a mere novice.

When I stood moments later a lone turkey just a few meters behind us suddenly made several stealthy strides back up toward the crest of the ridge of the esker, stopping now and then to gaze down toward us. We were either part of the comforting cluck or the nervous cutt rather than a fearful putt … if we were to correctly read its movement and reactions. A putt would have no doubt meant a quick and noisy exit via a quick feather-fluffing flight rather than a stealthy stride!  

Yes, there was prairie smoke despite the recent prairie burn.

Our encounter with the wild turkey was at about the mid-point of our jaunt into the Pope County esker, a beautiful sanctuary for prairie forbs and birds. And, home to one of my certain annual milestones each spring, midway before the search along the Watson Sag for white ladyslippers and long after the appearance of pasque flowers on a virgin prairie hillside overlooking the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Each is part of my annual  spring ritual. 

Over the years the esker, one of the few protected in Minnesota that is also accessible to the public, has never let me down. This saunter would follow suit for scattered throughout were the smallish reddish lobes daintily poking through the grasses, the petals forming fiery stars peeking through the ankle-high grasses. 

I loved finding the ground plum blossoms poking through the duff!

We were both relieved and pleased to have found them since large portions of the 806 acre grassy property that is protected by the Nature Conservancy and had been put through a controlled burn in recent weeks. Several stretches of the lower portion of the esker were left uncharred as was a portion of the 70 foot high serpentine ridge where we encountered the turkey. That ridge is the actual esker, comprised of an ancient sand and gravel stream bed deposited deep below the ice during the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. For the past several centuries that old stream bed has been covered with earthen deposits supporting grasses, oaks, the stalky white blossomed field chickweed, prairie smoke and those scattered clumps of purplish ground plum. And, at least one wild turkey!

One of the nice surprises was the occasional field chickweed!

Morris area naturalist, Dave Jungst, introduced me to the esker several years ago and it has since drawn me back in a near pilgrimage ever since. Over the years I’ve made numerous images here of more than just prairie smoke. One of my favorite was of Sandhill Cranes that flew over as I sat in the grasses late one afternoon awaiting a colorful sunset as a hopeful blending background to a picturesque clump of prairie smoke. Another time I found my first showey ladyslipper near the marshy wetland on the edge of the site. And once a killdeer physically challenged the face of my camera lens as I lay belly-flat in the grasses trying to focus on a nearby flower.

One year the equally smallish white pussytoes provided a ground covering so solidly thick and white that the reddish prairie smoke lobes poking through offered a nearly perfect natural quilt that would have stunned even members of the American Quilter’s Society! Seemingly, this was a unique experience for it hasn’t happened since, and on our visit Sunday only a few small patches of pussytoes were spotted. 

The white quilt created by the pussytoes with the prairie smoke poking through was so thick it would have stunned even members of the American Quilter’s Society!

Yet, this is so true of nature. No two years are ever quite the same. Indeed, I was warned after planting my eight acres of restored native prairie here at Listening Stones Farm to never take a season, and particularly a year, for granted because no two years are the same. One year early on our prairie was so thick of yellow flowers of varied species that it glistened with a golden brightness that was nearly blinding as we crested the hill at the end of the section. The following year blues and purples dominated, and not once in the seven years since have we seen such a theme of yellow!

Before heading out to the esker on Sunday I had moments of wonder, and specifically if the prairie smoke was even in bloom. Between our house and the studio we have a small triangular native prairie garden where most years I can use it as a barometer for which native flowers might be in bloom out in the prairie wildernesses. So far the prairie smoke in my garden hasn’t popped a lobe yet this spring. 

The soft greenness of the leafing aspen along the edging was both catching and pleasing to the eye!

A few steps past the springed gate at the esker my concerns were quickly put to ease. Ample prairie smoke was spotted to photograph among so much more. The ground plum on the esker ridge, for one, was certainly a treat, and I spent long moments finding a pleasing angle with sparse field chickweed. Plus there was the soft greenness of leafing aspen along the edging of the esker was both catching and pleasing to the eye. Then there was the wild turkey “clicking away” in an undetermined language. Was it a cluck, cutt or putt? One may always wonder. 

Tease of the Tempest

Oh, April! You’re such a tempest. Teasing us with your loving and sensuous heat for a blessed moment before abruptly becoming frigid and distant. You bring warmth so satisfying and with such depth that our inner souls are soothed with comfort. Then, just as we were so nearly seduced you turned the other shoulder to show us a side of you so unwelcoming, so cold and distant we considered hiding.

What were we to do? There isn’t an answer. So we simply sat back and allowed your split personality to waver, to enjoy the momentary warming tease before you choose to freeze us away. This is quite a ride! 

Ah, yes. Those beautiful rays of sunshine that gave way to pelting rains and occasional snow. No boredom, my dear. None at all. You wavered from one moment to the next, from day to day. You brought us purplish pasque flowers on a gray day on a brown hill. So uplifting. So early. A few days later we met before dawn as the sun began to peek over this gnarly, long forgotten ridged bank of the Glacial River Warren, forever unplowed and strewn with rocks set free by the ancient icy river. 

On a recent morning a sunrise broke over our Listening Stones Farm prairie …

You actually gave off an appealing glow of warmth and happiness, offering us prairie flowers quite tiny and delicate though we’ve long known their toughness and persistence, of how they harken for spring before the other native forbs. How warming to the inner soul. On days like this, April, you remind us of naturalist and author Hal Borland who suggested “April is a promise May is bound to keep.” In a word, you give us hope. Then, as suddenly, you tried hiding all this soft bluish-violetness with whiteness. Cold and shivering whiteness.

Yet, dear April, you remind us of certain promises. One with a fly rod, or any fishing rod, with that familiar tug on the end of the line. Bluegills in the bay; Blue Bells in the woods! Bluish-gray Great Blue Herons wading in the shallows just weeks after ice out, lifting off at the slightest fear. Promises of pasque flowers and delicate blue daisies. Of nesting birds working feverishly to prepare for the future of their species. Of dark blue skies rising in the West that suggest a hopeful gentle rain, one that magically allows green to emerge in the turf. Of lilac leaves stretching away from spindly branches, and that reddish tint sparkling in the nearby woodlands and prairie riverbanks as buds venture forth. 

April brings us pasque flowers on a gnarly hill above the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

With all this promise we tend to overlook the occasional flecks of snow, or the cold, wind-driven rain. Those happen, too. Some days we may initially don down coats, hoodies and even insulated pants before switching to shorts and a tee shirt by mid-afternoon. Galway-like days, always ever-changing with an atmospheric weather of  absolute confusion. Borland, author and son of the Nebraska and Colorado plains and prairie, offered this: “The longer I live and the more I read, the more certain I become that the real poems about spring aren’t written on paper. They are written in the back pasture and the near meadow, and they are issued in a new revised edition every April.”


You gave us sunrises late enough for an old man to see, with sunsets glowing in both pastel and vividness well before bedtime. All that color alive in the sky; all that spring poetry, and yes, none of it on paper. Winter has passed us, though those random flecks of snow on a gray and chilly day serve as a too-recent reminder. Spring showers bring a greenness to inspire, yet it’s those gorgeous sunny days that are the best. Warmth without the heat and humidity of summer. Another promise!

April brought us Galway-like weather … sun one minute, snow the next, with some gentle rain in the mix.

With your warmth we watch a pilgrimage to the greenhouses and farm fields. Another promise. As I write this my neighboring farmer whose commodity crop field abuts our Listening Stones Farm prairie is hard at work with spring tillage. I must take note of the your sunrises, the shape and feel of the horizon to remember in the heat of summer. Yes, April, you remind us of horizons with those moments of rapidly changing color; color in the coming and in the going. The sunrise. The sunset.

This morning you gave us a perfectly splendid prairie sunrise with just enough clouds stretching across our prized horizon to give the rising sun a stage perfect for a performance that would be cliche if not for those too many mornings when you offered us only an overcast grayness. This is when you allow us to enjoy this marriage between horizon and prairie as a magnificent bonding experience. “As a mountain is high, a prairie is wide; a horizontal grandeur, not vertical,” wrote the late essayist, Bill Holm. Indeed. 

She brought sunrises late enough for an old man, and sunsets early enough, too!

Oh, April! Your mornings, long past the Equinox and headed steadfastly toward the Summer Solstice, are the clues of an awakening of the natural world. This we’ll give you as you stretch your arms and yank back the covers on another spring. Unlike March, which is the blinking of the eyes after months of sleep, you are an awakening that now becomes serious ­— sometimes calmly, sometimes anything but. A tempest of both seduction and spite, all awaiting a calmness a calendar calls May. 

Chasing Cats

Along with the ease of my paddle slipping into the murky waters came a comforting sense of once again being one with the Minnesota River. An intermittent facing breeze riffled the waters as we pushed off from the Wegdahl landing between Granite Falls and Montevideo heading upriver. This was my first paddling of the year and my shoulder weakness, particularly on the left side, was apparent.

“Tom,” I said to my longtime friend, paddling and fishing partner, outdoor writer Tom Cherveny. “Give me a little time to find my rhythm. It’s been a long winter.”

A split second after taking this photo of the woodland stream, a big deer bolted from the woods to leap across the stream as I was placing the cell phone in a secure plastic bag.

“No problem,” came his response. This wouldn’t be the first time he has “pushed me through.” We’ve paddled canoes for many years of our friendship. On the Minnesota as well as the other upper Minnesota River tributaries, on several area “motor-less” lakes and in the BWCA. Cherveny is an experienced and excellent paddling partner, and on this lazy Saturday afternoon our quest was to bring home a stringer of channel catfish.

For years we would slip into a canoe in his hometown of Granite Falls and paddle downstream to the then Minnesota Falls dam, which we would portage around before having a picnic lunch while angling in the waters below the dam. Fortunately the dam is now only a memory as the river has been returned to a natural state of interesting rapids. Typically that trip would happen in April or early May, which meant it was usually the second or third of our annual springtime paddles.

Outdoor writer Tom Cherveny unhooks a channel catfish on an earlier outing on the Minnesota River.

For many years we would tackle the stretch between Wegdahl and Granite as soon as the river was freed from ice, and sometimes that meant putting in as early as the first weekend of March. Death water, and only once did it cause heart palpitations. That was a spring of extremely high water, and the current from above was colliding with the water being backed up by the dam to cause our canoe to rollick and roll in the frigid waters. No one would have survived a capsize in that combination of unrestrained currents and the near freezing water temperature. Otherwise it was a wonderful trip for observing geese, ducks and eagles, which seemed plentiful on every bend of the river. 

Eagles were scarce Saturday afternoon, and we saw only a couple of pair of Canada Geese. Wood ducks were plentiful, though, and broke often from the wooded banks and from the trees on the entire paddle upriver to the first major turn after the straightaway … probably a couple of river miles upstream. 

Reflection #1.

The water wasn’t extremely high on this jaunt, yet it was high enough that we canoed easily over the rapid field as if it didn’t exist. Tom’s idea was to paddle upriver against the current to the bend heading due east. This bend heads into the long lower leg of the wide “u” that then takes two 45 degree turns before the river cruises beneath the Highway 212 bridge toward Prein’s Landing just outside of the city limits of Montevideo.

It wasn’t long before my shoulder muscles warmed up enough to ease into the routine so I could take some of the paddling pressure off Tom in the stern. Our route was accented by dimpled reddish hues of springtime buds on trees along the banks of the river, adding to the beautiful fleeting color of the wood ducks … perhaps the most beautiful of the duck species if not the entire avian universe. 

And certainly, after all of the rain these past few weeks, seeing a cloudy yet sunny sky was a blessing. If there was a “down” on the afternoon paddle it was the drone of traffic on the parallel highway. When I’m driving on the highway, though, passing this stretch of the river brings back many memories of paddling through here over the many years; along, of course, with the many fishing memories. Our afternoon would add to those, no doubt.

Reflection #2.

In high water a temporary island appears on the first turn after the Wegdahl bridge, and just past the island along the bank is a deadfall that seems to always produce some nice catfish. This would be our last stop on the way home a few hours later. 

When we eventually reached our intended destination at the top bend of the straightaway, where a small stream eases through the woods to empty into the river, I pulled my cellphone from the Ziplock to take a picture of the stream. A split second later as I was slipping it back into the bag, a deer suddenly bolted from the woods and leapt across the stream. “Shit!” I shouted. “That missed picture will haunt me for the rest of my life!”

“It probably isn’t your only missed picture,” came the response from the stern. How true.

Reflection #3.

Once tethered to a branch of a deadfall, our lines went into the waters and the wait began. Fishing is another term for the wait, and conversations between old friends and writers ensued. These are some of my favorite moments. Tom has paddled probably every lake in the BWCA at some point, and has hundreds of stories. I’ve begged him for years to put those memories into a book. 

Here’s one: Years ago a Scout Troop leader, Dan Stephens, inexplicably left his canoe and group in search of a portage, and lost his balance hopping over a rock in the deep woods and was knocked unconscious, resulting in confusion and a concussion. His was one of the two stories in the book “Lost in the Wild” (by Cary J. Griffith, Borealis Books). Griffith writes of a paddler’s group that was stopped by rescuers and asked to break down Stephens’ camp and drop off his tent and other items at the headquarter’s office in Ely. That “group” was Cherveny and his sons.

Reflection #4.

On Saturday he had another interesting tale involving a bear hunting companion with serious health issues who joined him on a hunt in the BWCA this past September. When Tom returned from his post his friend was nowhere to be found, and due to his friend’s heart condition and bad knees, the time of day and temperature, Tom called for help from the search and rescue squad. This resulted in a massive manhunt that included manpower on the ground plus a helicopter and float plane. Around dusk he was found two lakes and a muddy marshland away, and hopelessly lost when the helicopter pilot spied the man’s campfire. 

I mean, what better way to spend a springtime afternoon than catfishing and listening to another Cherveny tale? Not all of the stories, though, are as dramatic as these.

The haul! And a couple of dinners promised! So yes, “A great time was had by all!”

As the afternoon passed, we began bringing catches to the gunwales. We normally do rather well with the rods, and this was no different. Tom was in the stern last summer and netted my 8 lb. walleye, and years before he witnessed a great hour of wilderness walleye fishing below a falls in a BWCA lake when I used a deer hair jig I had made. On this afternoon I personally landed three different species of fish, including a nice channel, and Tom did even better on the catfish as we worked our way back down river toward the landing. Wood ducks, and a huge turkey tom, made their appearances on our way back before we stopped at the deadfall just upriver of the island.

Besides the fish, a few reflection photos found their way onto my cell phone to help ease the pain of my missed photograph of the leaping deer. Little did any of it matter as much as simply being out on the Minnesota sharing a commune of nature with an old friend. As a late prairie wordsmith and colleague, Whoopy Warrings, was prompt to say, “A great time was had by all!”

Cranes and Cottonwoods

From the photography blind on the North Platte River last week while awaiting poet William Stafford’s “far wanderers,” my view was of a nearby horizon of cottonwoods extending across the wide, shallow and flat waters. Huge limbs reaching skyward from the tall trees, strong and stately, were silhouetted black against the dull gray rain-drenched sky. Cottonwoods, like the sandhill cranes, have a way with me, and on that afternoon in central Nebraska was no different as I sat and awaited the magical arrival of the birds.

Staring at the trees, awaiting, briefly took me back to my childhood home in Missouri where we had a beautiful and stately cottonwood near a farm pond, one I could see while laying on my bed in the upstairs sleeping porch. Much like when he was a young boy growing up about 30 miles west of my Missouri home, Walt Disney spent hours laying beneath the canopy of a huge cottonwood he called his “dreaming tree.” So here we were seeing dozens of them.

Sedges continued to fly in and land on the other side of the cottonwoods despite the shallow waters and sand islands right in front of my blind.

These “dreaming trees” across the shallow river would be stage-front of my next 16 hours of sandhill crane viewing and photography. Later, as that unmistakable melodic chorus of the sandhill music filled the prairie air across the North Platte in the chilly, rainy wind, I was eagerly prompted to open the side window of the blind and peer through the hazy moistness at the cottonwoods hoping the cranes would begin landing on my side of the trees. My section of the river was shallow, too, with sandy islands just like on the opposite branch of the river. A half dozen bald eagles attested to that.

A satellite view of my photo blind at the Rowe Audubon Center … the small brown square in the lower righthand corner!

Hope and patience are typically virtues you need when entering a photography blind, especially with sandhill cranes as your subject. Both would be necessary virtues claimed the volunteer driver who escorted me through the scrubby browned prairie grasses toward the photography blind at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary earlier in the afternoon. We were drenched by a rain that wouldn’t abate until the following morning, with winds rocking the front of the blind at speeds alternating between 20 and 30 mph. The temperatures were in the high 40s. 

This was my second sandhill crane migration within this funneled stretch of the North Platte where ancestral birds have passed through on migrations northward for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Eons. After arriving around 4 p.m. and setting up the cot and organizing the layout, I eased into the camping chair with little to do but wait for when the birds might appear. “Might” is the key word, for once again the warning was issued that the birds had thoughts of their own on where they might overnight. Meaning, that they might decide to eloquently drop from the sky right in front of the blind, or somewhere different. Like across the river and behind the curtain of dreaming trees.

The dance of courtship was prevalent as we passed the many stalk fields filled with cranes.

“We have no way of knowing,” offered the volunteer. “We can’t make promises other than that you will see birds. At last count we had more than 645,000 in the valley.”

Our driving around the area earlier gave his comment credence. Thousands of them filled the stalk fields, wading in puddles and performing their dancing preludes of courtship. That wasn’t a promise of having them overnight right in front of the blind, though. Three years earlier we learned the importance of patience. We were in a Crane Trust blind downriver some 40 miles near Wood Lake, NE, and had received a similar forecast and warning before watching helplessly as sedge after sedge drifted down from the heavens around a bend a half mile to the west. Mary preached patience, and on that night her calming reassurance was that the birds would come. Then, with the sun truly sinking below the western horizon, a huge sedge suddenly drifted down directly in front of our blind not 30 meters away. This sedge was followed by seemingly thousands of other sandhills. Would I be so rewarded this time?

In the morning the sun peeked through the clouds as the smaller sedges filled the skies.

As the wind and rain battered the small, 6 ft. by 8 ft. blind at Rowe, I was holding onto both hope and patience as I glanced out a covert slide-down window on the side of the blind protected from the pelting rain. Above the stately skeletons of the bared cottonwoods on a slip of land just across the Platte, hundreds of sandhills were coming to roost. Sedge after sedge. Occasionally there would be an “explosion” when literally thousands of the cranes would suddenly erupt to rise above the cottonwoods before returning behind the separating spit of land.

My patience was not rewarded, although sitting comfortably in snow pants and a parka staring across the river at the distant cottonwoods and cranes was still relaxing in a Zen-like way for I was sharing a moment repeated in geological natural history spread over eons, and I was a witness. Just being in the blind observing and hearing the cranes, a chorus accented by the blustery wind, was sweet music. After all, I was dry and warm, and would remain so despite a fitful night of sleep. 

Sometime early in the morning, with the skies still in complete darkness, I was jerked sleepily from the warmth of the sleeping bag when a sudden crescendo of sandhill wings and calls filled the sky. Outside the blind window, deep into the dark pre-dawn mazarine sky, barely visible black crane silhouettes filled the air as if I were inside of a sky-wide umbrella. Oh to have had any semblance of light! It seemed the entire universe, all 645,000 of cranes by the volunteer’s count, had taken to the sky as one.

The “far wanderers” flew with grace and beauty.

With the coming of dawn, though, there were still numerous sandhills around as sedge after sedge rose from the river through the framing of the cottonwoods. My volunteer said someone would come once the cranes had departed for the nearby grain fields, and that it could be anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. As at Crane Trust, the birds continued to fly in small sedges up and down the length of the river. With the sun finally peeking through the clouds and a wind now eased into a slight prairie breeze, I opened all the blind windows to watch, going from one to the other with my camera, capturing what I could while watching with wonder and admiration.

No, they wouldn’t ease down to overnight right in front of me despite my hopes and patience. There are worse fates, and our trip was delightful regardless. We met with friends from near here for one of the few times since the pandemic to share a lunch and a trip to a delightful art museum before meeting later on a state park bridge with other birders with more hope and patience as we once again waited for the sedges of sandhills to land on the nearby shallow sand islands of the North Platte. A grouping of a half dozen white-tailed deer played in the river as the sun graced us with a most colorful and beautiful sunset. There was no need to question the definition of magic. 

From the bridge we caught several sedges in the sunset, adding magic and wonder to the moment.

Yet, there we were, witnesses of the entrancing wonder of a spring crane migration, of which Stafford writes in his poem, “Watching Sandhill Cranes:

Spirits among us have departed ­— friends,

relatives, neighbors: we can’t find them.

If we search and call, the sky merely waits.

Then some day here come the cranes

planing in from cloud or mist — sharp,

lonely spears, awkwardly graceful.

They reach for the land; they stalk

the ploughed fields, not letting us near,

not quite our own, not quite the world’s.

People go by and pull over to watch. They

peer and point and wonder. It is because

these travelers, these far wanderers,

plane down and yearn in a reaching

flight. They extend our life,

piercing through space to reappear

quietly, undeniably, where we are.