Weblog of Leland Rucker
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With the Sandhill Cranes 2008 (Part One): Gators in the San Luis Valley

Billie and I again celebrated our birthdays in Monte Vista, Colorado. We drove there to watch sandhill cranes, who spend the month of March at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge during their migration north. It’s our second year, and I started this weblog with two posts from that trip, here and

This big fellow looked tired. (Click for larger image.)

This big fellow looked tired. (Click for larger image.)

South Park was a big bowl of white. A huge snowdrift that sometimes towered over the car stretched for miles from the bottom of Kenosha Pass all the way to Red Hill Pass. Wind blowing from the north across the top of that drift made the road wet and sometimes a little icy, but once I got around a big truck splashing water everywhere, we didn’t have any problem navigating it. We stopped in Fairplay to take photos of the burro memorial and pick up coffees and pastries at a shop across the street. The owner says that hers was the first coffee place in town. Today she shares the Fairplay caffeination business with three other shops. No Starbucks.

There are two roads down to Monte Vista once you get in the San Luis Valley. Today we took the eastern road, Colorado 17, to Alamosa and then over to Monte Vista on Colorado 160. North of Alamosa we stopped at the Colorado Alligator Farm, near Mosca. I have always wanted to go there, having only been to an alligator farm once, in Florida during a spring-break trip back in the ’60s. Just the idea of alligators at 7500 feet has kept my interest high.

The secret is that the farm sits on a thermal vent that keeps the area and water warm, even during the cold, snowy winters. Underground water is one of the things that makes the San Luis Valley distinct. At an average of 7,500 square feet, boxed in on three sides by mountain ranges, the San Luis is a desert, with about eight inches of precipitation per annum. The largest sand dunes in the United States are piled up just east of us.

Two aquifers beneath the valley, augmented by careful diversion of snow melt-off, several water storage areas and the Rio Grande and Conejos rivers, make the valley, since the 1850s, an agricultural desert, with substantial crops of alfalfa hay, wheat, barley and potatoes. If you’re interested, you can read about how it works here here.

That water is a fragile commodity in the valley is apparent this weekend. The city of Alamosa, the valley’s largest, is in a water crisis. The town suspects that more than 100 reported cases of salmonella poisoning by residents came from its water system, which it believes is tainted with the bacteria, which is usually carried by food. We usually stop for coffee and/or a meal in Alamosa, only 16 miles from Monte Vista, but not this time.

The owners of the alligator farm began, and remain, tilapia fish farmers. Tilapia are listed as noxious pests in certain areas of Australia, but they have become an important aquaculture fish in the United States. According to the American Tilapia Association, the perch-like fish are the fifth-most popular seafood in the United States. I don’t know about you, but I have never willingly or knowingly ordered, bought or eaten tilapia. Have you?

The gators were first brought in about twenty years ago to eat the leftovers and garbage, and now four hundred gators, crocs and cayman sprawl around the farm’s acreage and lake. The fish farm is still the business, but the gators are the attraction, along with some big birds, emus, ostriches and rheas that reside there.

Morris, an American alligator that has appeared in many television series and films – a sign in front says he once trashed a Cheers set – has his own pen, and female partner. The rest have to share the lakes with the other gators. The owners also care for iguanas, snakes and assorted other turtles and reptiles, most abandoned after the owners found they got more than they bargained for in a pet viper.

A friendly hippie kid has us pose with Little Bob, a small but well-equipped two-and-a-half foot American gator who reluctantly lets us pose with him. The 8X10 we purchase sucks, but the fourteen dollars we paid for it seems to be going to a good cause. I console myself with the fact that Little Bob left his sharp alligator teeth marks on the certificate.

We’re staying in the Gary Cooper room this time in the Movie Manor Motel. With no films showing, the motel is fairly empty this time of year; the rooms are large, the beds nice, the showers wonderful, and we wouldn’t stay willingly anywhere else – it’s part of the visit. And it’s only about twelve minutes from the refuge where we set up to watch birds.

We had sandwiches at Kelloff’s, the restaurant at the motel, before heading out to see the birds this evening. Driving down to the refuge on Gunbarrel Road, we pass fields of standing water and/or sheets of ice. Small farmhouses line the road, and all except one were above the waterline, surrounded on three sides by lakes of ice and water. Cattle and horses are stranded on patches of higher, muddy islands where ranchers have left bales of hay.

The refuge is a flat world, an immensely complicated ecosystem of fields of grain, lakes, ponds, wetlands, swamps, ditches, sluices, locks, gates, meadows and even a few trees. It could be in the middle of Kansas. But then you look east, and there is Blanca Peak and the Sangre de Christos. Turn around and there are smaller ridges that lead into the largest wilderness area in Colorado.

We were at the turn-out on Eight Mile Road at the south end of the refuge proper about 6:30. South of the road are a large number of cranes scattered out at least a quarter mile – it’s hard to judge distance. Inside the refuge are at least another thousand more scattered out northward.

They are making a big racket that continues to get louder as the darkness spreads. Sunset is around 7:15, and for fifteen minutes we stand in shock and awe as these ancient birds take off for their roosts, rising into the night skies for places unknown. The energy of the birds permeates the ground and the purple sky. In the morning, they will leave their roosts for the fields once again, in the same crescendo of pure abandonment. It is a ritual that has been happening longer than humans have trod the earth. We can just stand there dumbly and smile.

Monte Vista, CO


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