Farewell Eagles

SATURDAY, AUGUST 14, 2010                                                     kristinteachingeagles

Early morning passes into mid-morning and there is no sense of time passing. No definition, no delineation of light beyond the dense, white of the cloud I am in. I cannot see 100 yards beyond me, if that much. I am on the lake one final time, kayaking and looking for my eagles. Though they are not mine, the time I have spent among them feels like they are my people. The ones you know deep in your heart.

Down lake is in a fog. The shoreline and trees are mist laden and fade in and out of view as the cloud gently moves across the rim. I am heading up lake to the whale’s tail. The calls of an eagle guide me. The lake is flat, flat calm as my paddles dip in, creating whorls that drift away behind me and slip into oblivion in the descending sky.

I am looking for that one, last, moment –  a picture to capture what I feel of this place and time in my life. This image will remain with me long after I am gone from here. What this moment will bring is yet unknown. But as I slowly make my way up channel, I think back on all the times in my life when, for a brief moment, I foresaw a future looking back at the place I was in. It’s as if now, I am looking down at a woman in a kayak, paddling solo in the silence. Yet, I am not alone. Something ethereal is floating around and along side of me.  Maybe these are not premonitions, but then what are they?

Three years ago I was leaving eagles and a flash of this awareness struck me as I walked three miles out on a hot summer morning. In my minds eye, I can still walk each step of that trek. I see the incline of the rocky, rutted road, the drop-down past the power lines to the rubble bridge, the base of the canyon and the steep, winding, shade-deficit hillside leading up the juniper slope and out to the edge of the Verde River canyon.

I spent that morning alone, searching and listening. I listened to the wind and the chuckle of water in the river 200 feet below. And I listened for the call of eagles.

I sat with patience and reverence, sweat running down my face and the hot wind sucking all moisture from my body. Even the ants that reside at this observation point went underground before 7 a.m. The eagles were no longer in the nest and this, my last stop for the season, was to search the sky and the canyon below for signs of eagle activity and to confirm the fledglings were still alive. They graced me with soaring flights along the river  as I watched from above. A rare moment to be above a pair of soaring eagles. It was so tempting to think of dropping from the cliff and joining them in the reverie of flight.

The scorching 110 degree sun made the journey out a challenge. Each shadowy patch under a juniper or against a bluff edge was a respite and greatly cherished. And what a gift it became.The heat slowed my pace and forced me to stop along the way to drink the last dregs of tepid water.  I paused and found a flat rock under a scrub juniper, checked for scorpions and snakes and then sat looking at a vista that took my breath away. Mt. Humphrey was visible beyond the Mogollon Rim. The Verde River and Sycamore Canyon stretched out below my shaded perch.

I wondered what was next for me and I wondered if I would ever see this place again. A premonition or awareness struck me then, as it does now. A strong thought that there could be a future time when I might not be able to walk or make this journey and in my mind I quietly reminded myself to savor it.

With that thought I hiked out, grateful for my legs. Without them, this place would not have existed for me. Four months later, the premonition became a reality, and as I lay in a hospital bed, unable to walk, the eagles of the Verde came back to me. I floated in the world of pain and surgeries and hiked the path to the cliff’s edge. And then, when I was wheeled out of my room I looked up to see a painting of a bald eagle in flight next to my door.

Now my kayak slips around the bend along the shallow north shoreline. I turn to see two juvenile eagles perched on a stump at the waterline. In the stillness and near perfect silence of the fog, the beat of huge wings elevates one eaglet. The sound only a raptor in flight can make. He flies over me. I can still feel and hear the air foil beneath his wings. The second eaglet hopped, briefly perched on a nearby rock and took to the air looking down at me, calling to his sibling as he passed over.

Leaving, leaving again. All part of the circle I travel. New things are ahead of me, not clear in my limited earth-bound vision, no definition or delineation of light on the subject, just like the cloud I am drifting through. But then, what is this moment? And have I learned not to fear what I cannot see? Maybe these experiences, these portents in life have shown me that what we cannot see is relevant to what we chose to see.  Life is going to happen, calamity is imminent, but so too, the magic, the lessons, the stories.

To say farewell to the eagles is as normal to me as saying farewell and be well to friends. I know that no matter what comes, I will see them again.

Beauty and the Beast

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It’s 9:32 a.m. and I am sitting at a small mechanics shop. Miss Pickle is acting up. Not that I blame her. It is after all, the end of a season in the desert. The temperature swings this year included freezing, ice-crystal mornings, dustings of snow, followed by rain and my first sight of Tonto creek changing from an anemic trickle to impassable flood waters and then back to dry creekbed come June. Temperatures escalating over 100 degrees.  And Miss pickle has been running hard. She drove the back dirt road from A-Cross past Salt Gulch and down 20 plus miles to the Salt River inflow.  She bounced into camp crossing one of three creek crossings, she battled deer mice and weathered mud pits.

Commuting to work posed a challenge in February and early March. High water restricted crossing Tonto Creek on occasion and in the tank I drove – windows down, head hanging out to see how high the water set on the tires, hanging on to the wheel, bouncing off unseen rocks and keeping a steady speed. Praying that Miss P. would not  swallow any water. And there were days I was delighted in knowing I was on the far side, all crossings were flooded and I had no where to go.  But go I did. I would drive down to the crossings and sit on the creek and listen to the sound of water eating away at the bank, smell the cottonwoods beginning to leaf out, watch with my eagle eyes for the fleeting glance of an eagle, raven, red tail or black hawk.

I wasn’t the only one at the crossings. It was a neighborhood pastime.  Along the northeast end of the lake are communities, North Bay, Tonto Basin, Punkin Center.  When the Tonto basin flooded, all the people living within those communities were trapped on the other side. Each year they become flood victims, waiting out the flash flood by hopping on their quads and hanging out by the spectacle of water in the desert. I met many a new friend there.

Everything mechanical and tech has reached its limit this trip. The first to go was the digital camera, then the cell phone, then the iPod, then the van warning me with a sharp “shot” from the exhaust. That underlining signal foretold a grave future. A looming leak in the main fuel line and an air leak in the manifold both of which could have blown me up ( or at least the engine) cracking the new valves, seizing me and stranding me mid-highway.  Fortunatly my expedition  didn’t end there, as I resolved that issue with  a little “pickle-sence” and a lot of luck. Now, after my computer giving up I sit here with a paper journal waiting for a new fuel pump.But here I sit  between the mechanics and a beauty spa contemplating whether I should blow my own mind and get a pedicure while Miss p gets a massage….why not?

This eagle season is almost over I am in Payson, Az., 6000 ft with 80 degree temps and dreading the thought of returning to the valley heat below.  I was thinking of my schedule for the next week still having to return to the Tonto nest to verify all flights of the newly fledged eaglets were going well. Then I am off to Granite Reef, Orme and Rodeo. The final stop is the Ladders nest outside of Camp Verde up against the Cedar wilderness.  All three spots this time of year are deadly hot. But even with those inconveniences, there is something hypnotic and meaningful about staying out to watch the nestlings transform into their true nature. Most nestwatchers  are gone before they get the opportunity to see young fledglings really take flight, spreading their wings and becoming experts with air thermals and stooping and diving and barrel rolling and… gravity.

I am fascinated by the spurts of growth and persistent strengthening of their wings as they hop-flap from nest to branch and back again. Then comes the helicopter flight exercise and on those days I am captivated. I anxiously wait, getting up before dawn, as my theory is they slip away at first light. I sit with camera taking ten second videos listening only to the sounds of a summer morning as desert wakes up. I sit and focus yet, not focus, feeling for the moment when the first flight will occur. This day is certain to be the day.  I am determined to see an eagle take it’s first flight. I can say now having had a little more experience that my theory is off.  They go when they are ready, not a moment before with a few exceptions where rescue has given them a second chance. Ergo, it is important throughout the season to maintain a vigil, abiding with the elements, patient awareness of not just the nest or the nestlings, but for every layer of the ecosystem of which they and I am a part.

I have missed most first flights. But I have been lucky this year with the first fledge on May 6 at 5:47 a.m. I sat alone on the cut bank overlooking the nest, taking in what would be some of my last days at this site. And there before me was the sight I always dreamed. The young eaglet, with a clumsy take-off, circled the cottonwood trees and flew OOV (our code for out of view). Fifteen minutes later the adult female dropped a fresh fish in the nest. Sure enough the young bird flew back and made a perfect landing. Her sibling was still hop-flapping when I left Monday morning on my way to trap the adults at Lake Pleasant.

Lake Pleasant was another hard earned success story for fledging and in the pre-dawn morning I made my way up to my trapping observation point. I settled in against the cool unrelenting wind and sent my gaze to the cliff nest on the Agua Fria inflow. One chick made her debut. In the background, the morning’s first light silhouetted the cliff rising out of the inky blue lake. She took one great leap, soared down from the nest along the bluff and then with a six foot wingspan flapping in the up-currents brought her to rest at the top of the mesa.  I could almost make out the look of exilaration and puzzlement as she settled in among the rocks, looking first at her footing, grabbing a hold of the earth for her first time, looking over the edge to the water below, then ruffling each wing as she settled in, waiting for her parents to locate her. She spent five hours in that spot, barely shaded by brush hanging on the steeply sloping wall, no doubt recovering her composure after such an enormous expenditure of energy. I sat with her, watching the day go from cool to extreme hot, noting the movements of every bird, duck, vultures (that were most likely waiting for a meal-me?). I sat in silence. I sat in reverence. I sat and took in every nuance of light, of light and shadow, of light and water, of light and heat waves washing across the landscape.

I returned to Tonto after an unsuccessful trapping with two pairs of ripped out bottoms of my pants, shredded by the razor sharp limestone seats of the cliff. When I arrived at Tonto both eaglets were airborne. One more night in the hot desert air, with just a cot and the stars above, I slept deep until the sun crushed me with the heat coming over the Sierra Ancha peaks.

I moved on to  Granite Reef, Orme and Rodeo. Two of the three at Orme had fledged. One final chick gave us a bit of an adventure and now I am in Payson gearing up for the final nest. It is June, it is hot and where I am going – even hotter. I looked again, at the sign that said Spa and braved the startled looks I would get after 4 months of camp living.  A pedicure? Sounds nice. Feels even better for desert rat feet.

And Miss Pickle you ask?

She just needed a little guy time and we hit another dirt road.