Sometimes it seems like maybe they might not come. Then you hear them: the faint, high-pitched croaking, growing louder and louder.
Then the sky fills with hundreds of sandhill cranes, flying in huge Vs that morph and swoop as the birds soar to catch rising thermals. Everyone in Faro drops what they’re doing to look up.
“It’s something to see; it’s definitely worth the trip,” says Carrie McClelland, a wildlife viewing biologist with Environment Yukon. “It’s amazing to see how the local people get so excited.”
The people of Faro are so enthused about their unique place in the big bird’s migration that since 2003, they’ve hosted the annual Sheep and Crane Festival, attracting up to 400 visitors to this quiet, former mining town.
This year’s event kicks off on Friday, May 6 with a chili dinner and talent show and wraps up Sunday, May 8 with a Mother’s Day breakfast and morning bird talks and guided walks.
Hikes are a big part of the weekend, along with wildlife viewing, a bear safety talk, art workshops, a flea market, tai chi and a grand community barbecue and potluck Saturday night.
Sabine Heigl is coordinating the event, which she describes as Faro’s biggest undertaking of the year.
“Almost the whole town is involved,” she laughs.
Of course it’s also a sheep festival. The nearby mountains are home to the unique Fannin sheep — which are basically Dall sheep with brown patches that look like blankets on their backs, says McClelland. They hang out on the slopes across the valley from the Mount Mye Sheep Viewing Station. There will be hourly shuttles to the station on Saturday and tours to the mineral lick where the animals go to get their vitamins.
McClelland says she will have scopes set up to get a close look.
“It’s a really cool experience,” she says. “You can watch them throughout the day and you’re looking at the big picture rather than just seeing them run across a road.”
Last year, festival-goers saw a grizzly bear stalking the sheep.
“We could watch the sheep becoming more alert,” says McClelland, saying they just nonchalantly moved to cliffs where the bear could not go. “He didn’t stand a chance.”
It’s a special experience to watch such a scene with wildlife - while being at a safe distance.
As for the cranes, you can hear Heigl’s smile when she says they’ve been known to land at Faro’s airport. Mostly, they fly over on their way to nest on the Yukon’s north slope or in Siberia.
Heigl remembers a momentous arrival two years ago.
“During the day there was almost nothing. Then Saturday night was just a spectacle; there were thousands and thousands going over. It’s amazing! And they’re loud!”
The Sheep and Crane Festival takes place in Faro May 6 through 8. Faro is roughly five hours northeast of Whitehorse. To come and stay for the weekend camping is available at Faro’s RV park and overflow area and there are also a couple of B ‘n’ Bs and the Faro Hotel. Heigl encourages people to bring rain gear, good footwear and binoculars.
The festival’s full calendar of events is posted on the Town of Faro’s website at www.FaroYukon.ca.