Eagles In Early February
by: Larry Christy February 14th 2013
The temperature made it into the mid 50's on February 5th and made for a good opportunity to get on the water for an early season float. I wanted to survey just how low the water was in different parts of the channel due to the ongoing drought. I knew the river level had fallen low enough to completely expose the furthest reaches of the Saint Joseph boat ramp. The Conservation Department had added a makeshift extension by dumping a load of gravel at the end of it. This would help keep all of the hardcore "Winter River Rats" from tearing the axles off their boat trailers when launching or coming in for the day.
And there are "Winter River Rats", that you'll see plowing upstream in their Jon boats and coveralls. Serious fishermen - who'll get out there any day of the year, as long as there's not an endless cavalcade of ice paddies coming down at them - whirling and grinding against one another, as they make their way down to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
But there was no ice today - and no Winter River Rats either, for that matter. Mine was the only vehicle and trailer at the Nodaway Island "put in", while I loosened the ratchet straps on the raft and backed down to the end of the boat ramp. Luckily, this one was still touching the water - but just barely.
I look up at the angle of the sun in the sky. A late start, by the time I'd picked up some food, gotten the raft and gear set up and made my usual two or three last minute calls to some people who might possibly be free of any obligation for the afternoon - seeing if they'd be game for going on a spur of the moment float. ( None of them were, of course. I've got to start giving these people more advanced warning if I ever expect to have any company on these excursions.)
I unload the raft, then pull up to park the van and trailer. Before locking it I almost leave my heavy coat laying behind in the seat, but then grab it anyway, thinking: "It's better to have and no need - than need and no have" - then start snapping on my life vest as I walk back down to the water. When I reach the bottom of the ramp I push the raft free and my feet, jumping on board, leave dry land behind. And like magic - there it is again.... even though I've drifted this same stretch dozens of times... there's that sudden feeling of elation that comes when you give yourself over to something far larger and greater than your known world. That moment when you commit to the river's current, the journey ahead, and all the unknown sights, sounds, struggles, joys, discomforts, thoughts and insights that will all reveal themselves to you over the next 2 or 3 hours, becoming your own private experience and memory as you go drifting downstream.
It's the giddiness of a small adventure, coupled with a laughing smugness, feeling that you've somehow outsmarted and escaped the dull drudgery of the whole Gross National Product - as you go slipping away on the remnant grandeur of one of the world's largest rivers, on a tuesday afternoon.
You'll never see a tombstone with the words "I Wish I'd Spent More Time At Work" chiseled in the cold stone.
Pulling on the oars the river bluffs start skidding along behind the river bank and I sing out:
"Enjoy Yourself... It's Later Than You Think...
Enjoy Yourself... While You're Still In The Pink...
The Years Roll By... As Quickly As A Wink...
So Enjoy Yourself - Enjoy Yourself
It's Later Than You Think....."
Finishing this line, I start wondering just how late it really is and pull the watch from my pocket to read 2:15. 'Well - at least I'll probably make it in by 5:00', I think - and also 'It's probably just as well that no one took me up on my offer to come along. If I'd have had to wait around on them at all it would have probably been too late to make the trip.'
The sun was out bright and clear earlier in the day, but the afternoon starts to carry some clouds in on a stiff wind, blowing 12 to 15 mph from the southwest. Still there's enough golden sunlight breaking though to warrant my sun glasses.
I'm only adrift for 40 minutes before I decide to make for one of the sand bars on the Kansas side that I've been admiring. I row into the shallows and nose the raft up on shore. The glory of the afternoon sun is streaming down on the sand, reflecting back off of the scattered glittering traces of silica, and I hesitate before hopping out. The sand bank is like a new world. Untouched. Untrammeled. Like new fallen unbroken snow - or the distant and powdery lunar dunes of the Moon. There's the old torn feeling within me - of hating to be the one to sully its chaste beauty. But the allure of it's fairness, coupled with my own selfishness and desire, all conspire to see that I once again lose this battle of abstinence - when the lug soles of my boots make their first impression in the smooth, damp sand.
I pull the raft up solidly and set off to walk the length of the sand bar.
There are the small shells of freshwater clams, lying splayed open like the wings of butterflies, their creamy smooth pearlescent inner curves shining up at the sky. Here and there, the rough shell of an un-cracked black walnut has drifted a hundred miles downstream, for the receding water to lay it temporarily to rest here on the sand. The wide spaces between these, marked only with an occasional bleached piece of driftwood, and now and then the daintiest of bird tracks - but even these have been brushed almost completely away by the wind's slow caress.
But the best find on this walk is the slender branch of a cottonwood that has been gently placed here on the sand by the falling water. It's end, appearing to have been clipped off cleanly by the blades of an iron sheer. The length of it, clean of all of it's outer bark - and just the very thinnest remnant of the darker inner cambium bark, worked into a regular design of dark zigzag lines and sharp points - contrasting with the white inner wood of the branch, like the patterns on a Chevron, round about the whole of it.
The symmetrical beauty of beaver teeth at work.
I pick it up, spinning it in my fingers, marveling at it. "This should be in a museum" I say, and start to carry it back to the raft - but then halt and say: "But indoors, under fluorescent lights, it would only look like a dead stick. Right here is the best and the only place to view it properly." then bend and lay it back in the same groove of sand that I plucked it from.
Back on the water, there is the huge revetment of yellow rip rap stones that has been newly placed in front of the cut bank on the Missouri side - ending near the head of the narrow backwater chute that runs behind Worthwine Island. There is no need for me to venture down this backwater. I've scouted it on foot a week earlier and found the channel impassable. The water still and stopped, 3/4 of the way down the chute - by a shelf of rock usually submerged by 8 feet of water - but now exposed and acting as a dam. Last summer was so dry, and this winter only a continuation of the drought. My God, but we're going to be in trouble if we don't get some heavy snows or much spring rain.
Steering the raft river right, to keep drifting down the main navigation channel, I spot an eagle perched in the top of a cottonwood at the mouth of the chute. Letting go of the oars, I let the raft go spinning on it's own whim while I fumble in my pack for my small binoculars. The raft continues it's slow clockwise swirl, as I stand up flat footed in the center of the rowing deck, stepping counter clockwise to keep facing the eagles perch, and turn the glasses on him. I hold him within the lenses for only a moment before he bursts into flight - almost as if he knew my focus was upon him and had made him wary and uneasy. I pull the glasses from my eyes and watch him bank to his left. The feathers of his head and tail - points of brilliant white against the graying sky - as he makes his long circle, out of sight behind the tree line's black mass of bare branches.
Rowing past the island, I think of an excerpt from an article I've read in the local paper. The words of some squawking, lying mouthpiece, speaking for the interests of the barge companies. Complaining that the low water in the barge channel is being greatly exacerbated by all of the backwater wildlife habitat restoration areas that the Corps of Engineers and conservation districts have misallocated funds on.
To this tired and threadbare plaint, I raise these words : Are you kidding? WHAT BACKWATERS? The fact is there are DAMN FEW BACKWATERS or chutes on the whole barge channel, from Sioux City Iowa to the mouth at Saint Louis - a distance of 751 miles - and even those that do exist are only a 100th or a 1,000th of what existed before channelization projects turned the living river plain into a ditch and destroyed it's bio-diversity. But, ignore all of that history. Don't mention a word about it. Ignore the fact that the low water is due to the severity of the drought - and that the drought may be due to changing climate. Ignore the proportional imbalance of the 8,000 wing dams and rock revetments that have been installed between Sioux City and Saint Louis, to secure the barge channel) - as opposed to the dozen or so backwater chutes that exist along the same span. Ignore that. Instead, villainize those last fractions of the river as it lived.
Ignore it all - and keep chanting and selling the message of opposition to any environmental concession that is given any degree of validity. Chant those same arguments and cliches, to shore up the agenda of commerce.
Well, I have some arguments and agendas myself. But my agenda is not just to be an advocate for the river and it's environs, as you might assume. My agenda is to further Objectivity and the Truth. Meaning: to give equal voice and credibility to the factual state of how things are out here beyond the city limits - which just might be in conflict with the far too narrow interests and solutions of commerce alone.
Monetary profitability should not be the master measure of what makes for the best way of living. Nor should it be an accurate gauge of true and lasting wealth for any culture, society, community, or we as individuals - all being a people in and on this world - and not just employees and consumers, motivated always by fears of financial insecurity.
But enough of this. I turn my mind from constructing the rhetoric of soap box speeches, to the more visceral matter at hand. The wind is rising and I lean into the oars. With no other passengers and not much weight onboard, the raft is more susceptible to wherever the wind wants to push it. So, I keep the nose downstream - the oars in the water - and press on.
Passing along the front shore of Worthwine Island, that stretches on for the better part of a mile, it has for it's mirror and compliment on the Kansas side, a tall stately wall of yellow loess cliffs.
A succession of gentle hilltop peaks, sharing one sheer riverside face, I've heard them called "The Seven Sisters" - although the hilltops I count number nine. But, "Nine Sisters" betrays the music of metaphor and folklore's fantasy - if indeed the Indians or anyone else ever called these hills by that name. It could just be one that was born in the restlessness of a contemporary mind - wishing for mystery. Like the memory of a dream, within a tale told us round a campfire - but now with nearly all of the story fire's meaning and moral lost to us.... save for this last lyric ember.
Looking at the cliff face as I pass, there is one feature that, to me, seems inconsistent with its flowing continuity. There is an abrupt break or "Cut" in the face of the wall, perhaps 20 yards wide, extending back and up the slope. It's perpendicular side walls seem very symmetrical - almost planned - even though the geometry of its edges seem to have rounded and softened. Is it the look of healing that comes to a wound upon the landscape only over a long passage of time? Of say, a century and a half? Veiled in the spare growth of trees now, could this be the site of a cut that was deliberately dug here? A remainder of the Civil War - that when occupied by men and artillery, could have commanded control of river traffic from this prominence? The theory does stand to reason - but I have no history or facts to back it up.
Seven Sisters - and one of them with a gun in her apron pocket.
Ahead on the Missouri side I see the huge embarrass of driftwood marking the end of Worthwine Island. It's a huge tangled bone heap of bleached white wood, mounded 20 feet high, that even after the flooding from the northern dam releases of two years ago, did not break up and wash away. An island itself. As immovable as a chunk of limestone, that may well have even added to its collection of drift during the deluge.
Two beaver pile off the bank with a tail slap, then for the next couple of bends in the channel I start to spot eagles. I'm expecting to see the pair that have an established nest on the Kansas side, but I see these sooner. Flying upstream, it could be them, but then on the Missouri side I spot two more. One of them with the mottled plumage of an immature bird. I wonder if perhaps there's another established nest back in the trees on the Missouri side that I cannot see from the river?
It's getting colder and I pull my heavy coat on over my life vest. Tucking my small field glasses into the pocket, I keep my eyes up, scanning the tree branches well down river. I have to. Because the birds have embraced the drone of the combustion engine as an assurance of their safety.... and I have no engine. Motor-craft will routinely go whizzing right beneath eagles perched on an overhanging limb - with their never flinching or ruffling a feather, despite the racket. I've seen similar behavior with wild turkeys - nature's flightiest and wariest bird - scratching in utter unconcern on the shoulder of the interstate, with two lanes of howling traffic screaming past them at 70 miles per hour.... completely un-startled.
But, send a solitary man on foot their way, or one standing motionless and silent in the slow drift of a raft as I am, and it seems so unusual that it spooks them from 300 yards away. With this in mind, I maneuver out into the center of the channel as I approach the site of the established eagle nest. Maintaining the proper distance for comfort, they do not fly off, but keep their perches, affording me time to look at them through the glasses.
It will take a while but these birds will eventually accept the presence of slower silent craft like rafts, canoes and kayaks. It's just a matter of showing up out here in the landscape - again and again - passing in peace.
In Wyoming, the birds along the Snake river, running through Grand Teton, were largely unfazed by the passing of our tour rafts. The eagles allowing us to drift beneath them - sometimes close enough for a chattering tourist on board to nearly be hit by the pellet of excrement occasionally ejected from the tail end of the great bird. Of course, this particular parable could be interpreted in two ways. One being an example of calm acceptance and tolerance, on the bird's part..... The other being a pointed gesture of their being perturbed and annoyed at our intrusion.
Rounding the next bend, I can see the outline of the old St. Joseph Waterworks, maybe a mile and 3/4 downstream. The wind is up strong and whatever daylight is coming though the heavy gray cloud cover is starting to fade. I pull my watch from my pocket - nearly 5:00 pm. I'm going to be coming in in the dark this time. Suddenly I see a flickering flash of electric white light near the Waterworks. The arc light of a welder at work. Seeing this I think of Ival, who built my raft trailer for me. I know he's been doing some work at the old Waterworks property and I think maybe I'll be able to holler at him from the river as I pass. But, with the wind and the slow current, it is well past 5:00 when I come even with the point. There's no one around and the flash I saw was probably the last bead he'd fused before calling it a day.
I sense the fading light and the gray clouds beginning to pull at my mood, but before I let this take root, letting my thoughts begin to brood, I pull back from the illusion and tell myself: 'It's only a difference in light. Nothing has changed. The trees on the bank are the same in sun or shadow, and so are you. The eagles are still going about the business of being eagles. The river is still flowing. Just because the sun is hidden behind the clouds doesn't mean that God is no longer on your side....'
But, even knowing this to be true, I'm still ready to be in for the day. So, I spend the last 2 1/2 miles pushing at the oars, racing the nightfall.
I don't make it.
From the faster water on the Kansas side I cross the black channel looking at the two columns standing against the sky - ringed in red neon and rising up from the glowing white box of the St. Joe Frontier Casino. The columns are intended to bear a resemblance to the stacks of an old steamboat. But they're made of fiberglass.
There's no boiler iron or spar poles anymore. No paddle wheels or capstans. No coils of hemp rope, and not even the sound of any claw hammer chords being strummed on a tenor banjo to echo out over the water. Now there's just the hum of the heating and cooling units on the casino's roof.
All of the steamboats that are left are museum exhibits - and the wrecks of all the ones that aren't still lie buried beneath the stubble and mud of corn and soy bean fields.
I look back upstream where I've just came from, and the darkness of the falling night obscures even this most recent history of my afternoon spent upon the water.... leaving almost none of it clearly discernible to me now. And more than that - as I think of the paintings of Karl Bodmer that captured a few images of the Missouri's channel when it was still wild and untouched - I know that the march of progress has left almost none of those scenes to still be viewed with any clarity either. Not now that the channel has been narrowed and dammed - and most of it's diversity destroyed and lost.
I look back at the casino on the shore before me, and I know that we've sold ourselves down river. Know that we've squandered an immense living and genuine wealth.... trading it for worthless glittering baubles such as this... made of sheet tin and vinyl.
The rings of red neon blink on one at a time.... one.... two.... three.... four.... then, wink out when they reach the top.... to repeat their false promise again and again in idiotic monotony, all through the darkness that is falling upon America.