A Good Box of Dirt

We met them while we were out walking looking for birds near our rental.

It was January and it was cold – had been in the 30’s since we had arrived. I hadn’t figured this part of Georgia to be this cold even in the dead of winter.  We were on our way to Florida where it was much warmer. Believe me, the sun in Florida is a much deeper yellow – not this tepid light barely yellow that we were seeing here in the lowlands of Georgia.

We stopped for a week to visit with our daughter who lives just up the road a piece. She was coming down for a few days and we were idling a bit, waiting, and taking the opportunity to check out the birds at the two refuges nearby. All in all, it was a good place to stop, a small condo complex in an out-of-the-way place on a salt water marsh just about halfway between Savannah and Brunswick.

On this particular afternoon, it was sunny outside and a bit warmer so we decided to take a walk around the complex so headed up towards the fishing pier just to see if any birds were about that might be fishing in the creek. That’s where we saw them – up by a big pile of dirt over in the back corner of the lot.

She was 87, he was 95.  She was shoveling dirt from the dirt pile into a cardboard box sitting on the back of her golf cart. He was sitting in the cart watching her work.  

We walked on over and Jerry offered to shovel for her.  Without a thought, he reached for the shovel to take over the job for her.  Oh, my goodness, she pulled that shovel away like he was trying to snatch one of her grandbabies right out of her arms.  Jerry stepped back and stammered out an apology of sorts and looked at me like he really didn’t know what to do at this point.

She politely told him, she didn’t need any help, thank you anyway, explaining that this was her exercise and that a person needs projects like this to keep healthy especially as they are getting a bit older.

As we talked, she continued shoveling. We told them what we were doing there, and she told us why she was shoveling dirt into the box on the golf cart.  I had assumed she might be dressing out her flower beds around their condo but that was not it at all.

She also explained that he had a pulled shoulder and couldn’t shovel and that’s why he wasn’t helping. She really seemed to want to make sure that we knew that he was not just some no-account husband who would just sit watching his hard-driving wife do all the grunt work. It hadn’t crossed our minds to question his watching her seeing as she had told us right up front how old they were.

All in all, she was immaculate, all the while shoveling dirt.  She was just about four foot nothing and wearing neatly ironed jeans with knife sharp creases down the front and back. People rarely iron jeans anymore let along crease them like that front and back.

She had on a sweater set like a good Southern woman of her generation would wear (or, maybe any generation for that matter) – a print blouse with a nice pastel tropical print and a color matched sweater. Tropical but tasteful; you know, light yellow hibiscus rather than bright red ones. Her hair was beautiful – naturally white with soft curls framing her very well-made up face. One should always look one’s best when going out to work in the yard, I always say. (Okay, not really. I work outside in torn jeans and stained t-shirts.)

As noted above, I had assumed that she was getting that good dirt for her flower beds or, maybe to fill in a hole or two in the yard. She said no, that wasn’t it and, just to make sure we knew she wasn’t taking the dirt without permission, told us that the HOA folks brought the dirt in here, dumped it, and said that anyone could use it to fill up holes and all in the yard.

He laughed right out loud and said she wasn’t gonna be filling up any holes with that dirt. She was bound and determined to go building a ramp down to the creek from her back yard so she could get down to the creek to go fishing.

‘Need mind that she could ride her golf cart up to the pier – about ¼ mile all told from her doorstep – and go fishing in the creek anytime she felt the urge.

And, ‘need mind that the tide coming and going turned that stretch of water into a mud flat at least twice a day. 

And, ‘need mind that that same tide would wash away all her efforts at building a ramp just about those same times every day. It would explain why the bank was washed out in the first place.

But, never mind all that. She had a project to do. She had set her mind to it. And, she was determined to get it done. Pronto. No need to be messing around and jaw-boning all day about it.

Now, in my world, being who I am, I think I would just have run up to the big box store and bought one of those fancy pre-made concrete steps they make for mobile homes and such. I would have paid them an extra $35 and had them deliver the steps and plop them right down in place up next to the bank.  Project conceived; project done.

The box was about half full of dirt now (or still half empty depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist). I wondered how full she would go and who would be lifting that box off the back of the golf cart….being he is 95 and has that hurt shoulder and all. I didn’t dare suggest that we might follow them home and provide some bit of assistance.

He said she’d never catch any fish in that creek anyway. What fish were there came in with the tide and went out with it…..everyday. But I have to say, we knew there were fish in the creek because we’d seen the Hooded Mergansers and Great Egrets out there fishing. Okay, they were little fish…but they were fish, nonetheless.

She said she would too catch fish – she just knew it. How could anyone doubt her? She’d grown up fishing and I reckon she knew what she was doing.

We asked if she’d eat the fish that she caught. Well, of course, she would. Why would she ever go to all that trouble to catch a fish and then just throw it back? Why, that would be just crazy! Of course, she was gonna eat any fish she caught.

While we watched her work, he gave us the lowdown on other things. He said she’d lived there (at the condos) since her husband died about twelve years ago. She’d moved up from Darien down yonder to the south.  He said she’d had two properties and got tired of mowing and taking care of things at the big house where she’d lived with her husband and raised her babies. So, she was living up here now in a condo that was much smaller and easy to keep up.  

Her daughter lived just up the road – you could see her house from right there where we were standing. Looking out over the marsh to the southeast, he pointed out a blue house on the point where the creek curved its way out to the river.

The box was really getting full now. She was barely getting half a shovel of dirt each time she lifted so I knew she’d never lift that whole box of dirt off the cart. Maybe she would just tip it over dumping it into the yard and then work from there.

We asked how they’d met…they had both mentioned previous spouses that had died. She said – she had started doing most of the talking now – that they met in church. They had gone to the same church for years and had known each other only in passing when their respective spouses were alive. They had continued to sit in different parts of the church after they died and then, just like that, one day they started sitting together on the same side…he’d moved over to her side….and that was that. Make a long story short…. they became a couple.

Well, the box was full of dirt now and that ramp was waiting. They had to go. Nice to meet you fine folks. She plopped the shovel into the back of the golf cart, hopped onto the front seat and, with a last wave back in our direction, drove on off across the field.

Later, we spotted her working at the edge of the yard building her ramp. I wondered how long it would take for her to ramp up the four foot drop down to the water’s edge or how long before the incoming tide would wash it all away. It was a gonna be a crap shoot as to which thing happened first.

But a project is a project and you gotta keep at it or it ain’t ever gonna get done.

I was absolutely 100% sure that this was one woman that was gonna keep at it until she could take her fishing pole and march right down that new ramp to the creek and catch a fine big ole catfish just ready to be battered up and fried in the skillet with some hush puppies and cole slaw on the side. It’d make a fine meal for the two of them.

That was just how it was gonna be. I didn’t doubt it for one minute.

Nebraska Trifecta & More – Day 8

(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4,  NE Day 5,  Day 6, and Day 7.)

viz ctrLast days are for doing last things. But this time, the last day was an extra day. We had allowed more travel time to get back to Omaha from Burwell so we hadn’t anticipated having a whole day available for one last adventure in Nebraska…well, not only Nebraska.

Do not assume that I hadn’t added a few possibilities to my list of things to do just in case we had extra time. Yep, I knew there were two National Wildlife Refuges near Omaha that would just be perfect for filling in any extra time that we had.  So, after breakfast, we headed up the Missouri to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) …..which is technically in Iowa…I think.

Nebraska Trifecta Day 8

Okay, it is in Iowa although the actual spot might have once been in Nebraska since the two states are separated by the great Missouri River. The Refuge sits inside what used to be a loop in the river…but at some point the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) went in and cut the loop off and made a channel that made the river straighter and the leftover loop became a lake inside the refuge.  Why did the Engineers do this way back in the 1800’s, you might ask? Well, I will tell you what I got on good authority – they did it to help the steamboat industry – they cut out some of the loops on the river making it easier to navigate.  You don’t hear about that kind of thing much anymore what with all the environmental groups wanting to leave natural things alone and let rivers flow whichever way they have flown (sounding like birds now….oh my) for thousands of years.  I’m thinking that should be “flowed” now that I ponder on it…..it gets rid of the bird’s part in it if I use “flowed” instead of “flown” so “flowed” it is.  And, yes, the Government does still tinker in terraforming and manipulating rivers but maybe not as much as they did back a hundred years or so ago.

desoto on riverBut, both the “loop” that’s now a lake and the steamboats on the river both play a part in the history of DeSoto Refuge which is the first of two refuges we visited on our last day in Nebraska.  Because of the river and the locations where the bridges are built, we seemingly took the long way up to the Refuge – first in Nebraska, then in Iowa, then back to Nebraska…..seemingly for miles.


I found out later, we could have just turned left out of the hotel parking lot and drove north for maybe fifteen or so miles and gotten there with a whole lot less travel time and without crossing state lines but the route we took was the one the GPS told us to take via the Interstate.  But these things happen when you’re in unfamiliar territory – you stick to the map and you go where the GPS tells you to go and sometimes it takes you the long way.

tealBut we got there all the same with no big problems. From the very start, we found birds. There are nice wetlands and impounds right along the entry road to the refuge and, although most migrating birds had left the area, there were still enough to keep our interest as we drove into the refuge.

The visitor center was quite attractive. You never know what you’re going to find in the National Wildlife Refuge system – some sites have large modern and beautifully built visitor centers and some are very small with buildings that are much more rustic and little more than an office with bathrooms, which are a good thing to have…..to heck with nice visitor centers, give us the bathrooms.

The visitor center at DeSoto was of the former type.  It was large and the architecture included just a touch of prairie style embellishments that really added to the overall effect of the building.  Almost all of the visitor centers, which are sometimes called nature centers, include small museums or natural wildlife displays and local geography type overviews to help you understand the area where you are birding. DeSoto was no different from the other refuges in that respect. But, this refuge also included a museum of another sort altogether……DeSoto has a museum which includes all the treasures found in the wreck of the Steamboat Bertrand which was lost on the Missouri on April 1, 1865……before the “loop” was removed which might explain why the loops were removed in the first place.

boat model

The Bertrand was built in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1864. She was built for river cruising in shallow water on the river.  (Who knew they ever built boats in Wheeling?) She left St. Louis under the command of Captain James Yore in March 1865 fully loaded with general merchandise and lots of mercury which was used for gold extraction (there was a gold rush going on a little further west at the time, don’t ya know).  They were headed west to the headwaters of the Missouri bound for the mining towns near Fort Benton in Montana territory. On that fateful morning in April, just about a mile from DeSoto, Nebraska, the 161 foot boat hit a snag and sunk going down in just about ten minutes flat…..gone….just like that. The passengers and crew were saved but the boat and all its cargo was lost….for just about 100 years.


It was the mercury that someone finally thought about….worth a fortune if you could find the boat and recover the goods. Two treasure hunters, Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino, set out to find the wreck and recover the mercury in 1967….working in cooperation with the Federal Government who now owns the property.   The excavation was completed in 1969 and about 150 tons of cargo were recovered. While some mercury was recovered, the treasure hunters did not find enough to make them rich…..not even close……only 9 carboys out of the expected 500 were ever found.  (A carboy is a lead container used to transport mercury.)  I’m wondering if some previous treasure hunters didn’t get to that boat and the mercury before 1967.

betrand stuff

mud drum

But, even without all the mercury, the items that were found tell a story of life on the river in the 19th century and it is all there in the museum in the Refuge Visitor Center for anyone to see…and for various academic types to study and write about in their various academic journals. It is interesting to say the least. The only downside is that everything is stored behind glass walls so you cannot really get into the museum area and explore. Alas, it is sad but museums do have to protect things from unscrupulous thieves and….well, treasure hunters.

bertrand site

But, wait, there’s more. This had to be one of the best nature/visitor centers I have ever seen. Okay, the nature displays were nice and the Bertrand Museum was unique but what I really loved was the huge observation area at the back of the center.

obs deckRemember that “loop” from the river that became a lake (Loop Lake, by name) in the refuge? Well, the back of the visitor center has an observation area built to overlook the lake making it very convenient and very warm in the winter to come and see the thousands of migrating waterfowl that come to the river and lake each year. Most had already headed north for their breeding grounds when we visited but, having spent many winter days shivering in the cold on a refuge watching Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, etc., I can tell you that a large, warm, glassed-in visitor center built right over the lake would be just the ticket for winter birding.  As noted, I absolutely fell in love with that observation room…I really think Jerry thought I was a little bit crazy….but I’m telling you, warm birding in winter is way better than freezing birding….I’m just saying.


We did actually find some time to bird while we were on the refuge. They have a great nature drive around the southern end of the lake and along the river.  We enjoyed about an hour roaming around outside and then headed on down to Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge.

Which proved to be a bit trickier than we had anticipated….because this is where we had our last, and maybe most interesting GPS glitch of the trip.  We headed out of DeSoto, grabbed lunch at the next town up the road, added the address for Boyer Chute to the GPS, and headed out.  Nothing too complicated – continue down the main drag, hang a left, drive a few miles, then another left onto a gravel road….which was not unusual, all the secondary roads were dirt roads.  We were driving along checking out the scenery and didn’t pay too much attention to the huge gravel trucks that kept passing us headed back towards town…..right up until we came to the top of the ridge and found ourselves outside the main gate of what appeared to be a quarry. The GPS showed the road continuing through the area and indicated that our destination was less than a mile away…straight ahead…….straight ahead through that gate.

We debated a moment and then decided that maybe going through a quarry wasn’t really the best idea…even if the people in the office inside the gate allowed us to pass….and there had to be another way to the refuge. So, we turned around (after we checked out the quarry view by the side of the road) and headed back down the road.

quarry 2

I did manage to talk Jerry out of knocking on the office door and asking about work. Turns out he has this idea about checking out jobs at certain industrial type places and then working for maybe a week or two until he learns all about the place – sort of like getting an extended operational tour of the place – before quitting and moving on. I reminded him that he was in his 60’s and working even a week in a quarry might be just a tad bit too much – some dreams are for younger men, I’m thinking.

We turned back onto the main road and, after going through a much smaller community a mile or so down the road, found a nice brown nature sign indicating that we should turn left again to get to the refuge.  I surmised that the old road had gone through the quarry prior to there being a quarry there and that we would find the other side of that road ahead of us prior to actually finding the refuge. And we did. But this the south side of the road had a barrier showing that the road was closed to through traffic – that would be us. A similar sign on the north end of the road might have been good too.

Boyer Chute Refuge was established in 1992, includes just over 4000 acres and is just southeast of DeSoto Refuge. Both refuges lie on the Missouri River. The name comes from a channel, the Boyer Chute, which was cut as part of a channelization project for flood control and navigation of the river. You guessed it, the Corps of Engineers (COE) again.

lewis and clark

There are two basic roads inside the refuge or, maybe just one…..turn left at the entrance to explore the north side of the chute or turn right for the south side of the chute. The refuge is much more rustic than DeSoto. While there are a few wilderness type bathrooms – composting toilets, etc. – there are no other facilities there. There are several hiking trails and, had the weather not turned cold, we might have checked them out.  At the end of the road on the south side of the chute, we did actually get out of the car and head down one trail that traversed a ditch spanned by a wooden bridge. Jerry wanted to find out what was on the other side but we had only traveled a hundred yards or so when the cold biting wind off the river cut right through our jackets and helped us to decide to cut that walk short. Crikey, it was cold there…something we hadn’t noticed up the way at DeSoto Refuge.  And what was on the other side? Well, not much really, just the trail leading down by the chute into the brush…but nary a bird in sight.

dutchmans breeches

We headed back to the car and I put the hand warmers from my gloves over my ears and held them there until I could feel my ear lobes again.  I might have looked silly but my ears were getting warm.  As we left the refuge, I noticed a road named Abbott Road – and that’s where I realized that this was the road that would take us right back to our hotel….we were just about 8 miles north of the airport and maybe a couple more to our hotel.

Our adventure was almost over. Tomorrow we would have an early wake-up and head to the airport and home.  What a successful journey it has been! We’d met our birding goals and then some. Okay, we’d only wanted to see three birds to start with but they were great birds and they were lifebirds.  We’ve chased a lot of birds in the past and we have not always been successful in seeing them….this trip was a resounding success but it was time to go and it would be good to be home.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge

April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (I80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (RT 10/RT 2/RT 183/RT 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch/Calamus Lake: @ 25 miles around & about.
April 9 – Calamus Outfitters to Omaha (via Route 11 and Interstate 80): 247 Miles
April 10 – DeSoto NWR & Chute-Boyer NWR: 69 Miles
April 11 – Omaha, NE to Baltimore, MD: 1153 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far: 
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dannebrog (D7)
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Happy Jack’s Chalk Mine – Unfortunately closed (D7)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Louisville State Recreation Area (SRA) (D7)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Platte River State Park (D7)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

birds d8