An April Night in the Sandhills / by Bill Frakes

April in the Sandhills. 

 Nebraska National Forest near Halsey

Nebraska National Forest near Halsey

I’ll be slumbering under the stars tonight.  

The sun is slipping below the horizon, and I'm settling into my sleeping bag for a glorious night under the Milky Way. Perfect.

What an evening. Absolutely, magnificently silent.  Not one sound.  Not a creature, not the normally rustling wind -- not another human for miles.

 The view from my sleeping bag

The view from my sleeping bag

Time travel. To my youth and nights spent like this, looking, listening, absorbing, appreciating — growing up on these plains left an indelible imprint on me. To my ancestors — I have letters written in the 1830s by a great great great grandfather describing his daily life on these plains, and I know he loved its freedom, its freshness, its openness.  I wonder what he knew of the place. I'm sure he knew much more about the intricacies of the land, very in touch with the delicate details of nature, the little things that made all the difference. He had to be fully aware in order to survive, and then flourish. He was working with a much smaller margin of error.  I have the advantage of perspective gained from the ability to take to the sky, to appreciate the vastness, the geographic interplay.

 Annual Sandhill Crane migration

Annual Sandhill Crane migration

We share the night views though, he and I, nearly two centuries apart. 

The Milky Way is full now, arching across the sky. This is an incredibly dark place, and the  stars cover the entire canvas.

 Sliver of a moon

Sliver of a moon

The clouds graciously stayed away all night and the show was spectacular, vivid, and romantic.   Orange, pink and purple tones will shortly usher in the morning. There is just a silver sliver of a moon, only now ambling up into the sky.  Enough light trickling down that I can see ground fog in the valley.

 First light

First light

The meadowlarks are calling.  Other songbirds add to the gentle chorus.

In the near distance I hear it, the insistent thumping, now faster and louder. The low hum of birds well known to springtime daybreaks.

 Male Sharp-tailed Grouse spar on the lek.

Male Sharp-tailed Grouse spar on the lek.

It's time to get up for the show.

 Male Sharp-tailed Grouse dance to attract females

Male Sharp-tailed Grouse dance to attract females

The Sharp-tailed Grouse are mating.  The dances are fantastic.  And watching them some of the intricate dancing I so love to watch at the big summer pow wows now resonates more clearly.  So that's where parts of it come from — of course.

 Gorgeous day in Halsey National Forest

Gorgeous day in Halsey National Forest

Glorious weather today.  Partly cloudy, mid 50's with a touch of breeze — just enough to bring goodness to my nostrils, not enough to put a chill on my skin.  

I've spent the better part of the last three weeks — what a luxury — photographing my favorite place.  It's been terrific. Winter giving way to spring.  Birds galore — The annual Sandhill Crane Migration through the central flyway, countless geese, pelicans, the Prairie Chickens and Sharptail Grouse.  So many deer, a few bobcats, And of course, the mighty Bison — magnificent creatures, powerful and rugged.

 Sandhill Cranes gliding in to roost

Sandhill Cranes gliding in to roost

I have to move on tomorrow, back to Florida, then California and shortly Asia.  When I was young, those would have been incredibly thrilling prospects.  Now, I'm very happy to be head to those places but the feeling is different and I realize my reasons for the trips have flipped.  Back then Florida, California and Asia would have meant exploration-exotic destinations and the Great Plains were simple, comfortable, the place where I lived.  Now I go to Florida and California for the people, for family and friends, for work.  Outstate Nebraska, that's for family and friends too,  but this is where I really get to explore, to take a deep dive into the culture, and the landscape.  To fully bring my vision to bear. Learning more and more about what's really important. 

 Bison at the Crane Trust

Bison at the Crane Trust

There's a different, too familiar smell in the air now and it's getting quickly colder.  

Back on the road now, heading east, I hear the news. The forecast is for 14-16 inches of snow, with big winds.   

My immediate thoughts are for my rancher friends, this is calving season--never easy, it's soon to be brutal.  

Nebraska. Home.