Monday, April 15, 2013

Rusty’s River Ride: A Story About Eagles

Fishing on the Mississippi River, January 9th, 2013. 
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.

By Sage Passi

Eagles have had my number for a few years now, especially the pair that nest in a cottonwood tree on the shore next to Keller Lake. Since I drive by their nest fairly often on Highway 36 in Maplewood, I’ve instituted the tradition of waving at them whenever I see them perched in their nest high up in a tree or standing watch on a branch stretched out over the sparkling waters. I call out enthusiastically, “I love you!” whenever I catch a glimpse of them at this juncture. It’s a small gesture for such majestic birds that are making a triumphant come-back after decades of diminishment.

Catch of the day. April 3rd, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.
"Above the water, the eagle circles……Below the ice a dark pool of dreams lies still in limnion layers…..she knows there is a fish there……..her eyes can see through the black holes of time.”  
-Three Sightings, from my journal entry in January 2011.

Such eagle sightings would certainly have been an anomaly a few years ago. In 1963 only 417 pairs of eagles were known to be nesting in the lower 48 states. The population has rebounded with protections provided by the Bald Eagle Act (1940), the Clean Water Act (1972), national bans on DDT* and PCBs** (1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Today, nearly 10,000 pairs nest in the lower 48 states, including 1,300 in Minnesota.

A spring helicopter count last year, cited in an April 13 article by Minneapolis Star reporter, Jim Adams, found 36 active nests in the 72-mile stretch from Elk River to Hastings that makes up the Mississippi National River Recreation Area.

Chuck Turning's video for GTN, highlights the eagle's return
to the Northeast metro area.

"The eagle population is increasing and highly productive" in the area, said Bill Route, an eagle project manager for the National Park Service. Aerial counting isn't precise, but the 36 nests counted in late March are up from 28 last year and 30 in 2010, he said. The aerial surveys, begun in 2006, when 11 active nests were sighted, have documented the dramatic comeback in the metro area of the bald eagle, which was on the federal endangered species list from 1967 to 2007.

I got my own first-hand sense of this good news during a boat ride last spring on the Mississippi River, south of Red Wing. It was a spontaneous decision to buy a ticket for one of Rusty’s Red Wing River Rides on one of those rare early spring days in mid-April, with temperatures soaring in the lower 80’s that heralded my spirit of adventure and hopefulness that had been all but

extinguished by the latest intimidating round of Minnesota not so nice winter. Descending into this 55-foot low-riding river cruise boat, the Sight-Sea-Er-II and gliding downstream, I felt ten layers of winter malaise slip off me into the waves.

Rusty Mathiasmeir, Captain of the
Sight-Sea-Er-II with Skipper and Tipper
    As he steered us along, Rusty Mathiasmeier, the boat captain launched into his local narrative, transporting the other cruise spectators and me into the alternate reality of the eagles that inhabit this stretch of the river. I got the feeling he was driving me home to see my relatives. There they were - my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles including Bernie, Henriette and Ol' Baldy, Heckle and Jeckle, Connie and Harry – a cast of characters who have taken up residence over the years in these back forty waters. Rusty, a river boat pilot for over 40 years, is on a first name basis with the eagles. Several times a day he travels this beat with his crew, Skipper and Tipper, two wire-haired fox terriers who stand watch at the wheel by his side. On weekends his wife and first mate, Deanna joins him.

“I know every inch of the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans and I will say that this is the most beautiful stretch of the river,” he comments. As we circle around several islands in the river during the two hour ride, I stopped often to aim my binoculars at their nests, but I can't help but be awed by someone with as much familiarity as this captain has with the day-to-day life of eagles. He’s got a special knack for seeing the nuances of their personalities. And when I got back to the Cities and looked at his Facebook pages, I couldn’t take my eyes off his dramatic eagle glimpses.

Squabble over a branch?
A shot taken by Rusty in late March, 2013.

I suppose you could say I have my own version of these kinds of glimpses. I’ve often noted that eagles appear out of nowhere either when I am on my way to or returning from some “dedicated” mission to teach kids or adults about habitats or water quality. I can’t help put a spin on these sightings. It’s grown uncanny how they make their appearances out of the blue, especially when I seem to be in some special need of affirmation. Recently, after a month and a half of working on the designs for several signs for Lake Phalen, including one about foot traffic damage to the shoreline restoration plantings, I was driving off in a hurry from my house in urban Minneapolis after a pit-stop lunch, on my way to look at the unveiling of one these signs at a graphic arts company. As I pulled away from the curb, an eagle flew in above the trees, as if from nowhere, soaring above my car, circling around twice. Coincidence? It’s happened too many times for me to think it is just that.

So what messages are coming through the eagles these days? For the most part it’s been an encouraging story, but is it all good news? If you read the State of the River Report’s chapter on eagles published by Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Park Service in late 2012, you have to dig a little deeper to zero in on some of the less than ideal details about the status of eagles in our metropolitan community. So what is posing the greatest threat to their well-being on a local level?
Left: Henriette feeding her baby on a log in front of the SIGHT-SEA-ER II during an eagle viewing cruise on July 8, 2012.
Right: A shot taking on April 19, 2011.  Photos courtesy of Rusty's River Rides, LLC. 

From 2006 to 2011 the National Park Service visited up to 30 nests each year and assessed the health of 124 nestlings in the metro stretch of the river, taking blood samples and measuring their levels of targeted contaminants. Their findings indicate a well-nourished and productive eagle population, with an average of about two nestlings per nest each year. As a general trend the average PFOS*** levels in eagle nestling blood samples have declined. Levels of PCBs and DDT are generally below values considered critical for eagle health.

However, PFOS contamination remains elevated in sections of the river between the Ford Dam and the confluence with the St. Croix River. There have been multiple instances of high lead exposure in nestlings from Pig’s Eye Lake in St. Paul. Recent research on mercury accumulation in loons and fish shows an increase in recent years, suggesting the need to continue monitoring. In addition the loss of critical habitat along the river poses potential long-term threats to the eagle population.

Rusty Mathiasmeier cites excessive boat speeds as a cause of large wakes that uproot the cottonwoods and other large trees that provide habitat for the eagles.

Tree uprooted along the Mississippi River. 
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.

The State of the River Report advocates for continued monitoring of PFCs**** (including PFOS and its substitutes in the south metro portion of the river) and additional research on record levels of DDT at the Durham Island nesting site in Minneapolis and high lead levels in the Pigs Eye Lake area. The lack of regeneration of cottonwoods and other nesting trees along the river necessitates planning now to phase in succession plantings to avoid significant loss of large trees necessary for eagle nesting and perching. 

On the morning I saw the eagle on my way to the advertising firm, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine. He sent a story passed on to him by his friend. The synergy of its arrival, like the eagle’s appearance out of the blue above my car, gave me pause to ponder about its synchronous message. Coincidence? You will have to decide. Here is his story:
Freedom and Jeff

Freedom and I have been together 11 years this summer. She came in as a baby in 1998 with two broken wings. Her left wing doesn't open all the way even after surgery. It was broken in 4 places. She's my baby. When Freedom came in she could not stand and both wings were broken. She was emaciated and covered in lice. We made the decision to give her a chance at life, so I took her to the vet's office.

From then on, I was always around her. We had her in a huge dog carrier with the top off, and it was loaded up with shredded newspaper for her to lie in. I used to sit and talk to her, urging her to live, to fight; and she would lay there looking at me with those big brown eyes. We also had to tube feed her for weeks. This went on for 4-6 weeks, and by then she still couldn't stand. It got to the point where the decision was made to euthanize her if she couldn't stand in a week. You know you don't want to cross that line between torture and rehab, and it looked like death was winning. She was going to be put down that Friday, and I was supposed to come in on that Thursday afternoon. I didn't want to go to the center that Thursday, because I couldn't bear the thought of her being euthanized; but I went anyway, and when I walked in everyone was grinning from ear to ear. I went immediately back to her cage; and there she was, standing on her own, a big beautiful eagle. She was ready to live. I was just about in tears by then. That was a very good day.

We knew she could never fly, so the director asked me to glove train her. I got her used to the glove, and then to jesses, and we started doing education programs for schools in western Washington. We wound up in the newspapers, radio (believe it or not) and some TV. Miracle Pets even did a show about us. In the spring of 2000, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I had stage 3, which is not good (one major organ plus everywhere), so I wound up doing 8 months of chemo. Lost the hair - the whole bit. I missed a lot of work. When I felt good enough, I would go to Sarvey and take Freedom out for walks. Freedom would also come to me in my dreams and help me fight the cancer. This happened time and time again.

Fast forward to November 2000, the day after Thanksgiving, I went in for my last checkup. I was told that if the cancer was not all gone after 8 rounds of chemo, then my last option was a stem cell transplant. Anyway, they did the tests; and I had to come back Monday for the results. I went in Monday, and I was told that all the cancer was gone. So the first thing I did was get up to Sarvey and take the big girl out for a walk. It was misty and cold. I went to her flight and jessed her up, and we went out front to the top of the hill. I hadn't said a word to Freedom, but somehow she knew. She looked at me and wrapped both her wings around me to where I could feel them pressing in on my back (I was engulfed in eagle wings), and she touched my nose with her beak and stared into my eyes, and we just stood there like that for I don't know how long . That was a magic moment. We have been soul mates ever since she came in. This is a very special bird.

On a side note: I have had people who were sick come up to us when we are out, and Freedom has some kind of hold on them. I once had a guy who was terminal come up to us and I let him hold her. His knees just about buckled and he swore he could feel her power course through his body. I have so many stories like that. I never forget the honor I have of being so close to such a magnificent spirit as Freedom."

Six bald eagle visitors in tree near Gervais Lake, Little Canada.
Photo courtesy of Steve Simmons

We are deep into April now and spring is nowhere in sight. The few signs of spring I glimpsed the week before are coated with yet another layer of winter. I drive down Highway 36, wondering if Keller Lake will ever thaw. As I glance up at that cottonwood tree, I see two eagles, each perched solidly upon their own branch, staring out into the middle of the lake.

I take a quick right off the freeway, and head south on Highway 61.

Somewhere down that highway, past all this urban winter sprawl, on the Mississippi River is a free boat ride I’ve been offered. Maybe my spring fever will finally break. Rusty reports there are 21 eagle nests waiting for me on his beat.

Look closely!  Hundreds of eagles roost near Red Wing steam plant.  January 22, 2013. 
Photo courtesy of Rusty Mathiasmeier.


*DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichlorethane) is an insecticide that was often used in agricultural settings prior to being banned. It was found to have negative effects on human health and wildlife, particularly birds.

**PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were often used as a coolant/insulator for transformers and capacitors. They are also a byproduct of coal tar used to seal driveways. It has been recognized that they are toxic, carcinogenic, and build up in the environment. Many uses have been banned.

***PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) was a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other stain repellents. It was found to be accumulating in wildlife and humans at levels that were considered concerning.

**** PFCs (perfluorinated compound) are often used to make materials resistant to water, and have been found to be a persistent organic pollutant.


  1. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story for both you and Freedom. You touched my heart.

  2. Really well done, Sage! Thank you. Love the pictures too. :-)