The weather, right away, slapped us in the chops.
I started checking it March 3, four days before we were scheduled to leave for a trip with the kids to see the greater sandhill crane migration in Monte Vista.
I try to get my kids out to see what I like to call “cool nature stuff” as much as possible.
Only the weather looked nasty. At least the forecast did. And so, just like I did when I had a big mountain climbing trip planned when I was chasing the 14ers, I checked the Weather Channel constantly.
It didn’t look good all week, and sure enough, as we were leaving Greeley on March 7, it started to spit big honking snowflakes. This was snafu number two, and we weren’t even out of the driveway. One of the twins, Allie, had come down with hand, foot and mouth disease. Snafu number one.
The weekend I’d planned so Kate, my wife, could get a break, allowing me a guilt-free weekend in Deadwood playing poker (which I’m enjoying as you read this), was already cracked down the middle.
But we drove through the snow, and the frosty rain, and the occasional, teasing spots of sunshine, because all those trips up the mountains taught me one thing: you never really know.
Forecasts are just educated guesses. Maybe we’d get lucky. I got lucky many times during my climbing days. At times, the clouds would part just enough for me to sneak in a summit. Now I was asking for the Gods to grant me just one more favor: I wanted my kids to see a bunch of birds without a bunch of snow hiding them. Truth be told, I wanted to see them. I like cool nature stuff, too.
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Every town has its thing. You could argue ours is the Stampede every Fourth of July. Monte Vista has the Crane Festival every year.
This year’s, held March 7-9, was the 31st annual, and I’m told the town’s population doubles during the event. I found no reason to doubt it, given that I really didn’t see another reason to visit it, God bless its soul, save for a cheap place to stay when you visit Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Monte Vista is less than a half-hour’s drive from Alamosa, which I know as the place where I ate a few times on climbing trips to the 14ers Little Bear, Blanca and Ellingwood Point. We also used it as base camp last summer on our trip with the kids to the sand dunes.
The festival has all kinds of workshops, birding tours and other opportunities for education, but given that I had an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old in tow, along with my mother, I opted for several hours by the swimming pool at the Pecosa Inn (which will soon be a Choice Motel).
We did attend the morning birding session, which was lame, and the craft fair, which is dangerous with kids who will try to touch everything they see but offered many booths filled with fun and relatively inexpensive knick-knacks. Andie got a couple finger puppets. We bought Allie a Hello Kitty maraca. Jayden got a crane stuffed animal, which I soon plan to steal.
The cranes, of course, are the stars of this show. I reserved some seats on a bus tour for the night of March 7, the same day we were traveling. This was a mistake, as the tour was leaving as we pulled into town. The weather was cold, anyway, and it was starting to snow.
Instead, we killed a little time at the pool (again) and then went to the 4 p.m. bus tour on March 8. We were on standby, just like three-fourths of the group who inched closer to the bus every few minutes in the belief that this would give them an edge at a seat. Once those with reservations packed one of the four buses, it was open season, and for a moment I thought the scene looked like one out of a zombie apocalypse, like the buses led to some sort of refuge camp and those left behind would be burgers for the undead. But they got everyone on with only a couple scratches. The average age of the crowd, which I think was 65, probably helped.
This tour was led by an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was probably the difference between a wonderful experience or me getting a glimpse at a crane while I drove with cartoon question marks above my head. The tour made four stops in almost two hours and included a chance to see dozens of them within a stone’s throw of my camera and the unreal sight of a few thousand flying over us on their way to roost for the night.
That two hours cost us 12 in driving and, honestly, it was more than a fair trade.
Saturday, despite the forecasters’ predictions, was a wonderful, warm day without wind. You just never know, I said to Mom, and I looked out to a snow-capped Blanca Peak in the distance and smiled.
Dan England has climbed more than 150 peaks, including all of the state’s 54 14ers, and logged thousands of miles on Colorado’s great trails. He is the Adventure and NextNC editor for the Tribune. He also occasionally guides hikes and snowshoes, mostly 14ers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4418. Follow him on Twitter @ DanEngland.