Wednesday, March 23, 2011

River Idyll

With a degree of comfort I listened to the weather people predict big amounts of snow to fall north of us. Since we've been in the heavy snow bands all winter long I felt justified if our locale, this one time, sat on the sidelines for this most recent storm.

The snow maybe did accumulate elsewhere as was forecast. The snow zone, however, wound up including us. The amount of snow that came, and the water content determined from it, adds to this year's impressive totals.

Last week, fortunately, gave us lovely spring weather to hang our hopes on. Given today's residential streets, a mess of drifts, tire tracks and compacted snow, we're glad we fit in a Saturday drive.

We went down the Mississippi River looking for eagles. You can spot eagles easily along the river in late February and into March. Eagles are most visible at this leafless time. They're around in large numbers in part because northward migration has started. Some eagles are breeding pairs who hang around all year, liking the open water.

I've written about Highway 61 before. The beautiful summer route between Red Wing and points downriver has been described. We use this same stretch when we go in search of eagles. The road is equally scenic with trees bare and the river ice gray and ready to go.

The National Eagle Center at Wabasha is an interesting stop. It puts you in contact with eagles both up close (it's home to rehabilitated birds) and through educational and eagle viewing opportunities.

The beautiful building, rather new to town, seems eagle-poised. It soars above the river on the river's west bank. Its glass facade faces the river where the spring torrent madly flows.

Inside, the sun streaming in, it's all warm and cozy. It can make you disbelieve that March in Minnesota can be blustery and cold.

We eventually joined the huddle of visitors on the outdoor platform. One of the center's bald eagles was brought out. It was tethered to its handler's wrist. It screeched as its big pale eye fastened on a bald eagle, wild and free, circling above the river.

"Get out of my territory!" it railed at the eagle. It was a speedy first lesson. The American bald eagle is notoriously territorial.

The tethered eagle was at least four or five years old. Its white head and tail feathers indicate it has reached maturity. Bald used to be a word that meant white, which may explain why these feathery denizens of the wilderness have their name.

The birds are big as seen in the air or in trees at a distance. Squaring off eyeball to eyeball they're huge. The distinct coloration, hooked yellow bills and yellow feet with sharp black talons all call attention to their fierce magnificence. As was said of General George Washington, the American bald eagle has a commanding presence.

Typically the birds weigh 7 to 10 pounds. The bones are hollow which is an odd concept to me. Females can weigh a few pounds more. They can also have wider wing spans - up to eight feet across - than male eagles.

We headed to the parked car discussing eagles and enjoying the sun on us. It wasn't warm near the river and our jackets felt good. It was also good to be going back to the car. We knew we would find it warm, something the sun does free of charge as it climbs higher in the sky approaching the vernal equinox.

A shadow swooped down as the car doors closed. A bald eagle had left a nearby tree.

It went out to the middle of the river, not a great distance away. It landed on a floating block of ice. As the ice breaks off upriver it comes down in all sizes and shapes. The eagle had singled out one of the smaller ice chunks.

The current continued to carry the ice and its passenger downriver. I expected the eagle to fly but it stayed where it was.

Suddenly I pictured the eagle as Huckleberry Finn. I could just see the eagle pretending to be Huck, floating his raft down this same Mississippi River (though several loops and bends and a couple states south).

The brilliant imagination of writer Mark Twain might possibly have created a fictional hero of greater stature than Huck if he had considered putting a bald eagle at the helm of his raft.This bald eagle, emulating Huck and Jim's plucky path to freedom, far from where they started, might have been dreamily navigating those dangerous waters for himself.

If not Huck Finn, perhaps my eagle friend was Sinbad the Sailor. The seventh voyage of Sinbad would be a most appropriate reenactment for this seemingly literature-loving bird. Like Sinbad constructing a raft to float down the river, the eagle was constructing its own flight of fancy as it drifted further away from its land base.

Possibly Eagle Friend, as I already thought of it, was assuming the persona of tyrannical Captain Ahab. It hunches its shoulders to portray the driven captain of the Pequod in the Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick.

With harpoon to the ready, it scans the ocean washing high waves across the prow of the ship. It stands on constant lookout, inward-focused, giving thought to nothing except exacting revenge on its nemesis, the great mythical whale.

Al broke into my reverie. Images of Huck Finn, Sinbad the Sailor and Captain Ahab swam away, leaving only the reality of the steadily diminishing form of the eagle atop his floating ice cube.

Al offered an observation. It was laced with practicality as usual. "The eagle is using the ice like a tool" he pointed out in his calm, scientific manner.

I could see this was true, when put this way. The bird didn't have to be high in a tree being alert. It didn't have to swoop down. It was where the fish are. The ice, like a boat, did all the work.

Chalk one up for science I said to myself. I commended my husband on his astuteness. "A tool - yes. That's good," I said.

No doubt "eagle using tool" will be entered as a note with Al's photo collection. Let it be so. I have my own thought to record.

I'm thrilled that the bald eagle, our noble emblem, selected as the American icon over a wild turkey in 1782, feels secure enough in all it represents to take a day off.

An American bald eagle playfully floating down a river - there has to be an element of native wisdom in this. Take it on trust from the eagle. Construct your raft and let it carry you away. You do the important stuff. You also have to dream and play.

Ro Giencke - March 2011

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