As November ushers in the second half of autumn, I find myself kind of missing those goofy geese on Capitol Lake in Pierre.
We lived around them for much of my adult life. They were noisy as they left the lake to find breakfast or supper in fields beyond the bluffs of the Missouri River. They sometimes foraged on the dry grass of lawns in the neighborhoods. And after they had wandered around, a guy walking to work had to step carefully But they sure were something to see.
I recall when former Gov. Bill Janklow told me how he once assigned a member of the grounds crew the mission of running a sidewalk sweeper regularly over the sidewalks near the popular Flaming Fountain and war memorials by the lake. Legislative session drew hordes of visitors to the Capitol, and they flocked like, well, geese, to the lake, the fountain and the memorials.
We moved to Pierre from Sioux Falls in the fall of 1969, drawn by a job with The Associated Press. I didn’t give the geese a thought as we searched for a house late that summer. By the time we’d moved into a tiny place a block from the lake in mid-October, though, the geese were gathering on the lake’s warm water, and I began to learn their habits and movements.
Capitol Lake doesn’t freeze over completely, not in the coldest winters. That makes it an attractive place for a pretty sizable flock of geese to ride out the winter. They fly to nearby corn and sorghum fields to forage each day. They huddle through the night on the lake, and sometimes on a below-zero morning, they are barely visible in the thick steam that rises from the warm water. Sometimes, maybe when they feel lazy, they simply climb out of the lake and feed on the lawns of the surrounding neighborhoods.
We only lived in our rental house a short time, but in the fall of 1972, an old house with a big curving porch came on the market across the street from the governor’s residence. We bought it and for the next 43 years, the geese were a constant presence. I raked leaves, caulked gaps in the siding and window frames and did other fall chores to the sounds of great wings just overhead and the honking of excited birds heading out to feed. I never did get over the thrill of thousands of geese flying just above the tops of my trees as I worked. I nearly always paused and watched the show for a bit.
So did my father-in-law. He came to Pierre often in the early days of that big house. He could handle pretty much any do-it-yourself task. He’d be out in the backyard cutting a piece of wallboard, and when the geese flew over, he’d always stop to watch. He’d sip the coffee he’d poured into the cap of his Thermos, take a puff on his stubby pipe and then just stand there with his head back, following the flight of the big honkers.
When our first granddaughter was small, she and our old cocker spaniel would stand at the west window in the dining room and follow the flight of the geese as they glided over the governor’s residence across the street toward the surface of the lake. The granddaughter would watch quietly. The dog would watch, too, although he did sometimes put his front paws on the window sill and emit a soft moan of regret that he wasn’t out there chasing those birds down.
My father-in-law is gone. So is the cocker spaniel. The granddaughter is grown and living far from the Missouri River. We moved from the big house to a place on the canals in Fort Pierre in 2015. One winter afternoon, I looked out to see geese waddling around the back yard. They found us.
Now we live in Chamberlain, still by the river. I see a few geese high in the sky these days. I like that, but I miss the time when those big birds skimmed our treetops and called madly to each other.