Soaring with Eagles

The bald eagles soared overhead as Carol and I drove along the two lane ribbon of highway carved out of the narrow patch of land between the cliff side and the Great River. At first we could just see a big dark soaring bird posing a dark silhouette against a partly cloudy sky. But then we spotted the tell-tale white head and tail. To us (and to many, I think), bald eagles are always an inspiring sight.

This week, Notes from the River took another road trip; this time up the National Great River Road (aka US 84) along the east side of the Mississippi from East Moline to Galena. Galena was the destination for our 27th wedding anniversary celebration. Happy Anniversary!

I grew up not knowing bald eagles. In the 18th century, there were as many as 500,000 bald eagles in North America; by the 1950’s there were only 412 pairs left. I was born in 1962, the year Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, which publicized the connection between use of the pesticide DDT and the silence of the birds of spring. In particular, the loss of bald eagles. DDT, created as a miracle pesticide and instrumental in the elimination of malaria, also thinned the shells of bald eagle eggs, making them shatter in the nest. Either that or it simply rendered eagles infertile.

In one of the more metaphorical ironies of our country’s history, five years after Silent Spring was published, bald eagles, a symbol of the strength and character and resolve of the United States, were declared endangered. Not long after, we were high-tailing it out of Viet Nam.

To me, a kid growing up in Florida, bald eagles were the thing of myths, not a wild creature I might ever expect to encounter, especially not in the wild.

Yet I was scarcely aware back then that momentous changes were afoot. In 1970 – when I was 8 – Republican President Richard Nixon created the EPA and in 1972, the newly formed EPA banned the pesticide DDT. Both were largely the result of the creation of the environmental movement, the first Earth Day in 1970, all of which are largely credited to Rachel Carson and the publication of Silent Spring.

In 1976, the nation celebrated our American Bicentennial. As the Freedom Train rolled into Jacksonville, Florida, mythological bald eagle imagery was seemingly everywhere. I was a teenage boy fascinated with the Bicentennial. Still, the sum total of Scott’s wild bald eagle sightings in the natural world nonetheless remained: zero.

Yet largely unbeknownst to me, the natural world was doing what it does best: changing. And largely due to the ban on DDT, the bald eagles were making a slow, steady comeback.

115,000 nesting bald eagle pairs were counted across North America by 1992. And in 1995, the bald eagle comeback was so significant that they were reclassified from “endangered” to merely “threatened.” And as of 2007, they are no longer even considered “threatened.”

Finally, in 2007 – at 45 years of age – I spotted my first bald eagle in the wild, along a roadside in northern Wisconsin.

And then last year, on a road trip with my sister along the Mississippi River returning from Minneapolis, we stopped for lunch at the Skinny Dip Ice Cream Shoppe and Café in Lansing, Iowa. I looked up and spotted my first ‘convocation’ of 7 or 8 bald eagles circling slowly overhead.  Inspiring indeed.

Yes, bald eagles are no longer mythological to me. Over the last several years, they have returned. They have returned to the Mississippi River along the Great River Road, but also to our very own Sangamon River right here in our town and in our local forest preserves.

Kayaking from my house downriver to Lake of the Woods, I’ve sometimes spotted a bald eagle perched in a tree hanging over the river looking for fish. Bald eagles’ diet consists mostly of fish, so they need to live near a good fishing source, such as our Sangamon River. I’ve been told there is a nesting pair living in that area. Not long ago, a friend’s son reported that he was pooped on by a bald eagle flying overhead while kayaking near Lake of the Woods. What an honor!

Sometimes in moments of frustration people like to say ‘nothing ever changes’. Yet the lesson learned from the soaring eagles is that things sometimes change dramatically. We humans nearly brought our own symbol of our country to near extinction. And then we brought them back.

As the calendar changes to 2017, I am sometimes feeling like a sea of anger, hostility and cynicism swirls all around me. Frankly, it’s even made it difficult to wish people a “happy new year” with a straight face. People continue to complain about ‘politics as usual’. No budget for our state and little real hope for a resolution. An incoming president that remains a wild card among his supporters as well as his detractors.

Yet, as we ring in the New Year, we should always remember to soar with the eagles. Above it all. Let hope and strength and resolve ring true.

And never say “nothing ever changes”. Everything changes. Through our own decisions and our own conscious choices, we brought the bald eagles back from near extinction. And now I, a kid who grew up knowing bald eagles only as myth, can spot one flying above me as I kayak the Sangamon River. Yes, everything changes.

As we ring in the new year, momentous changes are undoubtedly afoot. Changes of which we are scarcely aware. Welcome to 2017.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, January 12, 2017, by Scott Hays

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