A quarter million sandhill cranes!

When, anywhere in this territory, do we have the opportunity to see a quarter million anything?

Caribou? Nope. People? Not even close. Trees? Well, probably, but trees aren’t typically very active; they don’t really provide a spectator sport, as it were.

But a quarter million sandhill cranes, flying overhead in the course of a single weekend – that is something every Yukoner should take the opportunity to see.

This is what compelled me and some friends to hop in my car last year and make our way to Faro.

The annual Crane and Sheep Viewing Festival (now in its eighth year) takes place in early May. It draws a cross-section of Yukon society (and a few visitors from outside) to the normally quiet town of Faro.

Last year was my first opportunity to take part in the festival, and I left Whitehorse with a mix of anticipation and scepticism.

You see, I grew up in a national park. I spent many summers explaining to appalled tourists that I could not direct them to “where we kept the animals” because we, in fact, let the animals run free.

This was usually followed immediately by, “No, it is not dangerous to let the animals run free.”

My childhood firmly instilled in me that you cannot simply produce wildlife on demand, regardless of how carefully you have planned an event to celebrate their presence.

So I didn’t understand how the people of Faro could promise that hundreds of thousands of cranes making their way along the Tintina Trench en route to their summer grounds in Alaska and Siberia would fly over their tiny community on the exact weekend they planned to celebrate this yearly migration.

I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt where the fanning sheep were concerned. After all, the sheep live just down the road from Faro. But the cranes … how could they promise to produce the cranes?

To be honest, I’m still not sure how they did it. But they did. And I’m told that they have consistently done it every year the festival has operated.

Anyone out there still doubting that traditional and local knowledge adds significant value to scientific inquiry should take that as a sign and back-pedal for all they are worth.

The cranes were worth the drive all by themselves. Watching flocks, numbering in the tens of thousands, circling on thermals overhead was beyond any simile or metaphor I could hope to conjure.

And I’ll admit to being almost as astounded by the ability of experienced bird watchers to count the birds in those massive flocks.

The sheep, cavorting on the mountainside directly below the cranes’ onward migration was icing on the cake; if your neck got sore from straining your binoculars skyward, you could simply level your gaze and watch young sheep explore their surroundings for awhile.

Although the wildlife viewing was spectacular, it didn’t necessarily take me by surprise – it was, after all, what the festival was known for. What did take me by surprise was the way the community rallied around the event and contributed to its success.

The school was open throughout the weekend for coffee and art workshops, locals drove shuttles of visitors out to the prime sheep and crane viewing spots, and the town came together to throw the best barbecue I’ve had in a long time.

Local hunters and outfitters had donated enough wild meat to feed everyone in the community that weekend – locals and visitors alike. When I went digging in my pockets to pay for the meal, they just laughed and said the whole evening was on them.

I was feeling pretty spoiled, sitting in the grass in the centre of town, listening to a band play while I enjoyed my dinner.

This year’s festival takes place May 6-8 and I strongly encourage you to make the trip. You won’t be sorry you did.

Amber Church is a painter, writer and sports enthusiast. You can reach her at sports@whatsupyukon.com.