I’ve just walked down from a morning stroll up to the little summit of “Pulpit Hill.” There, under a canvas of a vivid Yukon blue sky, I quietly reflected on the recent road trip up here from Minnesota.

Initially our Minnesota departure was delayed by a full week. After a wet spring, wepulled away from our verdant Basecamp.   The population explosion of mosquitoes was likely sad to see their hosts light out for the Territories.

The first day we managed to put in 26 miles. No, we were not driving a team of oxen and a Conestoga wagon. We stopped at Nancy’s parents and spent two nights with them. Both of them are closer to ninety than eighty and both had been dealing with  health issues. Her mom, Winnie, was nursing a broken wrist and having a cast made life difficult. Then, while we were there, an infected ankle showed up and that added to the care focus. Nancy’s dad, Dave, is nursing a very sore back that makes it difficult to stand up.

After two days of helping and visiting, we headed west on I-94. We had gone about 100 miles when Nancy began to cry. She was thinking of her parents and realized that she wanted to stay a while longer to help.  I said no problem so we turned around and headed back. The Yukon Outpost was empty and sitting idle in spring is not a big deal.

Just over a week later, we headed out again. This time we got twenty miles before Nancy realized that she had not packed her clothes bag into the truck.

There was no third feint in our Yukon trek as we finally passed into North Dakota. We eventually made our way just west of Minot and felt the need to stop for something to eat.

We stopped at a roadside joint in Foxholm, North Dakota. We had no choice and both of us wished we had stopped earlier in Minot. Not only was the food limited in choices, but also it was also poor and expensive. (At trip’s end  we jointly declare it “worst meal” of he road trip.

With the sun approaching day’s end, and no campgrounds nearby, we scored a guerrilla camping spot shortly after leaving Foxholm. I spied a big pile of gravel in a scoured pit north of the highway and we took a rarely traveled township road to reach it. We pulled our truck around to the backside of the pile and called it home.

Before crawling into our comfy berths under the truck topper, made softer by the recent acquisition of a 3-inch memory foam mattress topper, we took a short walk to move our bodies. With binoculars in hand we headed uphill out of the small river valley, with grasslands flanking both sides.


With each trip to the Yukon we keep a bird list tally. It helps pass the time and it offers a challenge to see if we can beat the previous year’s total.  Our goal was to tally 80 bird species.

As we strolled uphill with curious beef cattle eyeing us like newfound toys, I heard a trio of birds that came to the high water birding mark for the entire 2,700-mile trip. First was the melodious, buoyant, sweet song of a western meadowlark.

The meadowlark’s song was a regular occurrence when I was a kid. Now, five decades later, I haven’t heard their notes near my home grounds for a long, long time.  Meadowlarks require grasslands for their preferred habitat. In east-central Minnesota housing developments and converted grasslands for the unsustainable cycle of soybeans and corn has pretty much erased meadowlarks in the region.

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, breeding populations of meadowlarks have been declining in North America at a rate of approximately 1 percent per year since 1966. The result is a loss of about 36 percent of meadowlarks.

The North Dakota meadowlark we listened to was just finishing its choral performance when from high overhead I heard the distinct, almost haunting wavering notes of a male Wilson’s snipe. The winnowing sound is not a vocalization but is created from the snipe’s  fanned outer tail feathers as he zigzags high overhead.

Snipe prefer wetlands and I have a profound memory of being duped into going on a snipe hunt one dark night at a Boy Scout Jamboree. With gunny sacks our group of Tenderfoots was instructed to head into the snipes preferred haunts, a swamp or marsh, and to call out, not too loud and not too soft,  “Here snipe, here snipe.” Armed with empty gunnysacks we were told that these long-beaked, squat birds could be coaxed into our sacks.

After an hour or stumbling and splashing in the wetland we returned wet-footed and panted to the campfire where we humbly realized that we were the ones who had been caught . . . in a practical joke.

Hearing the meadowlark and the snipe simultaneously was a gift in itself, but when the third member of the evening trio chimed in, I was nearly brought to my knees. Descending over the grasslands uphill of us, advanced a loud and and declarative upland sandpiper with its long yellow legs trailing behind it.

The bubbling flight call is distinctive and rarely heard call in Minnesota. This 12 inch tall, grassland sandpiper was once a sought after delicacy and hunted to unsustainable levels for its meat. The real culprit in its alarming population decline is the loss of native prairie habitat. Like the meadowlark it requires diverse grasslands.

I suspect my love for this bird stems in large part, from the fine essay that the late Aldo Leopold wrote that is included in his compilation of writings in his classic A Sound County Almanac.

 “When dandelions have set the mark of May in Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring. Sit down on a tussock, cock your ears at the sky, dial out the bedlam of meadowlarks and redwings and soon you may hear it; the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.”

In my lifetime,  the American Ornithological Union decided that this bird was not a true plover but instead a sandpiper and hence the official name change to “upland sandpiper.”

 After minutes of watching and listening to the evening vespers of these three birds, we turned back and descended to our hideout behind the house-sized mound of gravel. The sun melted into the western horizon and a lone coyote barked an exclamation mark for day’s end.

It was nice to be on the road again and sleep came easily.

Oh and our final tally was exactly 80 species with three of those being most memorable.