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It was cold and I was wired and I went to sleep listening to long alternations of nothing, the thrum of a passing truck and the diminishing squall of groups of three or four geese flying overhead, from the fields where they’d been feeding to the open water where they sleep, safe from the clutches of foxes. When the wind finally dropped, the world seemed to stop.
There are few people in the world who would fail to recognize the sound of a goose, but it’s impossible to convey in print. The supposedly onomatopoeic “honk” requires the invocation of significant onomatopoeic license. “Honk” is evocative of what a goose sounds like, but it’s wholly inadequate as a description. A lot of geese together, in continuation, tend eventually to sound like something by Philip Glass.
I wish I could say that’s the sound that woke me up the next morning, but it wasn’t. I made coffee and watched the sky for the thin skeins of geese that passed over at long intervals.
The “tour route” roads were closed for the season behind locked steel gates. I hadn’t bothered to call the Freezeout hotline ahead of time. If I had, I’d have known that few birds were still moving through. It was late in the season, and most of the geese were gone. You can’t reserve a seat at a mass migration.
I drove down one of the unblocked dike roads that crisscross the several bodies of water that make up the Wildlife Management Area. In the marshy outflow of one of the corrugated culverts that connect them I watched three Lesser Scaups swim away. In a larger pond beyond, a bald eagle sat on a stump in open water, utterly badass. Eagles will target and eat sick geese.
Farther down the road, on Pond 3, I found a few hundred Canada geese intermingled with dozens of sex-paired mallards and smaller birds I couldn’t identify. Nearby, but keeping their distance, a hundred or so snow geese floated.
I wondered if the snows and Canadas communicate with each other, say hello or so long. I wonder if they look each other up when they get where they’re going. Do geese say goodbye?
I watched them through the binoculars for a long minute before they flew off. The flying off was the best part, that sudden trainlike flutter and hum, flashing like silver fish in the sky.
Later, back at the tent, the gray dissipated and the light if not the heat of the sun broke through. Little bands of swallows swarmed over camp and off across the road. There was nothing to do but look at the horizon, waiting for birds to materialize.
The next morning was calm and frosted. I made coffee and went walking. I saw another big but not large flock of Canadas and snows, maybe the same flock from the day before. I drove back out onto US 89 and up toward Choteau to ponds 1 and 2, looking mostly in vain for birds. That’s when I finally called the hotline and got the long-prerecorded news that I’d mostly missed the show. Birds continued to trickle through, stragglers, all of us late.
I felt like a skunked hunter. Freezeout was still. Nobody was going anywhere.
The geese that migrate through Freezeout spend their winters in California, or farther south. But because the Pacific Flyway migratory route comes close to mixing with the Central Flyway near Freezeout, I like to think that some of them will overwinter on the Central Flyway’s terminus, the coastal plains of Texas, not far from where I’m headed, with the egrets and caracaras and whooping cranes.
I like to think I’m following them, that locations recede, then reappear, in regular if not orderly fashion. That the migratory premise of departure all but ensures return. That like a homing goose, I won’t be too long gone.