There is a river in the sky that washes up the center of the continent each spring and its current rushes and rolls with waves of wings. The flow begins sometime in February with great pulses of ducks and geese and ends colorfully in May with the passerines. But the peak flow happens now in March when the river turns gray and swells with cranes, swirling and whirling like a huge eddy in the heart of the Great Plains.
I grew up in Nebraska but I wasn’t aware of this river in the sky until my grandparents parked me on the edge of a county road next to the Platte as a teenager in high school. It was Easter Sunday, and we watched thousands of cranes arrowing across the fields in stark silhouettes, their clarion calls piercing the air as they poured into the river against a fiery prairie sunset. I didn’t fully realize what I was witnessing nor did I know that these birds and the river would mean so much to me in my life, but it opened a doorway, a passage.
Each spring nearly one million migrating sandhill cranes converge to rest and refuel for several weeks in the Platte River Valley of central Nebraska where they must build reserves of fat and acquire critical proteins before pushing northward to vast sub-Arctic breeding grounds that stretch from the western shore of Hudson Bay across Alaska all the way to eastern Siberia. The Platte is the proverbial pinch in the hourglass of this Central Flyway, and the confluence of these ancient birds here is the largest gathering of cranes in the world.
Twenty three years ago this March, I set off on a journey to follow their pathways in North America and explore their natural history and habitats across their flyways. Five years later when I finished, what stuck with me most was something I didn’t expect to find: that these birds and their rivers in the sky connected people too across space and time, histories and cultures, memories and stories, including our own. It was personal.
The return of birds each year to the places we live and love is a promise kept. It also marks time in our lives. To take notice is to take time and slip out of the stream of our hectic lives into the slack water if only for a moment to reflect, feel our beating hearts, and to remember.
Since last migration season friends of mine have passed away, and I bring their memories to the river. My dad’s health is failing, and I bring that grief to the river. We watch a needless war unfold half a world away, and I bring that anger to the river. Our daughters are leaving the nest, and I bring my hope for them to the river. Former students are getting married or starting families, and I bring that joy to the river. And I can’t help but wonder if the cranes bring their emotions and memories to the river too.
Today I stand on the banks of the Platte with camera in hand as my witness. The river rushes above me, below me and through me. My photographs are a way to help me remember who I am, where I come from, and who I am becoming. And I hope I can return again and again as long as the rivers flow.
Michael Forsberg is a Nebraska native whose 25-year career as a photographer and conservationist has been dedicated to wildlife and conservation stories in North America’s Great Plains. His images have been featured in publications including Audubon, National Geographic, Nature Conservancy, and Outdoor Photographer magazines. Author and photographer of On Ancient Wings – The Sandhill Cranes of North America, and Great Plains – America’s Lingering Wild, in 2017 Forsberg received the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography from the Sierra Club in Washington DC, and the Environmental Impact Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.