A Change in Perspective Through Blood, Sweat, Tears... 15 October 2016
Sandhill Crane, low and slow glide path
For years, I have photographed the beauty of Autumn migration as punctuated by the mass gatherings of Wisconsin's Greater Sandhill Crane. Each day, the cranes feed in agricultural fields and shallow wetlands. As the sun sets, the cranes fly into massive roosts, protected from the night's predators by open water. Where vast wetlands of wiregrass sedge mingle with significant pockets of open water, cranes pile in by the thousands. In the early morning, the cranes depart for the fields in wave after wave after wave. A little observation, and a photographer can figure out where to get some images. Keen observation puts the light in the favor of the camera. For years, I have sought these roosts, filling my soul with the ancient symphonies of crane song, that wild chorus of enthusiasm and focused energy stirring the oldest memories of my DNA. For years, I have pulled a seemingly endless variety of images from this reliable natural pattern, the light, the flight, and the season providing some surprise diversity, some accent or refreshing spice. Eventually, though, the inevitable stagnation occurs. In 2016, I felt as though my creativity here had been tapped. It was time for something new.
Where most people find them, the Sandhill Cranes are completely protected from intrusion and easily viewed from levy roads. The very best roosts are within the restricted Refuge boundary at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in Burnett County, Wisconsin. In quite a few places, however, the cranes stage for their migration in smaller numbers but in areas accessed by duck hunters, muskrat trappers, and bowhunters. It is these areas, open to the public, that have captured my eye. To leave the road, to endure the depths of a wetland, to take on that long wading challenge, kayak in tow, is to find those open wilds so proclaimed in the voice of a crane.
To take my crane photography to a new level, I loaded my kayak with gear, put on a life vest and pair of chest waders, and I towed the kayak a half mile out into a flooded floating mat of Northern wet sedge meadow. In the summer, this is the haunt of breeding Virginia Rails, Swamp Sparrows, Le Conte's Sparrows, and Trumpeter Swans. During the fall migration, it is a place of constant action, a place where ducks feed up and geese and cranes put down for the evening. To see any of it, even for an instant, I needed to skulk into a small clump of willow and spend nearly a half hour camouflaging myself from the sharpest avian eyes.
I pulled along for nearly a half mile. I was more than five hundred meters into the heave-ho towing of my kayak along muskrat runs and knee-deep deer trails, a few dicey moments of "end of the world" step-offs from floating mats to chest-deep holes, and a few long pauses to get oxygen in and lactic acid out before I had my first exciting reward. I stepped out into a large pool of open water and was delighted to find it was only knee deep with secure, firm footing. Everywhere I looked, crane feathers floated on the water. Every hummock wore the decoration of at least one pile of crane droppings or goose droppings. My mid-day workout painted a spectacular image of the evening to come. The adrenaline helped me finish the job. In short order, I was tucked in to my willows, kayak covered in vegetation and camouflage netting, tripod set on sturdy hummocks, my life vest placed on the kayak deck as an improvised seat.
As I sat and waited, the big open spaces, the gently waving golden sedges, rich organic smells, and warm west winds blended together within me. Peace and Harmony. This was good living. All around me, beauty. Comfort. A new view. Anticipation. Joy. I breathed in deeply, hoping for time to just stand still... Such peace in the early moments! Soon the peace would be replaced with the exhilaration that comes with all of the wild heading straight in. To see such power, so many incredible beings, so urgent and vital, and to see them arriving, not fleeing is to feel so alive! It is life captured in that unique and rare perspective shared with the stones, grasses, and willows, a feeling I call "Grandfather Rock!"
As the sun grew low enough to warm the light, that first moment of true "butter light", I heard the first cranes. The waves of migrants were on the way. Soon, cranes were whooshing over me, landing around me, living their lives and sharing their space with me. I put the sun at my back, I leaned into my camera, and I watched in awe as a living world spread wings all around me, tucked me in, and breathed life into me from above and all around.
All images were made with a Canon 7D Mark 1 and Canon EF 400mm f5.6 L lens, with the exception of a couple from the Samsung S7 phone. The kayak is a Guide Series Elite 10.4. The muscles are vintage 1970, and I could really feel them the next day... The walk out was done in moonlight, coyote music lighting up the western horizon, a din of cranes in protesting response.
The Elite 10.4 kayak as seen before camouflage and "vegging in"...
The shiny nose, also vintage 1970 goods, just before hiding it under the face mask...Note the homemade camouflage sleeve covering the Canon lens.