July 21, 2016

FTV – Don’t get carried away (Part 1)

    Near the end of our unusually mild February of 2016, our old NASA buddy Ralph emailed from southern Wisconsin that he and his daughter had seen some sandhill cranes.  We went back and forth a bit on the topic of sandhill cranes and the conversation  transported me back to my introduction to them back in the summer of 1974.  I had heard their call, but  never saw one up close and personal until 1978.

    I spent the summer of 1974 at Northern Michigan University’s field studies camp at Cusino Lake in Alger County.  I chuckle every time I hear WLUC-TV 6 meteorologist Karl Bohnak give a weather report from Melstrand because that dot on the map (which might actually be bigger than Melstrand itself) marked the turn off point from paved road to the winding track of gravel road that leads to the NMU field station.  The field camp was an impressive log structure with some out buildings that served as the dorms, classrooms, and dining hall.  It was off the grid so I learned the essential skill of running a diesel generator (right down to the periodic oil changes) and everything I ever wanted to know about lighting pilot lights on gas appliances.  I was the ‘assistant field station manager’ for the summer, meaning I got to stay there to tend the generator, mow the lawn, cut firewood, and play head cook and bottle washer for anyone who didn’t bug out for the weekend.

    The camp was originally intended to be the Michigan DNR headquarters for that area when the main highway was being laid out between Seney and Munising.  The Seney end of the  route roughly followed the Fox River (noted for being one of young Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fishing spots).  When the technology to remove swamp muck and replace it with sand and road ballast evolved, the Seney Stretch was born and the original northerly route was left as a gravel truck trail.  The University of Michigan used the camp when my geography professor (and former neighbor) Pat Farrell was a student there.  When the U of M decided to unload the property, Pat jumped on it and convinced NMU to take it over to use for summer study programs.  It eventually became a YCC facility and after they abandoned it after 1988, the DNR put it up for sale with a minimum bid of $150,000 for all the buildings and 15.4 acres of land.  The article I read about the DNR sale dated from 1995 and it mentioned that , “mice had been the only occupants since 1988.”

    The opening crew (consisting of Pat, his youngest son, and yours truly) arrived a few days ahead of the first students so we could do some general cleaning and maintenance.  Between my crash course on logistics (re: cooking, cleaning and generator operation), Pat took us along the backroads so I would have a working knowledge of how to get around once class began.  I would be taking the Field Geography class (a required class for all Geography majors), but Pat made it known that I would also be “assisting” him with the class, therefore, I needed to know where things were.  The first clue I had about this part of the job was given to me when I was hired:  “You will be driving university vehicles with occupants so you must have a chauffeur’s license.”

    The field class was a blast.  We used the map maker’s tools of the trade to measure, map, and in some cases, find locations that were so far off the beaten path we sometimes wondered if we would ever see a road again.  There were no Google Map apps to lean on, so it was old school mapping all the way.  True to his word, I was tabbed to take a van load of students here and there when we had to map parts of the Kingston Plains and the Au Sable Dunes.  The Kingston Plains were supposed to be prime sandhill crane country, but we never saw hide nor feather of one.

    Flash forward to the summer of 1978.  I signed on for an eight week session at the field studies camp to do research and data gathering for one of the papers I need to write for my Masters degree.  I needed two classes to qualify for a summer school tuition break so I also signed up for a field biology class.  I got to tag along with a few other summer school students, a biology professor, and his graduate student on a variety of short field trips in and around the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore National Park.  When I was first introduced to the professor, Pat told him, “Ken worked for me out here and knows where everything is so ask him before you get lost trying to find something.”  It took the first two excursions for me to realize that he was NOT going to ask me anything.   I kept my mouth shut until we were obviously not where he wanted to be.  I would then inquire, “Where is it we are trying to go?”  We took to calling his grad student assistant “cat” as in “copycat” because she had this annoying habit of wearing the exact outfit that the good doctor wore.  If he had a bandana around his neck, so did she.  If he wore a khaki shirt and a baseball cap, so did she.  Every time the professor had to ask me for directions, she would burn holes in me with a glare that would have been terrifying had she not been what I would now refer to as a ‘Mini-me’ of her mentor both in stature and apparel.

    The professor was bound and determined that we would show the class sandhill cranes which he was told inhabited both the Kingston and White Rat Plains in abundance.  Both of these large barren areas were the remains of a great pinery that was cut down in the late 1880s.  Repeated wildfires had decreased the soil productivity so much that very little could grow  on these 4 mile by 7 mile patches of glacial sand besides grass. moss,  and scrub pine.  The sandhill cranes loved the habitat and the wide open spaces should have made finding them easy, but we managed to only hear them a few times without actually seeing them.  It became a four week long running joke as in, “I wonder how far we will go to not see any cranes today?”

    Near the end of this four week class, the professor surprised me one day when he stopped the truck we were bouncing along in, opened the rear cab window and said, “Well, we are going to Miner’s Falls today so we might as well ask Ken how to get there.”  I admitted that he had picked the one place I had not been to in all my travels with Pat.  I could feel the laser eyes of his grad student minion burning through my skull when I suggested we head down H53 and look for a sign directing us there.   I was pretty sure he thought I was jerking him around but that was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth no matter what ‘Mini-me’ may have thought at the time.

    When I shared this story with Pat he said, “I wouldn’t have showed him anything!”  I reminded him that he had offered my services to the biology prof and Pat said, “Yeah, but that was only because I knew he would rather die than ask anyone else for directions!”  Suddenly, it all made sense… sort of.

    When the class finished up, I was able to start doing field work for my graduate paper.  I was writing a  geologic history of how and when the Kingston Plains were formed.  The data I was collecting came from the pine stumps that remained from the logging days.  The sun baked stumps still covered the plains even though the trees themselves had been harvested nearly a century before.  I located one acre plots across the plains and then used diameter and height measurements of the stumps to build a table of numbers.   By comparing that table to another table of measurements of the live White Pine trees in the area, I was able to estimate the number of board feet of lumber that had been growing at the time the plains were logged.

    On one of my first solo days out on the plains, I heard the loud squawking of what I now knew to be sandhill cranes.  As the sound got nearer to me, I turned to see a 30 foot high spruce tree with large wings flapping in unison on either side.  It was obvious that something was flying toward me and my first thought was, “My God, how big are these things?”  Visions of me being carried away or having to fend off a giant creature flashed through my head until  the ‘bird’ turned and flew off to the north.   It became apparent that there were two birds flying side by side.  The matching up and down motion of their wings had only made it look like one gigantic bird coming my way from behind the spruce tree.  

    I chuckled to myself when I remembered the four week search we had put on to find sandhill cranes and now they found me.  In fact, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see cranes when I was doing my field work across the 28 square miles of the plain.  If the biology professor had still been there, I have my doubts that he would have believed me if I had told him I could find cranes for him after the Miner’s Falls incident.  It was probably just as well.  Watching the good doctor and his Mini-me in a dual crane photo shoot off would have been more annoying than having time to watch the cranes on my own.  One of the other biology grad students named John Snow said, “You didn’t really think one of those was going to carry you off, did you?” and I just said, “Well John, I guess you would have just had to be there.   I don’t know what would pop in your head under the same circumstances.”   A few days later, I got a pretty good glimpse of how John would have reacted.  We will save that for Part 2 of “Don’t get carried away”.

Top Piece video – Okay – I mentioned Hemingway fishing the Fox River – so there you go.  Even though he wrote about fishing the Big Two Hearted River, he was probably writing about the Fox River!