It's 14 degrees. The tires crunch in protest as we crawl along the frozen lane, windows down, heads hanging out like dogs on a joyride. The air is beyond crisp, and the sun won't make its entrance for another hour, so there isn't much to see besides our frozen breath. No matter, this moment is for one sense only: we are listening.
We've been driving these back roads for what seems like ages without success. The usual spots have come up empty, every one, and our fingers, ears and cheeks are blue and sharp with cold. As a last resort, we turn down one more pitch-black byway, hoping this is where they've hidden.
Soon enough we hear it -- an odd, low rumble that tells us we've finally found them. Punctuated with bright squawks, muffled honks and sudden wing flaps, it is the telltale heart of this wild place, beating steadily despite the frigid dark. We stop, confirm our find and ease out of the car with our gear.
They are floating, faint white blobs against still, black water, numberless and crowded, waiting with us for dawn to dress the sky in party clothes. As black fades to blue and blue to gold, the hum becomes a thunder: they are debating when to rise and start their day, and it's not an easy call. Suddenly, a leader flaps once, twice and up. Milliseconds after, 10,000 snow geese lift off in unison. This is the moment, brief and clamorous and beyond fantastic, we were chasing. This is the moment, wild and unpredictable and beyond price, that our fragile world offers, open to us if we will only listen.
It's well worth a few cold fingers.