A Great Crew

The landslide was muffled, almost genteel, three tons of mud rock and clay settling quietly onto the roadside just north of the waterfall.  Our Saturday night crew was gathering near the little parking area, above where Harborton meets the highway.  We all looked, startled that it was indeed a slide, but with no drama, no crash boom; more like the ridge sloughing off a few skin cells.  Recognizing the portentousness of the event, we all went up to examine the new pile, Richard immediately pushing on a boulder the size of a ottoman that had rolled into the road.  I helped him, our contrasting rolling, sliding styles surprising me that we managed to move the heavy rock.  Gratuitous jokes ensued about frogs starting slides, escaping slides, under slides.  It was getting dark, was almost 50 degrees, and misty; this was looking like the night they’d been waiting for this icy winter.

With dark it began, Maggie Rudy picking frogs from the ditch, the grassy bank, the road; Kat Balogh about to lose her squeamishness about frogs forever; Richard Alden patrolling higher up the road; me going down to the highway where there were already several squashed frogs on the pavement; frogs making a break for it even before dark.  I walked a couple hundred yards down the highway, scanning the cement sidewalk with the head lamp and looking over my shoulder to keep track of 60 mph traffic coming up behind me, four to six feet away, picking up a couple sandy colored males crouching motionless on the gravel littered cement.  The cliff next to the highway is 30 feet high and covered with shrubby ivy.  Walking back, facing the traffic, I concentrated on the gutter where frogs huddle against the curb, cars and trucks roaring by in their clouds of spray.  A male two yards in front of me made a break across the highway, got about fifteen feet and froze as a car howled over him.  Each vehicle takes a slightly different course in their lane, the next car agonizingly close, and the next so close the wind flipped the frog over.  No cars coming I slipped out onto the pavement, grabbed him and dashed back.

Back and forth, back and forth I walked the highway, always watching for cars (“sharks,” a friend who rode a motorcycle called them).  The rest of the crew took care of shuttling the frogs to the wetland and counting them, a big help to me.  Now it was raining and gravid females waited patiently by the curb for their chance to cross, obviously enjoying the little stream that now ran along the gutter.  They’re not stupid; they stop in the middle of lanes, in the middle of the highway, trying to finesse it, but they’re so over matched by the speed and violence, especially from the semis and all those tires, that until traffic abates for the night they face very long odds.  I was facing the oncoming headlights of the two near lanes when a few feet in front of me a big female I hadn’t seen bolted, hopping quickly, probably trying to escape me, making it a few feet into the first lane where a car clipped her, crushing the feet on her right side.  She sat there for a couple seconds before a truck obliterated her.  My bucket was heavy with frogs and I headed toward the other froggers, feeling sickened, hollowed out by what I’d just seen, then bucking up by reminding myself of the heavy bucket, the bigger picture, to not sentimentalize.  Maggie and Richard were running the frogs to the wetland, and I turned my bucket over to them, wandered around, checking in to make sure everyone was okay.  Regulars Pat Yoder and Katy Clifford had arrived, with niece Christy Yoder, and friend Andrew Jenkins, in tow respectively, so I met them, happy it was a big night and they’d have a good time.

Then back to the highway where the gutter yielded one big female after another.  Four inches long, some a little longer, their flanks the most beautiful brownish red, swollen with from 500 to over a 1000 eggs.  After climbing down the cliff the frogs emerge from the ivy, cross five feet of dirt and sidewalk, and drop over the curb into the gutter, ready to sprint out into the waves of cars and semis, a steady stream northbound till 7PM, in sporadic gangs in the near lanes, the chaos deafening.  Along the two hundred yards when the migration was most intense the frogs were appearing all the time.  Fortunately they usually squeezed up against the curb, frightened, and I walked along, freezing them with the headlamp, reaching down, palm on their back, fingers folding over their snouts and under, then slipping my arm through the hole in the top of the bucket, laying them on the bottom with their compatriots.  Kat was afraid of the traffic but after seeing a frog hopping for its life dismembered, had to help.  I told her about watching the cars and she helped me walk the highway.  This went on for four hours, the temperature slowly dropping till at 9:30 it was 44 and the migration was stopping.  While mingling with the crew, asking them about their night and their impression of whether the frogs were stopping yet, Maggie gestured, saying, “Look at this,” shining her lamp at the licorice ferns draping the cliffs that flanked the waterfall; one could see the light reflecting off little pairs of eyes, waiting.

My knees were killing me, we were all happily exhausted. I went with Christy and Pat to release the final group, as they hadn’t seen where we release them.  It’s very satisfying watching the frogs hopping over the grass into the darkness toward the wetland, that they are safe for the moment.  It’s important for all the volunteers to have this experience.  One by one the four parked cars left, Katy pausing, her headlights on the guardrail.  I thought there might be some problem and walked over.  One last male was against the curb; Katy put it in her bag and brought it to the wetland on her way home.  We knew with such a cold winter and little opportunity for the frogs to move, once they got a chance the ground would be hoppingly alive.  The night had certainly been intense, but I really had no idea: we’d caught 520 Northern red-legged frogs.