Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Eagles (Almost) Dare


Along this winding route we’ll spin some tall tales, meet people past & present who lend the region its complex cultural character and even tell a few animal stories for good measure ‘cause animals by far outnumber people here and always have. I thought we’d start with a tale that features all three.

Let’s get this out straightaway: I’m a fisherman and many of my own stories in the woods came about because I fish. I realize that makes me a barbarian to some. I’m also a ‘catch & release’ fisherman, which means meat hunters often take me for crazy. The stories aren’t about fishing. They’re about the moment because fishing brings me to rare places at exquisite hours and in that combination you sometimes experience extraordinary things. These days, field photography does that too.

On with the story:

While fishing you meet fellow fishermen and though you mightn’t ever learn their names, over the seasons you come to know them passing fair. It was on the Black River beneath Rainbow Falls that I met the only genuine woodsy I’ve ever known to talk to.

The forests around the Superior Basin are vast and rich. You can live in and off of them, provided you’re of a mind to and are sufficiently skilled because when lacking those skills all you’d do is die and pretty quickly too. It’s a hard life full of peril but the personal rewards can be profound, as the rhythm of life in the woods is sublime. My woodsy acquaintance was a youngish man. Known around town, I later learned that he’d come in during the worst of winter, take a cheap apartment or maybe bunk with a friend and do odd jobs by way of barter for his keep. Then, with the first hint of winter giving way and deep snow still a challenge for most everyone else, he’d return to where he was comfortable, to be seen the rest of the year only through chance encounters in the woods.

I met him because occasionally we’d chase salmon from opposite sides of the Black, which is narrow down from the falls. I mostly took the easy route from the tourist’s parking lot while he was nearly always on the opposite bank, having come down the hard way from out of the woods. For the first couple years it was a nodding acquaintance but when watching a man fish over time you gain at least some idea of his outdoors ethos and hence his character. We grew comfortable in each other’s presence.

This man would land a Chinook salmon and then milk the fish in a slack water pool, spilling milt or spawn to help the fish complete the mission of its life and assist in the continuation of the fishery. Then he’d dispatch the beast and secure it inside the worn canvas Duluth Pack he always carried, once a northwoods necessity and not so often seen these days. The effectiveness of midwifery for a non-native species is uncertain, but no meat hunter I’ve seen before or since has shown such tender concern for the resource he harvests. I was and am impressed.

I hooked a Coho Salmon, another non-native species until recently stocked in great numbers by the Michigan DNR. It turned downstream through a rocky run, rolling across the top of the shallow water against the pull of my line. From out of nowhere a Bald Eagle swooped in and with outstretched talons tried to snatch the fish. I cried “Jeez!” (or something similar) and yanked back hard on the line. The eagle missed its prey, glided up to a tree not 30 feet above the river and from there stared intently while I landed and released the salmon.

At the time, eagles in the northwoods were rare. I was stunned and delighted to have such a close encounter.

From the other side of the river, the woodsy caught the occasional chub, a fat river minnow and common forage fish that grows to decent size. He landed another and called out softly “Watch this.”


He tapped the minnow against a rock to stun it, then tossed it into a backwater pool maybe 30 feet downriver. The chub floated around in a circle on the surface of the water. Then the eagle lurched from the tree, swooped across the narrow cut between river banks, sliced the water with its talons and missed the floating chub. One thing I’ve learned watching wild creatures is how frequently they miss their prey, which is quite the thing when you consider how critical it is that they succeed. The eagle flew up to the top of a small tree not fifteen feet above the woodsy. It stared at the chub, which quickly regained its senses and disappeared into the river.

The process was repeated as the man caught more chubs. The eagle swooped and dove with only intermittent success, each time returning to the tree. Eagles, like most creatures, know a good thing when they see one.

The woodsy caught another chub of perhaps five inches and instead of tossing it into the river, knocked it hard against a rock. The fish lay still beside him while he sat down to remove his boot. I noticed he wore no sock. The young man picked up his boot with one hand and the flaccid chub with the other. From across the river he looked over at me and winked.

Placing his hand inside the boot, he carefully placed the chub across the treaded sole. Then my wood-wise friend moved slowly, almost imperceptivity, ever closer to the tree upon which the eagle perched. As he went he bowed his head in a posture that to the casual observer could be taken for supplication but wasn’t that at all. It pleases us to think animals dumb because they can’t speak French or do calculus, except one thing all animals know and humans too often neglect is the importance of posture. In one’s posture is read intent and animals key on intent like no one’s business.

Now directly beneath the eagle the woodsy stood perfectly still -- head bowed, arm outstretched above him, boot on hand and chub atop all. That bird was positively fierce as it stared down at the offering, yellow eyes ablaze at the sight of such easy pickings. It feinted off the tree at least half a dozen times, wings half stretched, talons flexing.

In the end the great bird didn’t overcome its natural reluctance to approach any man and after what seemed like forever the woodsy gently backed away, removed the chub from the sole of his boot and tossed it into the river. The eagle launched itself from the tree, snatched the offering from the surface of the water and flew off down the river canyon with meal secured. Enough was enough.

I don’t know that if I’d not been there all awash with the electricity of my excitement and the woodsy’d been alone, whether or not he’d have succeeded in hand feeding a wild bald eagle. I can’t even say he’d have made the effort though I expect he would, as that’s the sort of thing a woodsy tries, just because he can. Spend enough time deep in the woods outside the company of man and curious relations form.

That was the last time I saw my woodsy, though I think of him from time to time and always fondly. After that the Black was too often crowded by meat hunters of the sort that neither of us was comfortable with. Then the DNR curtailed the stocking of non-native species and the sloppy crowds mostly went away, leaving that stretch of river over to tourists by full light of day and to those it most truly belongs to during the edge hours and half light, when magic happens. When an eagle and a man might meet and however tentatively approach a bond.

And where even today, tall tales of the northwoods can still be crafted from time well spent upon a wild river.




For decades I’ve longed to capture an excellent photo of an eagle on the wing and for decades they’ve evaded me, proving I made the right choice when deciding not to become a wildlife photographer. These days eagles are recovered around the Superior Basin to the point where you’ll come up over the hill on some two-lane and surprise one sitting atop fresh road kill, so I’ll still have my chance.

In the interim, I like the posture of this one, captured on the fly two weeks ago…


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