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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Snow Geese Call

April 2023

I hear the snow geese call, their honk, honk, honk, only it’s not just three or four but raucous calls thousands of them.

I live in the temperate rain forest of Southeast Alaska and we have a vacation home in Southeast Oregon, the High Mountain Desert. Both are flyway zones for migrating birds. Our “vacation home” is the larger of the two and the house where my husband grew up now filled with furniture I inherited from my parents. Locally, it is known as Eleanor’s house as my mother-in-law lived here for forty-three years. I like is the design, the spaciousness of the house, and its desert location and countryside. We see snow geese, sandhill cranes, and other birds such as Canada geese, magpies, bald and golden eagles, to mention a few. Right now, the snow geese and sandhill cranes migrate farther north. They’ll also stop at our location in Alaska on their way to their nesting places.

This year, thanks to California’s atmospheric rivers, we have had a cold and snowy winter. This is a place where people are used to sunny skies and eight inches of rain a year. Not this year! The Barry Reservoir had so much water, we could not see the end of it. The island a little way from the north end was still a peninsula, telling us the reservoir was not yet full. Still, when I showed a picture of it to someone who ranches the old Dougherty, Shirk, and Barry Ranches, he was pleased.

This year most of the back country roads were blocked by snow just feet off the paved highway, whatever highway we took. Trails were covered and roads to them too deep with snow to drive or walk. Skiing would have been an option, but it was about 30 degrees outside, too sticky to ski on wet snow—yes, wet snow in a desert! Unusually, the humidity in the desert was running in the 75% to 90% range, high for a desert. I don’t complain at all; not only do I like the snow, but the land needs the water. Here it is the end of March and snow remains in the forecast. Locals have apologized to me for so many cloudy days. No, I say, you need the snow. I’m happy for the land. They agree.

Since our walks were limited and miles-long hikes were out, we went to Goose Lake one day. Goose Lake used to be 42 miles long. When Grandfather Barry brought his bride here in 1909 from Ireland to New York City, she lived in the East till he went back to fetch her. They took the train west and on the almost last leg of the journey, they took a steamer the length of Goose Lake Most of the lake lies in California and the north end lies in Oregon, 14 miles south of the then 30-year-old town of Lakeview. Because Goose Lake State Park had less snow this winter, we went there to walk.

The geese honked and honked and honked from the center of Goose Lake. We expected Canada geese. No, these were snow geese, white with the black-tipped wings. Thousands of them. They huddled on the lake among its reeds and grasses till something excited them. They rose by hundreds then thousands, more and more of them till about 8,000 flew above the lake and overhead.

First, I stood there listening in the strong west wind that chilled me. The sound was so gorgeous, I could not turn my back to the wind for their honking faded. I stood facing west watching their flights, thousands of honking snowflakes seemed to fill the sky.

Straightening my neck from its upward look, I bent towards the ground. There in front of me a pile of white feathers scattered on the frozen mud. With no sign of bones, I assumed it was not a kill, but perhaps an argument between two geese. I really didn’t know, though. I bent over and picked up one. It was not one but two feathers attached at the base. Downy at the bottom, dazzling white in the middle, and a bit of muck or geese scat at the tips. Carefully I placed the Siamese pair in my coat pocket to set in a glass box. It now sits next to milkweed pod fluff from further north in the valley at Summer Lake.

On the same cabinet top are some framed ancient relics from the area—3,000,000-year-old Pleistocene fossils from the Summer Lake area—suckerfish and trout vertebrae and some area arrowhead points, all found before it became illegal to remove such from the land. These relics sit nestled in my study between framed farewell poems my friends wrote for me as I was about to move from Kansas back to Oregon and on to Alaska. The human history of this dry Oregon land began about 14,500 BCE when its first inhabitants left some remains in caves the area of Lane Chewaucan about 45 miles north of here. I wonder if there were snow geese and sandhill cranes here then.

This is a history project I will not take the time to investigate. I have my own investigations into thoughts, feelings, and urges, into epilepsy, into background research for the books I write. Even though I remain fascinated by the history of this landscape and its ancient people, I’ll look at what I see and look in wonderment at the thousands of snow geese, migrating sandhill cranes, the small birds whose identity I do not know, and the myriad of flowers, trees, bushes, sages, and other vegetation I do not know.

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