Great Migrations: MCC Traveling Classrooms trace flight of sandhill cranes, trails of pioneers and other Midwest marvels.
The College’s immersive learning tours throughout the region are being offered through the fall after a two-year pause.
A group of 36 people arrived in the parking lot at the Metropolitan Community College Sarpy Center last March. The wind was brisk as it often is around St. Patrick’s Day – more like winter than spring. The groundhog saw its shadow a few weeks back, but in central Nebraska, where the MCC Traveling Classroom was headed, the last gasps of winter aren’t heralded by aburrowing rodent.
In the Central Platte River Valley, the first signals of spring are marked by the presence of the sandhill cranes that ride the thermal winds along the Central Flyway migration corridor. It is the aerial interstate for one of the world’s only remaining great animal migrations.
During the pandemic MCC paused its Traveling Classrooms, but the College course calendar is now filled with a full slate of planned excursions spanning the rest of summer and continuing through the fall. The sandhill crane tour was the first of 2023.
Throughout the day, the MCC class witnessed the 3- to 4-foot tall, 10-pound birds gracefully drop down to the cornfields lining both sides of nearly every roadway in the area to fill up on waste corn from last year’s harvest. The day’s itinerary included a stop at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center, visits to two museums (the Archway Monument and the Classic Car Collection) and a film screening on Nebraska bird migrations at Fort Kearny State Historical Park.
The daytrip culminated with a dusk viewing of the sandhill cranes at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area as they descended to the safety of the banks and sandbars of the Platte River. The class had two meals before returning via motor coach about 14 hours after setting out.
Frequent travelers to the area
Beginning near Chapman and ending near Overton, an 80-mile strip of refuge along the Platte has been the annual month-long home of sandhill cranes for millions of years. The Kearney area has the peak concentration of the mostly gray-feathered birds with signature red markings on their crowns.
Nearly 500,000 sandhill cranes were estimated to be in the area on the day of the tour, as well as about the same number of snow geese. Sandhill cranes add 20% of their body weight during their layover in Nebraska, the only state in which it is illegal to hunt them on their journey north. For this reason, MCC tour guide, Kevin Kowskie, who has been planning and leading MCC Traveling Classroom tours for nearly 20 years, advised attendees not to wear orange or red clothing.
Some of the greatest nature photographers in the world and travelers from continents across the globe flock to Kearney to bear witness to one of the longest-running rhythms in nature. The only other great animal migration remaining in the natural world is the wildebeest migration on the African plains. Loss of habitat has caused other animal migrations to disappear.
Despite being a frigid 15 degrees outside, Kowskie, who leads and plans all MCC Traveling Classroom outings, had a way of making the most of (and planning for) the unpredictable weather in Nebraska during March.
As the 80-foot-long Arrow motor coach, equipped with AV outlets and a bathroom on board; set out on I-80 West with a group of attendees that included families with teenagers, groups of adult friends and retirees, Kowskie spoke into the microphone to provide his first update of the day.
“The good news is that it’s three degrees warmer in Kearney than it is here right now,” said Kowskie as the bus rolled through the last mile of Sarpy County. “The bad news is it’s 10 degrees cooler by the river.”
The first of many moments of laughter filled the warm, comfortable cabin.
Kowskie spends countless hours scouting and researching the places he takes people on the tours, from dining to entertainment and his trademark mystery stop on each tour. No tour is exactly the same, he said. His working knowledge of the areas he visits is informed by years of experiences and conversations with locals — search results that won’t be found online.
“People have all kinds of different interests, so I try to cover all the topics that could be enjoyable. When I plan out all the tours we offer during the year, I try to make each one distinct,” Kowskie said.
As the bus approached the first stop of the day at the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center, Kowskie called in an order of cinnamon rolls he highly recommended at the educational center in Wood River. MCC travelers were greeted by a herd of buffalo grazing on the 10,000-acre “habitat for whooping cranes, sandhill cranes and countless other species sharing fragile river and prairie ecosystems.”
One of the displays inside lit up the cranes’ migratory path against the backdrop of a map of North America. Incredibly strong flyers with a wingspan that is almost double their height, sandhill cranes can travel up to 200 miles in a day, using updrafts of warm air to gain elevation and glide leisurely across the landscape. Their route resembles an hourglass with its base starting in northern Mexico. It narrows in Nebraska — leading to their highest concentration during any part of their journey north — and then progressively widens, stretching across Canada, covering Alaska and some ranging as far as nesting grounds in eastern Siberia in Russia.
At the Crane Trust, a gallery with awe-inspiring photography and art freezes the cranes in moments of majestic motion against sunset skies, or doing their trademark courtship hop to find their monogamous mate for life on the flyway.
Deemed “Flyover Country” to many humans, Nebraska is a honeymoon destination for sandhill cranes, with the best beaches in the world as far as their needs are concerned.
After spending an hour at Crane Trust, the group headed to downtown Kearney to onboard a “step-on guide,” Neva Klemme, from the Kearney Visitors Bureau. Klemme shared information about Kearney’s downtown rejuvenation as the bus passed by the recently restored World Theater, as well as the Museum of Nebraska Art, which is housed in a former U.S. Post Office that was built in 1911 and showcases the work of Nebraska artists and art inspired by the state. Normally a stop on the MCC tour, MONA was closed this year while undergoing a $35 million expansion, restoration and renovation.
In place of MONA, the class visited the Archway Monument, a museum that stretches over I-80 as travelers enter or leave the Kearney area. Most cars zoom underneath without stopping while on the way to different destinations. What they leave in the rearview is a history lesson on “the people who traveled the Great Platte River Road through Nebraska and who helped to build America.”
In addition to being on a key route for the bird migrations, the Platte was also important for the movement of people in the 19th century. It was a fixture for miles along the historic Mormon, Oregon, California and Bozeman trails.
The bus provided front-door service to Alley Rose, a restaurant located “on the bricks,” the historic downtown district of Kearney. MCC travelers sat down together for a buffet lunch with a salad bar that was included in the cost of the tour.
A group of six sat together — two separate pairs of female friends and a husband and wife. The groups of friends had attended past MCC Traveling Classrooms, while the husband and wife were attending their first trip with the College. The returners shared stories of other tours they enjoyed: the bridges of Madison County in Winterset, Iowa; the Tulip Festival in Orange City, Iowa; and the Czech Festival in Wilber, Nebraska.
Kowskie said he’s been able to get to know several committed MCC travelers in the four-county service area from doing the tours since 2005, like Bob and Joanne Hicks, who said they attend the MCC Traveling Classrooms like it’s “an addiction.” Since going on their first MCC outing in 2015, they have gone on 29 tours and are signed up for more in the months ahead.
“We really missed them during the pandemic,” Joanne Hicks said. Their favorite are the MCC Mystery Tours. To keep them true to their name, Kowskie provides extremely scant details about the destinations, which is the best part, Bob Hicks said. “About 40 people get on the bus, you have no idea where you’re going or what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, even when you’re minutes away, you still can’t figure it out. It’s a stitch,” he said. “Some people like to stay within their comfort zone, but once you try one of these mystery tours, you get hooked.”
It’s also a great educational experience, he said.
“The way [Kowskie] structures these things, you’re learning something new the whole time about the people, the places and the history. You’re tired when you come home, but when it’s over, you say, ‘Wow, wasn’t that something,’” Bob Hicks said.
Joanne Hicks said it’s a great way to keep learning.
“We’re both over the age of 70. There’s nothing that says, ‘Oh well, education stops now,’” she said. “Once you go on these trips, you see there’s so much out there all around us. We’ve been to the Black Hills, through Iowa and into Missouri. It’s fun learning that gives you the local experience, seeing things you probably wouldn’t have gone to on your own because you wouldn’t have known about it.”
Another frequent MCC Traveling Classroom attendee, Pat Gates, an Omaha transplant from Pittsburgh, said she would put the Midwestern knowledge she’s gained from the tours up against any native in a trivia contest.
“When I moved here from Pennsylvania, I didn’t know a thing about the Midwest. But now I’ve seen lavender fields and eaten lavender cookies, learned about the Loess Hills, the Morton salt mines and so many other unique places and events,” said Gates, an MCC adjunct instructor and tutor.
Gates, who attends as a solo traveler, said she enjoys being the student on tours, as well as the convenience of not having to plan, drive or worry about parking. It allows her time to just enjoy the ride and meet others, some of whom she has gotten to know from going on previous trips together. “It’s wonderful research, and there’s a major convenience factor. We just sit back and listen and enjoy the scenery along the way. I’ve enjoyed every single one I’ve gone on, and I will be going on more this year,” Gates said.
Kowskie said with the Traveling Classrooms having a two-year break during the pandemic, it’s been good for him to be reacquainted with the experiences and seeing others enjoy their time learning about the region.
“My favorite part is seeing people enjoy the experiences and verbalize their excitement to me. That’s what makes it all worthwhile for me,” Kowskie said.
A Nebraska marvel
It approached 7:30 p.m. at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area as the bus rolled in and let passengers off in front of the paved, tree-lined trail. The viewing bridge was a 10-minute walk.
The scene on the river resembled paintings by artists like Albert Bierstadt who depicted Nebraska’s landscapes during westward expansion in America — an egg-yolk sun beamed against a canvas of orange sky that grew a deeper shade the further the rays dipped on the horizon, casting long shadows from the wooded island its beams passed through in the distance. Hundreds of people gathered on the quarter-mile bridge that spanned the wide, shallow river.
There was a church-like reverence among the observers, whispering to one another and pointing to the sky as ribbons of sandhill cranes began their descent to their marshy beds along the water, safe from predators.
They arrived in flocks of dozens initially, then by hundreds as the minutes passed and the sense of awe among the crowd grew. As cranes parachuted down, their gooselike, rattling bugle calls filled the air. It was a form of air traffic control as the light dimmed on the river valley.
Over the course of an hour or so, the birds that were scattered across the cornfields all day were nestling in one concentrated area. They’ll clamor a cacophonous chorus of thousands upon waking in the morning. And at some undistinguishable moment, the conductor among them will give the instruction, and in one the biggest games of “Follow the Leader” on the planet, they will all rise up to head off to the fields, completely unaware of the sense of wonder they’ve planted in the people watching them from below.
Perhaps it’s their timeless consistency that draws people to see them. In a world that can change overnight, full of jarring interruptions and rapid advancements, the sandhill cranes have continued to visit this same stretch of land, long before indigenous people inhabited it, the pioneers rode their wagons through it or the farmers and ranchers planted their roots in it. As long as their habitat remains, the sandhill cranes can be counted on to return with an inherent elegance.
Corrine Hickman of Omaha, who signed up for the tour with her friend, Tracy Kemp, of Bennington, said she’s glad they were able to tap into the experiences the day had to offer, despite the cold weather.
“This is our second tour with Kevin and MCC, and even though it’s been cold, this has been fantastic,” Hickman said as the final waves of sandhill cranes swept by hundreds of feet above. “I think we’re extremely lucky. A lot of people never get to see this, and it’s only a couple hours away. I think there are a lot of gems like this in our backyard. We just don’t realize it.”
“It’s easy and stress-free travel. People can just focus on enjoying going to new places and having new experiences,” Kowskie said.
They ended the day exactly how Kowskie planned it out.
For more information on MCC traveling classrooms, visit mccneb.edu/CE