A Pumpkin Eater
I sent these pictures to Bob Kattner with the thought that they might provide a moment's distraction from his travails with Covid 19. That was on Saturday, the 14th and he wrote back immediately saying its "ups and downs" with this virus. He must have felt well enough to send a note a couple days ago and we hope he’s far along on the road to recovery now.
While I had these photos out, it occurred to me that others in the club might like to see what a pumpkin-stealing deer looks like and so am attaching the photos to this note. The local deer have become so emboldened that they take pumpkins right off the porch! This young buck got one, somehow rolled it to the edge of the lot and had set about eating it when I noticed him. The close-up shows an extra brow tine on the right antler. With Halloween in the past I guess they can help themselves to as many pumpkins as they like.
Here's what it's all about!
Saved By The Whale: Dutch Train Runs Off Elevated Tracks, Is Caught By Statue's Tail
A Dutch train burst past the end of its elevated tracks Monday in the Netherlands.
But instead of crashing to the ground 30 feet below, the metro train was caught — held aloft by an artist's massive sculpture of a whale's tail. Despite some damage, no injuries or deaths were reported.
The sculpture at the end of the tracks was given a prescient name: "Saved by the Whale's Tail," according to France 24. It was built in 2002, installed at the De Akkers station in Spijkenisse, a city just outside Rotterdam.
It's unclear why the train didn't stop. The partial derailment is under investigation, and the train driver was the only person on board, according to The Associated Press.
The driver was questioned by police and sent home, the local emergency service said Monday afternoon.
The train will spend the night on the whale's tail. On Tuesday morning, workers will attempt to lift the train to safety by using slings, local authorities said.
"It's like the scene of a Hollywood movie," said Ruud Natrop, a spokesman for safety in the Rotterdam-Rijnmond area, according to The New York Times. "Thank God the tail was there."
With Covid 19 raging around the world and we like other Badgers being more or less housebound, our thoughts have turned to gardens and yard work. On the topic of yards, I’m claiming that we have the UGLIEST bird house in Manitowoc county or anywhere. It’s meant, for unknown reasons, to resemble a Holstein cow and it sports a tail and horns. Lynn said it was “darling” (I don’t think she has taken a close look at it) and wrens love it. We are told by the former owner of our Oak Street house that the wren house has been occupied every spring for years. It is so ugly I took it down in the fall and it spent the winter on a shelf in the garage, its smashed-in face turned toward the wall. I didn’t want it in view but finally and reluctantly hung it out late Saturday afternoon. By sunrise Sunday morning, wrens had claimed it and the male wren sang lustfully from the crab apple tree waving his little wings and interrupting his song only to chase gold finches off a nearby net of cotton. His wife was gathering twigs for their nest.
The wrens don’t use the official entrance opening between the Holstein's nostrils, but come and go through the smashed-in forehead above its more-human-than-cow eyes. If anyone has an uglier bird house please send picture.
Steller’s jays have been an enduring presence in my Alaska life, and much in my affection. My close friend and neighbor, explorer Amos Burg, who lived two houses away along the Douglas Island beach, may have sparked the relationship.
Amos, of Scottish descent, never treated the jays to peanuts for free, never scattered them around like the average bird-feeding person. Not for free. Having driven a ten-penny nail into his deck railing, he knotted a length of cotton string to it, lined out a dozen peanuts and secured each with a half hitch.
The jays showed up expecting unfettered handouts. They can’t afford to waste time. They’re trying to make a living. The first arrivals grabbed a peanut like they’d grab any ordinary peanut and took off with it—or tried to. Bowled over on takeoff! What the hey? What’s the deal? A few more foiled takeoff attempts drove the point home.
Birds’ rigid beaks handicap them when it comes to facial expressions. They compensate, signaling their states of mind by voice, posture, and behavior. The bowled-over jays, screamed harshly, conveying their displeasure: “CHAT! CHAT! CHAT!” (#!! #*!! *!*) They hammered the railing, woodpecker style. One hopped back to confront the nuts, aggressively puffed up, and looking personally affronted.
From the jays’ point of view, a bonanza of peanuts lay before them. Why couldn’t these be carried away like other handouts around the neighborhood?
Pulling on the peanuts tightened the hitches, making things worse. The jays just wanted to grab one, hide it, and get on with life. Nope! Not possible here. Amos had ended the free lunch. So they fought the string, pecking and pulling, and possibly discovering the winning technique by accident. To succeed in loosening a peanut, a jay had to anchor it to the railing with its foot, then pry loose the encircling hitch using its beak as a sailor uses a marlinspike. That takes a bit of learning for a bird. For humans these were mere half hitches. For jays, Gordian knots.
Individual jays picked up the winning technique quickly. Others found it easier to whack holes in the shells on the spot, extract the two nuts, and leave the empty husks for someone else to untie. Either way satisfied Amos. Observing their struggles through his front window, he remarked, “Make them work for it. You don’t want to spoil “em!”
Steller’s jays are dark birds, the darkest of jays, blackish on head, back and upper chest, vibrant blue elsewhere. While not so contrastingly marked as their flashy blue jay cousins on the eastern half of the continent, they are equally striking in their intense blue finery. I remember my nephew on his first trip to Alaska, seeing a sapphire-like Steller’s jay flash by a window, jumping up in his excitement and exclaiming: “WHAT WAS THAT!?” Mention is made about their harsh, scolding voices. Almost a secret, they also have a sweet, gurgling song, but one infrequently sung, and then shyly, so one has to be close to hear it.
Watching the jays defeat Amos’s nailed-down peanuts got me thinking. If they can be taught to pry hitches loose, could I teach them to accept a peanut from my hand? What a thrill that would be—wild birds coming to hand! I set out to make it happen, but before talking about that, since we’re discussing Steller’s jays, here’s some background on Steller himself.
Notice that the birds’ name, Steller’s jay, has nothing to do with stars. It doesn’t have an “ar” ending. It’s “er” because they’re named after George W. Steller, (1709 - 1746) and so are called Steller’s jays. The personal honor given Steller by attaching his name to the species is enormously well deserved. Cyanocitta stelleri (Steller’s blue jay). When, as sometimes happens, the name is misspelled STELLAR’S jay, a disservice is done to the memory of a remarkable scientist. There’s a big story behind this short-lived man.
Steller, a German living in Russia, enjoyed only 37 years of life. In such a short span, how did he come to have a species named after him, especially when the nearest individual of that species lived in western North America, half a world away from St. Petersburg? Also, beyond the jay, additional species bear his name: Steller’s sea eagle, Steller’s eider, Steller’s sea lion, and the extinct Steller’s sea cow. These may be the most well known, but there are many others, plant and animal, as well as geographic place names. The story, greatly abbreviated here, involves one of the great expeditions of all time. For a much more complete account of the epic undertaking, on which some of my comments below are based, read the very informative Steller’s Island, by Dean Littlepage (2006).
The Second Kamchatka Expedition, a scientific and exploratory expedition under the command of Captain-Commander Vitus Bering, started east across Siberia from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1732, with a number of objectives. Two of the most important were (1) Discover if a land connection exists between Russia and North America and (2) Chart the North American coast. Notice that this was the Second Kamchatka Expedition. Remarkably, Bering had already made the trip on a first expedition in 1725 under orders of Tsar Peter the Great. That expedition had also been charged to learn if a land connection existed between Russia and North America.
Having failed to answer the question beyond doubt one way or the other, Bering was sent back, this time with a much larger force and broader goals. He’d already pioneered a route across Siberia and so wasn’t heading into totally unfamiliar territory. Even so, the country was difficult, unmapped, roadless, little known, and fraught with obstacles. The second expedition traveled by horse and foot, building boats along the way to descend or ascend or cross large rivers and throwing bridges across lesser streams. The expedition traversed 4,000 miles from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka. For perspective, that’s over twice the distance traversed by Lewis and Clark. But unlike Lewis and Clark, the Russian expedition had hundreds of people, including soldiers. They hauled nautical equipment, cannons, tools, iron, hardware, rope, chain—everything except the timber needed to build two ships and a village upon their arrival at the Pacific.
Tsar Peter the Great had died shortly after the first expedition set out. Sometime before the second one his widow, Empress Catherine, following up her late husband’s efforts to modernize and Europeanize Russia, established a Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, modeled on the French Academy of Sciences. A contingent from the Russian Academy was attached to the Kamchatka expedition and thirty or more staff and scientists followed in Bering’s wake in 1733. They were to explore all of northern Russia.
Steller, an adjunct professor of natural history and mineralogy at the Academy, was late in joining the expedition, setting out FOUR YEARS after the others. Traveling lightly, Steller caught up with his wintering colleagues on the Yenisey River, not quite halfway across Siberia two years later. The two Academy leaders, scientists of higher rank than he, recuperating from setbacks and illness and soured on the hard life of the expedition, were happy to send Steller ahead.
Meanwhile, far to the east, the Captain-Commander neared completion of two ships at the frontier town of Okhotsk, a log settlement that had been enlarged on his first expedition. In September 1740 he sailed from Okhotsk across the Sea of Okhostk rounding the Kamchatka Peninsula to Petropavlosk in Avacha Bay, a sheltered bay on the east coast, opening to the wide Pacific. Bering is credited with founding the town and naming it after his two ships, the St. Peter and St. Paul. Steller, at this time had gotten as far as the west coast of Kamchatka and was studying its natural history as well as getting to know and study the native people, the Itelmen. (Steller, to the extent he was able, championed the native people of Siberia and Alaska, including founding a school for Itelmen children and later protesting to Bering about the Itelmens’ harsh treatment by expedition members.)
Steller got word from Bering to meet him in Petropavlosk. Keeping that appointment would be a feat in itself. The casual, understated way in which Steller reports some of his difficult travels reminds me of accounts of early travelers in Alaska: shooting downstream or bucking current, long portages, mushing frozen rivers, extreme weather—didn’t seem to matter. Steller had been summoned to meet with Bering, so, in February he crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula by dog sled. Bering, as Steller had anticipated, invited him to sail to America, promising him every aid in his work. He offered a golden opportunity for the eager young scientist. Steller signed on as mineralogist and physician.
On June 4, 1741, the two ships set sail on the North Pacific for America from the new settlement in Avacha Bay where they had wintered. Steller, a German, would sail on the St. Peter under Captain-commander Bering, a Dane sailing for Russia, and Bering’s second in command, a Swede, with a mostly Russian crew. One wonders about the language and cultural challenges.
The St. Peter and the St. Paul, captained by Aleksie Chirikof, sailed fruitlessly toward the southeast searching for a mysterious, non-existent land called De Gama Land. After two weeks, on June 20th the ships became separated in fog and rain during a gale. Giving up the search for each other after several days, the St. Paul sailed east, while the St. Peter sailed to the east-northeast for five weeks, eventually turning north. The two ships were never to meet again.
On July 15, with the St. Peter sailing north, Steller had a momentary glimpse between fog clouds of high mountains. He alerted the crew, but fog smothered the view before anyone else could get a good look. Nobody believed him. To his chagrin, Steller’s sighting was dismissed.
However, the next day, July 16th 1741, in clearing weather, the officers and crew on the deck of the St. Peter beheld spectacular snow-covered mountains glistening on the south coast of the great landmass that would later be called Alaska.
Bering’s first concern was replenishing the ship’s water supplies. The St. Peter came to anchor off a jutting landmark the Captain-Commander named Cape St. Elias, since they had sighted it on the Saint’s day. Although it appeared from the sea to be a mainland cape, it proved to be an island, about 30 miles long and two or three miles wide, later named Kayak Island. One can imagine Steller’s excitement as he prepared to go ashore on this new land. Before him lay the culmination of his efforts. He’d left Germany, worked his way to a position at the Russian Academy, crossed Siberia surmounting hardships that his colleagues had failed to surmount, sailed for seven weeks across uncharted seas while enduring the low esteem in which his observations and opinions were held by officers and crew. Some of this was blamed on his lack of seaman’s credentials but likely also, as Steller’s journals suggest, because of his argumentative and difficult nature. But coming to the moment, no scientist had touched this land. Within sight lay the opportunity of a lifetime.
Steller chafed impatiently to go ashore. The passion, love, ambition, anticipation, and dreams of his life eagerly roiling through his mind must have snapped painfully to attention when the Captain-Commander refused him permission to board one of the two shore-bound watering boats. Bering, worrying about the development of contrary weather and impatient to sail for home immediately, would not risk unnecessary delays. More to the point, one suspects, he also held a grudge with Steller over prior disagreements. It could be argued that with the delay already necessary to obtain water, what harm would come of allowing the scientist to tag along? His mission and duties included observation of minerals and natural history of any newly discovered lands. Moreover, Bering had earlier promised him every aid in those duties. In any event, Steller protested vigorously to the Captain-Commander in front of the crew. Bering eventually relented, but only after threatening to sail away and leave the young scientist if he failed to return in a few hours.
Steller and his assistant Thomas Lepekhin, whom he called his “Cossack”, set off to make the best of their few hours of time. What to do first? Which way to go? Let loose for limited time on a new land, with everything to collect or observe, Steller madly scrambled over the rocky beach and into the dark fronting forest, making observations on the mineral, plant, and animal life and collecting specimens.
Although Steller and his Cossack did not see any Americans, they found evidence of their nearby, very recent presence—glowing embers, hastily concealed food cache, tools, and weapons. Steller, in the name of science, pilfered some of the stuff he found in a partially hidden food storage pit, including, as he noted, delicious smoked salmon. Later, given directions to the pit, the watering crew stole more stuff, but left iron pots, knives, pipe and tobacco, beads and other objects in exchange.
Steller hurriedly hiked alone about five miles along the beach and from an elevated vantage point saw smoke rising from a fire some distance beyond. Afraid to encounter the Americans without reinforcements, he hurried back, and sent word to Bering with one of the watering parties, asking for a few additional men. Bering abruptly responded: “Betake yourself on board quickly or be left ashore!” Or, as directly translated from German in Steller’s journal: “I was to get my butt on board pronto, or without warning, be left stranded.”
Meanwhile, Steller had dispatched Lepekhin to shoot and collect some exotic birds they had earlier observed in the dark forest. If I know anything about these jays, it had been a family group of four or five that made itself known by voicing harsh, scolding chatters and boldly flitting around in the understory, easy targets for a scattergun. Steller reported: “Luck, through my hunter, placed in my hands a single specimen which I remembered having seen painted in vivid colors and written about in the newest description of Carolina plants and birds.” That would likely have been a hand-colored copper engraving of a crested blue jay, part of a monumental 1731 work on wildlife and plants of the Carolinas, by Mark Catesby, English-born naturalist and artist (1683—1749). Catesby, Audubon’s precursor by about a century, had spent years traveling through present day Virginia, Georgia, Carolinas, and Bahamas, drawing and collecting specimens before returning to England to publish and complete his projects. Steller likely had viewed Catesby’s work at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Catesby’s engravings had come to Steller’s mind while he held the still-warm jay in his hand. The bird he held, while not identical to the subject of the engraving, belonged to a related species and, like the engraving, was crested and blue. Based on these facts and knowing no such birds from Asia, Steller declared that the expedition had indeed landed in North America.
The St. Peter sailed for home low on provisions and water. The water the crew had collected was brackish. Steller tried unsuccessfully to get them to collect water from a better source. Several barrels of this better, fresher water got left on the beach. Enduring storms and contrary winds, the ship struggled to make headway west, with the crew sick and members daily dying of scurvy. The vessel wrecked on an island short of their Kamchatka destination. The expedition members speculated on where they were, hoping and thinking they’d reached Kamchatka. In fact, they had stranded on one of the Commander Islands 100 miles short of their destination. Bering, his first officer, and many members of the crew died from scurvy as they wintered on what would later be named Bering Island. Steller, with his knowledge of medicinal plants, nursed the survivors, helping keep many alive through the winter. He had more or less assumed leadership of the encampment. His prestige soared. In the spring, the resourceful survivors built a smaller ship out of the St. Peter’s wreckage and sailed to Kamchatka.
Collections Steller had made thus far, including the jay, likely perished in the shipwreck. The name Steller’s jay stems from the observations Steller made on Cape St. Elias in July 1741.
The story of the St. Paul, under Captain Chirikov, will not be recounted here except to mention that they sighted land in Southeast Alaska on the same day, July 15, 1741, that Steller had sighted land 500 miles to the west. The St. Paul, suffering its own hardships and loss of men, made it back to Kamchatka.
As a side note, when Alaska was choosing its state bird, I thought the Steller’s jay would be a viable candidate, given the bird’s early history inextricably linking it, as no other bird, to Alaska. However, its range is not statewide but is restricted to the rainforests in the southern and southeast portions. So, if range were important, second on my list was the raven, intelligent, widespread, and omnipresent in Alaska native folklore. One cannot find a bird of wider range in Alaska (Ketchikan to Barrow to Attu Island to the Yukon, and all habitats from sea level to 16,000 feet elevation on Mt. McKinley). But certain prejudices exist against the raven as a harbinger or messenger of death and the supernatural as, for example, in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. In the end, school children chose the willow ptarmigan for the state bird.
I’d set out to try to entice one of these beautiful, scrappy jays to my hand. My Alaska studio stood on a Douglas Island beach below a steep mossy hillside forested with Sitka spruce (some draped with beard lichens), western hemlock, alder, willow, and elderberry, with an understory of spiny armored devil’s club, salmonberry
huckleberry/blueberry, rusty menziesia, dwarf dogwood, false Solomon’s seal, and other plants. A ravine and small, jump-across freshet gurgles down one side. This habitat attracted Steller’s jays like the endless forest on the mountainside above the road and some of the neighboring lots that were similarly vegetated.
At least one small group of jays moved through the property daily: a family group, of two parents and four young. They owned the forest between the road at the top of our hill as well as the beach forest for an unknown distance each way from my studio as well as the forest immediately above the road for an undetermined distance. The farther from my studio, the fuzzier my awareness about their territorial limits, but I was certain about their regular use of the area 300 yards each way. Within this area they could regularly be found.
The fledglings learned to fly, at least clumsily for short distances, immediately after leaving the nest, mastering their abilities as their flight feathers rapidly lengthened. They remained in the vicinity of the nest for a few days, competing for attention when a parent came into sight by begging food and fluttering their wings. With both parents out of sight foraging, the young birds, extremely vulnerable to predators at this stage, settled down in quietude, fluffing their feathers, inspecting their surroundings, pecking experimentally at nearby objects like bark, buds, and twigs—perhaps picking up something edible by accident, a seed or berry or insect—in other words, learning. As the young grew and were able to keep up, the parents foraged more widely, ranging with the young in tow, presumably learning by observation and experience how and where to forage on their own. The fleshy, lighter color at the corners of the beaks of the young proved to be one way to differentiate young from adults.
My group—(I realize these birds weren’t “mine” but use the term “my” occasionally to differentiate jays with whom I was personally acquainted from those I didn’t know)—had a more or less regular beat along the beach forest. They loved the very edge of the fronting forest and its salmonberry thickets but didn’t use the beach itself much, aside from an infrequent flight to snatch a fly or harass an eagle at low tide. If they were not on our hillside foraging in the bushes for berries and seeds, they were searching for spiders among the beams and shakes of my studio. We usually knew when they had arrived at our place. We could hear them, even from inside. They’re not the kind of birds to be seen and not heard. While not as loud as ravens or crows, they can be loud enough and are not shy about people overhearing their communications. They always announced their presence, very likely in the same way they did to George Steller.
One spring, a pair nested under the sheltering studio roof atop one of the large projecting beams that I had salvaged from driftwood. About a foot square in cross section, it provided a flat, stable surface for a nest. Nine feet above the deck and open to view only from certain angles, I thought it a clever choice. The jays enjoyed almost total protection from rain and some protection from wind as well as predators. So uncharacteristically quiet and sneaky had the pair been about their comings and goings that I, embarrassing to admit, did not spot their precious building project until the young were hatched.
Years after the nest had been abandoned I climbed a ladder, carefully removed the twiggy platform from its beam, and kept it in the studio among other specimens. It was there for years but now has found a new home in Madison, where it abides in the collection of the University of Wisconsin Zoology Museum.
I knew the jays had a weakness for peanuts. Not a single peanut grows anywhere near Alaska, but they knew about them. They liked them enough to spend precious time hacking them free from strings. Clearly there’s enough energy in peanuts to make such effort worthwhile. So I bought a sack of peanuts, unshelled and unsalted, and started my project. At the outset, the jays, perhaps to their frustration, found the peanuts at my place harder to get than the ones nailed to Amos’ deck a hundred yards down the beach.
The next time a gang of jays moved through our woods, I stepped outside, whistling softly, “wheet-wheet-wheet!” while offering peanuts in my hand. That brought them down the hill in a hurry. Try whistling a robin down the hill and you’ll whistle all day. But jays are insatiably curious. They looked at the nuts with riveting interest but were not about to swoop down and land on my shoulders. I’m not Saint Francis of Assisi. They approached to about 10 feet, some closer, others hanging back, and perched on the overhanging spruce and alder boughs, cocking, their heads this way and that, eying the nuts and probably wondering if they could somehow get at ‘em without dealing with me. Had these been the much more trusting gray jays of Canada and Interior Alaska they likely would have come almost immediately to my hand. As my Uncle Bjarne once commented on those very “tame” gray jays, “They’ll damn near take food out of your mouth!” But Steller’s jays are not so trusting. On a scale of trust between the super-trusting gray jays and the much warier, more easily spooked blue jays of the eastern and mid-western states, I would place Steller’s jays about midway, more to the trusting side.
Whatever was going on in their minds as they regarded the peanut bounty in my hand, I could tell they were thinking. Jays are relatives of ravens and crows, the Rhode’s scholars of the bird world. They are far less predictable than the general run of perching birds, more curious, less programmed, and more opportunistic. Like their even brighter cousins, they’re willing and able to investigate and exploit opportunities that come their way. I inferred something of their intelligence from the way they studied the peanuts from various vantage places, first with one eye, then the other, sizing up the situation and weighing opportunity against risk.
Except for an occasional throaty clicking, they hopped back and forth among the branches in uncommon silence, trying to figure out what the deal was. Strongly drawn to the peanuts but repulsed in equal measure by the scary-looking guy holding them, the jays and I edged toward an impasse. Finally one, bolder than its compatriots, landed on a deck railing about twelve feet away. My stairway led down the hill over 80 steps to the beach studio so there were plenty of railings, the ones on this particular landing being the longest. The bold but ever-on-guard jay advanced slightly closer, about two feet closer, hopping toward me sideways. It wanted to get close enough to snatch the peanut yet keep its body as far from me as possible. Its ploy was to lead with its feet while leaning back sideways away from me. Each sideways hop closer raised its stress, so it hopped backward, then forward, then backing off again, the whole time maintaining clear airspace in case I made a hostile move. A move on my part was imminent as I tried to stifle a guffaw. Bursting out with it would have ruined everything.
This first attempt finished in a draw. The jays wouldn’t approach closer, and I wouldn’t surrender peanuts unless they got closer. Eventually, tiring of this game, the jays moved on and I went back to work. But I had an idea.
Somewhere in the stash of needful junk in my studio were three-foot long, quarter inch diameter wooden dowels. Setting one of them near the back door where it would be handy for the next jay visit, I filled a pocket with peanuts.
Hearing the jays carrying on next morning as they moved through the forest searching for food. I stepped outside, whistling softly, fully outfitted with dowel and peanuts. The jays, farther up the hillside, saw me and flew or glided down to the nearby alders, perching here and there to see if a better deal were offered this time.
In full view of their questioning eyes, and with a flourish, I withdrew a peanut from my pocket, displayed both sides of it like a magician displaying a coin before its disappearance and, holding the dowel in one hand, snapped the peanut onto an end. I might also have gestured to the snapped-on peanut with my other hand. By extending my arm, the dowel, and the peanut along the length of the railing, the peanut, while still connected to me by the dowel, was distanced six or seven feet from me. That was more like it. En masse the jays dived on the peanut, screaming stridently to intimidate each other. They converged in a flashing blue melee on the railing. One, leading by a fraction of a second, emerged with the prize and flew off. That started things. Seeing one of their number get away unscathed with a peanut—one that had been connected to me—the rest redoubled their efforts. Repeating the procedure, I emptied my pocket, snapping one peanut after another on the dowel and sending one jay after another flying off with a peanut or returning for another.
That was enough for the day. I retired to cut three or four inches off the dowel, repeating the peanut feeding party next day and getting the same result, even with the shortened dowel. The jays didn’t seem to notice that it had been shortened. Not to belabor recounting this effort, I shaved inches off the dowel on subsequent days and continued offering peanuts on the end of the ever-shortening stick. Before long the jays were taking peanuts from a dowel the length of a stubby pencil. Finally, even that was discarded. The back of my hand now rested on the railing with peanuts held in the palm. The jays came marching up boldly and taking them, some individuals more trustingly than others. A couple of the bravest stood next to my hand long enough to identify and grab the biggest peanut. Others, less trusting, adopted a “hit and fly” technique, snapping a peanut from my palm while airborne. I regarded this as impolite and annoying. Others hopped along the rail to my hand and as soon as they had snatched a nut, “escaped” with it in near-panicked flight. But progress had been made. Two weeks previously, their closest approach had been about ten feet. Now some were touching my hand. Progress, but I was determined to have them to perch on my hand.
So, continuing the experiment I raised my hand off the rail a little bit day by day. They got used to taking the nuts at their chest heights, some less politely than others. In their eagerness to get the nuts, some even brushed their feathers against my hand. Soon my hand was high enough that they had to stretch their necks, stand on tiptoes, and peer over the side to see the peanuts. Eventually my hand was too high for them. They couldn’t see its contents from the railing. Suspecting a trick, they flew from the railing up to the alder and looked down, checked to see that the hand actually contained peanuts. Then back to the railing, hop around, look at me, look at the back of my hand, fly back to the alders and so on.
This seemed to be evolving into another impasse. The jays had to make a living, but so did I. And I had a stone lithograph to finish. However interesting and pleasurable work with jays might be, my stone languished. Just as I decided enough was enough, my star pupil, the bravest of the group, hopped lightly up from the railing and onto my hand. It didn’t linger. Just grabbed a peanut and was gone. But I knew I had won. Or, at least was winning. What a moment! For a few seconds, that splendid wild thing, its lustrous feathers scattering back the blue sky, perched on my hand!
From that day things got better and better between the jays and me. Others soon learned. They watch one another covetously, and learn. Once the most courageous succeeded, others followed. Greedy for peanuts, they couldn’t watch their companions getting one after another and flying away while they perched peanut-less. All they needed was the courage to mimic the leaders. The first pioneering chance-takers soon had their imitators. Still, for some, the first time took almost too much courage. I remember one that flew up and grasped my finger with its feet but leaned so far back it was hanging upside down underneath my hand and had to keep flapping its wings to maintain its hold. The sharp nails digging into my finger were uncomfortable—not great-horned owl talon uncomfortable, but not as pleasant as having them stand comfortably on my hand.
While gaining their trust I’d been whistling softly at each step. Now, sometimes even when they were not immediately around but were within hearing, I could whistle them in. “Chat-Chat-Chat!” here they’d come, gliding into the willows with their pretty, feather-tip-turned-up glides, landing right in front of my second-floor studio window. I’d extend my arm through an open casement, and the jays were there on the instant, perhaps the fastest one on my hand, another on the ledge below the window, and the rest as an audience, hopping impatiently from willow branch to willow branch, waiting for the first ones to clear out so they could get their turn. Jays don’t really believe much in taking turns. Given an opportunity they muscle in. Remember those sharp nails? The perched bird always yields to the landing bird. Ever watchful for an accident, if a peanut dropped off my hand, they’d dive on it, sometimes snatching it in mid-air before it hit the ground. The one on my hand who had knocked it off would sometimes dive also, but usually others were already chasing it. The jay on my hand would just lean over to watch the fray.
The jays were not alike in their levels of trust. I got to know individuals, sometimes by a distinguishing mark but more often by behavior. Over time the most trusting individuals grew increasingly at ease on my hand, which usually offered several peanuts. One, who formerly had measured the nuts visually, now perched self-assuredly and sorted through them, picking up nuts one by one to test their weights, discarding the lighter ones. It would hold a nut and very lightly open and close its beak on the shell, “tippity-tip-tip.” I didn’t understand the purpose of the light tapping, but somehow it selected the most promising—I think heaviest—peanut. One jay affirmed a growing bond when it flew out of the forest, throat stuffed and bulging, landed on my hand, looked over the offerings and regurgitated a glob of devil’s club seeds, leaving them on my palm as a trade for two peanuts. I had become accepted, maybe even taken for granted.
The jays stay year around in Alaska, though they mysteriously absent themselves from the neighborhood for a couple weeks each winter. I don’t know why or where they go. Over time, generations of jays must have arisen and passed, but the culture of trust that had been established carried through year after year. At least one or two very trusting individuals, “star pupils” were on hand each year. I never repeated the initial training so they must have learned from each other.
When my peanut supply ran low I tried different offerings, including sunflower seeds and walnuts in the half-shell. These were acceptable, but the jays preferred peanuts. Besides, one day a jay picked up a walnut half by the edge of its shell in such a way that it tipped upward to block forward vision. The jay flew off like Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh made it across the Atlantic without front windows on his plane, but he wasn’t flying through a spruce forest. I didn’t want one of my jays to go winging full speed into a tree trunk, so walnuts got scratched from the menu.
I mentioned that the jays were greedy. I think it was the same blind-flying walnut individual that first worked out a way to cargo away three peanuts per trip. First, it swallowed one in its gullet. Easy enough. Then one clamped in its beak. Still easy enough. Then, more uncertain, a third, also in its beak, but with #2 nut obstructing further closing. #3 was only jammed in, lodged in a tenuous friction fit. Flying away with that load, the jay appeared front-heavy and unbalanced. But even with three peanuts, it still had forward vision. I’m sure some of the #3 nuts were dropped in flight, much in the way, it is hypothesized, that the star shapes of oak copses on the prairies of Wisconsin and Illinois were established by blue jays dropping acorns when headed from one copse to one or another neighboring one, sometimes miles away.
The jays took more or less care in hiding their peanuts, depending on circumstances. When in a hurry to get more nuts, they’d fly to the ground nearby, poke a nut into the grass or moss, briefly look over their work, perhaps poke it farther in or add a twig or leaf for cover. That appeared satisfactory to them though it didn’t look very secure to me, especially when other jays had been watching. They’d also, when in a hurry, temporarily cache a peanut under the bark of a spruce or under a lichen or even in a fork in a branch, then retrieve it later for a better hiding place. Other jays frequently looted such visible temporary caches. Nothing much escapes their notice. When hiding a nut, a jay would often step back to inspect the hiding place.
I’ve seen a jay retrieve nuts a month or more after they were hidden. The jay would fly to a spot, cock its head to view the hiding place, perhaps adjust its position an inch one way or another, cock its head again and retrieve the stashed nut. This suggested to me that they carry a visual map of the location and specific details of the site in their memories. Clark’s nutcrackers, a related species, are known for hiding seeds in thousands of places and remembering and retrieving the seeds from thousands of the hides months later. Birds’ brains are largely devoted to vision. It is possible, though I have no proof, that they can take and store a visual image in their brain, much like one would take a screen shot with a cell phone, and retrieve that visual image later to aide them in retrieving hidden food. The background of this image shows a small area of what passes for our lawn. Dozens, maybe hundreds of peanuts have been hidden in this lawn. To human eyes, one patch looks pretty much like another. The jays must have a way of identifying very specific spots, maybe each only a few square inches. Otherwise they’d be probing the grass all day.
One day a new jay showed up, a stranger to the neighborhood. My arm was thrust out the window while my lithograph was being neglected, and I waited impatiently for the bird on my hand, my most relaxed and confident jay, to make up its mind. I’d even complained to it: “Make up your mind!” to which remark it paid no attention. It had been calmly sitting on my palm sorting through peanuts and testing them, monkeying around, rejecting and retesting them for four or five minutes. My arm was getting tired. Finally, its decision made, it managed to cram in the three best peanuts just when the unwelcome stranger arrived. Liking the looks of this cheeky fellow not at all, my jay tried mightily to yell at it. I could feel its effort as it strained and quivered on my hand. But, loaded down with all those peanuts, the first of which was jammed in its gullet, all it could manage was: “Whiss-whiss-whiss-whiss!!” Squeaky hisses! That’s all. No fearsome threat. The stranger, unimpressed, casually scratched the back of its neck.
I happened to be wearing a wristwatch at the time with a flexible metal band, the type of band that expands accordion-like. Realizing it couldn’t yell effectively with a peanut in its throat, my jay, keeping a threatening eye on the intruder, managed to shove the #3 and #2 peanuts shoved under my watchband! It next regurgitated the one in its gullet and squirreled that one under there too. Cargo unloaded, it immediately went on the attack and jumped/flew to the willow, screaming and scolding in hot pursuit. ‘Round and ‘round they went, jumping from branch to branch, the way only Steller’s jays can jump. (I once watched one evade a sharp-shinned hawk by jumping around in a crab apple tree with the hawk in deadly pursuit. The hawk eventually gave up and flew off.)
“Get out of here!” I think my jay screamed, while the intruder, equally skilled at jumping, merely kept a branch ahead, probably yelling back: “Make me!” No matter how vigorously it got chased around the willows, the stranger refused either to stand up to its pursuer or to be driven off. Finally, my jay seemed to feel it had made its point. Returning to my hand and keeping a challenging eye on the intruder, it carefully retrieved all three peanuts from under the watchband and took off to hide them. The stranger, not being part of the studio peanut culture, and not knowing it could share in my peanuts, soon left as well.
Reflecting on this amazing incident, I didn’t know what to conclude. Had my jay stuffed the peanuts under the watchband because of its complete trust in me, or did it merely regard me as a peculiar kind of tree, under the bark of which it could briefly stash its food?
Incidents like this gave me pleasure and insights into the world of Steller’s jays. But downsides also arose from this close-knit relationship with the black and blue gang. For one thing, individual jays started hanging around, more than I thought was good for them. I wanted to befriend them, not to have them dependent on me.
I’ve mentioned the jays’ intelligence. They’re smart. They also rise very early. In the summer, in Juneau, the sun rises around 3:50 AM and it’s light long before that, depending on cloud cover. Our apartment above the studio, with 45 degrees pitch roofs, featured four skylights, one of which was above our bedroom. The jays learned where we slept and started showing up at the skylight long before sunrise. “Tap-tap-tap! Tap tap-tap!” (“Here-we-are! We-want-nuts!”)
They’re not as charming at 3:30 AM as they are later in the day. They also discovered my sister Katy’s bedroom. She lived across the street and had taken to feeding the jays: “Tap-tap-tap!”
But the worst happened one June day when a skylight had been left ajar. An inquisitive jay (they’re all inquisitive) took it upon itself to enter the living room. Once inside, it quickly became disoriented, losing track of the narrow way back out. It panicked. Picture a living room with my wife Lynn’s white rug and white sofa. Picture a panicked Steller’s jay chock full of huckleberries--purple-blue STAINING huckleberries…
At one point, I’d been in Florida working on a sculpture project and had not returned to Alaska or been in contact with the jays for about two years. Lynn and I had come back to Juneau on a short trip to look after our home and studio. One sunny day I started to walk to town from the studio across the channel, a distance of about a mile and a half over the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. I’d just started out, had gone maybe 200 yards and had passed Amos’s place when I saw a Steller’s jay fly over the road, higher than they usually fly, and land on a tall utility pole on the far side. The jay turned about, leaned forward, and looked down at me. Could it be one of my jays?
I was wearing a sweatshirt that had been left in the Juneau studio for the couple years we were in Florida. Just possibly it still contained a peanut. Groping around in the pockets, I felt a few things: a nut and bolt? No—not that. A deer call, No. And—Yes! A peanut! Only one, left over from who knows how long ago. Good enough! I held it out and whistled. Without hesitation the jay pitched off the utility pole in a graceful glide, blue feathers flashing in the sun as it swooped low and up onto my hand. With only one peanut offered, there was no sorting to do. Still, the jay eyeballed the peanut critically. It was probably my imagination that the jay thought, “this is a stale and stingy offering.” But, finding it acceptable, the jay stepped on it, held it down with its foot, whacked two holes in the shell, picked off the crumbs on the edges to enlarge the holes, dropped the crumbs to the ground, neatly extracted the nuts, looked at me as if to say, “That’s it? Just one?” And with a final glance at the palm of my hand, now empty, flew into the forest. Just like the old days.
Several remarkable aspects of this event come to mind. First, the reunion didn’t happen at or near my studio, not on familiar ground where this jay had been accustomed to peanuts and me. Second, it recognized me from a distance and remembered me, so the recognition must be more than facial recognition. Third, at least two years had passed since we’d had any interaction. Fourth, without hesitation it had flown to my hand from 150 to 200 feet away, much farther than any previous dealings. Fifth, showing no fear or trepidation, it had perched nonchalantly on my hand for the length of time it took to inspect and shell the peanut and extract the nuts.
Here, unexpected, had come a reward out of the blue, one that warmed my heart and more than repaid the work and time spent training Steller’s jays 35 years prior. I’ve mentioned that star pupils among the jays materialized, year after year. This was one. With no slight intended to the memory of Georg W. Steller, I counted this particular bird a STELLAR Jay.
For more reading on Georg W. Steller:
Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741 – 1742, Georg Wilhelm Steller, edited by
O.W. Frost, Translated by Margritt A. Engel and O.W. Frost, Stanford University Press, 1988
Bering’s Voyages, by F.A. Golder, Vol. II, American Geographical Society Research Series No. 2, 1925
Georg Wilhelm Steller, The Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History, by Leonard Stejneger, Harvard University Press, 1936
At the age of twenty-four I found myself awaiting a lie detector test in the foyer of the FBI section on the second floor of the post office in Fairbanks, Alaska—a suspect in an arson case. My friend, Jerry, also a suspect, sat with me as we reconsidered what we were about to do. We’d agreed to take this test against our better judgment. It was a chance to clear our names, but weren’t polygraphs unreliable? A recent baffling experience with law enforcement that put us in this fix with the criminal justice system, had not inspired confidence.
The FBI office was divided into cubicles by those green room dividers with translucent plastic upper sections, ubiquitous in 1960s government office buildings. They blocked vision but didn’t rise to the ceiling. As we cooled our heels in the foyer, we heard everything that was going on, including people fiddling with the equipment. So, while we wait for them to get their machine working, and before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s background on the events leading up to this moment.
Jerry and I, being the newest hires of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, were more or less at the bottom of the hierarchy. As such we got shared when extra help was needed. Help was much in demand in a brand new state limited staff trying to get its various departments up and running. So we were sometimes lent from one research branch to another or shuffled among various management projects. Our superiors saw many of our assignments simply as grunt work. But we were fresh out of the Midwest, Jerry from Michigan, I from Wisconsin. How many mid-westerners get to jump out of helicopters to tackle and ear-tag moose calves, while the chopper tries to hold Mama Moose at bay? How many get to help restore musk oxen and sea otters to their former ranges? The work took us to all corners of the immense state and to up-close encounters with seals, walruses, grizzly bears, wolves and others. Some of it was grunt work, but we saw adventure!
After all, mindset is everything. Tom Sawyer got the neighborhood boys to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence by helping to adjust their mindsets. Presented in a certain light, painting the fence became an artistic opportunity, not an onerous job. All depends on the way we look at things.
In this case, we were looking at gut piles.
It happened in the mid-1960s that the two of us were dispatched to certain areas of the state in search of the remains of hunter-killed moose. The job entailed rummaging through heaps of viscera for ovaries, (if the remains were female), and “harvesting” an incisor tooth and a section of lower jaw from the heads of both sexes.
To some, especially non-Alaskans, such an exercise might seem bizarre and unpleasant. The purpose is easily explained. The ovaries told the reproductive history of the individual animal and the teeth, its age and condition. Such information gave clues to the health of the populations in various parts of the state. This basic and essential data was put to use for the management and protection of moose in Alaska. To us, the magnificence and wildness of the countryside in which we worked more than compensated for having to dig around in frozen entrails.
This is how we operated: A hunting season would open for moose in a particular area, and, if assigned there, we would go and set up a base of operations. If roads existed, we would cruise around in a Fish and Game truck, and where there were only rivers, we accessed the country by boat. Either way we were on the lookout for signs of so-called ‘moose kills’, though they would be more accurately described as ‘killed moose’, since the moose was dead and it hadn’t killed anything. Sometimes we could follow a blood trail in the snow. Just as often we depended on ravens, magpies, or gray jays to lead us to the kill sites especially before the fist snow fall. Any or all of these birds might betray the presence of moose remains. Sometimes we followed them by sight, sometimes by sound. Once we had located the general area of a kill, we approached it cautiously in case a grizzly had already taken possession.
Our first assignment that autumn was to the area around Big Delta, about 100 miles southeast from the end post of the Alaska Highway in Fairbanks. Alaska was not, and still is not, enmeshed in a network of roads like the ‘lower 48’. Three paved main highways formed a triangle in the southeast corner of the interior of the vast state. Spur roads ran off of them. The area around Big Delta is indicated by the blue area on the map, just below the word “Fairbanks”. The red area indicates the location on the Kenai Peninsula, to which we were later assigned and where the events leading up to the arson case occurred. When evaluating this map and the wide scope of the countryside, keep in mind that Texas fits twice comfortably into the Alaska landmass.
In the Big Delta area, most of the country had to be accessed by boat. For this purpose we had a punt. these long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat with rockered-up bow were ideal for running Alaska rivers. An outboard engine was mounted on the transom on a special rack with a long handle known as a ‘lift’. A downward thrust on the handle lifted the outboard to whatever degree the operator depressed the handle. The propeller could even be lifted clear of the water. The operator stood in the stern with one hand on the lift and the other on a second extension handle that controlled throttle and steering.
In a given section of rivers in the mountainous and hilly parts of Alaska, one might encounter, in quick succession, rapids, riffles, deep pools, and gravel bars, not to mention overhangs, sweepers and windfalls. A river might alternate between amply deep pools and riffles too shallow for the propeller and skeg of an outboard. The idea when running upstream was to gain enough speed using the engine in the deep parts to be able to lift it at the last second, allow forward momentum to skim the boat over the gravel bars, then lower the engine in a deeper area and quickly throttle up to run again before losing all headway in the current. Going downstream the action was even swifter, since the boat had to have enough speed over and above the speed of the current to enable steering. Quick reactions, timing, experience and skill and all came into play and a dancer’s coordination. I don’t remember anyone asking before we set out whether we had quick reactions, timing, experience, skill, and the coordination of dancers. My experience on rivers had been mostly in canoes, but it turned out Jerry had operated a punt before.
With rifles and ammo, spare gas, survival gear, knives, axes, saws, binoculars, formalin, specimen tags, and what-not aboard we set off from the bridge at Delta up the mighty, roiling Tanana, (TAN-na-naw), a tributary of the mightier Yukon, gray with glacial silt, corrugated with white-capped rollers, and lashed along its banks with deadly sweepers. The mission of such rivers is to return land to the sea. In doing so, they gnaw impatiently at their constraining banks. Wherever the forest grows to the riverbanks, especially on the outsides of bends, it is undercut by the rushing river. Stands of spindly white spruce and black spruce near the banks come under attack. They find themselves with fewer and fewer root holds, and start to lean toward the river, eventually toppling in. If the roots still have sufficient holdfast to the bank, the long narrow boles of the trees may lay perpendicular to the bank. Partially anchored by their tenacious roots, they thrash wildly up and down in the current. Called “sweepers”, they must be avoided. One moment the way looks clear and safe and the next moment a tree surfaces in your face or under your boat. If there are a series of sweepers, some may be on the upswing, while others slash downward in a shearing action.
After running upstream some miles from the bridge, we left the Tanana without regret to enter in succession two of its better-natured tributaries, the winding Goodpastor, and the incomparably clear, spring-fed Delta Clearwater. The hoots and yells of ravens, the chatter of black-billed magpies, or the sight of a friendly gray jay, gliding through the birches in the cold air—any of these
might betray the presence of moose remains, especially if more than one were present.
Much has been written about ravens so just a word here about the friendly gray jays, (known also as Canada jays, camp robbers or whiskeyjacks), a person barely has time to start setting up for a picnic or a camp in the north country before these flitting, inquisitive, gray shadows arrive. Bold and trusting, never shy, never on the guest list, they’ll invite themselves to any party, hoping for hand-outs and investigating the entire site for scraps of food. Nature has not given them brilliant feathers like other jays, so they turn up in sensible, understated dress for any event. Still, they are handsome enough, and muted gray, white and black works for most occasions. They are welcome to any party of mine, regardless that their manners are not refined. Don’t be surprised if one lands on your head. My Uncle Bjarne once remarked: “They’ll damn near take food out of your mouth!”
I find them companionable, like chickadees. When a person is in uncaring, indifferent wilderness it’s good to be welcomed, whatever the motive of the greeter.
I’d like to discuss magpies too, but will save that for another story.
We’d spot tell-tale birds, shut the engine down, tie the punt to a tree, and follow them to the kill. Sometimes we’d just kill the outboard and listen. The world of ambient sound opened immediately that the engine was silenced or the crunch of our boots through snow was stilled. These intelligent birds keep jealous watch on each other. As soon as one discovers a site others hasten to follow in case they can get in on something to eat. Disagreements about which is entitled to certain morsels will follow and the sounds of their altercations led us to the kill. This would usually be within a hundred yards or so of the river, within the distance that a hunter might spot a moose from his boat. If a bear had already claimed the gut pile, we’d back off and abandon it. Mostly there was no bear and we’d collect the specimens. This involved finding and retrieving the ovaries, skinning back and sawing free one of the molar-bearing jaw sections, and pulling an incisor with a pair of pliers. We’d tag and bag them, and be on our way. The more advanced the season, the less worry about bears.
On the Goodpastor, the scent of wood smoke reached us before Slim Carol’s cabin came into view. If Slim were home and not out back on one of his trails, he’d come out to greet us, flush-faced, black patch over one eye, ready with a friendly cup of hot coffee for the infrequent visitor. He would know of any moose kills in his area, and would likely have made one himself on his network of trails running back through the forest, trails fitted to his special wheelbarrow which he used to bring in firewood as well as his annual moose kill. A moose is a more or less horse-sized animal, too big to move as a whole. It must be cut into sections for transport. Even so the sections are heavy. A hindquarter, for example, may weigh over 150 pounds. It’s hard work. Slim’s wheelbarrow eased his burden. He’d still have to make multiple trips from the kill to his cabin, but he wasn’t struggling to drag the sections, or to carry them on his back. His cabin, set back only little way from the river atop a high sandy bank, was on the outside of a bend. It lay exposed and vulnerable to eventual destruction by the combined efforts of the river current and the nesting swallows that burrowed in the bank. A eventuality would play out in time.
In the dark, aquarium-clear depths of the Delta Clearwater, Arctic grayling scattered as we floated over them, and in the riffles, coho salmon darted off their spawning redds at our approach. A mysterious and irresistible drive brought the salmon all the way from the Bering Sea, up the Yukon and the Tanana Rivers to the place of their birth on the Clearwater. They could journey no farther. A mile or two upstream the Clearwater is born from springs in a wetland bog. The salmon will expend the short remainder of their life energy spawning in the riffles, and in a few days or a week will be dead. But links in the genetic chain are alive in the river gravel. The eggs will hatch and the little lives have been encoded, or have the capacity to be encoded, to this place. The young salmon drift down the river, often facing upstream as though reluctant to leave their birthplace and needing to memorize things. Though they will travel far, touring the wide Pacific, eventually they return here. George Dalton Sr., Tlingit elder, living with the great salmon runs of Southeast Alaska, used to say to me, “Son, Salmon is way smarter’n me. How he fin’ his way ‘round the ocean, Japanee, an’ come back again? I can’t do it!”
Having completed collecting moose specimens on the tributary rivers, Jerry and I headed downstream, hauling out at the Tanana River Bridge, picking up our truck, and making a quick stop at my cousin Russ’s nearby place on a slough of the Tanana. The stiff springs on our truck made for a bouncing, lurching ride on the rough road down to his homestead in the Hollow. We ran the gauntlet of his sled dogs as they rushed out of their log dog houses, howling and straining against their chains. No body entered the Hollow unannounced. We pulled up to his cabin, Alaska Department of Fish and Game emblazoned on our truck doors. Russ’s partner Big John stepped out menacingly, shotgun in hand, not pointed at us, but at the ready. Russ followed him out of the cabin, ducking his head and squinting at the truck. “That’s my cousin!” he cried, pushing the barrels of the shotgun aside. “Looked like a game warden to me” Big John muttered darkly. Game wardens were clearly not popular in the Hollow. Confusing research biologists with law enforcement officials happened frequently enough. In this case it didn’t matter. We shared an amicable lunch. Next time though, was different.
Collecting moose specimens occupied much of our time that autumn. In between we lived in Fairbanks, where we sectioned incisors with a diamond saw in order to read the age and history of the animal using light transmitted through the thin root slices. And so it went. In November we were out once again, collecting.
Not long before Thanksgiving, we found ourselves doing the familiar work at which we’d become proficient, this time on the Kenai (KEE-neye) Peninsula. Our base would be a mile or two from the community of Cooper Landing. Here, a small parking apron and scenic overlook featured an expansive view and a historical marker. A Fish and Wildlife Service trailer had been set up for our use at the far end of the apron, 100 feet or more back from the road on the edge of the parking area. Behind it the hill fell away steeply offering a panorama of Kenai Lake in the valley below and the blackened remnants of a large old forest fire, the Kenai Lake Burn, on the mountainside beyond the lake. In the other direction, across the parking pull-off, now a snow covered sheet of ice, the two-lane Sterling Highway wound its way along a mountain side. This was the only highway in the western and central parts of the Peninsula and the connecting route between Anchorage and the peninsula communities.
The Fish and Wildlife Service trailer has been mentioned and plays a crucial part in this story, and, to clarify, because the agencies are often confused, the Fish and Wildlife Service is Federal, a branch of the U.S. Department of the interior, while the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is a department of the Alaska state government. I don’t remember now why we, as Alaska state employees, had the use of this Federal trailer, but small and cramped as it was, it beat tent camping, especially in the cold weather. Among its much-appreciated features: an oil stove and two bunks. Outside, next to it, we set up two plastic trashcans, one with formaldehyde for the ovaries, and a second for the jaws that we would be collecting. Also on hand were two vehicles, the pick-up truck we’d driven down from Anchorage, and a second, somewhat larger, orange International truck with a steel A-frame or gin pole welded to the truck’s frame. A winch cable ran through its apex. Such vehicles were known in the Department as “Moose Wagons.” The cable could be snaked out some distance and used to drag a moose carcass out of the woods.
The 15,000 square mile Kenai Peninsula, east of Cook Inlet and south of Turnagain Arm, has produced many world record moose. The event to which we’d been assigned was not so much a trophy hunt, but a hunt designed for Alaskans to provide for their larders. It featured a special opening for taking cow moose in a particular area. Jerry and I had been at work dawn to dusk, following birds or blood trails to kills, collecting specimens. Although the daylight hours were short, hunters were doing well with the result that our containers were filling up. The work of such specimen collecting day after day is tiring, usually involving sometimes distant treks through the snow in and out of the woods, picking through offal, sometimes frozen and sometimes fresh. No matter how carefully done, one’s hands and cloths begin to collect blood, moose hair, and formaldehyde. Each night after tagging and securing specimens we drove up the road several miles to Ma’s Diner, a café more or less in the middle of nowhere, to wash up in the men’s room sink and to eat dinner. We kept the trailer stove going during the day so things wouldn’t freeze up and to have a warm place to return to at night.
About this time a problem began to develop. Hunters, confused by wording in the game regulation booklet about the precise boundaries of the area open to the taking of cow moose, were shooting cow moose on the ‘wrong’, or closed, side of the Kenai River. Department Protection Officers (wardens) were making arrests. Suffice it to say that sufficient ambiguity existed in the ‘regs’ so while officers continued to arrest hunters and confiscate moose, the affected hunters felt unfairly dealt with and were angry. Although we heard about them, Jerry and I did not witness any of the confrontations. We stuck to our jobs and continued to collect specimens. Meanwhile, the Protection Officers were collecting the confiscated carcasses with the use of the moose wagon and, for convenience, depositing them around our trailer. The flat area was useful as a temporary repository. In the bitter cold the carcasses would keep for later transport into Anchorage for eventual distribution to charities. All were dumped on our door step, the total increasing day by day until we had seven of them on the icy lot.
Meanwhile two other seemingly unrelated matters developed to affect the outcome of this story: three stray mongrel dogs showed up, and our specimen cans got full. The starving dogs, hunched and shivering, their ribs showing through their short hair, had clearly been without food or shelter. In desperate need of food and kindness they adopted us and our site. Evidently lost or abandoned, they would soon die of starvation and the cold. Putting aside the question of their eventual fates, we fashioned a rude lean-to shelter under a corner of the trailer with a sheet of plywood and fed them scraps of moose meat. We laid down straw or spruce limbs to provide a little insulation from the cold ground. They huddled down gratefully in the meager warmth radiating through the trailer wall.
The presence of the dogs forced us to rethink the storage of our overflow of specimens. Those in the trash cans in formaldehyde remained safe and secure, but the more recently collected jaws had been placed in a cardboard box on the snow. They could easily be gotten by the dogs. We couldn’t keep the jaws inside the trailer. In the warmth they would thaw and spoil. The best place for them, given the circumstances, was atop the trailer. The trailer being small, we had an easy reach to set our hard-won box of specimens on the roof. No ladder or step stool was required. We simply reached up and placed the box on the roof, taking it up and down as needed to add specimens.
Those chores taken care of one day, we set out after dusk for Ma’s café. This cheery, warm restaurant with red-checkered curtains and plastic table cloths, was the kind of place where you might see cross- stitchery messages framed on the wall, (Eat slowly and chew your food well) interspersed with Thanksgiving decorations. We looked forward to the evenings. A cold wind gained some strength with nightfall so the warm café was especially welcome. We’d been in there often enough that the owner knew us by sight. She probably said something like, “What’ll it be tonight, fellas? I still have specials,” something like that. Hunters occupied a couple other tables, though the place wasn’t full; probably still not time, though night falls early in November in Alaska. We hungrily tucked into our meals, half- focused on the murmured conversations and outbursts of laughter from the hunters as we discussed plans for the morrow. We’d gotten about halfway through our meals when the door flung violently open and a wild-eyed man burst through along with a blast of wind-blown snow. “FISH and WILDLIFE?” he yelled, pivoting around to include the room: “FISH AND WILDLIFE!!!? YOU GUYS FISH AND WILDLIFE?” The café fell silent, everyone staring at the man, forkfuls half way to their mouths. “We’re Fish and Game.” Jerry volunteered tentatively. “WELL, GET YOUR ASSES IN GEAR! YOUR TRAILER‘S ON FIRE!”
Tensely gripping the wheel and maneuvering to keep the speeding pickup from sliding off the black ice, I drove while Jerry urged greater speed. We had a couple miles to cover and it seemed a long ride but two curves away, a red glow through the trees confirmed our fears. One curve to go! We slewed onto the icy lot and onto the awful scene, sliding to a halt. On its side in the middle of the lot lay our trailer, engulfed in flames. On its side! The steel cable wrapped around it, led back to the winch on the moose wagon. There was no one around. No time to wonder what happened, just deal with the fire!
We had a couple of fire extinguishers in our truck in addition to one grabbed from Ma’s. Jerry tried to use one, only to be driven back by the intense heat while still beyond range. A second attempt, using his parka as a shield, allowed a slightly closer approach. Still out of range, he expended the extinguisher ineffectually. The wind-whipped flames had too much head start. The small trailer windows blew out
with reports like rifle fire! Anything alive in there would have been trapped: the door was pressed against the ground. I jumped back in the truck, hurtled down the ice-coated highway in the opposite direction from Ma’s to Cooper Landing, grabbed more fire extinguishers from a café in town and careened back up hill. Those too, were emptied on the fire.
All efforts were to no avail. We watched the trailer burn to the ground leaving the frame, axle, and parts of the oil stove and tank An hour later found us sitting on a moose carcass despondently regarding the smoldering ruin, the whimpering feral dogs and the other moose bodies scattered around. All lay silhouetted against the stinking, popping red embers of what had been a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trailer and its contents, including some of the collected specimens and our personal possessions: cameras, firearms, my wallet, everything we owned except for the clothes we wore.
The story was easy to reconstruct with the evidence before us. Likely the culprit or culprits had pulled off the highway, watching when Jerry and I left for dinner. Then they moved in. They had unwound the steel cable from the moose wagon, wrapped it around the trailer, and winched the structure over on its side. Burning oil running out of the stove quickly set fire to the whole thing. To a certainly the perpetrators had been one or more of the disaffected hunters. Perhaps they regarded pulling a trailer over on its side a justifiable act of vengeance? As smoke and flames began to leak from the trailer, did the deadly seriousness of their action dawn on them? Who knows? Was the wild-eyed guy one of them? He could have been merely a drive-by witness to the burning trailer, but then how would he know that it was government property? He did know to shout, “Fish and Wildlife!” into Ma’s café?
As we sat on the moose rehashing the events of the night and settling our nerves, the headlights of a car rounding a distant bend flashed through the forest. Run! We scrambled over the edge of the parking area, out of sight until the car passed, chains clanking. The people who had done this might return. What were their intentions toward us? Our firearms were burned up. We had no way to defend ourselves.
Eventually, we abandoned the scene for the night. The coals had almost completely burned down and the fire would not spread in the snow-blanketed world. There wasn’t much left to do here, and the stench of burned rubber, plastic, wood, clothing, aluminum, and singed moose hair was getting to us. The phone at Ma’s must not have been working as I remember driving to a bar some distance farther down the road toward Soldatna in order to make a call to the State Troopers and to our boss in Fairbanks to report the incident. The bar’s noisy atmosphere made the phone conversation difficult, and the ambient convi viality made a stark disconnect with our experiences that night. Above the laughter and noisy conversations, one patron loudly boasted to no one in particular, “Hell, with my .44 Mag I’ll skip a tin can across the damn road...” For all I knew the guilty parties were celebrating in that beery tavern.
We arranged with Ma for a room. I think we did not have enough cash between us to cover it, but we might have had some state travel vouchers in our truck. Next morning a state trooper showed up. We reported everything we knew and in recounting the details mentioned that we’d stored some of our moose jaw specimens on the roof of the trailer. We came to regret recounting that detail.
Following instructions from Fairbanks we secured our remaining specimens, and continued collecting during the remaining few days of the season, managing on our own scanty resources and the generosity of the owner of the café. When the trailer had been winched over it had tipped away from the trashcans so at least the specimens they contained were spared. The next worry centered on the seven moose carcasses strewn around the blackened fire scar like casualties from a bomb blast. Those that lay closest to the fire had their hair singed, but all remained frozen and unspoiled. Almost two tons of protein, this resource was not be wasted.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on our trailer, we had no feel for the thinking of the people behind it, no idea if their violent sense of vengeance had been satisfied. So far, no one had taken a shot at us. That concern faded over the next few days and a growing sense of outrage took hold, a determination that whomever had done this, would not get those moose. We had called the Anchorage office several times requesting that a truck big enough to transport seven moose be sent out, but the staff there probably also had their hands full and our sense of urgency seemed not to be shared. No truck showed up. We had a somewhat cheerless Thanksgiving dinner at Ma’s. The moose season closed, and with the last specimens collected our work in the field came to an end. There remained the job of getting the collection to Anchorage and from there to Fairbanks for processing and study.
There also remained those moose carcasses. Though they were not technically our concern, no one from the Anchorage office had carried through with their responsibility or offered to help. Not having the means to transport the moose to the city we hatched a plan, the essence of which was denying the trailer burners a chance to get their hands on what we now regarded as our moose. At least they had become our responsibility. Traffic was light in this out-of-the-way corner of Alaska on a winter evening. Long periods dragged by between cars. Two or three vehicles passed by over the course of an hour as we sat in the moose wagon waiting to take action. Still, it would possibly only take one party to observe us to foil our effort. So, wait for nightfall. Evening light faded too slowly. The first few flakes of a developing snowfall floated in the air, gaining in strength. Good! The snow would work for us.
Nightfall found us still in the Moose Wagon. Far down the road the headlights of a car shone through the trees and falling snow, then winked out as the vehicle passed into a fold in the mountainside. A minute later the headlights flashed again followed by the muffled sound of tires on the unplowed road as the car went by. Our eyes followed its red taillights until they too winked out around a bend. Thirty minutes passed without a car from either direction. Time to get moving.
Nature’s artistry, with snow as its medium, soon transformed the ugly black burn scar into something unremarkable, indistinguishable from its surroundings. Jerry started the Moose Wagon. Windshield wipers cleared the snow. A final glance up and down the highway. No cars. With a click our headlights were on. Shining horizontally over the steep edge of the parking area, they picked up only the whitening tops of spruces in the valley below. Jerry brought the truck around, windshield wipers slapping and headlights shining, while I walked ahead to lead him to the nearest oddly-shaped lump in the snow. My gloves served to dust the accumulating snow off the neck of the moose. Dragging the cable off the winch, I worked it around the neck with some difficulty as the moose was frozen to the icy ground. I hooked the cable back onto itself, and signaled Jerry to start the winch. Then, just as the cable cinched around the neck I drew my finger across my throat, signaling Jerry: Cut the lights! I had seen headlights far down the road! We waited. Fresh snow lay on top of black ice on the highway, so the approaching vehicle moved slowly. Several minutes ticked by as it made its way up the winding climb past our pull-off, until it passed around a curve. In the moments of silence that followed, a great- horned owl called from the stillness of the valley.
As soon as that car was gone we engaged the winch again, this time with the headlights off. The body of a freshly killed moose is flexible and lifts differently than a frozen one, which comes free of the ice with all the flexibility of a steel beam. This one had frozen tightly to the ground, no doubt as a result of the fire melting the ice and water seeping under the body and freezing again. As the cable tightened the truck knelt lower and lower until the outcome began to look uncertain. The winch groaned and the front end of the truck bowed to the unyielding load. At last the deep-chested moose tore free, lifted as the truck righted itself, and swung grotesquely above me, its long, rigidly-frozen legs twisting slowly with the body.
Jerry’s view from the cab was limited to the head and chest of the moose and the snow flashing through the headlights. We’d turned them on again for the most dangerous part of the operation: bringing the front truck tires to the very brink. The moose had to hang over the steep slope without risking the truck going over too. From my perspective below the moose, the view was quite different. I could see the black mass swaying overhead and the blinding headlights winking, one after the other, as the moose swung gently back and forth in front of them. Trying to maintain my grip on the slope I moved slightly to one side so Jerry could at least see my arm. I motioned him forward and he gingerly coaxed the moose wagon ahead inches at a time, braking frequently out of utmost caution. There was, after all, the danger of plunging into the valley below. That wouldn’t be easy to explain to our boss in Fairbanks. Each stop and start, however carefully finessed, got the moose swinging fore and aft. With one hand on the carcass I struggled to damp this pendulous motion and keep the rigid legs from smashing a headlight or clubbing me. When the front tires were as close to the edge as we dared, the moose hung over the steep slope and the shadowed abyss of the valley. Moving to one side, I gestured ‘down’. Jerry could just see my head and shoulders over the edge. With the winch in reverse the big animal lowered until it settled in the snow and came to a tenuous rest on the slope, its head a few feet below the lip of the parking area. Would it stay or slide down the hill? Jerry gingerly slacked off the gable, reversing the winch. Stay or slide? It stayed, (whew!) and it would not be visible from the road. One down!
I unhooked the cable. We backed the Moose Wagon and maneuvered to the next carcass. Now we worked without headlights. By the time the second moose was positioned next to its companion, the first was already covered with a dusting of snow, and by the time the third was in place, the first was just a white lump on the hillside. In this way we worked into the night, gaining experience with each move. One carcass after another was lowered next to its companions, all with their heads pointing upward and their noses below the much-mentioned edge. If and when a crew showed up from Anchorage it would be a fairly easy job to retrieve the bodies with the Moose Wagon--much easier than what we were doing. Plus, they would not be conducting a covert operation at night.
We’d established a routine. The job was going smoothly, hampered a little by the increasingly hard snowfall. Last in line was a particularly large cow moose. She lifted without a problem. Jerry edged the truck to the brink as I scrambled and partly slid down the slope to guide the body into place. It was late. No cars had passed for a long time so we worked with the headlights. The touchy operation of bringing the front tires to the drop-off without going over became familiar with practice, but the tentative forward movement of the moose wagon, interrupted with braking, still got the moose swinging like a pendulum. Its weight hanging out beyond the front of the truck, compressed the front springs, directing the headlights partly downhill to cast a giant moose shadow on the snow-laden spruce trees below.
While I tried to avoid getting kicked in the face by the swiveling moose and Jerry tried to avoid driving the moose wagon into the abyss, neither of us noticed that the winch remained in gear. The cable was slowly drawing the big animal higher and higher. When its neck contacted the apex of the gin pole something had to happen. The winch could have stalled or the choking cable might have decapitated the moose. Instead, the cable broke! We were unprepared for what happened. From Jerry’s vantage inside the cab, one moment he had a big moose suspended in the headlights, with me standing just below, partly visible over the edge, signaling to him. With a sharp CRACK! the cable parted, Jerry yelled, and the moose and I disappeared into the night in an avalanche of snow. The moose wagon, relieved of the forward weight, bucked up level and its headlights shone forth into the snowy sky.
For me, things were different. On the instant that the immense black body came I heard a shout. But the moose was on me and together we went tobogganing, heads first, down the slope. A thicket of brush arrested our slide. I was unhurt but buried in cushioning snow and still partly under the moose. Jerry’s voice, calling faintly from the distance above, came into my consciousness. “Skip? Skip?”
Except for that interruption, our project had gone as we’d planned, with nothing more unusual happening. By first light, all the moose lay in a steep row, covered in snow, out of sight of the highway, just so many large hummocks. Even an astute observer might not notice them. In the early hours of the morning we drove back to Ma’s for the few items we’d left there. That day found us taking leave of the glistening marvel that the snowfall had made of the Kenai Peninsula. We felt we’d done everything possible to finish our work and to protect the meat that would eventually be distributed to charities. The moose would be there when a Fish and Game Department truck arrived to retrieve them. We were each bound for our homes and getting cleaned up. Perhaps I’d even buy new clothes.
That all got postponed.
First we had to report to the Anchorage office. Biologists and Protection officers, working out of that office, had been collecting specimens from the area around the city. However, instead of removing jaws from the heads as we had done, they found it more expedient to simply tag the heads and bring them in whole. Someone else could do the dirty work. The heads, we were told, were downstairs in the vehicle garage below the offices. Never mind our filthy clothes reeking of fire and formaldehyde. Never mind our exhausted and penny-less state. The heads were ours to deal with.
Appalled is not too strong a word to describe our thoughts when confronted with that pile of moose heads.
There is a term in engineering: “the angle of repose”. Different materials such as sand, gravel, pebbles, bricks and so on, form a conical pile when dumped. The steepest angle that the material forms before it begins to slip is known as the angle of repose. I don’t know if the angle of repose of a pile of moose heads is known to engineering, but it is fairly shallow. The pile confronting us was bigger than indicated in my cartoon. Its top reached above my eye level, and the heads spread out over a large area. We stared in disbelief for a couple minutes and then, with a shrug of resignation and perhaps an unkind word about the people who had left this mess for us, we each each grabbed an ear at random from the pile, pulled out a head, and got to work with knives, saws and pliers. We had no money for a warm hotel room and showers at the end of each day. They weren’t in reach. We camped out at night in the upstairs offices and worked through the pile during the days, removing and tagging jaws and incisor teeth for study.
Finally we finished the last head. The last jaw was tagged, the last incisor pulled. We packed all the jaws into a sturdy, refrigerator-size cardboard crate and bound it with strapping and tape in preparation for its trip to Fairbanks by air. The job was over. We could go home.
But no, another punch in the guts. The news: WE were suspects in the Fish and Wildlife trailer burning!
Unbelievable! How could this be? We had mentioned to the trooper investigating the case that we’d stored some of the jaws on top of the trailer to keep them out of the reach of the three feral dogs that had fallen under our care. But that created no problem. The trailer was small and its top a convenient shelf, high enough to store the jaws in boxes out of reach of the dogs, but nothing requiring a ladder or even a step stool for us to access. We’d taken the box down daily and replaced it as we added specimens. No problem. Still, in his report, the state trooper advanced his hypothesis that when it came time for us to retrieve the jaws from the trailer top, we found them too difficult to reach. Therefore, we’d wound the cable of the moose wagon around the trailer and winched the trailer over on its side in order to dump the box of jaws off. We had then, according to this trooper, driven off to Ma’s, leaving the tipped-over trailer and its burning oil stove while we had dinner.
On the assumption that no one could take such a hypothesis seriously, and much in need of showers and clean clothes, we decided to head home to Fairbanks. Three weeks accumulation of dirt and blood and smell qualified us as social pariahs. Now, in even worse condition after days of additional dealing with moose heads in the Anchorage Fish and Game vehicle garage, we were ready to rebel. No further delays! Who could even credit the trooper’s stupid story? We delivered the big crate of moose jaws to Air Cargo and boarded the spanking new jet to Fairbanks. Fortunately the two rear-most seats were unoccupied. In our rank condition we quickly claimed them, figuring that in these seats we would be farthest away from fellow passengers. I was staring ahead and dozing off when Jerry, who was next to the window, prodded me to attention and pointed outside.
There, trundling across the tarmac, seemingly floating along rather swiftly under its own power, the giant crate of moose jaws approached the plane. In fact, it was being hauled on the tines of a forklift, which we could not see behind the crate. We thought it was moving too fast. We couldn’t see the operator, and he could not have had much forward visibility. Sure enough, he pulled up near the jet’s cargo bay and hit the brakes. The crate lurched forward, teetered for a long moment, then pitched onto the tarmac. We couldn’t hear the impact, but we could see the crate split. Red moose jaws spilled out. Except for the tags on each one, the immediate ground around the jet suggested the entry to a Neanderthal cave.
The forklift operator squeamishly poked the jaws together with the toe of his boot and boarded the plane. “He’s mad! He’s mad, and wants to find out if that crate belongs to any of the passengers,” we thought. It would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to connect the jaws with us. Another night in the Anchorage office loomed, and another day re-packing jaws. We buried our faces in magazines and tried to look unrelated to the crate. But (whew!) he apparently had other business aboard, walked right past us, and soon disembarked. He and two other ground personnel picked the jaws up (by the specimen tags), tried to stuff them back through the split, and loaded the crate, rip uppermost, sideways onto the plane.
Passenger jet service between Anchorage and Fairbanks was still a novelty. Commercial jet travel in Alaska was fairly new. As I remember, we were aboard a Convair 880, which zipped along at over 600 mph. The four hundred mile flight home skimmed over the Alaska Range and began its descent seemingly almost before it began. I remember an announcement from the cockpit shortly after take off, that the flight would be smooth and that the crew already had “the fair city of Fairbanks” in sight. Home had seemed a long way off in time and distance when we labored on the Kenai.
Bob Rausch, the director of moose research and management in Alaska, and our boss, was as incredulous over the trooper’s charge as we. He sent a letter to the state troopers pointing out its absurdities and expressing complete confidence in his biologists. We thought this was the end of the matter. But then, another bombshell! It turned out that because the burned-down trailer had been federal property, the FBI got involved. Federal agents asked us if we would be willing to take a lie detector test. We had nothing to hide so I was inclined to agree. Jerry, being more cautious and suspicious, had reservations. Given what had emerged from our frank, honest report and co-operation with the state trooper, I am surprised that we were willing to have anything more to do with law enforcement. But, for whatever reason, a little nervous and uncertain, we showed up at the appointed time at the offices above the Fairbanks Post Office where the polygraphs were to be administered. An agent asked us to be seated and we waited on chairs in a corridor or foyer.
As mentioned, the walls of the offices were mere dividers that did not rise to the ceiling. The agent disappeared into one of the cubicles, out of sight, but not out of hearing. We sat in the hallway staring at the divider in front of us, and listening to the sound of shuffled papers and mumbled conversation and someone fiddling with the machine. Then, a distinct voice came over the wall: “Any FIRE RECORD on these CLOWNS?” Jerry and I looked at each other, got up, and quietly left the building. No one from either the state or federal government ever contacted us. That was the last we heard of the affair.
As far as we know, nobody was arrested for setting the trailer on fire. Jerry and I were each assigned to other projects and went our separate ways, though we remained friends for many years, and worked together on several art projects after leaving the department. We had not followed up on the cases against the hunters who had shot cow moose on the wrong side of the Kenai River. The trailer burners, we felt certain, were among them. Their act of vengeance against the Fish and Game Department punished people who had nothing whatever to do with the hunting regulations to which they objected so violently. Those are set by the seven-member civilian Alaska Board of Game and not by biologists working in the field. The specimens that burned up added another consequence to this unhappy event.
The three feral dogs slunk away shortly after the fire and we never saw them again. Likely the only witnesses to the trailer burning during its commission, their fate was unknown. Finally, we never learned if the moose we had so carefully hidden away on the snowy slope that night were ever retrieved by the state of Alaska and distributed to charities. If not, some summer tourist standing on the edge of the pull-off near the Kenai Lake Burn Historical Marker, while taking pictures of the sweeping panorama, might glance down past his feet and see skeletons. If he or she were able to identify them as moose skeletons, he or she might wonder how such a gang of moose, each with its nose within sniffing distance of the parking lot, met its end, and why were all of them trying to get up there in the first place?
In September of 1928, the schooner Boxer, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs vessel, dropped anchor off the Inupiat Eskimo village of King Island, Alaska. On board were explorer and filmmaker Amos Burg and his friend Fred Hill. They had just completed a canoe voyage of over 2,000 miles, a voyage that began at tidewater at Juneau. They paddle up Lynn Fjord to Skagway, portaged over the Chilkoot Pass and descended the Yukon River from its headwaters in Lake Bennett to its mouth at St. Michael on the Bering Sea. They had survived a perilous journey from St. Michael to Nome on the Eskimo schooner Good Hope. In Nome, the two adventurers boarded the Bureau of Indian Affairs schooner Boxer, which was in the course of completing its annual round of ports-of-call at the native villages of Alaska’s coast and islands. Amos’ canoe, Song o’the Winds, severely damaged in a storm at Russian Mission, lay stowed in the Boxer’s hold.*
With his great Alaska Odyssey drawing to a close, Amos grew restless, his thoughts troubled as he turned over the prospects of his next venture. He thought about the South Seas. He thought about Africa and about Cape Horn. He thought about the Orient. He mulled over the fact that passage home on the schooner left him with $2.64 in his pocket, and he reflected, as he leaned over the rail watching the activity of the cliff-side village, that all his cash assets were in his pocket.
Every person in King Island Village, all 150 Inupiaq Eskimos, stood on the narrow beach and on the cliffs waving, and all of those that were not waving were preparing to set out, or had already set out, in kayaks, to paddle to the ship. Out they came, happily, bobbing like a flock of sea ducks over the gray rollers that passed under the Boxer to crash and surge against the foot of King Island. In moments the Boxer wallowed among them, ringed about by the jostling flotilla of seemingly fragile skin boats whose smiling owners shouted greetings and waved walrus tusks toward the crew, eager to barter. Amos, behind the leather bellows of his cumbersome Graflex camera, worked to record the event. As he focused, and as the inverted images of the agile kayaks danced upside down across the camera’s ground glass, an idea began to develop: He would own one of these kayaks, He would own a part of Alaska, take it home with him and with it he would travel and lecture about Alaska. He would take it back with him to the states and he would travel and lecture. It would be an investment! With this link to Alaska and with his pictures, he would, perhaps, earn enough money to return, or to sail to the South Seas.
“Bobbing like a flock or sea ducks” King Island kayakers, circa 1898.” These kayaks sometimes transported whole families, with the kids tucked into bow and stern and mom and dad sitting up in the “hatch”.
Two dollars and sixty-four cents would not tempt a Kind Islander to part with his kayak, lovingly lashed together with great effort out of scarce driftwood and oogruk skin, sewn by his woman and tailored to fit himself, his access to the world and survival, an extension of his being. However, Amos had a .30-30 Winchester carbine that he showed to the beaming, eagerly nodding hunter. But Amos loved his .30-30 more than one kayak’s worth. As it happened, this King Islander had two kayaks! Maybe there was a deal. But two kayaks were too much to give for the rifle since, if he gave them, he would have to build a new boat in order to go hunting with the gun. Amos produced two boxes of cartridges, one full and one almost full, to go with the rifle. The rifle had a sweet scent of gun oil, and the shiny brass cartridges felt cold and clinked satisfyingly in the hunter’s hand. But no deal. Amos signaled a time out n the bargaining and stepped aside to confer with a Catholic priest, Father O’Riley, a fellow passenger on the schooner. The good father agreed to lend Amos $12.00. And so, for $14.64, 37 bullets, and the .30-30 rifle, Amos and the Eskimo, whose name, sadly, has been forgotten, concluded the trade for the two skin boats, complete with gut parkas, harpoons, walrus skin seats and pouches, and various other items of hunting gear.
The kayaks joined the Song o’ the Winds in the hold of the schooner, traveled south, and eventually made their way to Amos’ home town of Portland, Oregon, where they spent the next many years of their existence. In the early days after he had acquired them, Amos took the boats several times down the length of the Columbia River and over the Columbia River bar. He told me that Pathe’ News had once filmed him going over the bar in one of them. They traveled with him on lecture circuits in the Pacific Northwest for a number of years and during these trips, most of the accessory gear was stolen or lost. Then the kayaks were stored in the basement of the Burg family home in Portland, and Amos went on to other adventrures, traveling and exploring all parts of the world, running all the major rivers of North America, becoming a member of the Explorers Club of New York, producing 31 films of Children of the World for Encyclopedia Britannica and five articles for the National Geographic magazine and five lectures in Constitution Hall. He rounded Cape Horn in a 26-foot Bristol Bay sail boat. He survived 21 bombings of Chung King by the Japanese while filming Children of China in that city. He became a secret agent for the U.S. in Patagonia during WWII, on the lookout for activity related to German submarines. For decades the kayaks did not see the light of day. When finally they did emerge from the Burgs’ basement, it was to return to Alaska. It happened in this way:
Amos, in the late 1950s, after a lifetime of adventure and exploration for its own sake, found himself at the threshold of phase two of a life-plan that he had formulated at age 14 upon embarking on a sailing ship to Australia. Phase one: Retire immediately! Live a life of adventure and exploration. Phase two: Come out of retirement in late middle age and take a steady job. The job turned out to be establishing an Information and Education section for the newly formed Alaska Department of Fish and Game, following Alaska statehood in 1959. I met Amos at the Department Headquarters in Juneau after returning from a season of biological work on walruses on Little Diomede Island, and we became friends, often sharing lunch of sardines and pilot bread in his little windowless office. I was brimming with enthusiasm from my Arctic experiences with the Inupiaq people and one day mentioned to Amos that I was thinking of trying to build a traditional style kayak. This was back in the mid 1960s and even then, the traditional skin boats—kayaks, oomiaks and bidarkas—had become, with a few exceptions, things of the past in Arctic Alaska. Amos, on hearing my plans, told me that he had a pair King Island kayaks, long-forgotten, in a basement in Portland. He thought they were still there, but did not know what condition they were in. Get them to Alaska, he proposed, and one of them would be mine. A few weeks later, through the commercial fishing connections of my Aunt and Uncle in Petersburg, Alaska, the two kayaks were aboard the seiner Middleton, making its way up the Inside Passage.
Over half a century has passed since their first known owner parted with the two skin boats in exchange for a Winchester rifle. The rifle has almost certainly long since found its resting place at the bottom of the Bering Sea, or perhaps, honorably, propped up at the head of the grave of the hunter, where a Lapland longspur perches on the end of its rusted muzzle to chime a sweet and melancholy song during the short summer. The historic schooner Boxer is gone and the kayak makers and kayak-farers have abandoned skin boats along with new ways of life of life. Amos once put it this way: “I have witnessed the vanishing paddle faces of Alaska and their evolution to outboard motor faces.”
But the two kayaks are here, elegantly fashioned from driftwood and animal skin, the tooth impressions of the builder still discernable in the curves of the slender bent ribs, reminders of bygone days,. And Amos is here, to check my story, and make certain that I’ve got it right.
R T Wallen, Juneau, Alaska, February 1986
© RTW 1986
Amos Burg died in Juneau, Alaska on June 11, 1986 at age 84. His ashes were scattered on the Columbia River and other western rivers. He was still traveling in his mind in the last days before his death. He said he was visiting the places he loved, among them the MacKenzie Basin, and he was making a sailing voyage down the coast of Japan.
In his later years Amos married, and he and Carolyn lived in a small house on Douglas Island, on a hillside just above the beach and just across the Gastinau Fjord from Juneau. The house was too small to contain all his precious films, negatives, diaries, sailing logs, lecture notes, news clippings and other documents. Amos was getting on in years and it was becoming difficult for him to look after things. The ramshackle shed on the beach where he kept much of the material, some of it in sea chests, had a leaking roof. He and I replaced the roof with new plywood and tar paper, much improving it as a shelter. But, considering the treasures it contained, the building was not a safe repository. Some of the overflow of material, especially the films, were in a refrigerator-sized safe that stood upright but with an alarming lean on the hillside above the house.
There also was the second of the two kayaks. At that time it still had its original covering of walrus skin but in Juneau’s rainy climate the covering had begun to rot. I helped Amos prop the kayak up on saw horses and roof it with visqueen but it continued to deteriorate. Amos cut away much of the rotten covering and urged me to take the frame of the second kayak as well. Eventually it rejoined its companion in my studio, a hundred yards down the beach from Amos’ place and there the two kayaks remain to this date. One of them was featured in Qajaq, a major exhibit by the Alaska State Museum in 1986. It has been meticulously surveyed professionally on two occasions, and drawings and dimensions of it from the most recent survey will be published soon in an upcoming book.
Update to the update,
February, 2019. The two kayaks are approaching 100 years of their recorded life. One has been donated to the Alaska State Museum. The second has been donated to the University of Wisconsin with the help of my major professor, Dr. William G. Reeder. It will soon be on display in Birge Hall, on the UW campus.
*Amos told me that Song o the Winds was stowed aboard the Boxer and Amos checked my notes. However, elsewhere he mentioned that he’d left the canoe at Russian Mission.
Years ago Amos and I were out in my canoe for a day’s paddle. The sound of the horn on Sentinel Island Lighthouse rolled across the mirroring sea from six miles away. The water lay smooth In the breezeless air, a rare brassy-calm Southeast Alaska day when one could see a herring dimple the surface a hundred yards distant, and an Arctic tern swooping down to snatch a minnow met its perfect reflection rising from the deep. We landed on a rocky islet to stretch our legs and enjoy the smoked salmon and pilot bread we’d brought along for lunch. Kelpy odors hung over the exposed rocks. Landing a wood and canvas canoe over rocks armored with barnacles as sharp as sharks’ teeth requires care and a bit of art. Mindful of the flooding tide and of my vulnerable craft, I lifted the bow and walked the canoe in hand over hand along a gunwale to clear the barnacles and carried it well up into the goose tongue and other sea grasses. When safely above tidal reach, I set it down and rolled it over. As I returned, Amos, who had been watching me, asked, “Aren’t you going to tie the canoe down?” “It’ll be OK”, I said, surprised. “The tide can’t reach it.” This did not satisfy Amos “I tie my canoe down,” he said, “even if it’s in the middle of an Iowa corn field.”
He and a companion, Fred Hill, had made an epic voyage by canoe in 1928, from tidewater
Juneau and Skagway, portaging over the Chilkoot Pass to the headwaters of the Yukon River
and floating down the Yukon, 2000 miles to St. Michael on the Bering Sea. At least that was the
plan. Amos’ canoe, a wood and canvas eighteen-footer named Song o the Winds, had carried
them safely most of the way, while Amos shot 16mm black and white motion picture footage of
the Yukon and life along its shores, likely the first motion pictures of the great river. Then, on
the lower Yukon at the village of Russian Mission, the adventurers got wind-bound by a sudden
storm. “We had the canoe 35 feet up a sloping bank above the river, maybe 200 feet from the
river. The wind got under it and rolled the canoe over and over down the bank, and it landed
upright in the river. The bow was smashed. It could have been repaired, I suppose, but I left it
with the Eskimos at Russian Mission, and we hired an Eskimo with a boat and motor to take us
down to St. Michael. He was the only one with a motor. His name was Matthew. I can’t
remember his last name right now. On the way down, Matthew pulled out some dried fish and
handed it to us. “My momma told me to take good care of you boys.”
At St. Michael the two companions found that the “Government Boat” which would normally
have made the 200-mile run along the coast of Norton Sound on something of a schedule,
stopping at the villages of Unalakleet and Shaktoolik and crossing Norton and Golovin Bays to
Nome, was “broken down.” They hired the schooner Good Hope and her Inupiaq Eskimo
captain, Captain Paul Ivanoff, to take them to Nome for $10 apiece. Captain Ivanoff was
“slender, poorly fed, very busy. The 75-foot Good Hope had been built by Eskimos on the beach
at Unalakleet.” Its plan, according to Amos, had been traced out in the beach sand with a stick.
“She was a plucky vessel of uncertain safety, cobbled together of driftwood and of boards and
timbers washed up from the wrecks of schooners and ships. When these people take on an
enterprise, they throw everything into it.”
She had a diesel engine. To start it, a blowtorch was used to heat the top of the engine. Since
only eight inches of clearance separated the top of the engine from the deck above, the ceiling
was frequently set afire, so someone had to stand by with a bucket of water.
Amos had mentioned that the “Government Boat” had broken down. He said, “Of course the
Good Hope was broken down too, but the Government didn’t know that.” It’s an ill wind
indeed that blows no good, and with the government boat out of commission, the Good Hope’s
Captain and crew “all wore smiles. They were bursting proud of their vessel and now she would
be carrying mail and passengers to Nome. Captain Ivanoff zoomed overnight to fame.”
“Well, we were on board. We had boarded the previous night. The Captain had given us a box
of grape nuts and about half a can of Carnation evaporated milk between the five of us
passengers. There was Father O’Riley and a pioneer woman from Nome and Fred and I can’t
remember the rest of them. Time went by. It got to be noon the next day and then later, and
we were all pretty hungry. Father O’Riley and the Pioneer Woman formed a committee and
went up to the wheelhouse to ask for something to eat. Captain Ivanof replied, ‘What about
those grape nuts?’”
“When we left St. Michael about midnight, I was apprehensive about going out in the open sea
in this boat. In fact, I did not take any pictures of her because I never figured we were going to
make it across anyway. But the only alternative to get to Nome was to swim. Aboard the Good
Hope we’d maybe get at least part of the way dry. I went to my bunk, and just as soon as we
began to encounter seas, water came squirting through the seams above me. So I went out to
look for the pump, and I found it in sections! The Eskimo crew had been working on it but had
not fixed it or put it together. The lifeboat could only hold about three people and I’d already
had an experience in it, and when I’d jumped in, water had squirted up in little geysers from
between the floorboards. Here was an example of an Eskimo joke: Painted on the side of the
tiny life boat was: LIMIT: 12 Persons.”
“I went up to the wheel house to see how things were. You know, it was so dark on deck I
could not see. I carried a lantern up and when I went in the wheelhouse all I could see in the
shadowy circle of dim light it cast were the bodies of about ten Eskimos sleeping on the floor
and everywhere around the wheelhouse. It was the crew and also just people who had jumped
aboard. If they could pay, that was alright, but if they couldn’t, they went anyway.”
“There was no compass. I asked Captain Ivanof how he knew where he was going? He said, ‘I
steer by water.‘ Well, he was steering in the troughs of the waves. He knew which way the
wind was blowing. Of course, this made it all the worse for rolling. During the day he had
shoreline observations. Next day we could see Unalakleet in the distance. Then we had
problems getting over the bar. The Captain could not find the channel, so he charged the bar
five times! Full speed! It was not easy on the boat. Or the passengers. After the fourth charge
he said, ‘We’re really in no hurry to get there. I’m just trying to find the channel.’”
“That’s how we got to Unalakleet. Captain Ivanof came aft and said we’d have plenty to eat
when we reached Shaktoolik. His father owned a store there. But the only thing we got there
was a slab of beluga meat. We were getting kind of sick from lack of food and because there
was a bunch of walrus heads laying around on deck for the tusks to rot free.”
“We put in to Shaktoolik to deliver mail, and at 6 PM we set forth into the rough waters of
Golovin Bay. Blowing up. In the churning seas at dusk, whatever we’d eaten of that beluga
whale went over the side. We got into Bluff. Old mining town. No people left now. But there
were two little girls playing on the beach. Later I read in Alaska Magazine something about a
girl growing up in Bluff. I wrote asking if this were one of the girls I had seen, and you know, I
got a letter back from both of them. Their father was a big German with a beard or a German
with a big beard.”
“We had trouble with the engine and so now were under sail. Got into Nome roadstead in the
morning. A woman who was a great sourdough said, ‘You boys don’t know anything about the
North,’ and she threw away our aluminum pots and pans and gave us some cracked pottery.
She called it Chippendale.” (I think this was one of Amos’ jokes, probably something he used in
Safely delivered from the hazards of Norton Sound and the Good Hope, hungry and somewhat
shaken, Amos and Fred boarded the Bureau of Indian Affairs schooner Boxer in Nome. Amos
returned to his home in Portland, and from there sailed into a lifetime of adventure,
exploration, and filmmaking. I don’t know the fate of his companion, Fred Hill. The schooner
Good Hope, according to Amos, later fell apart near Goodwin Sands.
In 1986, just in the nick of time, with Amos on his deathbed, I projected the 1928 black and
white film in his house on Douglas Island and took notes as he narrated it. Film and notes now
reside safely at the Oregon Historical Society, along with others of his films rescued from the
refrigerator-sized safe that leaned, propped up, among the Sitka spruces in his yard.
One day in Juneau I met a woman, Fortuna Hunter O’Dell, then perhaps in her seventies. I asked
about her unusual name and she said she was named for Fortuna Ledge, the tiny town on the
Yukon River, where she had grown up. Remembering that Amos had mentioned Fortuna Ledge
in his descent of the Yukon, I asked her about it. Yes, she, as a little girl, had seen Amos and
Fred when they stopped there in 1928. She remembered Amos as: “Oh, so handsome!”
As to the romantically named Song o’ the Winds, Amos said he left it at Russian Mission, and
that may be the case, but he also told me that it was stowed aboard the Boxer when she
departed Nome in 1928. Amos read my notes on his trade of a .30-30 rifle for two King Island
Kayaks when they called at the island after leaving Nome. (see following story) I had recorded
him as saying that Song o the Winds was stowed in the hold of the Boxer. He did not make a
correction. Amos died in Juneau, aged 84, in 1986 so there is no way now to know if his canoe
However, I tie my canoe down now, even in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
Progress Report - Whale sculpture Juneau Alaska
May 16, 2018 at 6:52:47 PM CDT
We finished work on the fountain a little over a week ago and the whale has been breeching since. I haven’t time to write a posting just now. Here is a short video and some still shots.
First shot is of pump tests. The fountain still needs adjustments. In order to do that the Pool has to be drained and a guy in hip boots goes into a vault or room beneath the whale and opens and shuts valves as instructed from outside via walkie-talkie.
Power Tower Eagles of the Juneau-Douglas Bridge.
© R T Wallen, 2018
Juneau and Douglas had a problem almost from the get-go. Any community that settles on both sides of a long body of water and then wants to coalesce, runs into the same problem. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, with gold as the impetus, Juneau started on the Alaska mainland while Douglas started on the nearby island. People had transactions both places so they rowed back and forth across the intervening channel, a mile and a half between the growing settlements.
That got old. Frequent adverse weather and strong tidal currents created hardship, especially in winter when super-cold Taku winds pouring off the Juneau Icecap whipped things up. Eventually a small ferry brought some relief. Then, in 1935 a steel girder bridge was built, connecting island with mainland. Not to be overlooked, two wooden towers supported power lines spanning the channel just west of the bridge. This gets us to the topic of the story.
It was thought by most Douglas Island residents that the reason for the towers and power lines was to deliver electricity to the island. But resident eagles quickly realized that their actual and primary purpose lay in providing fishing platforms for themselves. Here, atop the towers 110 feet above high tide, eagle real estate appeared like magic where none had existed before. Pilings that could be gripped with talons, easy-on, easy-off perches with no troublesome intervening branches, an ocean view from on high; What was not to like? Location, location, location! From these advantageous perches an eagle looked down on and ambushed any passing salmon or any other kind of fish foolish enough or unfortunate enough to be at or near the surface within the scope of EAGLEVISION.
A certain pair of eagles, which I’ll call the Power Tower Pair, had already set up housekeeping with a nest in a tree nearby on Douglas Island. Their uninterrupted view: water. Then one day, a bridge and towers appeared. It didn’t take the pair long to recognize the fortuitous opportunity in their front yard. Any other eagles with similar real estate canny and notions to usurp the towers had the Power Tower Pair to contend with. They maintained their claim against all contenders. Mighty aerial battles took place around the bridge. The Power Pair insisted on ownership and fishing rights. They regarded the towers as reserved and private.
Who knows the entire history? We can assume that ownership battles went on over the years, some of them witnessed from the bridge. (Our national bird can be quarrelsome and contentious). Eagles are fairly long-lived as birds go, but as old reigns ended, subsequent pairs asserted ownership of the towers. Always there were eagles to see from the bridge. That is until 1981 when a newer, wider, more modern bridge was built. At that time, the original bridge became the “Old Bridge” until it got dismantled when the new one was operational.
Still, glancing between the steel girders as they flashed by, a person could count on seeing one or the other or both of the Power Tower Pair on duty. Once in a while an eagle could even be seen diving after a fish or returning with a silvery salmon struggling in its grip.
“This is wonderful!,” I thought back in 1964 when I first crossed the Juneau-Douglas bridge.) “This has to be a one of a kind experience!” In the midst of urban life, on commutes to and from work or on whatever errand took a person across this bridge… Bald Eagles! Even we jaded Juneauites, used to multiple daily sightings of eagles, with eagles a part of our everyday lives, enjoyed this dependable show, a reminder, along with whales and porpoises passing under the bridge, and the sea and the forests surrounding us and everything else, this reminded us of our wealth. All the better that we could take it for granted. As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Original Juneau-Douglas Bridge under construction, 1935. Wooden power tower to right.
Juneau Empire photo
So, jumping ahead to 1981, I worried when the new Juneau Douglas Bridge was being constructed that a special bridge experience would be lost, and I began thinking about ways to hold onto it. My first move was to enlist the help of my friend Henry Tiffany. After we discussed options, Tiff contacted Bill Corbus, then owner of Alaska Electric Light and Power Company to ask if we could add wooden perches to the tops of the metal poles. Bill’s concern, understandably, was keeping the eagles off the wires. I asked the Alaska federal eagle biologist to contact Bill. With assurances from him that the best way to keep the eagles off the wires was to offer the birds an alternate and more attractive place to land, Bill agreed to have wooden perches added atop the metal towers. Accordingly, just days before the new towers were erected, the people at AEL&P welded metal brackets to the tops of the towers to hold wooden perches. They stood about three feet high. Two were added to the tops of each tower, weather-cocked, as suggested by the biologist, so that one of each pair was aligned east-west, and the other north-south. No matter the wind direction, those perches would guide the eagles to safe landings, just where we wanted them to land and nowhere else, like runway lights guiding in an aircraft.
The Power Pole Eagles took to the newly offered real estate immediately, much to the enjoyment of people who are alert to such things as they drive or walk across the new bridge. The perches still exist at the time of this writing, though, no doubt, bearing 37 years’ accumulation of scratches and scars inflicted by sharp talons. Next time you are in Juneau, enjoy a walk or at least a drive across the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. There’s no guarantee that you will see the Power Tower Eagles, but chances are good. They are around winter and summer. When not on nest duty, they’ll be warming themselves in the sun or, if its been raining heavily, they’ll be drying their feathers in the wind, with wings drooping from the wrists. In this pose they assume a triangular shape, reminding one of poses sometimes depicted in Kwakiutl totems.
And there will be other happenings. One or both may toss their heads back to scream at eagles flying overhead or they might be in flight themselves, chasing away eagles that would like to muscle in on their towers. In winter, when fish are scarce, they hunt gulls and ducks from the towers. Such hunts can sometimes be observed near the bridge. They are more successful at capturing sea ducks when a wind is blowing. Then they can hover with less effort directly above their targets, forcing the ducks to instantly dive again and again each time they surface until the ducks, short on air and nearing exhaustion, dive too slowly one fatal time.
Romance is in the air as days lengthen in early spring. Then the pair will be charmingly jammed together shoulder to shoulder on the same perch even though the nearby perch is vacant. So situated side by side, the size difference between the two is easy to discern. The female is noticeably larger than the male by as much as a third. This is difficult for some people to swallow and brings to mind a fellow who approached me one day, excited about the large “male” eagle he had just seen. I suggested that if it were as big as he claimed it was probably a female, since female raptors are larger than their mates. “No, no!,” he protested. “This was definitely a male! It was HUGE!”
I had a close-up experience with a Power Tower eagle one winter day. At least I think it was one of the Tower Eagles because I found it close to the bridge. But since there are often other eagles around, there was no way to be certain. Anyway, that cold winter day found me out with Mike, a friend, when we noticed a near-frozen eagle trying to remain upright as it teetered on a rocky beach at the edge of the tide. It had obviously been immersed in the channel but had made it to shore. Getting dumped into the sea when trying to snatch a too-large fish from the water is not an unusual happening for eagles. Their stoop is swift as they come in at a shallow angle, and once that rear talon hooks into something too large to immediately lift free, in they may go. Their talons do not lock on prey. They can release at will but they may get dumped before that rear talon is disengaged. Sometimes eagles deliberately land on water to pick up a fish or food scrap. Unless their feathers get soaked they are able to take to the air again. If an eagle has a fish
that’s too heavy to lift off with it will sometimes deliberately hang on and head for shore on the water—the least efficient means of eagle transport, but sometimes, apparently, worth doing. Anyone who has lived in Southeast Alaska has likely seen an eagle struggling along, using its wings as paddles, laboriously making it to shore over surprisingly long distances. Under ordinary circumstances we would not have paid much attention to a wet eagle. It would raise its feathers and shake them, throwing off some of the water, then preen while wind and body heat dried its feathers. It would survive. But this one clearly would not survive—not without help. It had no strength and couldn’t stand upright. Ice laced its feathers. The freezing weather would soon finish it.
The eagle’s eyes were half closed and its talons tightly clenched into fists. It couldn’t grip. No wonder it could not stand upright on the beach. Immediate action was needed to keep it alive. We set the large bird—a female, judging by its size—on a stump but had to support it as it could not grip the wood and would otherwise have tumbled off. Mike steadied it from behind. With the eagle facing me I started to dry
its feathers, using a long-tubed hair dryer on lowest heat and blower settings and going gently over the breast and back feathers first—the most important since they mattered for heat retention. Mike kept the eagle from pitching off the stump. Once the ice had melted and the body feathers partly dried I started on the drooping wings. Being careful not to let the heat curl the primary and secondary flight feathers I went over them swiftly on both sides one by one, not allowing the drier to linger on any feather. Then, coming back to the body feathers, I began combing through them using my hand with outstretched fingers, starting at the belly and working my way up through the feathers to the neck, all the time passing the warm air from the blow-drier back and forth.
Suddenly the eagle’s eyes opened wide. Then its talons uncurled and it gripped the stump. Mike no longer had to steady the bird and backed away. It began to raise its body feathers and did not object as I continued to dry its wings. In fact, the eagle, on its own, while watching me, partially extended its wings, making my work easier. The fierce eye regarded me and its pale yellow iris expanded and contracted and I did not know if the eagle, still not fully dry, were going to launch itself into the air over my head. Amazingly, this did not happen. Instead, the eagle seemed to be enjoying the warmth and, also amazingly, seemed to be cooperating with the alien being trying to help it. I was now able to continue taking liberties working my hand freely through belly and breast coverts and into the downy under feathers to partially dry and air them. The eagle raised and puffed out her feathers. The effect reminded me somewhat of a lofted down sleeping bag. At some point we moved her to a stump outdoors to avoid having her injure herself when she was ready to take off. Now fully alert and aware of her surroundings, she raised and lowered her body feathers, and arranged and folded and refolded her wings.
Mike had cut up and packaged a moose or deer a few days before, I don’t remember which, moose, I think, and a few scraps of red meat lay around in the wood chips and snow. The eagle, completely free and now acting more like a normal wild eagle, turned its back to me and cocked its head toward. Spotting a meal, it jumped off the stump in a single bound landing heavily on the meat scraps. These it gobbled up, hopping from one to another and looking about for more. We had backed away, clearing space around the stump. Then the ungrateful eagle, without a thank you or by-your-leave, departed over our heads to its own world with a few powerful wing strokes. No matter. It left ice-free, with a belly full red meat, and a blow-dry to mull over, if eagles can mull things over.
And here, a caution. Do not try this at home. There are laws protecting the national bird. Our rescue of this eagle might well have been illegal. Now, however, there are Raptor Centers in several Alaska communities and around the country with people experienced and permitted in the rehabilitation and release of injured birds.
The photo is poorly exposed but we can still tell that this is a mature eagle by noting its white head and tail and yellow beak and iris. Bald eagles attain white heads and tails in their fourth year. Before that they wear their feathers, including head and neck and tail feathers, in mottled dark brown hues with enough subtle changes each year that experts can age them. Fourth year birds may have a few dark feathers flecking their new white heads and necks, a look that prompted the late Fred Robards, federal eagle biologist for Alaska, to nick-name them “Dirty heads.”
Beak and eye colors change too during the first four years. Beaks or mandibles start out black with yellow in the corners of the mouth. This yellow gradually replaces the black moving from the back to the front of both upper and lower mandibles over four years until beak is entirely yellow. The iris, dark brown in first year birds, changes to pale yellowish white in adulthood. The pale iris yellow is a different hue from the brighter, closer-to-primary-yellow of the beak.
Something that John Harvey wrote about seeing eagles in Minnesota, prompted me to add these remarks:
Chances are, the eagles Harv is seeing have Alaska ancestry! Eagles are making a strong comeback around the nation and have been removed from the Endangered Species List. But it was a close call for the national bird. At one time, only about 400 eagle nests were counted in the lower 48 states, the much diminished bald eagle numbers due to habitat loss and, primarily, to the presence of DDT in their prey. DDT accumulated in adult eagles as they ingested pesticide-laden prey and resulted in eagles producing eggs with shells too thin to withstand the weight of incubation. The pesticide was banned in 1972. In the 1980s and 90s US Fish and Wildlife Service translocated eaglets and eagle eggs from Alaska to some of the lower 48 states. Eagle pairs usually produce clutches of two eggs of which, frequently, only one eaglet survives due to sibling competition, Thus, taking one healthy Alaska eagle egg and substituting it for a DDT-thinned eagle egg in the lower states did not impact Alaska’s estimated 50,000 bald eagles but improved nesting success in the DDT areas. The Fish and Wildlife programs were phased out as eagle numbers rebounded in the 48 states. I’ve not found much reference to these programs on the internet, but know about them through my friendship with the late Fred Robards, Fish and Wildlife Service Eagle Management Biologist for Alaska who participated in the programs. He, and other F&WS friends, Jim King and Sid Morgan, did much to maintain Alaska’s healthy bald eagle populations in Southeast Alaska.
Here are a few more images inasmuch as eagles getting dumped in water was mentioned earlier in my story.
This series of shots was taken from my Alaska studio September 14, 2013. An eagle had captured a salmon, launching itself from a partly submerged piling in front of the studio. I saw the entire episode but was only able to photograph part. The eagle was a male, judging from its small size, and thus, being in a lighter weight class, found itself somewhat disadvantaged when dealing with a vigorous fish. Since the salman had been spotted when a foot or more below the surface, it could not be captured on a shallow-angle dive and the eagle had made its attack straight down, osprey-like, deliberately plunging itself into the sea. Its initial grip must have been well forward on the salmon, allowing the fish to continue swinging its body and tail back and forth in a swimming motion, complicating the eagle’s efforts to get to land. This was evident whenever the eagle paused to rest between wing strokes. One could see that it was being powerfully pulled this way and that by the struggling fish, no doubt making the tow more difficult. But through it all the eagle hung on. (Well, can’t beat fresh, wild-caught Alaska salmon)
In the first photo, the eagle has paused to rest between bouts wing-paddling to gain the shore. The concentric wavelets surrounding it result from the eagle being pulled around by the desperate fish.
Even on the beach the salmon fights to escape. The eagle is getting bounced around and has to subdue it.
The salmon is probably a coho.
It’s not long before sharp-eyed northwestern crows begin arriving to claim table scraps.
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