A greater prairie chicken prepares to “dance” on a lek in south-central Wisconsin. ©John T. Andrews

I know this is going to sound weird, but a month ago I got up at 3:00 a.m. to drive almost 150 miles north of here. I did this just for the opportunity to sit in silence in a plywood box—no bigger than four feet by five feet—for three hours on a below-freezing April morning. My goal was to arrive before 5:00 a.m. and then somehow find this small crate in the dark, set in the middle of 15,000 acres of grasslands (not an easy feat!). Why would I want to do such a crazy thing?

The purpose was to watch from a blind as male greater prairie chickens puffed out their big, orange air sacs on the sides of their necks and madly stomped their feet in a “dance” meant to capture the attention of some rather aloof females.

Most of my friends think I may have finally gone around the bend. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, I stood near a little dam in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, for hours watching muskies (or “muskellunge”) gather to spawn. And last fall, I drove to a lake on my state’s western edge, just this side of the mighty Mississippi River, to stare at a few tundra swans from 300 feet away.

I wasn’t always like this. This strange behavior started after my first Natural Habitat Adventures trip.

It began with polar bears

The blind was no bigger than four feet by five feet. ©John T. Andrews

Most people who are fortunate enough to be able to travel to see the polar bears of Churchill find themselves moved by the experience. I certainly was, after my trip there in 2002. And I’ve heard others speak about similar journeys, such as witnessing the great herds in Africa or the penguin colonies in Antarctica, in the same tones. Those kinds of experiences can’t help but stir your soul at the moment you see them.

What you don’t expect, though, is how, years after the trip, you have been permanently altered. It isn’t obvious at first; a week or two following your return home, you slide back into your familiar routine. When you do relive your trip with family and friends, you use verbs in the past tense. But six months down the road, you get a hankering to take a walk outside at lunch—something that never interested you before—or stop at a park on the weekend.

Then it begins to snowball. Even though you’re back home, you can still feel a piece of yourself “out there.” You try to force yourself to shake off the dream, but there’s an inkling inside that won’t go away. You look around and discover that your own neighborhood is a stitch in the quilt of nature, too; and you begin to notice as if for the first time the indigenous plants and animals around you. As a guide in Patagonia once said to me, “There are beautiful natural events and phenomena wherever you are in the world.”

Sometimes, you just have to stand somewhere far away to see the things that are close.

I like looking for white-tailed deer in the woods in my backyard. ©John T. Andrews

The legacy of later

For example, since seeing the polar bears eight years ago, I now know that just a few miles from where I live, Karner blue butterflies congregate. It’s one of the few places left in the United States where they do. I know that monarch butterflies pass through Wisconsin on their way to Mexico. I know that baby bison are born in the small town of Poynette just north of me and that elk bugle in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin’s Great Northwoods. And I now know that I want to see it all.

What has going on a Natural Habitat Adventures trip caused you to do differently, once you got back home? What has been the impact of one of your trips, years later?

If your nature travels should take you anywhere near Wisconsin in the future, look me up. Chances are, I’ll be standing for a 12-hour shift somewhere along the Wolf River to make sure that spawning sturgeon are not interrupted during their annual ritual or following the tracks of white-tailed deer through the woods in my own backyard.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy