A Day in the Life on the River

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by Pat Schlarbaum
Photo by Ty Smedes

Wherever we find Bald Eagles, there are wild areas worth protecting.  Recently four eagles were soaring with billowing cumulus clouds in the blue sky heights over southeastern Minnesota. With each revolution of concentric loops, the adult eagles’ white heads sparkled with spectacular brilliance in the distance.  Life was moving along with the majestic birds riding noonday thermals.  And we were moving toward happiness as each of our seven kayaks was captained leaving shore.

The river’s current was smart and percolating with kindness.  It was flowing merrily without pitching too close to rocks or snags of low-hanging trees.  As we rounded the first bend in the river, we startled a BaldEagle.  The regal bird lofted from her arching White Pineperch with assured abandon.  Her aerodynamic show included a swoop with extended talons onto a distant Cottonwood branch downstream.  She would await our kayaks at the apex of the next bend.  The Root River is her home. Like the eagle’s white head, the water was sparkling as sacred water should.

Three more times the eagle cast her powerful flight downstream ahead of us.  She seemed to be guiding us to deeper discoveries.  With each movement, everyone marveled at her flight and intently watched her destination.  When she perched just above28 feet, we drifted with the current that included the eagle’s song of the Yankton Nation.  “Miye’ toka he ya, Maka wayanka ye do, Wambdi Gleska wa, Heya ya u wedo, Wayankayo he.” (“I was the first to fly above the earth, the eagle is saying this.”)  There was an anticipation of love in the air. Maybe the eagle would stay on its perch with this pass.

The river’s current provided a quick response: yes.  The noble bird gazed about with only fleeting glances our way.  There was a collectively hushed reverence as our seven kayaks proceeded beneath the great bird.  No one expected to be accepted by this matriarch of the river at such a close range.

Photo by Paul Hellenschmidt

The eagle scanned everything within vision, including each kayak, with intense scrutiny.  Abruptly, her focus shifted upstream to more paddlers coming into view.  Then her scan darted downstream to our kayak members gaining distance.  The eagle’s steely gaze was elevated and her profile was omnipotent. It seemed the embodiment of mutual respect that the bird trusted our adulation, adoration, and admiration.  We could barely breathe – the eagle simply gazed. We had somehow become worthy to return her exalted look of reciprocity.  We carefully scanned her talons, feathers, beak, and eyes.  It was all about the eyes.  The eyes were “wild” and they were accepting.  It was the wildest look imaginable. We were non-threatening and the bird was not threatened.  At risk of sounding presumptuous, we were one with the eagle. Our hearts were filled with appreciation for wildness and love of living.

The bird appeared to be beckoning us to do more for wild creatures.  Her presence seemed to be guiding us to keep our water clean.  We nearly lost our national symbol through a depravity of priorities.  In mid-twentieth century DDT was used to increase crop yields by trying to kill all the insects.  Beyond that, the insidious poison got into the water and accumulated in the food chain.  DDT did away with songbirds, falcons, and many fish.  It about did away with eagles. And it can do away with us.  We need to ensure environmental technology does not unwittingly put any life on the planet in jeopardy of extinction.  Native elders speak of planning for seven generations – that seems right. We need to ensure that eagles fly freely from this generation to the next, and the next, forever.

Christened the Seven Kayaks Sacred Cruise, we were awestruck with autumn’s incredible palette of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, and every conceivable shade in between.  We were on the river cherishing and honoring life.  We were relishing the pristine clarity of her waters.  And it’s easy feeling good watching eagles.  You can imagine our amazement when looking back upstream, the eagle dropped away from her perch. Her bee-line approach was promising.  She would provide a fly-over.

Photo by Dan Burchinal

The air was clear and cool, slightly damp, just right for breathing.  Then the air was wafting with whooshing sounds of her wings overhead.  The eagle’s deliberate flight undulated through our shared air space with amazing grace. With each stroke of her massive wings, the bird’s breast bone heaved forward powerfully.  Her flight porpoised up and down rhythmically.  We could see every feather as the wind fluttered through her wingtips, like music from a flute. The fly-over was cherished from a bird that seemed to know her audience would savor an encore performance for a lifetime.  Weldon Abarr was best with words.  His dry sense of humor expressed an amazing irony.  “I wish there weren’t so many darned eagles, so we can get on with the kayak trip.”  We were seeking wildness and the eagle obliged…. and then some.

The air of the Root smells like the Boundary Waters.  Those lakes require paddling and portaging on a long journey to experience incredible resources.  On the Root, the river current delivers jeweled nuggets of nature incessantly.  The current maintains a movement of wonder that extends ‘beyond the next bend in the river.’

Close encounters of the eagle kind were numerous that day.  There were as many as a dozen experiences, each more exciting than the last.  The Root River in the Lanesboro, Minnesota stretch is a destination for discoveries that will bring delight to your life.  Camping is available at Forestville State Park.  Enter the river at the Moen Access.  The Root is about three hours northeast from Ames.

Wildlife provides a life-affirming glimpse into a wild world that replenishes our souls, brightens our spirits, and provides hope.  A planet under civilized assault to extract and alter more resources than we protect can well use a Root River almanac for future study. There are windows to wildness along her shores.

Wherever we find Bald Eagles, there are wild areas to protect.  And there’s eagle wildness to nurture in our hearts.  Let’s make sure we recognize and keep what we have.  We need to keep the wild portal to our soul wide open. See you next time on the river.

Photo by Lowell Washburn