Back in 2012, Bill Thompson, III, and I had a serious discussion about developing a series of birding tours for our BWD subscribers.
It was a conversation enjoyed by an outdoor fire in chilly October as Bill cooked some kind of man-cave dinner in a pot over an open flame. He absolutely loved cooking outdoors over a fire, smoke billowing, guitar in hand, playing songs in between the stirring of the pot and the drinking of the beer. Perhaps the music and beer gently subdued whatever was sacrificing its life on our behalf within the confines of the cast-iron casket.
Bill, ever the brilliant namer-of-things, came up with the name “Reader Rendezvous” for our potential birding tours that night. I knew when he said it that he had once again hit a home run. It was the perfect name. That man was a genius marketer, and clever as all get-out. Right then and there, our Reader Rendezvous were born.
I was the one who would put the business plan together, and my brain-wheels were spinning as I watched the hypnotic flames crackle and spit. His next words were, “I think we should start by taking a group of subscribers birding in northern Minnesota in February.” It wasn’t enough that we were starting an entirely new business venture; he wanted me to convince a group of people to pay money to go birding with us during the coldest month of the year in a place I’d never heard of that sounded miserably cold. So, of course, I got right on it.
I began planning our first Reader Rendezvous in Hibbing, Minnesota, in October 2013. We would be doing most of our birding at some|place called Sax-Zim Bog. It would be a three-day excursion scheduled for mid-February 2014. I was planning this weekend event sight-unseen, with no previous experience planning a birding tour, nor having ever seen the meeting venue, the hotel, or the famed birding hotspot. I was literally flying blind.
I realize now that most experienced birders have heard of this birding destination, and many have likely been there. But I was still a relatively new birder, and I didn’t understand the unmatched thrill of seeing a great gray owl through 18 layers of clothing and icicle-laden binoculars. I’ve never been a cold weather person, and I never will be, so this sounded like visiting a lower level of the Netherworld. But I moved forward with confidence, believing that we would make this the best birding tour of all time for our subscribers. Why? Because Bill Thompson and Al Batt would be leading us, that’s why! If nothing else, it was sure to be full of laughter, epic stories, and very tall men.
The Rendezvous date approached, and, lo-and-behold, it was SOLD OUT. We somehow managed to sell popsicles to polar bears, and I was very proud of that accomplishment. Now we had to deliver on the birds, the great speakers and meals, and the fun-yet-freezing times that were sure to come.
Our assistant editor at the time, Kyle, joined Bill and me on the flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Columbus, Ohio. Like a good event planner, I was frantically checking the weather every half hour or so. Snow was supposed to arrive shortly after we landed—three inches or so—but I’d rented an SUV just in case we encountered bad weather on our drive from Minneapolis to Hibbing. Besides, we were in Minnesota. They’re totally prepared for snow up there, right? It’s what they do.
We landed, grabbed our luggage and our big-boss SUV and hit the road toward Hibbing. The drive would take about three hours, and we would likely arrive at our hotel in time for dinner. It was Thursday afternoon, and our check-in for the event didn’t begin until 4 p.m. the following day. I had planned everything to a T. Our first-ever Reader Rendezvous was going to experience zero planning errors and lots of joyful birding. Hah!
We drove out of town heading north, and the snow began to fall harder. The salt trucks were out prepping the roads, and Bill was quite calm and comfortable driving in the steady downfall. I checked the weather for the 4,713th time that day and received my first Winter Storm Warning of the day. “Hey Bill, looks like we’re in for some weather on our drive.”
That was the understatement of the year.
Thirty minutes later we were driving in complete white-out conditions. An hour later it was dark, and our bright beams shone on a vast tundra of white. It looked like we were driving on the moon. There was no way an interstate highway had ever existed here, yet the GPS assured us we were on I-65. We realized that no other cars were driving at this point. I-65 North was barren, blizzardy, white, and empty. We were alone on this invisible highway, and the only vehicle we saw for hours and hours was a single snowplow. It was southbound, clearing the opposite lanes of the divided highway.
Bill was amazing, white knuckling it the entire way, while Kyle and I prayed and bargained with God throughout the agonizing drive. The predicted three inches of snow had been upgraded to a Level 4 blizzard. No one was supposed to be out unless it was an emergency—such as trying to get to your hotel so you didn’t die in the storm, for example. If you’re a Star Wars fan, let’s just say we were driving on the Ice World of Hoth with no Taun Tauns for transport. I was terrified, but I kept my cool and encouraged brave Bill to continue his courageous work as he navigated us through blinding conditions.
We arrived safely in Hibbing nearly seven hours after we left the airport, a drive that should have taken three hours. Bill opened his car door and literally kissed the snowy ground in the parking lot of our hotel when we arrived. I have never been so happy to be out of a car in my life.
Next: Food and ale, Beowulf-style! Surely there were roaring fires, delicious meals, and warm blankets waiting for us inside, right? We entered the restaurant, weary and hungry, and sat at an open booth. When we asked to see menus, we were told that the kitchen had stopped serving dinner two hours earlier. Time for Plan B. We fed ten dollars of change into a vending machine and feasted on Cheetos, Pop Tarts, and Kit Kat bars. The upside was, there was plenty of beer.
The next morning, I saw a raven up close for the very first time! It was right outside the window of our meeting room at the hotel where we were merrily setting up for our event like Christmas elves. It struck me later that I overlooked a foreboding Edgar Allan Poe reference with the appearance of the raven, but I was too enamored with the bird to think about that. He was a big, shiny, black beauty, and the first of many amazing birds I would see that weekend.
Our guests started arriving throughout the afternoon. We had two people from the southern states that were not able to make it because their flights were canceled due to the weather. But 27 intrepid birders journeyed far and wide to join us in Hibbing, and I gave a silent prayer of thanks as each one approached our little registration table. It was such a joy to put faces with names, to hand out name tags and goodie bags, and to welcome each person to our first-ever, fabulous Reader Rendezvous!
The snow started falling again around 4:30 that afternoon. It’s a rare thing indeed to experience two separate blizzards on two consecutive days, even in Minnesota. But strange as it was, we were now in the direct path of Blizzard 2.0. Fortunately, everyone had arrived (other than the two southerners). Everyone, that is, except our keynote speaker, Al Batt. My cell phone rang at around 5:30. Al was calling to tell us he was trapped in his hometown a few hours away. He had begun his drive but had to turn around and go home again because the weather was too dangerous. He was not going to make it to Hibbing until the following day. You know the weather is really bad when even Minnesotans won’t drive in it.
I pulled Bill aside and told him Al couldn’t make it. “No problem, I have a talk I can give,” said the ever-prepared BT3. Bill gave a hilarious talk with no notes, completely off-the-cuff, and he and I sang music for the group for over an hour. We had a wonderful evening!
I began prepping for the following day, making sure every attendee knew when and where to meet and had what they needed. The room cleared, and I sat down for the first time that day. Bill, Kyle, and I decided to go to the bar for a well-earned drink before we headed to our rooms. I realized when I sat at the bar that I wasn’t feeling well. I had been working really hard, though, so it was understandable. I ordered water and sipped it slowly as the guys talked birds and birding. The room slowly started spinning. I felt “off.” Something was wrong with me. Maybe it was the stress of the past 24 hours. I excused myself and turned in early, leaving the boys to the beer and birding chatter.
Thirty minutes later I was bowing at the porcelain altar in the bathroom of my hotel room. Yes, I had a raging stomach bug that lasted a full 24 hours. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that I was as violently ill as I had ever been. Bill came up to check on me right around the time I’d finished my first round of “worship.” He found me on the hotel room floor with my eyes closed, lying on a hotel towel and breathing steadily. “Oh my god, Wen. Please tell me you’re not sick. You CAN’T be sick on our first birding tour. No no no….”
“Billy, I need you to remain calm. I cannot deal with you being upset right now because I’m upset enough for the both of us. I obviously have some kind of flu bug. I’m burning up with a fever and there is wicked, vile fluid leaving my body from every available exit point. I cannot lift my head and will sleep on the floor next to the toilet.”
After shifting to Plans B and C with the blizzard problems, we were now plotting Plans D, E, F, G, and H as I sobbed in a pile on the hotel bathroom floor. I vaguely remember giving Bill instructions about where to retrieve our bagged lunches for the following day, where the bus snacks and drinks were being kept in our storage space downstairs, about the lady with the gluten allergy who needed the special meal, and the woman who was already upset because she had forgotten her binoculars and we misspelled her last name on her name tag.
I continued my sleep-worship-sleep-worship pattern on that bathroom floor throughout the night. It was the most miserable night of my life.
When I woke the next morning, feeling like I’d been run over by a truck, sweet Bill had left a note for me and hot coffee on my nightstand. The coffee smelled gross to my flu-ridden senses, but the note reassured me that Al Batt had arrived, and that Bill, Al, and Kyle had things firmly under control. I spent the entire day in bed flipping between the three available channels of terrible television.
The birding group returned that afternoon triumphantly, like heroes from the war. Tales of northern hawk-owls, snowy owls, and other beautiful boreal birds filled the hallways of our hotel. They had enjoyed a banner day and had seen most all of their target birds! Our local guide, Erik Bruhnke, was brilliant and found the birds our group wanted to see. I was relieved that the day had been a success, and I was finally feeling a bit better. My fever broke around 4:00 p.m., and I mustered the energy to take a shower and put on clean clothes.
I ventured down to the dining hall in time for Al Batt’s talk that evening. My stomach was sore from all the “worshipping,” and that night it was made even more sore from laughing! Al was delightful, funny, and as charming as ever. Bill asked me to address the group, which I did, making apologies for my absence. Everyone was gracious and very happy I had sequestered myself during what may have been a period of contagion. No one else got the flu that weekend, thankfully.
One of the things I was most looking forward to that weekend was getting my “lifer” great gray owl. I had never seen one and was awestruck at the prospect. I had envisioned it in my mind, like you would dream of encountering the love of your life for the first time. I would be standing in the snowy forest and hear him call… at a distance at first… then closer. He would know me. He would know I was there to see him. He would land on a branch at three o’clock just above my head and make the most profound eye contact with me. That would be my long-awaited great gray owl moment. Sigh.
But had I missed my window? I asked Erik if we had a chance to see one the following day. “Oh, definitely,” he said. “We almost always see GGOs here at Sax this time of year.” My heart filled with hope. We had one full day left of birding, and although I was weak, nothing was going to stop me from seeing my owl.
You guessed it, I dipped on the owl the following day. We split into two groups, and the other group saw it, but mine didn’t. I did get good looks at snowy owls and lots of other beautiful birds, but no GGO. It was not meant to be. The best part was, everyone else on that tour did see it. And that was the most important thing.
For the record, I have returned to Sax Zim Bog twice since then to see the great gray owl. I STILL HAVE NEVER SEEN IT. I have dubbed the GGO my “nemesis bird,” and I have dubbed this tour my “Nemesis Rendezvous.” The entire thing was a comedy of errors from start to finish. My perfectly planned event had glitch after glitch, problem after problem, and not a single thing went as planned.
And you know what? Every single person had an absolutely wonderful time.
Except the event planner, who learned a very important lesson that weekend. She learned that nothing ever goes quite like you think it will, and that’s okay. Somehow it all works out in the end.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.