by Jeff Kurrus
Photos by Jeff Kurrus and Michael Forsberg
These volunteers invade Rowe Sanctuary every spring.Morning
Nearly two hours before sunrise, the parking lot at Rowe Sanctuary in central Nebraska was full. Inside the area's visitor center, a crowd of people gathered in a dimly lit room
While Wolfe quietly answered questions, professional and weekend photographers alike captured images of the increasingly visible gray birds in the morning light. Shortly after sunrise, a loud "whoosh" echoed as thousands of cranes ascended into the air, nearly blackening the sky. A woman next to me breathed a quiet "Wow" - an effective, one word summary of the morning.
"Did you enjoy it?" Wolfe asked when we returned to the center.
"Yes I did," I said.
"Was it your first time?"
"It was spectacular, wasn't it," he said rhetorically.
As we talked, more visitors filtered through the center, some looking at various items in the gift shop, others perusing the tapestries on the walls. Some wandered aimlessly, taking in the morning and occasionally pausing as a new, thought-provoking question entered their mind. Each time one of these moments occurred, all the visitor had to do was stop one of the green-shirted volunteers patrolling the center and ask for a moment of their time. "Anything I can help you with?" they would hear back, a familiar response from the long line of volunteers who happily invade Rowe Sanctuary each and every spring.Midday
Volunteer Erv Nichols, originally from Big Bear Lake, California, welcomed patrons to the spotting scope near the north window that overlooks the Platte and a birdfeeder only a few feet away.
Nichols started his volunteering at Bosque del Apache, a national wildlife refuge in New Mexico. "A few years back, Brad Mellema (Rowe's former director) came down and put his hands on my shoulder. He said, 'You need to come to Nebraska.' I had been watching 7,000 cranes in New Mexico and thought it was great. Then I came to Nebraska. I was blown away."
Coming from Colorado, Maine, California, Wisconsin, Canada and all parts of Nebraska, numerous volunteers land at Rowe every year, each filling a different role. They teach visitors about cranes and their habitat, history and day-to-day activities; conduct morning and evening tours; maintain the blinds; housekeep; garden; work the counter in the visitor's center; restore habitat; maintain trails; answer phones; and assist with the rest of Rowe's various projects.
"Everything from cleaning the bathrooms and changing toilet paper to washing dishes. Whatever I am needed for," said Marianna Wimberley, who has volunteered at Rowe for four years. "Our family had been out before, but I had never been on one of the blind tours. I think a lot of people don't realize what a difference it is being in a blind, seeing the cranes so close and hearing the stupendous noise they make when they leave. Forget about talking when that happens - they have the floor."
Regardless of what jobs the volunteers are assigned to, they ooze interest about cranes, perhaps their largest contribution. "The volunteers are the face, the one-on-one, of what we do at Rowe," said Tony Docherty, Rowe's volunteer coordinator. "With only five full-time employees, we couldn't function without them."
During a volunteer's first year, they are partnered with a more experienced volunteer and evaluated by staff so they can be positioned based on their strengths and availability. Because many of the local volunteers have jobs and are limited by time, out-of-state volunteers are heavily relied on because of their attendance over anywhere from one to five weeks of the season. "They are extremely important because they are essentially trapped here," laughed Docherty.
Out-of-town volunteers are put up in local homes in Kearney or stay at the sanctuary itself. The latter is a big aid because of the 6:30 a.m. trips to the blind. But it's not all work. "We're flexible enough that volunteers can leave, go take a nap or disappear for awhile," said Docherty. "No one is under pressure to do six or eight hours of work per day. We work with what their needs and desires are.
"And people keep coming back because what is happening here isn't happening anywhere else in the world. Anywhere. People want to be part of that. Many people don't have the money to give a big wad of cash to Rowe, but they can donate hours and time. That's a very worthwhile way of looking at life."Midday Afternoon
"And where are you from?" the woman behind the counter asked.
"Omaha," I replied.
"We've had people from all over today," she said. "One man was from Germany."
"Is this your first time?" another volunteer behind the counter asked.
"Yes. How long have you been here?"
She pointed to the pin on her chest. It read "Carolyn" and had a "5" beside it, but Carolyn Hall quickly admitted to not having updated her pin and began to tell of her almost 20 years of volunteer service at Rowe.
"Why are you here?" I mused.
"To talk to you," she replied.
She told me about crane blinds, the volunteer quarters and the cranes themselves, all while using a hand-held clicker to record each person that walked through the door. "It will be in the 600s here very soon," she said. "You were clicked as well."
When Kent Skaggs, Rowe's office manager, started working there in 1992 there were only 3,000 to 5,000 visitors during the entire crane season. "We didn't have the number of volunteers that we have today, so staff led nearly all of the morning and evening trips to the viewing blinds, as well as dealing with all of the crane watchers during the course of the day, for the entire season. Today, it's essentially the reverse - our volunteers lead most of the crane viewing trips and are the first to greet the 12,000-plus visitors that walk through our doors each season since the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center opened in 2003."
Carolyn continued to click as visitors walked through the door. Driving from her home in Bassett, she started volunteering at Rowe in 1989. "Back then, we spent a lot of time cutting willows on sandbars," she said, her voice booming with excitement. "We'd come up in July and August, the later the better so they wouldn't regrow, and work to clear the Platte with help from the Whooping Crane Trust. So if this area on the river looks farmed, it's because it is."
As Carolyn's voice continued to echo through the center, volunteer Caryl McHarney sat at a table, water colors and canvas before her as she looked out at the Platte River. "Early this morning at dawn," she said, "it was sort of yellow and gray, and the sun was behind one of the trees. I'm just trying to capture that early effect." She continued to paint as visitors walked by, still and video cameras in their hands.
Caryl has lived in New Mexico since the 1940s, but life totally changed for her nearly 10 years ago after her son went to a Boy Scout camp at Bosque del Apache. When he came home, he told his mom that she wasn't going to believe what he had seen. She decided to investigate. "The next weekend, I went down, made a turn in the road and saw a field of gray corn. It took me a minute to realize that I was looking at five-foot-tall birds, and I've been in love with them ever since."
An art teacher, Caryl started doing crane paintings, which were well received at a Bosque del Apache crane festival. Soon she was visiting festivals in other states, and now she spends springs in Nebraska. "I'm a crane groupie," she said. "I just love this place."
She isn't the only traveling volunteer of the group, says fellow volunteer Susan Ahlschwede. "There are a number of people who go from refuge to sanctuary to national park, and this is their life - they meet up with each other at various places."
This particular "place" takes Caryl two days to reach each spring, where she has volunteered for the past six years. "These trees here," she said, pointing out of the window, "are unique. I call this my left-handed tree because all the branches come out on the left side. There was a terrible ice storm in December that has pretty much demolished the tree, as you see. That's an example of what nature does. But we can decide to either cut that off or let it decay so that insects can live in it and woodpeckers can feed off of it."
Rowe volunteers either arrive with a sense of the environment or leave with one, and they share their ideas with others. Caryl works with youth from the area during crane season, teaching them about art and journaling by viewing nature. "I want them to understand that Earth was given to everyone. We didn't design it, we didn't work to build it, but everything on it works, and the only responsibility they have is to take care of it."Evening
"In the evening you wait, and wait, and wait," said Carolyn, describing the cranes' daily return to their Platte River roosting sites. "Then they start to come. Two weeks ago it was nearly dark before they arrived. Then they came in one solid mass."
This day it was different, however. The cranes returned to their river roosts in small pairs, larger groups and huge, dark swarms. People filled the bridges at the Central Platte Natural Resources District's Plautz and Alda viewing
Until then, volunteers will continue their day-to-day activities at Rowe itself, providing the pulse for everything that the Sanctuary does each spring.
Yet there was still one question that I still I wanted answered before I left. Why did so many volunteers return to Rowe year after year? Was it the cranes? The people? What?
"Something about the cranes is different," said Canadian Phil Mesner, a longtime volunteer. "Many people talk about them in a spiritual sense and I can't put it into words. All I know is that it makes me feel very good about what I do here."
"They come for the same reason I stay here," said Docherty. "Once you see the cranes' behavior and know their background and history, you become captivated."
Janet Christiansen, another longtime volunteer, walked through. She spends a month at Rowe every spring and, when asked why, smiled. "Because it's March," she said. "It's the cranes. It's too easy to make the birds human, but they do so many human things. They dance because they're happy. They fight each other. They have families. They are constantly talking back and forth. They are a fascinating and beautiful bird. At the same time, I come here for the people. You never know what sort of person is going to come through that door next. I'll be here every March," she said, turning to walk away.
Then she turned back. "And if you need anything else, I'll be around."