Audubon started west at the Missouri, as did Lewis, Clark, Long, and Fremont. The Missouri still delineates the humid, forested east from the dry, treeless plains. Hundreds of thousands of emigrants, traveling the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails, left the familiar here to enter the unknown. I decided to join them, or at least retrace their steps.
My work week began in Kansas. I sprinted around the state to meetings in Atchison, Great Bend, Medicine Lodge, Topeka, Fort Scott, Galena, and Baxter Springs. The weather remained vernally accommodating the entire week.
I rested the weekend in Lawrence, preparing for a final flurry of meetings the following week in Broken Bow, Nebraska. My wife, Virginia, had joined me for the weekend, and after dropping her at the Kansas City airport Monday morning I traveled north toward White Cloud.
The Glacial Hills Scenic Byway parallels the Missouri through famous crossings such as Fort Leavenworth and Atchison. I detoured to the Presbyterian Indian Mission near Highland, one of the crossings where the wagon ruts are still visible.
The Missouri runs close to White Cloud, and from the bluffs in the center of town (also the birthplace of the piggy bank) you can see four states. Looking out across the river I imgained Audubon, Sprague, and Harris steaming north toward Fort Union and the North Dakota / Montana border. This troupe would travel for fifty days and 1,400 miles before reaching their summer’s quarters in 1843. This would be Audubon’s one trip west; in seven years he would be dead.
For my path west I chose the scenic route, US 24, roughly following the emigrant trails across Kansas. US 24 skirts Lawrence, Lecompton, Topeka, and Manhattan as its strikes west. Lecompton served as one of the original territorial capitals of Kansas, and the 1857 pro-slavery Lecompton constitution split the Democratic Party in Washington when Stephen Douglas and his northern Democrats sided with the new Republican Party to reject the proposed constitution. In 1860 the northern Democrats would nominate Douglas for president, while the southern Democrats would choose Breckinridge. The schism would open the door for Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, who won the election with a majority of the electoral vote but less than 40% of the popular vote.
About three miles east of Louisville I passed the crossing of the Red Vermillion on the Oregon Trail that had been operated by Louis Vieux. Yes, in the case of the river the word is spelled with two l’s. Here I found a good number of Edward Harris’s sparrows. On the banks of the river I also located the 1849 cholera cemetery estimated to contain at least fifty graves. Emigrants would carry the disease from watering hole to watering hole, and graves would eventually line the trails.
I turned north on US 281 toward my eventual destination. US 281 enters Nebraska at Red Cloud, the home of Willa Cather of the Prairie Trilogy fame. Nearing the Platte (where the emigrant trails turn west) I began to notice sandhill cranes scattered throughout the corn stubble. I had feared that I would miss the cranes this year. I had no reason to worry, though. There were tens of thousands still in the area, lazily fattening on corn left in the field from harvest.
I knew of Willa; I had yet to hear of Walda. Tuesday morning I awoke to light sleet and a 50-degree drop in temperature from the previous afternoon. Thunder, lightening, gale-force winds, snow, and finally ice braced the sleet. I know sleet. I know hail. But I cannot remember being stuck in an ice downpour.
For an hour ice fell in torrents, and by Tuesday night ice locked western Nebraska in a tight grip. My meetings on Wednesday were cancelled. I would be grounded in the Hampton Inn in Kearney until the thaw.
I faced a choice, a conundrum. Either I would spend two days cloistered in the Hampton, or I would get out and test my ice driving skills. I grabbed binocs and camera and slid back toward Fort Kearny. How would be cranes handle the weather? More importantly, how would I?
I found few cranes on Tuesday away from the Platte. Given the choice between gale-force ice rain and the relatively warm river, they chose to stay put. I skated out the Fort Kearny rail-trail to check the river, and a bald eagle assisted me by putting a flock of cranes into flight. I decided to return to the Hampton and wait to see what Wednesday would bring.
Wednesday brought more of Walda, although the ice turned to light snow. I ventured back toward Fort Kearny and immediately noticed cranes on the move. Flocks were lifting off the river to make their way to the iced corn fields.
The cranes seemed to prefer the fields with the tallest stubble and the deepest rows. Birds hunkered down between the furrows, at least partially protected from the winds. Robins, doves, blackbirds, and sparrows crowded behind the shelter belts. Ducks stuck to the running water still flowing through the drainage ditches.
Walda caught thousands of robins migrating through the Great Plains. They crowded into any protected scrap of habitat. I found them in ditches behind shelter belts, in the driveways of farm houses, and in the deep grass behind grain elevators. In one ditch the robins were joined by red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, and a few yellow-headed blackbirds. Desperation seemed to break down any territorial barriers.
Eastern phoebes hugged the edges of open ponds deep within the woods along the Platte. Ducks and kingfishers joined cranes in drainage ditches. A northern shoveler mistakenly landed on the frozen road in front of me and almost skidded into my vehicle. Sparrows and horned larks sneaked about the corn stubble in search of any ground not covered in snow or ice.
In the 1800s migrants and emigrants were Platte River bound. Cranes still move north past the trails that carried emigrants west. Emigrants drove oxen, wagons and themselves west only until the advent of the railroad. Today I-80 is the trail of choice.
Yet I still wonder about the dramas that were played out on this stage, Stephen Long’s Great American Desert. The land is brazenly open here. Man and beast are exposed to the elements and to each other. I see this relationship most clearly in the Sandhills, the unplowed prairie grasslands where nature still overpowers.
For how long, I wonder?
There are substantial public lands in western Kansas and Nebraska. The Cimarron and Oglala National Grasslands protect expansive grasslands. Yet most of the Sandhills is ranch land in private hands. Many of these ranch families date back to the Homestead Act. For 150 years they have managed these grasslands for grazing. Yet nature also depends on the stewardship of these families.
Walda is ephemeral. Spring will return in a few days. Yet there are storms on the horizon such as climate change that are not so transitory. These same ranches are part of the solution for climate change as well. Prairie grasses store carbon. These areas in the western Great Plains emit little and store much. The Great Plains also has high potential for biomass, solar, and wind power production.
I hope that these ranchers keep ranching. I appreciate the challenges they face, and understand when their kids choose to pursue careers elsewhere. But if we care about grasshopper sparrows, lark buntings, and Audubon’s assistant Isaac Sprague’s pipit, then we too must care about Sandhills’ ranchers.
I have finished this phase of my work in the Sandhills. I have completed an interpretive plan for the 272-mile Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway that stretches between Grand Island and Alliance. I began my work in Nebraska almost 20 years ago when I worked on a socio-economic assessment of the Platte River for the EPA. This study included an appraisal of the value of birding along the river. I hope to continue returning to the Sandhills, one of the remaining places where one can recalibrate. Perhaps the Sandhills will help our climate recalibrate, too.
For those interested in Audubon’s Missouri River adventure, I recommend Audubon’s letters from that trip, as well as Edward Harris’s Up the Missouri with Audubon.