Wild Goose Chase

*This piece was published in almost unrecognizably edited form by Salt Lake Magazine in 2004.  The edits made the people of Delta and the birdwatchers sound like rubes.  Starting a piece with a quotation by Don Delillo probably doomed my version, I’ll admit.  But if you haven’t read White Noise, you don’t know what you’re missing.*

“You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real.  There’s a lot of polishing we still have to do.”                Don Delillo, White Noise

Delta’s Snow Goose Festival brochure sets the bar high for my expectations.  “The sight and sound of thousands of white geese in the air and on the water . . . has got to be one of the most incredible wildlife experiences available.”  Images from “Winged Migration” spool through my mind:  a panorama of a feathered flock arced over a vast landscape, a close up of a bald eagle soaring beneath the sheer face of a cliff, a lone bird powering its way down to the water’s surface, accompanied with a soundtrack of appropriately heroic proportions.  But forget cinematic substitutions and vicarious thrills.  The mystery and majesty of Nature is only a few hours away from me in Delta, Utah.   I am ready to be bowled over by the Snow Goose Festival.

When I arrive on the first Friday in March, the parking lot at the Festival’s Gunnison Reservoir site contains seven cars and a snack cart with its steel shutter rolled shut.  An elderly trio is standing at the edge of the lake, where I’ve been expecting to see teeming numbers of white and black feathered snow geese bobbing up and down on the water’s waves.  But there’s nothing out there on what is instead a sheet of dull grey ice.  The flyer’s schedule of events notes that the snow geese fly from the fields where they feed to the lake from 6 to 10 a.m.  Although it’s past 11, the absurdity of scheduling a goose fly-in hits me.  Maybe someone forgot to cue the geese.

Undaunted, I head inside the information tent.  Besides the people working at the three sets of tables, there can’t be more than ten people in the tent.  At the Delta Chamber of Commerce table, striking up a conversation with Michelle Fields, one of the five people it takes to set up and run the Festival, is tricky.  For starters, her disinterest when it comes to the snow geese is palpable.  “They always show up the day after Valentine’s” is all she has to say.

I’m flummoxed.  Aren’t we all here for the snow geese?  I try another topic.  “What else is there to do in Delta?”  Again, her answer is like a limp handshake.  “Some people like to rock hunt at Fossil Mountain.”  I ask her what kind of rocks she’s found, but it turns out she’s never rock hounded herself.  When I comment on how low the water table must be in the area, I hit pay dirt, as she talks animatedly about the flood of 1983 for several minutes.

If I’m looking for snow goose enthusiasm, Mike Tallon, a Tracy Aviary volunteer, seems the perfect candidate.  He and the other volunteers have traveled down from Salt Lake for the weekend with four birds:  Quinton, a kestral; Winky, a great horned owl; Aurora, a barn owl; and Kess, a rough legged hawk.  Winky keeps his yellow eyes on me as I ask Mike about the snow geese.  But this is the first time Mike’s been to the snow goose festival, and all he knows is as much as I’ve gotten from reading the flyer.  I’m able to hide my disappointment when Winky decides to hop over to meet the visitors and finds he’s been tethered to the perch.

Mike is righting an irritated Winky when there’s a noise like canvas flapping in the wind.  “That must be the snow geese,” Mike says, and most of us rush out.  Above us the snow geese are flying.  Their white bodied and black winged shapes against the blue March sky are mesmerizing.  They criss-cross over each other, wheeling around several times as if to give us all a good look before they stream from the sky and settle on the icy surface.

Once the buzz of exclamations has died down and people have returned to the tent, I realize that the snow geese have been on the reservoir all morning.  They’re just so far away from the Festival site that without binoculars they look like a white smear against the frozen lake.  Even when I finally figure out how to focus the telescope provided by the Department of Wildlife Resources on something other than the grey ice, I see birds sitting on the ice up close instead of from a distance.  Metaphors like watching paint dry or grass grow seem appropriate.

I’m beginning to understand Michelle’s reticence.  There’s not much to say about the snow geese.  When I check in at The Deltan Inn, Sheri expresses this sense aptly.  “I used to wonder why people would come around and watch geese sitting on water,” she says.  Sheri’s more interested in talking about the power plant outage.  Undoubtedly, the crew of workers who’ll stay in Delta for a month cleaning the plant jazz up the economic and social life in this town of 3200 more than a gaggle of modest geese watchers.

When I return to the Festival, the snack cart’s shutters have been unfurled.  Popcorn, soda, homemade sugar cookies with pink icing, and snow goose souvenir balloons are for sale.  Busy inflating them from a helium tank, Travis Jones, the Festival’s Chair, confesses, “We get these from a hunting supply store.  They’re decoys.”

Although the number of people at the site has tripled, the turn-out still falls short of Festival proportions, and I ask Travis whether he expects more people next weekend.  Because this is the first time in the Festival’s five-year history that they’re extending it into two weekends, he’s not sure.  “We found that people kept coming out to watch the geese even when we weren’t out here,” he explains, “and the only way we make money is by selling souvenirs.”  To help with future proceeds, I suggest they change their t-shirts from “I got goosed at the Snow Goose Festival” to “I got flocked at the Snow Goose Festival.”  He assures me he’ll consider it.

With the snow geese resisting my desire for another flight exhibition, I decide to focus on Sheri’s question and find out what kind of people enjoy watching geese sit on water.  A group of nine listens attentive to DWR’s Bob Walters and Lynn Chamberlain talk about birds of prey and offer tips on wildlife photography, respectively.  The audience is friendly and content, middle-aged to elderly, most of them exhibiting the tell-tale signs of an armchair-oriented lifestyle.  It would seem that part of the appeal of bird watching is due to its lack of physical exertion and the sense that anyone can do it.

The speakers themselves reflect back this patience and humility not only in their friendly faces but in their plain speech.  Bob relishes sharing the distinction he’s constructed between the kestral and the merlin:  “If the kestral is like a scooter,” he says, “the merlin is like a Harley Davidson.”  Lynn shows the folks a car window mount for their high tech photography equipment so they can snap terrific shots without leaving the comfort of their own automobile.  No one is going to be intimidated here.  Even experts like Bob and Lynn have no need to admit they’re experts.  Bob tells us, “People don’t know much about birds; we just make guesses about their habits and welfare.”

Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider to the church of bird watchers, but I feel as if there’s a meaning I’m failing to grasp.  Most of these folks have driven at least an hour and a half from Salt Lake or Provo to stand at the edge of a frozen reservoir to watch these birds do nothing for hours.  At least I’m getting paid.

Saturday morning I decide to give the geese another opportunity to convert me, but I’m not surprised when I arrive at the reservoir at 8 a.m. and there are no geese.  I’m taking soundings on how long I’m prepared to wait when Bob Walters shows up with directions to the field where the geese are feeding.  Although an amateur photographer next to me takes down the directions at the same time I do, I find the field and he heads toward Nevada.

When I am 10 yards away from the flock, I realize that there is something unnerving about groups of animals gathered together for their own devices.  Without this effect, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” would have little to recommend it.   As I pull over to the field, I am reminded of the way Hitchcock’s birds turn their heads to watch Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor make their escape.  The snow geese register me but they do not care.  They are moving through the tilled fields picking up scattered grain efficiently, never breaking their tight formation.  It’s like a thick, white liquid seeping slowly across a surface.  Then some head goose gets a notion to move, and they stream up, rising in narrow columns to settle just as swiftly and compactly 500 yards away.  The horizon stretches for more than 60 miles, and in the morning’s silence, the significance of what I’m seeing hits me.  For millennia, snow geese have been making this flight from Mexico to the Arctic Circle.  I am in the presence of something truer and wiser than the selling of snacks and decoys or the writing of articles.  I wish the snow geese safe travels and head back.

Later, I read that the director of “Winged Migration” used gliders, hot-air balloons, remote-controlled planes, three years, five crews, and a lot of time in the editing room to create 85 minutes of film that made bird migration exciting.  Alfred Hitchcock once said movies were like life with the boring parts cut out.  Without a big budget, the Delta Snow Goose Festival might not deliver cinematic moments that speak to nature’s profound, mysterious beauty, but it’s the real thing.

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