Brooke Pennypacker could very well serve as the definition of a “rare life” – armed with a degree in English Literature, Brooke once panned for gold, fought forest fires, and floated down the Mississippi River on a raft while reading Huckleberry Finn. He was a saturation diver spending weeks at a time working in 500 feet of water and living in a compression chamber. He was a construction supervisor, a hydroelectric developer, and retrieved crashed airplanes for a salvage company.
As if that’s not a diverse enough resume, Brooke is an experienced ultralight pilot and mechanic who ran the Trumpeter swan reintroduction project for Environmental Studies at Airlie Center, leading trumpeter swans from New York State to Maryland.
The capstone of Brooke’s varied career may be his current passion - Brooke joined Operation Migration USA Inc., in 2002 as a pilot fully devoted to safeguarding Whooping cranes from extinction. Little did he know in those early years that his commitment would evolve into living on the road with the cranes year-round. As a result Brooke has missed many family events over the years, not the least of which was the opportunity to watch his son grow up.
Brooke begins each annual “cycle” in the spring at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where he begins the process of conditioning captive-hatched Whooping crane chicks to follow alongside his ultralight aircraft just days after they emerge from their shell. Brooke then spends all summer at the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in central Wisconsin working with the “whoopers” (that have been transported there by private jet!), conditioning them to fly behind his “trike” in longer and longer circuits around the marsh.
Come fall, when the crane colts have built up their flight stamina and loyalty to the trike, Brooke and company guide the young cranes on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida. This is a pain-staking process requiring dedication and patience – patience in luring the birds out of their comfort zone of White River Marsh, and patience waiting days, sometimes weeks, for just the right weather in which to fly with the cranes.
The aircraft-guided migration covers Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida and captures the hearts and imaginations of all ages that follow along with the Operation Migration website.
Some number of weeks or months later, the birds make it to their winter home in Florida where they are monitored all season until they get the urge and leave, on their own, to head northward. And who stays behind in Florida to monitor the cranes when the rest of the crew returns home? You guessed it – Brooke!
Brooke’s latest rare-life-addition to his resume - the Operation Migration project - has clearly made a difference! In 2000, there were NO Whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population (the flock migrating between Wisconsin and Florida). Today, there are just over 100 birds in the population! (There are fewer than 600 Whooping cranes in the world, including those in captivity.)
Let’s applaud Brooke for making such a difference and for leading a Rare Life that encompasses character, survival (for the Whooping crane), courage, devotion and leadership!