October 30, 1996
Bosque del Apache National Refuge, New Mexico
A wicked frost was on the wings. It was caked in flaky white crystals a quarter of an inch thick. But the yellow sun over the east mountains of the Rio Grande Valley quickly had water running off the wings and control surfaces in little rivers. The crowd gathered for takeoff with people coming from federal and state agencies.
The last leg of the flight was by far the most enjoyable. The sky was clear, the air was calm, the temperature was warm and the only in-flight trouble was with 105 who kept dropping below and slightly behind the flock. Kent would dive down a little and bring them all back up together.
They flew high above and along the railroad tracks of the Santa Fe railroad. Down past Soccoro, around Luis Lopez, and over San Antonio. The valley was a spectacular sight. The Rio Grande River winding its way through the center of the valley. The green vegetation along the river banks. The green fields fanning off from the river. And the large trees just beginning to turn a fall yellow.
All of the chase vehicles were able to catch or pass the planes in flight. Kim and Sherm in camera van number one. Ron and Kevin in camera van number two. Shari and Jen in the production car. Jim and Sharon with the trailer. And Mignon and I in the Suburban. We stayed close with the planes and as we entered the refuge we were waved past the crowd of people that had gathered to watch the landing. Lots of people from the refuge, birders, and a few press.
High over head, the Dragonfly with its white fuselage and black tipped wings started its descent. Kent and the cranes started a long slow spiral directly above the refuge hay field where they were to land. The birds tucked their wings in the parachute position and followed in lazy descending circles. 102 stayed right on Kents wing the entire time. At about one hundred feet, Kent straightened the plane, lined it up between the irrigation ditches and set it down in a perfect landing. The cranes spread their wings wide and flapped them a couple of times as they stepped out of the sky and onto the ground. The journey was over.
Fifteen days have passed since we started this odyssey. The ending was picture perfect with beautiful weather, a successful completion, and thousands of other cranes at the refuge to meet our little band. The planes were removed and Kent slowly walked the cranes across the hay field to a section of the corn field that had been knocked down for the birds. Hundreds of cranes were feeding on dried kernels of corn. He led his cranes into the feeding area and watched them until they began to feed and mingle with the wild birds. Then slowly, he slipped his way between the tall uncut cornstalks and disappeared from their sight, possibly forever.
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