The confluence of Anchorage’s mild and snow-free October, the lingering presence of swans at Potter Marsh, and the anniversary of my mother’s death on Oct. 28, 2017, have stirred thoughts of an afternoon in early November 2002. That day Mom and I shared some joyful—and poignant—moments in the company of swans, only a few months after Torie Sherwonit had been uprooted from the East Coast, where she’d lived her entire life, and resettled in Anchorage at age 80. Here I’ll share my memories of that magical day.
I first noticed the swans in late October. A handful of them swam and fed in Potter Marsh, at the southern fringe of Anchorage. Big and snowy white, they stood out boldly among the marsh’s late-fall grays and browns.
The presence of swans was not in itself unusual. They stop here each fall while migrating south from Alaska. Most autumns the swans stay only a short while, then move on to wintering grounds in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. That year, they lingered. Day by day, their numbers built: a dozen, two dozen, three. By the end of October, more than 40 had gathered in the marsh, transforming an ordinary event into something remarkable. The marsh’s southern end was filled with swans, its otherwise drab appearance at this time of year made stunningly beautiful.
As the swan population grew, the news quickly spread among local birders, through word of mouth and the local Audubon group’s “bird hotline.” Soon even those who normally pay little attention to birds began to take notice. People driving the Seward Highway where it borders the marsh would slow down and gawk. Some pulled over, rolled down their windows, got out of their cars and pick-ups. More and more people headed down to the marsh with cameras and binoculars. Whole familes stood along the highway shoulder, pointing and smiling.
How strange it all seemed, this autumnal convergence of swans and people. No stranger than the weather, though. By month’s end we Anchorage residents were celebrating the warmest snowfree October on record, which here reaches back to 1916. Not since 1987 had we gone the entire month without any measureable snowfall.
Temperatures continued to range from the mid 30s into the high 40s as October passed into November. Normally covered by ice and snow, Potter Marsh remained a haven for the swans as well as mallards and a few less common ducks: gadwall, pintail, American widgeon.
I joined the throngs at marsh’s edge the first weekend of November, armed with notebook, binoculars, and bird book. It was a raw day, drizzly and windy, so most swan-watchers stayed in their vehicles. But a few of us ventured outside. I counted 30 swans, including nine pairs of adults. They were joined by a dozen adolescent birds, still wearing the pale gray plumage of youth. Trumpeter and tundra swans are difficult to tell apart, but after studying my bird guide, I was confident the ones nearest shore were trumpeters, which have a distinctive pink line where the upper and lower parts of the beak join.
The largest of North American waterfowl, with wing spans up to eight feet across, the swans were both elegant and comic to behold. Their grand size, strikingly white plumage and long, graceful necks gave the birds a regal splendor. Yet any sense of elegance was washed away when they went bottoms up to feed on aquatic plants rooted in the marsh muds. Rear ends pointed to the gray ceiling overhead, they were feathered buoys bobbing in muddied waters. And their hoarse honking calls, though vaguely trumpet-like, also stirred memories of clowns squeezing horns.
A woman with young, giggling daughter joined me along the highway’s shoulder. She told me about another lake, miles to the south, packed with swans and lined by dozens of cars and vans and trucks, their drivers and passengers watching intently. “Can you believe all this?” she asked. “It’s the craziest thing.” It’s clear she meant not only the weather and swans, but the number of people drawn out of their houses by this prolonged fall. Some went for scenic drives, others for hikes or even bike rides. Local trails bustled with joggers, cyclists, and walkers, getting outdoors before snow and ice and freezing cold claimed the landscape.
Those who paid close attention might have noticed other small November miracles: a swirling cloud of midges dancing in the mild air; a late-blooming wild rose adding a bright splash of pink to an otherwise somber forest, months after most of its kind have shed their petals; moose browsing on still-green lawns in downtown Anchorage neighborhoods.
Returning home in late afternoon, I asked Mom if she’d like to visit Potter Marsh, see the swans. At age 80, her body hobbled by arthritis, she didn’t leave the house much anymore, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Who knew when, or if, she’d get this chance again?
Bundled up, Mom settled into the front passenger seat and sat quietly, patiently, as we drove from our Hillside neighborhood down to Anchorage’s flats. By this time it was nearly dusk. With thick overcast and the day rapidly darkening, I hoped the light would hold a few minutes more.
As we approached the marsh, the swans stood out brightly amidst the gloom. They almost glowed in the fading light. “There they are, off to the right,” I said, pointing. “Can you see them?”
Mom leaned forward and squinted her eyes. After a few moments of silence, she replied, “Yes; yes I see them now. There’s lots of them, aren’t there?”
We pulled over to the highway’s shoulder and I reached across the car, unrolled her window. Then I focused my binoculars and handed them over. At first Mom had trouble finding the swans but finally she got them in sight. “Oh, they’re such pretty birds. And big. I didn’t realize how big they are, compared to ducks,” she commented. “Look at their necks; they’re so long and slender.”
We chuckled as they dunked for food, smiled at their trumpeting. It was a treat for both us, sharing those moments. Decades ago, we’d watched swans in zoos or game farms. But this was the first time we’d been together in the company of wild swans.
After 10 minutes or so, I rolled up the window, started the car and rejoined the highway traffic. “They are just so lovely,” Mom murmured, her eyes still drawn to the marsh, where magnificent pale birds float into the November night, autumnal apparitions.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.