A long post in which I discuss both endangered cranes and the harderst year of my life.






Photograph courtesy of the International Crane Foundation



The last "real" job I ever had was as the Education Outreach Coordinator at the International Crane Foundation (ICF). ICF is the only place in the world where you can see all 15 of the world's crane species – eleven of which are threatened or endangered.

Last Friday I organized a tour for our homeschooling coop and we spent the day at ICF looking at, listening to, and learning about cranes.

Though I worked at ICF for years before Sage was born I left when I was pregnant in 2002 and only returned once – almost eleven years ago – with a colicky baby in my arms. I hastily introduced him to my coworkers and slipped away, not to return again until last week.

(Sage was a sensitive baby and I thought the crane calls would push him over the edge. By the time he was ready for a visit Lupine was born and we had moved away. Time accelerated and suddenly 11 years had passed.)

Life happened.

But being back at ICF last week reminded me of I story I very much want to share. A good, magical story that makes you wonder how many spirits are watching over each of us. It will take us far away from the cranes and into a dark and scary chapter of my life, and then magically back to the cranes once more. It is among the most incredible "did that really just happen?" stories of my life.

Here goes.


 Photograph courtesy of the International Crane Foundation

Thought there were many projects on my plate during my time at ICF, most of my hours (and passion) were invested in the Whooping Crane reintroduction.

The reintroduction of this endangered species was undertaken by a partnership of private, non-profit, and governmental agencies working together to reestablish a migratory flock of endangered Whooping Cranes in Eastern North America.

It is a colossal undertaking. Also inspiring. Political. Tenacious. Challenging. Epic.

The project involves Whooping Cranes raised in isolation and captivity by costumed biologists to prevent the young birds from imprinting on humans. The cranes are then taught to follow a costumed pilot in an ultralight airplane and ultimately learn their migration route from this surrogate parent. 

Crazy, right? Totally.

But these are the rarest crane species in the world, once reduced to a population of 21 birds. In total. That was in the 1940's. Now there are just over 400, but it is still a species walking the line between existence and extinction.

My day-to-day work before I left was talking about this project, watching this project, putting together programs and curriculum and media kits about this project, and doing media interviews about it.

Professionally, I lived and breathed whoopers and ultralights.


Photograph courtesy of the International Crane Foundation

At the time I was involved in the project the migration route led by the pilots took cranes from Central Wisconsin to Western Florida.

I took the phone calls at ICF from anyone who saw – or thought they saw – Whooping Cranes and reached out to the Crane Foundation. Those callers were always so emotional! It was endearing to me, but also a little silly. Because I was around these majestic birds so much that the magic and novelty had worn off a bit.

And if anyone saw the whoopers with the ultralight? Oh, my. Those callers were crazy excited! But few and far between. Because rarely does anyone see the birds following the planes on their journey south. They fly over rural areas in the early morning and almost no one notices them.


Photo courtesy of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership

And then I got pregnant.

And I left ICF.

And Sage was born.

And life took me away from these cranes that once meant so much to me.

Sometimes while nursing Sage or laying in bed at night I would wonder how they were doing and if the project was finding success. My great aunt would call me with an update every time the project was on the news or in the paper.

And then the plot twist of our life occurred.

One afternoon in October when Sage was two, Pete put him down for a nap and fell asleep by his side.

He woke to Sage seizing beside him in our bed.

The seizure was not your typical terrifying-but-fairly-common three-minute febrile seizure. Instead lasted for hours and resulted in a flight-for-life to Madison, a coma, countless procedures, and most of a week in the Pediatric
ICU. (I shared that story here and here.)

We brought our baby home from the hospital not knowing if he had permanent brain damage.

We wondered if – or when – the next seizure would come, and what the outcome would be that time. In our darkest moments we imagined despite ourselves what might have happened were Pete not asleep by his side.

Because both of us believe that co-sleeping literally saved Sage's life.

When we left the hospital I asked our neurologist how we could make sure it never ever happend again. He replied that he couldn't do that – that he needed Sage to have another [almonst fatal] seizure so that he could better know how to medicate him.

Then he said something along these lines:

"You'll know in a year if he has brain damage and how severe it is.

"When he has his next seizure we'll better know what medications to put him on, unless of course you want to start now with a regular dose of phenobarbital today.

"This next year is critical. If he can make it one year without a seizure you're out of the woods. If not he has a life-long seizure condition and must be medicated."

We were given a valium kit and sent home. 

 Good luck!

If he were to seize again we were to allow it to go on for three minutes. If it did not stop we were to administer the Valium and call an ambulance.

So we rationed: we have three minutes. At any moment we have just three minutes.

This is where things get surreal. Or more surreal.

For 12 months we checked on Sage every three minutes if he was asleep without us.

It is difficult for me to remember the heaviness of that time, but as parents you do what you need to do. If Sage was asleep and we were downstairs we'd take turns running to peek in on him. Every. Three. Minutes.

Check clock. Run upstairs with some worry in your mind. Peek in to check for signs of seizure. Sigh with relief. Go back downstairs. Wait three minutes. Repeat.

Until we went to bed.

Then we would sleep beside him with a hand on him so we'd know the second things went wrong.

Welcome to the one-year-stress-roller coaster.

Twelve long months.

They passed slowly, but day after day – no seizure.


Photograph courtesy of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership

Finally the one-year anniversary arrived.

That morning the three of us were lying together in our bed.

Pete and I looked at each other with more relief than we had know for months, both knowing that we made it twelve months without another seizure. Somehow – amazingly – it seemed that we were going to be okay.

Recovery. Health. Survival.

And then three-year old Sage stood up and looked out the open window.

Sage: "What's that noise?"

Pete: "It sounds like a tractor. Do you see a tractor?"

Sage: "No."

Me: "Maybe it's that plane. Do you see the plane over there?" I pointed at a Cessna out above the pasture across the road. "Look up."

Sage (looking straight up, not up and across the road): "Yeah… airplane in the sky. Birds flying with it!"

Me (joking with Pete): "Yeah. It's the Whoopers."

Then in less than two seconds my mind processed it all.

Wait. We're south of the release site. It's October. They leave in October. It's early morning. They only fly in the early morning. And a Cessna scout plane leads the way!"

I looked at Pete with big eyes and we both knew in an instant what Sage had seen.

We lept towards the window and looked up just in time to see the underside of the low-flying ultralight with a group of endangered whooping cranes in formation behind it clear our roof and fly across our yard.

Directly above our house. On the one-year anniversary of Sage's seizure.

Recovery. Health. Survival.

The birds I had devoted the final chapter of my career to. The birds I loved.

And with tears in my eyes I became one of those people I once spoke to on the phone at ICF.

Taken by the symbolism and magic of the cranes on the most poignant of days and the message that they bring.

Oh, yes. There is magic here.


Photo courtesy of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership

If you'd like to learn more about endangered cranes or the Whooping Crane Reintroduction, here are some resources for you.

International Crane Foundation

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership

Operation Migration

Radio Lab "Raising Crane" audio program

 So much love,

35 thoughts on “A long post in which I discuss both endangered cranes and the harderst year of my life.

  1. Casey U says:

    Goosebumps. Love and light to you all. You’re a family of fighters, survivors — I have so much respect for all four of you!

  2. tameka says:

    I’m so happy for Sage! I’m so happy for all of you! What an experience! I work for a federal agency involved in the crane recovery. The last time I was in Florida, I happened to look up while driving and saw a whooper flying overhead. Yes, I got chills too and smiled and thought of all the effort that went into that crane’s migration.

  3. Rachel Wolf says:

    Really? There are a few other readers of the blog who are also involved in the project – one each from NFWS, OM, and ICF I believe. Thanks for adding your bit to the story!

  4. Bree says:

    Seizures. Something I know too well. They are so scary and something I can’t wait to ask God about some day! Our little boy was born “special.” A neurological condition – still no diagnosis even 7 years later. He can’t do anything for himself but he is HEALTHY and HAPPY. The biggest blessing and joy to our family. He has been seizure-free for over 3 years now. Your Sage sure got lucky. Life is so precious, you know? We are all here to learn that through different lessons. Sure grateful for your inspiration, Rachel!!!

  5. Adeola says:

    There is always always the light, even though the getting there can seem harder and longer than you can bear. I needed the reminder, as always, thank you.x

  6. Chastity says:

    I’m crying and almost can’t stop. My daughter sleeps in our bed. It’s new to us. I reach over to her whenever she fusses, or moves a lot, or seems to have a nightmare. I can’t imagine finding my baby in such distress. I’m glad you made it with Sage.

  7. knitting mole says:

    What a wonderful & terrifying story! (Crying a lot now…good thing I’m quiet otherwise my office mates would think I’d lost it)

    I’m a big believer in co-sleeping too, in many ways thanks to you! I discovered your blog early during my pregnancy and seeing pictures of the “big bed” was so inspiring and felt just right to me. I have vivid memories of being alone in a big brass bed when I was little and falling out hard on the wood floor. I was crying and screaming for ages before anyone heard me and woke up to check on me. I knew I didn’t want to do that to my daughter. So co-sleeping was a must!

    My little girl is going on 3 now and has only slept without me one night (she was directly across the hall from me and I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep!). I wouldn’t have it any other way. Whenever she feels ready to move into her own room across the hall is fine, but she’ll always be welcome in the “big bed” 🙂

  8. Margie Tomlinson says:

    Dear Rachel,
    What a wonderful/beautiful REAL story! Reminded me of the baby girl I lost due to all the complications of pre-maturity. Her name was, Ginelle Martha. So glad to hear about all your connections to WCEP and working at ICF,
    too. I sponsored “Slidell”, the African Grey Crowned Crane there this year. She is soooo beautiful, like our children are to us. Have become a real Craniac, too, after my twin sister intoduced me to Operation Migration three years ago. Thank you for mentioning that organization in your story, as well. My husband & I just visited ICF in June and thoroughly enjoyed it!
    May you forever more be blessed, especially for sharing your story with us all! Thanks so much!

  9. Kelly says:

    Wow Rachel. This story is absolutely amazing. It’s giving me major chills….and I’m realizing that I learn something from you every time I visit over here!

  10. Jenn says:

    I am a nurse, and I have a dog that has seizures. Nothing like watching a child have them, but still hard. Did they ever tell you what might have caused his seizures??

  11. Jeanne Miller says:

    Emotion… feeling some. I love the movie Fly Away Home. I assume this program is the one that inspired the movie.
    I have had many experiences when I felt that my Father in Heaven knows me, because I have seen a bird, or some birds somewhere, that would make me forget about my sorrow for a minute and know He was aware of my troubled heart. It gave me hope, it lifted my spirit. Reading this post was kind of like one of those moments; I just felt a bit of your moment.
    What a beautiful thing. Thank you for sharing it. I really enjoy your blog when I come here.

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