This is a true story that took place twenty-one years ago when Nolemana and I were vacationing for a week at Lake Tahoe, and when I was heavily involved in volunteering with a wildlife rescue organization.
This was going to be a difficult rescue. The bird was ‘way out on the dry alkali bed on the perimeter of the Alkali Lake Wildlife Management area in western Nevada, about seventy miles east of Lake Tahoe, where Nolemana and I were on vacation.
I should have known that being out of town doesn’t always exempt us from being available to help feathered friends. Once, while we were up in Paradise, California, for my mother-in-law’s funeral, Nolemana found and brought to me a badly injured Towhee that had been sitting in the middle of the road. Fortunately, there’s a wildlife rehab organization there, and I was, for once, the bird “taker” instead of the “takee”. But in THIS isolated spot, out in the middle of nowhere, it would be a different story. There wasn’t even a ROAD, for Pete’s sake, and there was so much open area that I wasn’t even sure whether or not we’d be able to corner the injured bird. There weren’t even any corners! Instead, there were miles and miles of open space.
“Can you tell what it is?” I asked Nolemana.
“I’m not sure, but it sure looks like a duck,” he replied, squinting through the telephoto lens on his camera. We hadn’t thought to bring binoculars, as we’d planned on spending the day browsing through antique shops in Truckee and other surrounding tiny towns.
I took a turn with the camera, and agreed that it was a male Mallard sitting out on the alkali bed about two hundred yards away. Although we couldn’t tell what was wrong with him, there was no doubt in our midns that he must be pretty badly injured, because he wasn’t moving at all.
Remember all the movies you’ve seen showing pioneers struggling to get to water across the sun-parched alkali flats, where the mud has caked into rough squares with deep cracks all around each section, making the whole area look like the grids on a Belgian waffle iron? That’s not a creation of some special effects man… it’s really that dry!
And remember the picture of the man dying of thirst, stumbling with glazed eyes and trembling legs across that parched landscape, the dry alkali crumbling under his feet as he lurches across it crying, “Water! Water!” That’s just what came to our minds as we slowly picked our way across the alkali flat, our shoes, clothes and skin getting filled with the powdery dust.
Distances are really deceptive in that place; we kept thinking we were closer to the duck than we really were. Wondering if it had botulism, on we trudged, hoping that the poor thing wouldn’t try to get away before we could get to him.
As we got closer, we discussed our options to capture and restrain the duck until we could get him to Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care. We had a box in the car (we ALWAYS had a box!), but it could be interesting carrying a struggling wild creature all the way back across the flats!
Considering that I’m from Hawai‘i, islands of green, and rain, and lush beauty, the dry landscape held little to endear itself to me, but it sure was spacious. Our eyes could gaze for miles, which was a treat to city dwellers like us, and the surrounding mountains were pretty in the late afternoon light. And it was QUIET, which was soothing to our jangled and frazzled city nerves.
Beyond “our” Mallard was an enormous lake, and we could see a huge flock of gulls floating on the water, then all at once lifting up as one body, wheeling and circling above the lake, then gliding down to rest on the water once again. We wondered what could have separated the duck from the rest of the waterbirds.
Drawing closer to the duck, Nolemana and I slowed down. As close as we were, the Mallard still had not moved. Then all of a sudden, recognition dawning in our eyes, we looked at each other with disbelief.
“It couldn’t be,” I said.
“Oh yes, it could,” Nolemana replied.
“Do you mean we got this dirty and walked this far over an alkali flat for THAT?” I squeaked.
“Sure looks like it,”, Nolemana grinned. “Can you just imagine what your wildlife rescue rehabber friends would say if they could see us now?”
“I really thought this was a bird with severe problems and that we could help it,” I muttered.
And we slowly walked back the way we had come, leaving alone on the alkali flat to await either the rain or some other tenderhearted wildlife volunteer, one cracked, faded, battered plastic decoy of a Mallard duck.
copyright Mokihana White 1987