This is the first of a two-part series on visiting Nebraska.
The life of a Nebraska Sandhills rancher is hard.
The closest traffic signal can be 90 km away. Your first-grader may ride the bus 90 minutes one-way to school. Six- or eight-player football is common because there are more cows than kids. Getting groceries takes a full day and if you’re conscious on the way to the hospital, you have time to watch a full-length movie.
The sand that gives the area its name grows grass with relatively little water and makes the region one of the most productive cattle ranching areas in the U.S.
At first glance, the land appears nondescript, but look below the surface and you can see why people fight for it. The sand protects the Ogallala aquifer with as much freshwater as Lake Huron.
And the wide-open horizon grabs hold of people who hear its possibilities whispered on the unrelenting winds.
Sarah Sortum (nee Switzer) was raised in the Sandhills and after graduation moved away to start a family. As her kids grew, Sarah wanted them to experience the Sandhills lifestyle so she searched for ways to diversify the Switzer ranch income. Without more revenue, Sarah and her brother could not support their families on the land held by Switzers since 1904.
Sarah saw potential in wildlife viewing tours. The Switzer ranch has several leks or booming grounds — mating areas of the flamboyant greater prairie chicken. For most of the year, this bird has all the flash of an accountant at tax season.
Come March, males head to booming grounds where they perform an elaborate dance, flashing sunset-orange neck sacs and producing a deep drumming sound. For wildlife watchers, seeing dancing on the lek is like getting triple cherries on a Vegas slot machine!
Through Calamus Outfitters, Sarah now offers Sandhills safaris and prairie chicken tours to several hundred people each year.
Three school buses have been converted to portable blinds and every morning from mid-March until late April, dozens of shivering tourists squeeze their bodies, cameras and binoculars into the darkened space. They wait for one of nature’s most rare spectacles to unfold.
I wondered if skipping breakfast and dawning more layers than an Olympic winter athlete was worth it. Bleary eyed from getting up early — even by bird watching standards — my doubts faded as I saw one pointy head after another dart through last year’s stubble.
These were the males. Sensing competition, they inflated their bright-orange neck sacs, and scratched the ground, occasionally jumping at each other with claws extended in a test of wills.
“Things will get really exciting now,” whispered Brad Mellema of Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, “that was a female that just flew in.”
Six males circled the coquettish female and did their best to convince her of their studly grouse ways, but she was unimpressed. She flew away without granting favours to any of the males — but we were more enamoured. Clicking shutters accompanied the booming and smiles shone from between scarfs and toques.
Bruce Switzer, ranch patriarch, is happy the birds are helping cattle support his family, although it took his daughter to show him a new way of living on the land.
“We always knew the birds were here but never watched them,” he recounted. After Sarah introduced him to the spring spectacle, he could see the potential draw for others.
“Look at what I’ve missed all my life,” Bruce said.
Thanks to Sarah, no one needs miss the Sandhills beauty.
To see prairie chicken courtship rituals, view my video at http://youtu.be/2j7Xtto_2AE
If you go:
• Calamus Outfitters offers overnight accommodation for 65 people, but you can stay in nearby towns and commute for the 6 a.m. tours. During the height of the prairie chicken activity, Calamus hosts the Prairie Chicken Festival (http://www.calamusoutfitters.com).
• Stop in Grand Island to dine on the best Thai/Laotian cuisine between Boston and San Francisco at Vientiane Restaurant.
• Allow time to view the sandhill crane migration at Rowe Audubon Sanctuary (http://rowe.audubon.org( or the Crane Trust (http://www.cranetrust.org).
Carol Patterson helps businesses and people reinvent themselves through adventure. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at www.carolpatterson.ca.
Next week: Viewing the migrating sandhill cranes.