I sit alone on the banks of the Stillwater, watching the sky deepen to purple and begin to darken slowly. The mountains have given up their captive hold on the winter’s snow and the disappearing whiteness of the mountaintops races past me, carrying massive logs, sweeping away a winter’s worth of deadfall downstream to the Yellowstone and beyond.
I have made a small campfire and the girls will tumble any moment out of the cabin arms laden with marshmallows and sticks, mouths full of eight and 11-year old giggles. But for now, I sit alone watching the winter snows and the light disappear.
From out in the fields I hear what has become a familiar spring sound, a loud rattling karooooo-oooooo of a family of sandhill cranes. A sound unique to this season, one that reaches out from primal history:
They mate for life and the couple often engage in unison calling, a crazy primordial synchronized duet:
When they arrive, they do so in threes bringing their chick along for the season. Eastern Montana sees only a few hundred scattered over the season perhaps. Nothing like the massive numbers that gather in Nebraska or other areas along their main migration routes. They visit here for a few weeks before they take off north to their summer homes. Some linger. But the small numbers and short time they are here is enough. They are sparse enough to remain a mystery. Their calls to each other never wear to the rhythms of familiarity.
While they are here, we dial in to their primal frequency. We scan the fields for their ungainly, heronesque shapes. We stay quiet listening for their call as though they wait for an audience which, of course, they do not.
The cabin’s screen door slams shut. The girls tumble out, buzzing. I turn and stir the coals to a white and red hot consistency. I stare into the fire as each of the marshmallows goes in, toasting towards brown.
Soon, the fields too will brown. Spring will give way to summer. The Stillwater will regain its name. The cranes will have moved on but their song will echo across the fields in my mind. I will sit by the fire ring and I will ache to hear their song again in my ears.