Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fly like an eagle

6 February 2010: At some point midweek on facebook I mentioned Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock State Park next January (for me, everything is off in the future). J. responded, “Can we visit the bald eagles this weekend?”

How could I turn down a plea like that? So we did.

First, however, I had to get to Homewood, which saves J. from driving about 26 miles to Chicago, then all the way back to get to I-80. I tried to catch the earliest train I could, given my starting time, which would have been the 8:42. That is, if I had read the schedule correctly.

Which I had not.

J. called while I was in the bathroom, but I didn’t have time to return the call. I ran out at about 8:21, which was going to be closer than I liked as it was. At the back of the Flamingo, where I can cut through the garden to 55th Street, I met with a locked door, so I had to walk around the building (adding a minute or so). At 55th and Everett, I confronted a sidewalk covered with the kind of ice that makes every malicious effort to pull me down. I went into the street’s bike lane, where I thought I was going to have to compete with a group of Spandex-clad, cold-weather cyclists, but they stopped further back to greet a comrade. I walked as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast as I’d been cramped in office chairs all day every day all week and felt it. Then, at the walkway to the train platform, I found myself facing a long river of slick ice, with no way around it. I walked very slowly and very gingerly down it until I got to the shelter with the ticket machine, where a glance at my iPhone showed that I had just enough time to buy a ticket (and avoid the $3 surcharge Metra claims to charge on the train). I had lots of change, but proved to be 40 cents short of the $4 fare and had to dig around for a dollar—as it turns out, my one bill.

By now a train was coming, and I hustled down the spottily iced platform as the conductor held the door open at the very front. As I got closer, I yelled, “University Park?” “No, South Chicago,” he yelled back as he let the doors close and the train take off.

After a moment or two it began to seem odd to me that I was the only person on the platform and that by 8:45 there was no sign of either waiting passengers or train.

I called J., who said he’d been trying to let me know that the eagle tour trolleys are at 9:30 and 11:00, so under perfect circumstances (unlikely), we might make the 11:00. Then I broke my bad news—perfect circumstances were off as I must have misread the train schedule and that the next train was at 9:42. The 8:42 train was Monday through Friday only.

That settled the question of the trolley, although we agreed we’d still be able to see the eagles, but not the question of how I’d kill time until the next train. I wasn’t going to skate back down that walkway on my ass.

In my frozen stupor, with the wind biting through my hands to the bone, I headed toward the 57th Street end, where I found a warming shelter and then the stairs. Perfect! I spent 25 minutes downing coffee and a chocolate muffin at Istria Café under the tracks. I even had a chance to get rid of some coffee before trudging upstairs.

A stopped freight seemed strangely close to the platform; the freights run on the far track to the east, away from the electric lines. Something way back in my mind on the borders of conscious thought clicked, and I’d realized I’d gone up the TO CHICAGO stairs instead of those FROM CHICAGO.

I gave my left knee, which doesn’t like descending stairs, another workout. Fortunately, I’d allowed time.

A South Chicago train appeared, and a woman from the 55th Street side began hoofing it desperately. The conductor asked if she wanted South Chicago, she said no, and he told her she could stop rushing—she wanted the next train. That’s twice a conductor held a train for a scrambling passenger. There is hope for humanity.

J. was a little late picking me up, although he’d want it pointed out that it was under 10 minutes. After a detour to the Caribou Coffee in Homewood (coffee and scone for him, kettle chips and cans of hot chocolate and tea bags for me), we took off west for Harlem Avenue and I-80—the, ahem, “scenic” (longer) route. Along the way we made a few stops for gas and in search of warmer, dry socks (not for me, as I was wearing these) and arrived around noon or 12:30 p.m.

This time I was drawn into the gift shop first, ahead of J., attracted by a discounted book on national forests of the eastern U.S. and Audubon’s Elephant: America’s Greatest Naturalist and the Making of The Birds of America by Duff Hart-Davis. I spotted YakTrax, which had tempted me before, and subsequently I had heard from a marathon-training co-worker that they really do work. I asked the gift shop attendant about conditions, which she said included ice and packed snow in places. She added that the YakTrax are great and that they’d sold out of them in January. SOLD! J. picked up an eagle photo (that to me looks like a painting) in that shop and socks (for him) and a scarf (for me, by request) in the other. After a trip or two back to the car and a delay on an outdoor bench while I figured out the YakTrax, we were ready to set out.

The Starved Rock overlook is only one-third of a mile from the information center, but the first part is up a somewhat steep paved hill, which happened to be covered in slippery packed snow, just like the attendant had described. With the YakTrax, I was transformed from a tentative, fearful plodder into a reckless, confident strider, forging ahead of J.

We found the eagles right where they were supposed to be, roosting on the trees of Plum Island. A brown bird, which I thought was a juvenile judging by its mottled plumage, flew toward us. I pointed this out to J., only to be corrected by a pair of women nearby, who claimed it was a hawk. This seemed unlikely to me because: (1) The bird was too large and mottled to be any hawk I know of, although I admit I’m terrible at identifying raptors, (2) I would guess that large hawks and eagles rarely share territory for long periods, and (3) it seemed possible there would be juveniles. With my usual abundant self-confidence, I conceded the point and apologetically told others that they’d said it was a hawk. Even as my inner voice remained skeptical, even more brown birds with awkwardly mottled plumage soared overhead. By now the first pair of women had walked off, and a second pair had arrived, carrying binoculars. I heard them refer to the juveniles, and I told them how I had been corrected repeatedly by other visitors. “Hawks!” Snort. “They’re juveniles.” They added that they knew people who could tell the difference between a two- and a three-year-old, which I could see as likely as some were more heavily mottled than others, while some appeared to be on the verge of adulthood. Later I saw an eagle and a “hawk” soaring in tandem, like fighter pilots performing maneuvers at an air show. Magnificent.

I’d brought Audubon Society-endorsed 10 x 40 binoculars that I’ve had for nearly 20 years, while photographer J. carried both his digital camera and his film camera equipped with a zoom lens that he’s not yet comfortable with. In the powerhouse department, however, we deferred to a young man with an enormous telephoto lens and a strap-on pole support. I told J. I’d wanted something similar for my Minolta, but those lenses had been in the
$2,500 to $5,000 range. Later, when J. asked him, the young man said he’d paid $3,500 for it that a Nikon would have been closer to $5,000. Vindicated about both the juvenile eagles and the cost of the camera lens! Sometimes I am right after all. Sometimes.

When you aren’t focused on taking photos, you’re able to live in the moment, although of course you have to rely on your memories and/or the photos of others because you didn’t take any. I could pay closer attention to the eagles and where they were headed, often spotting them for J. At times they flew low over the water toward the dam; at others they soared high above. One of the adult tree sitters took off briefly to skim the water’s surface along the opposite shore. Perhaps he’d seen something with his truly eagle eye. A few directly overhead, although volunteering for the photo opportunity. While I loved the adult and juvenile I mentioned earlier soaring in tandem, my favorite moment came later when a juvenile floated sideways directly above us. The move reminded me of a vaudevillian performing a hat-and-cane sidestep from one side of the stage to the other. What our upturned faces on our craning necks looked like to the young bird will remain a mystery.

After more than an hour of standing on ice in the wind, both of us had to admit that our feet—and my left index finger—were too cold to continue, so we bid the eagles farewell but peered over other overlooks on the way back. This time we both walked on the crunchy leaves rather than the packed snow—I didn’t want to test the YakTrax on the downhill side.

While taking off the YakTrax, I noticed a couple staring at a group of trees that had bird feeders dangling from their branches. As J. wandered off the other way, I checked it out. A voracious flock of snowbirds worked on the feeders while we humans looked on from behind a barrier. The flock consisted of the usual suspects—black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos, etc. Eventually J. wandered over, and we watched as birds worked their way up and down the tree trunks, waiting for their turn, or perhaps for an opportunity. Snowbird flocks, which I seldom see, remind me of home, where we watched them at the feeders from my parents’ bedroom window. My mother especially loved the chickadees, which she described as “comical.” All I can add is that it’s the only species I’ve witnessed mating in the wild (Wooded Isle)—talk about cute.

Next “quick” stop—Matthiessen State Park, where I stayed in the fort (cold) while J. disappeared for 50 minutes to see what he could see and to take photos. He found frozen waterfalls, which I would have liked if I hadn’t been tired and had realized “quick” would still mean long enough to walk around. It’s as easy (almost) to freeze at the foot of the stairs (lower dells) as at the head.

The last stop of the day was at Starved Rock Lodge for dinner, a detour to the gift shop, and a rest by the fire—no outdoor story telling in February.

And so home. Once again I couldn’t keep my eyes open to make sure he was keeping his open behind the wheel; he seemed as tempted to nod off as I was.

Exhaustion is no deterrent. He wanted to do it again. I’ll make a woodsman of him yet.

13 February 2010: As predicted, we returned to Starved Rock, primarily, I think, to try to get better photos. The day was sunny, somewhat warmer, and less windy. As we were driving through Utica, J. abruptly pulled into a mostly empty parking lot. It seems he had spotted a place the week before that he wanted to investigate—the LaSalle County Historical Society and Museum. It’s bigger than we expected, and we stayed for more than an hour. An exhibit of particular prominence and pride is the coach that carried Abraham Lincoln to the debates with Stephen Douglas. A music room showcases period instruments from the late 1800s and early 1900s, along with some early phonographs. A photograph portrays the first woman to record for a particular label, or perhaps using a specific technology (I’ve forgotten the details), with a note that she was from Peru. She looked like an ordinary Midwesterner to me, not at all Peruvian. Moments later it hit me that they meant she was from Peru, a town in that part of Illinois. I always think big . . .

The museum paid tribute to the region’s role in commerce, industry, and canal and rail shipping, as well as the local men who had gone to war. My cousin would love the handful of guns, sabers, bayonets, and other weaponry, dating from the Revolutionary War-era “Brown Bess” and the Civil War muzzle loader to the WWII and Korean War relics. Most of these are not just museum pieces; in several cases the name and rank of the man who carried the gun is included. Indeed, one gun belonged to a member of General Grant’s bodyguard.

The museum proved to be a worthy detour, even for someone like me who won’t admit any connection or attachment to Illinois.

When we arrived at Starved Rock, the eagles were flying over the river, but promptly settled onto the branches of Plum Island’s trees as J. was digging out his camera and film, where they remained for most of the afternoon. The man with the Rear Window-quality lens and support was capturing the action and inaction, although, when J. asked, he assured him that he’s not an official photographer. What a great title that would be—”The Official Photographer of the Bald Eagles of Illinois.”

This time I spotted more adults and fewer juveniles. At one point eight adults contemplated their surroundings from the island, including two whose heads were so close together that they might have been mistaken for a single bird.

After watching them and what I think were common mergansers, J. expressed a desire to leave even as his body language and other indicators revealed a desire to stay a bit longer. My toes had turned into frozen nuggets, but they weren’t nearly as troublesome as my back, which decided to ache. Something made me say, “Let’s hang around another 10 minutes or so.” Having quit taking photos for the day, J. exchanged his camera for my binoculars.

It was then, of course, that the eagles, with their eyesight that is six times greater than that of a human, appeared to have sighted something edible, because most of the adults swooped toward the same spot on the river. I’d already wasted film with my convulsive trigger finger, but did snap some shots that should show four or five eagles over the water. I also tried to take a photo of an eagle perched on a conifer—good contrast—but it took off just as I clicked. I’m curious about how that turned out.

After abandoning the eagles, J. wanted to return to Matthiessen State Park. This time I accompanied him down the steps which seemed to have grown at some point between our descent and our ascent. At a level spot partway down, where a trail breaks up the steps, a cross country skier gave J. a vague answer to his question about what lay down the trail to the right.

We continued downward, taking photos from the bridge. J. wanted to know how people had reached the lower dells, while I wondered if that was ice they were walking on. Under the bridge, water burbled under an ice sheet, and it looked like it could be part of a creek between the walls of the canyon. Whether iced-over creek or solid ground, it looked like slippery and treacherous footing, judging by the way the explorers were walking.

Past the bridge we headed uphill along a path to the right. It was just steep enough in a few places for me to wonder if I could get up it or, with greater difficulty, down. Fading daylight and energy made me call a halt short of the Giant’s Bathtub, although J. lingered long enough to wander off trail down slope, always in search of a photo opportunity. Nothing that I could see seemed to be worth a potential broken neck, but then this area resembles parts of New York and Pennsylvania, so it’s more of a novelty to J. than to me. I also suppose it would be much lovelier in summer, at least to me, and the footing wouldn’t be quite so exhausting.

Due to Valentine’s Day, we weren’t able to get into the dining room at Starved Rock Lodge until after 8:00 p.m.,so we checked out the wary zebra finches in the reception area (one of which was peeking out of a little basket) and warmed up with hot chocolate in the café.

Determined to get some good or better photos, J. bought a new lens and wants to return this Saturday. I’m game, although right now I’m not at peak. It has occurred to me that, if I could drive, I wouldn’t mind life in that area (or one like it, perhaps in New York). I could work at a regular job and worry less about people, their irrational ways, and their insane office politics. I could use all that wasted energy to explore my own neglected abilities, and I could recharge myself at any of the three state parks nearby. Even with less money, I think I might perhaps worry about that less, too.

In times like these, it seems like a plan. Just me, my non-challenging low-wage job, the canyons, the waterfalls, the rivers, and the bald eagles.


  1. I'm intensely jealous! :)

    And I may have to add YakTrax to my wishlist. I'd have killed kittens for those when I was a kid, living at the top of a hill that rarely got sanded...

    Some day, I'll write up an account of the night I got home after an ice storm. It was a very long crawl.

  2. There are some higher-end, sturdier alternatives to YakTrax (also twice the cost, but worth it if you are a serious hiker/walker, I suppose). I can't recall the names but can look them up later. YakTrax aren't for solid, smooth ice, but rather for packed, slippery snow (they bite into it) or crunchy, yet slippery ice (same deal).