The first time, the persisting memory was the haunting, trumpeting sound of sandhill cranes.
We had just cross-country skied to Buck Lake and were cruising along its dikes when the calls began. Some describe the sound of sandhill cranes as a loud bugle call, with a throaty, guttural rolled “r.” The synchronized outbursts exploded and rattled the otherwise surreal stillness. It was wild and wonderful.
The pair, possibly a breeding pair, took flight, rising from the nearby shallow marshes, hovering and pinwheeling above us, sometimes swooping, other times gliding. They were big birds. According to bird guides, mature males generally weigh about 10 pounds while females are a pound lighter. They look like something Dr. Seuss might have drawn, easily identifiable by their red foreheads, white cheeks and long, pointed bills.
As they flew, sometimes close by as though checking us out, their long necks stretched straight and their long, dark legs trailed behind, evoking a sense of flight that was both awkward and graceful. Their large wingspans, from 5½ to 7½ feet, allow them to soar in the thermals, seemingly effortlessly gliding as they sky-danced.
Later, skiing along another snowy dike, the calling resumed, farther away but still hauntingly evoking. Other unforgettable times I’ve seen and heard sandhill cranes in fields between downtown Lakeview and its airport and, more jaw-droppingly, in a field off a dirt road outside Paisley, where mating couples danced, oblivious to my presence.
Sandhill cranes breed in open wetland habitats surrounded by shrubs or trees, nesting in marshes, bogs, wet meadows and other moist habitats, usually with standing water. They winter in southern states and northern Mexico, where they roost on shallow lakes or rivers at night and spend days in irrigated croplands, pastures, grasslands or wetlands.
By my second ski at Buck Lake, less than two weeks later, patches of dirt and grass had displaced much of the snow from the dikes. We heard sounds of the sandhills, but they were more distant. Instead of skiing along the lake and marsh, Mike Schaaf, who knows the Buck Lake area well, doubled back, retracing our fresh tracks until we reached a snow-buried road. We followed it and eventually forked off, following an overgrown road through a narrowing canopy of white firs and lodgepole pines large and small.
If the first time had been about the sounds and sunny-day sights of distant Aspen Butte, the Mountain Lakes Wilderness and occasional peeks at Mount McLoughlin’s tipped peak, this time skiing near Buck Lake was about making tracks through an undisturbed forest as snowflakes tickled the sky. There were no sounds or long-distance views, but, instead, a sense of solitude and discovery.
The first time Bill Van Moorhem and others in our foursome took turns in the lead as we crossed a dike and designed our own route across snow-covered meadows and, more challenging, tight squeezes between standing and fallen trees until we reached our starting point, a plowed pullout on the Clover Creek Road near milepost 3, just a few miles off Dead Indian Memorial Road.
The second time Mike, who has skied Buck Lake’s backcountry for decades, led along what are summertime roads but this time of year are too snow-burdened for even 4-wheel drive vehicles. Some had tracks carved by snowmobilers, others were untouched. We followed a loop that eventually took us seven miles, often kicking and gliding or double poling before returning to our Clover Creek Road parking spot. At junctions, Mike explained other possible loops, routes for another day.
Different days, different skis, different sights and different moods. Two great days.
Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.