Monday, April 11, 2011

Bald eagle an inspiring sight, even on a dirty river

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/30/2006

Last year I bought a kayak. Call it my third mid-life crisis. Since May, I’ve paddled about 150 miles. Last week I paddled my hundredth mile on the Wabash River. Despite warnings from many, I haven’t grown an extra arm or lost my hair and my kayak hasn’t melted.

Last week while paddling from Clinton to Tecumseh, I saw two bald eagles. These were the first I’ve seen on the Wabash this year. I’ve seen other bald eagles; in the last month I paddled the White River and Sugar Creek and saw several bald eagles there, but in over 100 miles of paddling on the Wabash, I hadn’t seen any, until last week.

I’ll admit it. I get more excited about birds than most people do. Take a trip down the Wabash today and I can practically guarantee multiple sightings of great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, kingfishers, several different kinds of swallows, jays, red-winged blackbirds and many, many others. Few will get excited at sighting the first spotted sandpiper, never mind the umpteenth, but everyone feels exhilarated at sighting a bald eagle. Even the most dispassionate teenager couldn’t suppress an “awesome” at the sight of a wild bald eagle.

I caught sight of the eagle as it flew overhead and followed it to a perch in a sycamore tree about a quarter mile down river. I searched the trees with my binoculars but couldn’t find it. I paddled closer hoping to get a better view but the eagle flew out the back side of the tree and winged further down river and around the bend. I continued down river and as I floated just under the tree that the eagle flew into, lo and behold, there was another one sitting there. It cooperated and let me ogle it for a few minutes with my binoculars, until my strange yellow kayak made it nervous and it took wing and headed off down river.

I had two more sightings. A few minutes later an eagle flew up river searching the water for a meal. I wondered if it might pick up the struggling carp I saw up river. It would be a large fish for the eagle to fly with, but I’ve seen eagles catch and fly off with fish that must have outweighed the bird itself. Thirty minutes later another sighting; an eagle veered off the river and flew over a stretch of bottom land.

It will come as no great revelation to anyone that the Wabash isn’t the healthiest body of water. I don’t know what is in the water but I know what isn’t. There aren’t enough turtles sunning themselves on the many logs in the water and too few fish on the shoals. But nature is an amazing thing. The Wabash doesn’t need so much to be cleaned up as much as it needs to be treated right. Stop trashing it and in a short time the Wabash will begin to recover.

The 10 miles of river between Clinton and Tecumseh is beautiful and interesting. Brouillets Creek and Otter Creek both empty into the Wabash in that 10-mile stretch. Just downriver of Brouillets Creek are two islands. These seem to be attractive to primitive campers. The possibilities are obvious for outdoor recreation along the Wabash despite a century of mistreatment.

As easy to see the possibilities along the Wabash, unfortunately it is just as easy to see ongoing mistreatment. There are dumpsites along the Wabash, many drainage pipes, draining both agricultural fields and runoff from streets and nearby towns. After a strong rain, the Wabash suds up from the phosphate runoff. But unlike your washing machine, these suds don’t clean anything. Especially troubling is to see someone enjoying the environs of the river (camping) but dumping their trash into the river instead of properly disposing of it.

Recently, there has been some talk about developing the Wabash River along Terre Haute’s waterfront. Wetlands restoration would do much to help the Wabash recover. So would fixing municipal sewage systems that permit storm water and human waste to combine and wash into the Wabash.

I have a suggestion about any discussion involving riverfront development. The guiding principle of riverfront development should be: do nothing that will reduce the Wabash’s attractiveness to bald eagles and do everything that will increase it. What is good for the eagles is also good for us.

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