Sandhill Cranes on their springtime migration over the Prairie State

For my first significant bike ride of 2020, feeling a little rusty, I chose the route I like to call the Hour Glass. A roughly ten-mile ride that maps out in a figure 8 shape that typically takes me about an hour to ride in my typical average 10mph speed. This one took me about 75 minutes at an average speed just under 7mph, feeling gassed on the home stretch and pretty sore on the return back home. But it was the good kind of sore.

We are lucky where I live to have been on the cutting edge of the Rails-to-Trails movement, whereby former railroad rights of way, now usually owned by power utilities, host multi-use trail systems. The Illinois Prairie Path, founded by environmentalist and author of Reading the Landscape Mae Watts, was in the vanguard of the wildly successful efforts to create and expand on these gems of transportation. I never got into the fat tire bikes, but they allow those who are into it to ride all year round, here where the rivers freeze and summer ends. Many parts of the regional trail system are also great for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The Hour Glass route is a pattern that includes parts of the Elgin and Aurora Spurs of the Illinois Prairie Path and part of the Great Western Trail. There are other parts of the regional trail system creating loops of roughly 20 and 30 miles with access in under a mile away from our driveway. This is a feature that keeps us where we are and in no particular rush to move away.

Much of the second half of my ride was accompanied by low flying migratory sandhill cranes. The chorus of chirps among various formations of birds was delightful. Some of them are undoubtedly getting older and vulnerable but they don’t know from coronavirus pandemics. As an environmentalist I have often stated that I hope that humanity takes as few of our fellow earthlings down with us when we go. Unfortunately, we are having our way with ecospheric evolution, way beyond isolated habitat destruction and riding with these cranes hits me with both love and grief.

But in the meantime, there exists a treasure in south central Wisconsin called the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. “The International Crane Foundation,” reads its Mission Statement, “works worldwide to conserve cranes and the ecosystems, watersheds, and flyways on which they depend. We provide knowledge, leadership, and inspiration to engage people in resolving threats to cranes and their diverse landscapes.”

The 300 acres of grounds in Baraboo are host to hiking trails where the site offers guided tours around “the only place on Earth where you can see all 15 of the world’s crane species,” and from where “our reach extends across the globe… with a network of hundreds of specialists in over 50 countries on five continents.”

Learning about the migratory patterns of wildlife makes a cruel joke of our family of nations, with their arbitrary borders and shifting legal and political landscapes as migrant human beings are penned in at borders like criminals or shot out of the seas before benevolent outlaw ships can illegally rescue them from the water, when they are not jailed by fascists — like the Sea-Watch migrant rescue ships stuck in international waters while countries like Italy arrest their captains, like Pia Klemp and Carola Rackete. May we learn and know the names of these heroes.

“Through the charisma of cranes,” writes the International Crane Foundation, “we envision a future where people work together to protect and restore wild crane populations and the landscapes they depend on — and by doing so, find new pathways to sustain our water, land, and livelihoods.” May we live and learn.

For most of the quarter century that we have lived in this part of the Prairie State, we have looked up to the crisp spring and autumn skies to feel grateful comfort at the sight and sound of these warbling sandhill cranes and their ancestors. Long may we ride.

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