The wake-up call comes at 5 a.m.
It’s 5 degrees and still dark. We stumble into Arctic gear and head for a small stretch of land on the North Platte River outside Kearney, Neb., where we’ll be standing, silent and immobile, for three hours (sans bathroom, therefore sans coffee).
To witness the annual migration of the sandhill cranes.
No longer a teenager, I seldom use the word “awesome.”
But it’s the mildest description of the phenomenon we’re witnessing (today, tonight and again tomorrow).
This experience, I’d argue, should be high on any nature lover’s bucket list.
“Each spring, something magical happens,” said Bill Taddicken, director of Rowe Sanctuary at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center.
This month-long March/April stopover of 600,000 cranes (the world’s largest gathering) — enroute from Mexico to Canada and Alaska — is what these prehistoric birds have been doing for millions of years. (The earliest sandhill crane fossil, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, was unearthed in the Macasphalt Shell Pit in Florida.)
These heron-like creatures stand 3½ feet tall with a 6-foot wingspans and weigh 6 to 8 pounds.
They live about 24 years (but can survive much longer), mate for life and lay two eggs per year; hatchlings stay with their parents for about a year.
Today the river — an inch deep and a mile wide, claim locals — is black with standing birds.
We gaze upon them when the sun finally rises and they begin to lift off — singly, in pairs, then in flocks — to feed in neighboring fields until sundown, when again we watch as the whole process is reversed and their cheeping builds like the roar of a Super Bowl crowd.
Yes, I’m cold. I’m tired and hungry.
But for this glorious spectacle, there’s nowhere on Earth I’d rather be — standing in the heart of the Great Plains with 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes on a critical sliver of habitat in North America’s Central Flyway.
We rise again the following morning and head for the Crane Trust bird blinds for another show. “Most people sign on for two viewings,” said trust services manager Brice Krohn, who recommends morning visits for the best photography and evening shows for a chance to just enjoy the experience.
Birds of a feather
And it’s not just the red-capped cranes that visit this region (an 8-hour drive from Minneapolis, about 2.5 hours west of Omaha): Along with them come millions of migrating ducks and geese that stop by neighboring rainwater basins.
South-central Nebraska’s other birding spectacle arrives in early spring as well — native prairie chickens, grouse-like birds known to some as boomers, known for their elaborate courtship rituals.
To see them in the wild — and to observe their dramatic prairie chicken dance — we arose again in the dark.
As part of their spring-mating ceremonies, these brown-mottled birds puff up their egg-yolk-yellow “cheeks” and raise their feathers, calling oo-oo-oo as they perform a quick-stamp shuffle around an alpha male in the middle.
“One short word: Sex. To impress the ladies,” said Angus Garey, a cattle raiser whose property the birds adopt as home each spring.
Trails and travails
People migrate, too, and Nebraska is sliced with their paths — the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the iconic Lincoln Highway. Today, small towns studding these routes have preserved memories of the trails and travails of the 1800s in recreated villages and historical museums.
After a meal featuring — what else, here in cattle country? — prime beef at Coppermill Steakhouse in McCook (two hours west of Kearney), we circled back to Gothenburg (1 hour west of Kearney), a rest stop for Mormons, gold prospectors and more, boasting an original Pony Express Station of 1854, including a sign that reads, “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Outside Kearney, we hit the Great Platte River Road Archway, a giant skyway museum/monument spanning I-80, telling the story, through diary accounts and vignettes, of covered wagons (“4 a.m. Those not ready fall into the dusty rear;” and “This is the feel of freedom!”) on their way to California where, for some “the gold is gone,” but others hail as “happy land.”
Cars, antiques, mousetraps
Next we hit the Classic Car Collection, a showcase of more than 200 automobiles that illustrate the evolution and art of life on four wheels, including a 1955 Thunderbird and 1982 DeLorean, to name just two.
Pioneer Village, in nearby Minden, celebrates another passionate man’s collection — 28 original buildings resettled here, including a sod house, a Lutheran church and a general store with a potbellied stove.
A vast furniture barn showcases furnished rooms for every two decades from 1830 to 1980, along with the founder’s collection of household appliances — an Edison phonograph, a charcoal-burning iron, a horseradish shredder, circa 1885, the first bathtub in the U.S. from that same year, and many, many mousetraps — “far and away the most invented machine in American history.” Also, a Wright Brothers airplane and vintage buggies.
Grand Island’s Stuhr Museum — 45 miles east of Kearney — also recreates a village, this time a rural railroad town of the 19th century, dubbed “the Williamsburg of the Plains.”
Costumed interpreters invite visitors into the millinery, blacksmith and tinsmith shops and even the birthplace of soon-to-be-actor, Henry Fonda.
Inside its purpose-built building — designed by master architect Edward Durell Stone — Grand Island’s former residents “return” to tell their stories, such as that of Tony Goodchild, an African-American barber born in 1876, who also sold baths for 25 cents.
Grand Island itself (population 50,000) boasts troves of similar antiques for sale in its cache of eight antiques shops lining the main street, clustered around the gloriously restored Deco Grand Theater of 1937, still showing movies.
Grab a bite at the Chocolate Bar before show time.
Mennonites and more
The story of immigrants from Russia unfolds at the Mennonite Village in Henderson, where these persecuted people ended their journey.
Costumed hostesses LaVonne and Adeline recount the ensuing success of these prosperous farmers and ply visitors with apple turnovers, fresh from the oven.
This site’s nine buildings include a serene church (sans cross or steeple in order to outwit pursuers), a one-room school and an Immigrants House, built by the railroad for their first winter.
Wessels Living History Farm in York fast-forwards us to the 1920s, the decade David Wessels wished folks to remember when he donated his land and wealth to recreate the family farm of the time.
Stop in the kitchen for popcorn, then awe at his home’s wind-up Victrola, Singer treadle sewing machine and ice box on the back porch.
Aurora was our final stop, where we discovered The Plainsman Museum, another recreated town (this time indoors) featuring a sod house, a fur trader’s cabin and a music store, saloon and movie palace — including dolls by the dozen, from Shirley Temple to Barbie.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.
See the birds
To view the annual March/April migration of sandhill cranes in Nebraska, reserve your place (for tours and lodging) in January or February. See visitnebraska.com, rowesanctuary.org, cranetrust.org, prairiechickendancetours.com and seethecranes.com.