Tuesday, October 15
Frost covered the close cut hay of the Rose pasture but with the warmth of the sun it was soon gone. A collection of children from the Rose and Clegg households gathered around the pens poking at the cranes. Several neighbors had come to take pictures and were visiting in the morning warmth.
Takeoff was picture perfect (well almost except pictures were taken into the sun and didn't turn out that well). The planes, cranes, and automobiles worked their way up the canyon to the dam at the west end of East Creek Reservoir. Fairly good lift boosted them way over the top and on up East Creek towards Park City. Trying to keep up in the Suburban was a challenge through the hairpin turns around the lake and through the rut filled canyon.
Racing out of the back country we suddenly found ourselves speeding through the manicured Jeremy Ranch golf course area and then onto the crowded freeway. It was quite a contrast. Again a few people noticed the strange sight overhead but most didn't.
It would be nice somehow to actually fly with the birds. Kent describes the sensation as incredible. The feeling of being high above the world below in synchronized flight with a formation of natural aviators is indescribable. The panorama of landscapes below with the morning and evening light. This time of year is spectacular anyway with the snow white mountain tops, the redish remnants of autumn leaves, and the green carpets of hay fields. The sky has been clear and today the sun was warm with Indian summer.
The cranes are flying very strong and have seemed to be at a great pace for only two days into the trip. Leaving Morgan, the intention was to land at the bottom of Daniels Canyon and truck the birds to the top - two years ago required a forced landing on the highway in traffic because there just wasn't enough lift to clear the summit and that was a scene we didn't want to repeat. This year with the high altitude and good strength, Kent decided to push for the top and did so with little effort.
Errol was busy on eagle patrol. Coming into Heber I could see him on the attack with a stubborn golden eagle that kept working towards the cranes. I saw him dive several hundred feet to cut the eagle off and then steeply banked back a couple of times to herd it back. Suddenly a small cloud of smoke appeared between Errol's plane and the eagle and I knew that he had fired one of the cracker shells from his shotgun. The shells are government issue and are used to scare off animals - they shoot out a trail of smoke and then explode with a harmless bang. That's all it took to send the eagle diving to the tree tops. I think this is Errol's favorite part of the trip and even from the ground it's quite exciting to watch.
I picked up a visual on Kent coming over the summit not far from Strawberry Reservoir. He was a couple of hundred feet off the ground, sailing out across a beautiful meadow with the quaking aspens and pines climbing the surrounding hills. The white plane with black wing tips flanked by the white whooping cranes with their black wing tips was a beautiful sight.
The birds were still flying strong and conditions were good so they pushed on towards the second higher pass between Strawberry and Soldier Summit. On a narrow stretch of dirt road, just beyond the sheep corrals they set down for the day. It was a beautiful area - so still and quiet. A stream ran nearby and the cranes spent the day pecking through marsh grass and wading in water.
Elk season is on in Utah and occasionally a couple of hunters would wander past and ask what was going on. A fish and wildlife officer stopped by and brandished his badge making sure we had the proper permits. A couple of Uinta Forest officials stopped by and took pictures. Down the road, a group of sheepherders were marking and counting sheep. Before long, hundreds of sheep were roaming the hills around the pens.
Frank, our youngest brother showed up to help for a day or two. He has spent the last two summers raising the cranes but has been away at college and couldn't make the migration. BYU was only an hour away so he blew off classes for a day and came to see the results of his efforts.
Around four p.m., the winds started to pick up a little and it was time to fly. The winds were out of the north west which was perfect for the direction we were headed. Errol went on ahead and Kent flew low over the pens while Jim released the birds. Kent circled once and all the cranes fell in behind him. He circled again, and then again. He radioed that the pass ahead was fairly high and very near and he needed altitude to clear it. He circled a total of five times and then headed towards the top. We raced on ahead and as we reached the summit could tell they were much lower than us. About a half a mile from the top Kent peeled off and circled back along one of the ridges looking for lift. He radioed that the birds were panting heavily and he may have to turn back. One more loop and he had enough altitude to clear the top by 40-50 feet. They flew directly overhead and though the birds were wildly out of formation, they were all with him.
Our last sight of them, they were sinking down over the south side well above the tops of the pines. The last radio contact before losing sight indicated that the birds were in formation and were in a steady pumping pattern. From there they crossed a twenty mile stretch with no roads below them. We cautiously worked our way down the mountainside to catch the highway coming up from Spanish Fork. Within an hour we located them along side a level stretch of road north of Price. The landing had been a little hairy for both planes. One of Kent's fuel tanks had run dry just before landing and he scrambled to get it switched before he dropped from the sky. Errol in watching the birds, Kent, and trying to land between traffic on the highway came too close for comfort to a small hill.
As the sun sets, the sky is completely clear. The western horizon is a gradually sloping line of black highlighted with a pale yellow of the fading sunlight. The full moon has just pierced the eastern horizon and is about half visible. We are waiting for the truck with the pens in it to arrive and the cranes are gathered around the Suburban rhythmcally pecking at the tires and sideboards.
Another great day - fantastic weather and good progress. The first leg of the flight was 67 miles and the second was 23 - that's a total of 90 miles for the day. If this rate of progress were to continue, we could be there in six more days.