Road Trip Goes Beyond Where Eagles Dare

With a short lens and a long back road, the author goes hunting for eagles and returns with a different sort of treasure.

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Sometime during the winter—most likely January or February— our thoughts turn to eagle watching in the part of Illinois between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Why? Because the eagles are landing. Their seasonal jaunt brings them here to congregate along waterways where there is open water with an ample fish supply. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, about 5,000 birds winter in the state every year.

To see an eagle in flight or perching in a tree along a riverbank comes about as close to a naturalist’s ecstatic center as you can get. It is all the more pleasurable when you remember that the eagle was verging on extinction a generation or so ago. The embarrassment of losing the living version of the nation’s emblem forced Congress to pass the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940 with amendments in 1959, 1962, 1972, and 1978. The main threat to the glorious birds’ future was eliminated when DDT was banned in 1972.

During the winter of 2014, with record cold and snow, you had to be pretty hardy and unusually dedicated to go out seeking eagles. Not for me. But this past January, we had a thaw with bright days in the 40s and mild breezes. With a long weekend, I have a ready-set-go kind of day. I stop at our local family restaurant for an omelet (chicken eggs) and head out with high expectations, fairly new camera and telephoto lens and old binoculars for an adventure.

My plan has me heading cross-country to near Oquawka, Illinois, just upriver from Lock and Dam Number 18, a good place with open water. Then, I will go north to cross the Mississippi at Muscatine, Iowa, drive back down the Mississippi to Burlington, Iowa, and head back home to Illinois by early evening.

It is going to be a good day. That is, it is going to be a good day until I am just outside of Biggsville, Illinois, about 10 miles shy of my first planned stop. The low-air-pressure light on my dash flashes. Disbelief. Can’t be. The car was just serviced a few days ago.

Photo by Timothy Collins
With a 200mm lens, eagles on the Mississippi River appear as dots or smudges, circled in red by the author. The birds (take our word for it; those are birds) are landing near Lock and Dam 18 near Oquawka, Illinois.

I find a free air pump and end up thinking the problem is with the right front tire, which seems a bit soft. Put in some air, buy some coffee, and head to Oquawka: As I leave town toward the lock and dam, the left rear tire begins to howl. OK, now I feel flat out stupid.

This is my fourth flat tire in the past year, so I deserve an expert certificate in manipulating the chintzy scissor jack and mini-tire on my car. Nary a bad word crosses my mind as I change the tire. Or, safer to say, I don’t remember any.

Getting to the lock and dam is no problem, except this is not the best viewing spot on my once-planned route. The lock is on my side of the river; the dam with the open water is on the other side. My 200-millimeter lens is not the best for wildlife viewing under many circumstances, but if I’m patient, I can get pretty good shots of eagles that stray in closer to the shore. These eagles are far, far away, and in about five minutes, I know they aren’t going to come my way.

Photo by Timothy Collins
A hand-painted humming bird graces the garage of the yard where the dwarves and concrete eagle are.

But there’s room for humor. I think. Suddenly, I feel a bad case of lens envy for the photographers perched in the observation stand with their million-millimeter telephotos. No need to ask how big theirs are. They are massive next to my puny optics. I overcome my feelings of inadequacy and head to a spot downriver to get a cover shot of the lock and dam and open water. Tiny specks that they are, the eagles are in the air and munching fish on the ice. They know it. I know it. The photographers in the stand really know it. My little lens barely knows it.

Now it is time to head toward home, fervently hoping I won’t get another flat. To make the day seem better, I risk taking back roads in an altered state of adventure based on the idea that if I turn left and right enough times (east and south mostly, sometimes west, never north), I eventually will find a familiar place and make it home. Satellite navigation is for wimps. OK, I admit it. I do keep a county road map in my car.

The roads take me into what I later find out is the Wolf Creek Valley, a sparsely settled area of farms and forests. Some streams flow east. The area is cut off from the Mississippi, a few miles to the west.

One intentional turn to the west takes me to Hopper, a residential village of mostly well-kept houses and yards in a wooded setting along the creek. The day is getting better. On down the road, I spy what I am fairly sure are early robins, not once, but twice. Can spring be far behind?

Then, I see the prize of the day. An eagle in the sunlight. I stop the car, laughing because it is probably the closest I will get to one today. It is a generously sized concrete sculpture in a yard full of artsy-cutesy things, like the tin man meeting Uncle Sam and a house for the dwarves on a huge tree stump. Here is a slice of rural life, a back roads yard with a personal touch, including huge painted humming bird over the garage door. I snap more pictures and feel smug about my find.

Five minutes down the road, my strange side gets tickled again. Yes, junkyards are bad, but somehow, when I see one that has a fair number of 40- and 50-plus-year-old cars, my antique-car passion overwhelms my environmentalist side.

Photo by Timothy Collins
A junkyard with old cars is a distracting temptation for an environmentalist who happens to love antique autos.

My bad, but…. I must admit I have found another ecstatic center, mechanical treasure for my eyes. The sight of rusty old cars quickens my blood. Silas, my 1928 Model A Ford Sports Coupe, is sitting in the garage at home, waiting for me to finish disassembling the engine for an overhaul.

I am well pleased with the back-road surprises. And, I am pushing my luck driving out yonder on a baby spare. It’s warm enough to work in the garage, so why not make the day better than it has already turned out?

Turns out to be a pretty good plan, one that builds for the future. When I get Silas up and running again this summer, I will be travelling with two real spares. And a good jack. That, my friends, with the luck I’ve been having, is security.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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