Once, I canoed around an Idaho river bend and surprised two enormous, white birds in the shallows. As they lifted off, showing black-tipped wings, I shaped my mouth around the unfamiliar words, "whooping cranes."
Another long-legged bird, farther downstream, joined the whoopers in flight. Yet when I told a knowledgeable birder that I'd seen three whooping cranes on that river, he said I could not have seen three, because there were only four in the flyway and the location of the other two was known. Perhaps, he suggested, I'd seen the sandhill-whooping crane cross.
I held onto my belief in three whooping cranes until too many birders confirmed the view of the first. I had surely seen two whoopers, but the third must have been one of hundreds of sandhills that migrate along that river.
I had not looked closely enough before plucking the third bird out of the sky and pasting it in my incredible story.
Recently, I heard two new transplants to the Northern Rockies lay claim to, respectively, a peregrine falcon sighting and a grizzly encounter. Although it was suggested to the first observer that peregrines nest on cliffs, not in trees - where the young woman claimed she has seen the bird delivering food to its chicks - she persisted with her story of a peregrine sighting along a trail with a conspicuous osprey nest.
Peregrines are rare enough that if a pair had taken up residence in the place the observer described, the local bird aficionados would certainly be aware of it. They weren't.
The woman who claimed a grizzly encounter had previously stated her overwhelming desire to see a grizzly. But the area in which the sighting took place - a popular hiking, picnicking and camping zone - had not received other reports of a grizzly. Four collared black bears were in residence, though, which made the presence of a grizzly unlikely.
An inexperienced observer with an enthusiasm for grizzlies may not be a credible witness if a black bear is blond or has fat reserves that suggest a shoulder hump. Other characteristics, such as a concave facial profile and rounder ears may not be noticed in the adrenaline rush of an encounter.
But both women were gathering totemic myths to carry back to the cities of the East, back to the Midwest prairie.
Then there's the man with a passion for mountain lions who tells several stories of personal intersections with the great cats. In one, he reports observing a cat in a meadow which is, coincidentally, not far from the supposed peregrine nest. He said the long tail defined the creature as a mountain lion, though it was a young one because the tracks it left were small. Someone with his own knowledge of cats once suggested that even a young cougar would have huge paws. The storyteller insisted that he had seen a young mountain lion.
Perhaps. Or perhaps his personal myth required a mountain lion that day. Whooping crane, peregrine falcon, grizzly, mountain lion - all are rare. We taste their names like caviar, like long-cellared champagne. We drop their names in conversation like nuggets of gold.
We've all told or heard tales of improbable totemic encounters: Bald eagle in the Mojave, rattlesnake in Yellowstone, wolf on the prairie. Like a child's deep fancy for a unicorn, like an adult whose conversation is littered with names of the famous, our desire for contact with these creatures reveals a longing for something beyond the ordinary, something that will, perhaps, give our own story mythic proportion.
The rare and secretive beings are a wonder for their very elusiveness. But is a sandhill crane a lesser soul than a whooping crane, an osprey less noble than a peregrine, a black bear less sentient than a grizzly?
Another visitor watched a bird fall out of the sky, aimed at a marsh full of ducks. The bird snatched a duck into the air and flew away while the woman bore witness. She did not try to name the bird, for she had never seen such a thing. She did not even speak the word raptor. She simply watched, and later told what she had seen, a sight so unexpected she would never forget it: large bird hovering, diving, flying off, a stunned duck clutched in its talons.
Geneen Marie Haugen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. She is a naturalist in Kelly, Wyoming.
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Geneen Marie Haugen