Thursday, April 3, 2014

Onward to the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Day 4
Salina, KS to Kearney, NE
No hail, no tornados--as is so often the case, the dire warnings of the local weatherman on last night’s newscast are unfulfilled, and we travel safely beneath overcast skies that at most spit a little mist on us every once in a while.
Our somewhat monotonous progress through the dreary winter farmlands is abruptly arrested as I spy a wondrous mural carved in brick while we wait at a traffic light where Highway 81 intersects with the main street in Concordia, Kansas.   It turns out that this is “The Longest Sculpted Brick Mural in the US,” commissioned by the Cloud County Historical Society Museum to pictorially represent the county’s history, using bricks made from local clay produced by a local company, Cloud Ceramics.  The design was developed and carved by an internationally known ceramics artist, Catharine Magel.

We learn all these facts, and lots more, by stepping inside the door that lies in the middle of the mural, where we find a combination history museum and tourist welcome center.  A very perky and knowledgeable staff person, Tammy, greets us warmly and tells us all about the art and history of the wall.   Then we spend a while exploring its intricacies on our own--there are pheasants and fossils;
lots of sunflowers, because Kansas is “The Sunflower State”; sheaves of wheat, because Kansas produces more wheat than any other state; a big train, because in the great migration westward it was hard for a town to survive without train service, and trains have stopped at Concordia since 1878.  

Concordia’s renovated train depot is now home to the National Orphan Train Museum. 
The museum is dedicated to collecting and telling the stories of Orphan Trains and the children who rode them.  Beginning around 1850, huge numbers of immigrants came to this country seeking their fortune in New York City, only to find unsafe or poorly paying jobs and poor living conditions in overcrowded tenement houses.  Due to their parents’ destitution, death or desperation, tens of thousands of children lived on the streets of New York--up to 30,000 at any given time. 

Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, and soon thereafter began sending orphaned and abandoned children by train to far flung rural locations, where foster parents could offer them a better life. 
Prospective foster parents would fill out a form requesting a child with certain characteristics (age, gender, and so on), a match would be made, and the parent would get a number in the mail.  Then, when the Orphan Train came to town, all the prospective parents would come to the depot with their number in hand to claim the child with a matching number sewn on their clothing.  

The foster families were monitored once yearly to ensure that the children were not mistreated, but, sadly, siblings often were separated and given to different families in different towns.  Between 1854 and 1929, there were 200,000-250,000 orphaned and abandoned children placed out through the Orphan Train Movement.

The Museum has large photographs of a dozen or so Orphan Train children with labels beside them providing their memories of their childhood.  Their stories are touching and heartbreaking, but mostly have happy endings, as they grow up in happy homes where they are treated just like birth children, they marry and raise children, and sometimes even find long lost siblings decades later.  

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the museum is a small section with beautiful studio portraits of orphans that are in the foster care system today, accompanied by little bios telling about the children’s personalities and needs, and their wishes for a forever family to call their own.  
This is an abandoned grain elevator beside the tracks by the Museum.  There is a much bigger and less photogenic one just up the tracks a ways.  Lots of places in New England and in the South the tallest structures in town are the church steeples.  Here in Kansas, it is just about always the grain elevator.  

We wish we could stay longer in Concordia--it is the site of a former WWII German POW Camp that we’d like to explore, too--but we have to make our way to Kearney, the “Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.”  We have a 6 p.m. reservation in a blind on the shore of the Platte River where we will witness an amazing spectacle of avian migration.

To prepare for spending two hours in a blind watching the cranes, we don our long underwear and multiple layers of clothing beneath our down parkas, and we pack hand warmers and toe warmers that we have to brave this sub-40 degree weather, thanks to a wonderful store clerk at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Salina, who went into the back room and dug out a box of miscellaneous warmers “left over from back when it was cold.”

On the way to the Audubon Sanctuary, we pass thousands of sandhill cranes feeding on waste corn on the ground in the stubble-rowed fields outside of town.  The Sanctuary is along the Platte River, where the cranes will come to roost for the night--as they have done for at least a couple million years, based on fossil evidence. The river is shallow with lots of sand bars where the cranes feel safe, because they can see and hear predators approaching.  


Our guides tell our group of about twenty the rules of the bird blind--be very quiet, no flash photography, no putting long lenses or your head out the windows of the blind, and no leaving early--we will walk to the blind together, and we will stay there until the cranes have all returned to the river from the corn fields.   There are an estimated 175,000 cranes around who will all converge on this stretch of the river, but there are no guarantees about exactly where and how they will choose to congregate on any given night.
As expected, there are no cranes on the river when we get to the blind, but as the sky darkens with approaching sunset, squawking gabbling clouds of cranes come in waves, landing far upstream at first, then working their way toward our blind.  Spooked, they rise in a shrieking explosion of flapping wings, then cautiously make their way back twenty minutes later. 

After 8 p.m., it is too dark to see them clearly, but the cranes are still unsettled--milling and wading and flying about, using precious energy they need to save up for their big migration north to breed in northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia.  Within a week or two, they will all be gone on a good south wind, the final wave of over 500,000 cranes that have stopped to refuel in Kearney on their great migration north this year.

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