Day Eight

October 23, 1996

Kent and Peter

Kent (left) and Peter fabrcating new camera mount.

The morning air was completely still with only high scattered clouds. No frost, no wind ... we could take off early. As the rising sun lit up the red rock mountains in the distance everyone was anxious to get moving, including the cranes. Kent and Errol had the planes idling and one of the two morning flights into Moab was on approach. With all the noise and activity the cranes began jumping clear over the pen walls. Within seconds the entire flock were on the runway flying around. Kent bypassed the airport protocol and took off right from the taxi strip.

In the air they flew down along the red rock cliffs above Moab. The flat plateaus and chimney rocks provided a spectacular background. It was a slow gradual climb of about 2500 feet from Moab out towards Dove Creek, Colorado. The only clouds were the fading trails of jet streams. Coming up over the pass just north of Montecello, Errol spotted another eagle. He zeroed in and gave it a couple of flybys. He is equipped with a shortened shotgun and a belt of cracker shells. The cracker shells are comprised of a exploding firework and a fuse. When the gun is fired, the gun powder launches the explosive and lights the fuse. Fifty to a hundred yards out, the firework explodes. Errol yanks the shotgun, cracks open his door and fired in the general direction of the eagle. Ron has equipped Errol’s plane with a thrill cam. They are checking video right now to see if by chance any footage of the eagle was captured through the skylight.

From the air, Kent and Errol could see the Colorado river as it wound through Canyonlands National Park off to the east. The still of the water, the green of the river beltway, the red rocks and spectacular vistas was incredible to see.

They landed just a few miles west of Dove Creek after a good 70 miles of distance. One of the birds showed a few signs of tiring but they all seemed to fly with relatively little effort. 105 seems to be toying with the plane. He will fly out ahead of Kent and the gradually float back until his feet are touching the controls. Then he’ll drop down and fly right between the tires. One of the birds will float right out and try and lay prone on the wing during flight. It’s their version of body surfing.

The landing spot was a stubble field right off the road. The scenery has turned from red rock formations to dry farm and cedars. A group of hunters were driving along and pulled in behind us. They all wanted pictures or brochures to take back as proof as they said that no one would believe them. It has been like that with most of the people we have talked to.

Jim told us that the blood tests confirmed the sex of the birds we have traveling. They are all females except for 104 and 105. 107 is still riding in the trailer with another unbanded crane that had broke it’s wing flying earlier this summer. The wing is healing and she can fly short distances but not keep with the flock. Once released at the refuge, she will heal completely over the winter and then join with other cranes for the spring migration. 101 through 106 are all flying well.

Fine cuisine at Connie’s Cafe in Dove Creek for lunch. Made with the finest pinto beans bought "just across the street and raised just down the road". As we drove from Dove Creek to Cortez we saw signs all over for pinto beans. Midland Bean Company, High Country Beans, Anasasi Beans, just to name a few of the bean companies. The dark red earth provides a rich source for good bean flavor. We had pinto bean soup and Navajo tacos with local beans.

The afternoon takeoff was picture perfect. We released the birds as Kent powered off through the stubble. They all sprung into the air in the prop blast and followed him directly into the sky. Ron brought a new sound guy to help him (Kevin) as Sherm was still on another job. The two of them filmed the takeoff from the top of a hill. The colors and scenery should be excellent.

The afternoon was more successful than the morning (which was 70 miles). Kent flew in the direction of Cortez but the birds were flying strong and there was a bit of a tailwind so he turned south and headed for Shiprock. It was a straight shot down the highway. We followed along directly underneath him on the road.

In the air the flight was excellent. The higher you fly, the easier it is for the birds to fly. At two thousand feet above the ground, flying is much easier and the birds just seem to float. With the tailwind ground speed was about 50 miles per hour. During the midday break, we all worked to construct a new camera mount. Ron rigged a camera that sits directly off to the side of Kent so that we could get the feel for some of his flight. At one point, one of the birds drifted back close enough for Kent to tickle its feet.

Just before landing, 102 - Kent’s favorite, most loyal flyer - almost bought the farm. Somehow she had gotten over the wing and near the tail section of the plane. The Dragonfly uses cables for stability and has a cable running from the top of the rudder to the outside of the elevator. As Kent looked back 102 had tangled herself in the cable. He immediately thought, "She’s history!". Last year a bird had caught itself in the wing strut and immediately snapped its leg. 102 went over backwards with wings flapping and did a couple of somersaults in the air. Kent waited for her to spiral down but instead she recovered from the stall, regained controlled flight, and was soon back on the wing with the rest. A closer inspection on landing showed no lingering after effects.

Scenery at Shiprock is much different but hauntingly beautiful. Everything is gray. Dirt, mountains, shrubs, and highway. As the cranes landed, the sun was setting just south of the spectacular Shiprock mountain. Its jagged outline and imposing shadow were set off against the feathery clouded sunset in shades of yellow and cyan.

We landed at an abandoned airfield (or at least abandoned until we got there). It looks as if it were in good shape at one time but now the blacktop is sectioned with lines of weeds that have grown through the airstrip. There was one plane at the strip with markings indicating it was from the Blanding Air Ambulance. Seconds after we pulled in, an ambulance arrived with a pilot and two paramedics who flew off in the direction of Gallup. Probably returning somewhere after a delivery.

We penned the birds in the only place we couldn’t find any broken beer bottles - between the taxiway and the runway. Jim said alcohol consumption in this area is one of the highest per capita. Even though the area is locked and we had to drop a fence to get here, bottles and broken glass are strewn everywhere.

Tonight is almost a full moon (3/4). As I checked the birds and made sure the pens were secure, I could see my shadow from the moonlight. It has been a great day with almost 150 miles of ground covered. Two more days like this and we would be there. It’s doubtful we’ll be that lucky as a storm is forecast. Jim isn’t too anxious about us getting there before Monday anyway. Apparently there is a two day crane hunt that takes place outside the refuge on this Saturday and Sunday. Arriving after the hunt would be much safer. Last year, after all the effort to migrate the cranes, two of the birds were killed by hunters when they flew off the refuge during the hunt.

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