Birthday In the Swamp

Okefenokee Swamp, Chesser Prairie

Okefenokee Swamp, Chesser Prairie

I’ve told the story of my 50th birthday, when my sister Jane booked us a five-day trip to Nebraska in March, where we sat in a duck blind before dawn in sub-freezing temperatures, to witness one of the “Ten Great Animal Migrations” of the world – 400,000 Great Sandhill Cranes migrating north to their winter breeding grounds in the Arctic.

We watched as great clouds of birds with six-foot wingspans circled the sky, dawn and sunset, over their nighttime roosting site in the shallows of the Platte River. As they called to one another, the sounds of their voices filled the sky. I’ll admit, it was spectacular.

And cold.

So for Jane’s birthday this past November, I wanted to measure up with a comparable getaway. For sheer one-upsmanship, I liked the sound of a Swamp trip.

Specifically, Okefenokee Swamp – the largest freshwater swamp east of the Mississippi, located in the middle of nowhere in south Georgia.

I figured there was no way to top the spectacle of a great Animal Migration. I was hoping for alligators (and not too many mosquitos). I booked us a guided, three-day kayak trip, during which we would ferry our supplies in our boats, and camp each night on platforms raised above the swamp waters.

As it turned out, there were alligators. Every hour. Everywhere.

But there were also surprises.

Our guide Sheila was a piece of living history – a self-proclaimed “Swamper” whose family had lived in the trackless swamp going back almost two hundred years. Sixty years old, she is a member of perhaps the last generation to know so many of the old settler stories, a trove of tales she shared with us about life in the swamp as it once was.

As she led our kayaks through the maze of water trails, she often stopped us to point out countless strange bird calls, and name the source of each. In one instance, she pulled up to a hummock of ground where she stripped some leaves from a bush, wetted and crushed them, and showed us “Poor Man’s Soap,” lathering in her hands.

As for the alligators: one woke us with a huge bellow somewhere just beside our platform at dawn the first morning. And as Jane and I paddled through a narrow channel the second afternoon, a big twelve-footer slid from the grasses into the water just in front of our kayak.

Jane and I froze – and then strained to stop our kayak. We knew he must be in the water just ahead of us. We called anxiously to Sheila behind us. Nonchalantly she paddled up, glanced at the tea-tinted shallows, and said “Looks like he has enough room down there to stay out of your way. Go ahead.”

The real Okefenokee was not at all what I had pictured. There were moss-draped trees and dark waters – but there were also wide “prairies,” mirrors of glass-like water, covered with pools of blooming waterlilies under the sun. Great shining white egrets perched in watchtower trees above the water, and the healthy waters were alive with fish and turtles and frogs.

Sandhill Cranes, potential header or spot illustrationAt sunset the final night, like an unexpected benediction, we heard the strangely familiar bird cries across the swamp from our platform. Sheila pulled out her binoculars to let us look – and there, heads and necks bobbing above the marsh grasses, were four sandhill cranes, settling down for their evening roost in the water.

For Jane’s birthday, Nature had graced us once again – so we could see the sandhill cranes, a thousand miles from Nebraska, for another birthday celebration.

I Almost Got Frostbite On My Birthday

Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River, Nebraska: Evening Light, Winging Home

Pastel, Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River: Evening Light, Winging Home

I celebrated my 50th birthday by shivering in a duck blind in Nebraska in the 10 degree weather before dawn.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes.  I remember looking at my sister Jane – This was her idea of a birthday trip?!!

Jane’s bucket list is all about seeing “The Earth’s Ten Great Animal Migrations.”  This includes whales, wildebeests, monarch butterflies and – the reason why I was freezing in Nebraska – Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane In Flight, drawing in charcoal, art by Ann Litrel

Sandhill Crane In Flight, a wingspan of six feet

The Sandhill Crane migration through the Great Plains was timed perfectly just before my birthday, Jane assured me. A half million birds flying together, resting each night in the wetlands of Nebraska’s Platte River, was reputedly a Natural Wonder, a sight not to be missed.  And so in March we flew to Omaha, drove across Nebraska to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River. And we woke before dawn in freezing weather just to see a bunch of birds.

And even though it annoyed me for just a moment to be shivering next to my earnest sister with that wide eyed joy on her face, I must confess: watching the Sand Hill Cranes was absolutely magical.

A half million cranes rose up with a resounding cry at dawn, in a shadowy explosion of wings against the sky. Prehistoric creatures with giant wing spans six feet across, they flew in widening circles over the water, wheeling and returning for many minutes, calling to each other in low haunting trills so distinctive I shall never forget them. They scattered to feed in the surrounding fields, fueling their flight to the Arctic. Some would fly as far as Siberia, we learned, where they would nest, and raise their young, returning in the fall to their winter homes in the south.

I came back to Georgia inspired by my Nature Encounter – the cranes, the lonely wetlands, the arching skies.  I began painting.  Visitors to my studio were intrigued.  Several started planning their own trip next spring to Nebraska right on the spot.

Then came the buzz kill. My friend Jan Parrish arrived with her golf buddy, Joey Peeples, both wearing wide smiles as they listened to my adventure about braving the freezing wetlands.

“You know,” Jan told me, “you can see the cranes right here in Georgia.”

“Yeah,” Joey chimed in.  “We see them every spring when we’re out golfing.”

I didn’t believe them until Joey proceeded to imitate the exact warbling cry I had heard from the cranes in Nebraska.

We enjoyed a good laugh. I consulted the internet when I got home. Sure enough, an eastern population of Sandhills – distinct from the Great Plains group – does indeed fly right over Woodstock, migrating north from Florida to Canada.

And one quiet morning last spring as I sipped my early morning coffee, I heard the cries of the migrating cranes, far overhead. I looked outside and saw them flying high over my own backyard, these beautiful winged creatures moving forward in life on their long journey home.

And their song brought tears to my eyes.

Sandhill Cranes on Platte River at Night

Morning on the Platte River

Morning on the Platte River

Morning on the Platte River

pastel on board, 12″ x 9″
$295.

This original pastel captures the morning light on Nebraska’s Platte River at Rowe Sanctuary Audubon Center, during the height of the Sandhill Crane Migration. You can see a small group flying in the distance as they make their way to the fields to feed during the day. In this work, I wanted to capture the waterside view at the sanctuary, and the warm light of the rising sun on the trees at the water’s edge. The Rowe Sanctuary is a resting place and feeding ground for the thousands of migratory water birds that fly north each spring.

For the many human pilgrims, who like us, come to the River to witness a wonder of nature, the calls of the cranes are haunting and awe-inspiring.

Nebraska 2

left – Cranes Calling At Dusk

pastel on board, 7″ x 5″   $195.

right – Evening Light, Winging Home

pastel on board, 7″ x 5″   $195.