We left here at two minutes to nine—nine being when we were to be at the Vaughans’ house. I had rushed to get my backpack filled with the right things. As I sat it in the backseat, I remarked to myself, “This bag is heavy.”
At the Vaughans’ place, Anne-Marie was ready to greet us as we made to knock. We piled into her Scion, for what reason I never inquired. I was kind of disappointed because I really like riding in Pat’s Vibe. Pat still drove. I rode shotgun and felt I had nothing to say. Pat made the left from I-170 North to I-70 West (a turn he once made in error, begging Billy’s chagrin at the White Birch disc golf course, but I digress). I thought: he’s done it again—why are we getting on Interstate 70 West when Grafton and the eagles are east of here? But I didn’t say anything, except for a small prayer that I said only to myself (and God).
Through the airport area on Interstate 70 is a nasty speed trap—Berkeley, Edmundson, St. Ann: the various airport municipalities, some more obscure than others. Pat wasn’t exactly laying off it but I didn’t see any cops. Eventually they were there (two of St. Ann’s finest), but one had gotten out to share some hot intel with the other and Pat saw the guy’s fluorescent highlighter vest and eased up.
That disaster averted, I got back to worrying about where in the hell we were going. I thought, “Is he going to take Lindbergh to 367?” That’s not the way I would have gone, and we would lose a little time, but it would get the job done—I guess. Nope. Then we flew by the ramp to get onto I-270 and I was completely confused. I resorted to consoling my worry by thinking, “Okay. There’s some other place, along the Missouri River that’s really good for seeing eagles, that Pat knows about because he’s got the whole St. Charles County-sort-of country street smarts thing going on.” Except that B and I had recently mentioned to Pat and Anne-Marie that we (me and B) had driven up along the Great River Road to Grafton on Christmas (with my sister Emily and her boyfriend, Rob) and we had seen a boatload of eagles along the way. If Pat knew about a sweet spot for eagle watching that was somehow better, he didn’t mention it then.
I started to worry that his plan was to take a series of ferries to get us to Grafton, something we had done once when we all went to Grafton for my birthday one September. On that occasion we first took the Golden Eagle ferry across the Mississippi to Golden Eagle, IL before then taking the Brussels ferry across the Mississippi yet again to Grafton. This possibility concerned me because I was pretty sure that neither of those two ferries was running today. I’d checked. The winter has been quite cold and best I could tell from the websites for those ferries—and from Twitter—the ferries were shut down because of ice build-up on the river. The Winfield ferry, which I’d never been on and didn’t even realize existed, had apparently started running in the last day or so, but Winfield was a bit further north. If we headed up that way, it might be our only option but even then: if the Brussels ferry wasn’t running it wasn’t clear to me how we’d get to Grafton. Either way, it was looking like we were going to be spending more time in the car than I had imagined and I was starting to fret just a bit.
I wanted a cigarette. If we were in Pat’s Vibe I would have had one then and there but I wasn’t going to test Anne-Marie’s Scion rules. Plus, she was sitting directly behind me and having a cigarette meant not just second-hand smoke but also chilly air from the open window hitting her. So I demurred. I returned my attention to the road thinking, “Man, we are really heading West.”
That’s when B piped up and said, “I’ve never taken this way to get to Alton.” Alton being along the way to Grafton. Pat’s reply was something like, “Going this way gets us closer to Pere Marquette than going through Alton.” Yeah, by way of ferry maybe. I asked if he was planning on taking a ferry. He said, “The Brussels, yeah.” I said, “Just the Brussels?” I’m not sure he replied. The conversation ended ambiguously. Before too long we headed north on Highway 79 and things took a turn for the much, much better.
We crossed into O’Fallon, Missouri, population 79,000 and counting. This area is a flood plain. There’s a sign along the road that says, “They call it a flood plain because it’s plain that it floods.” We were driving north at least, passing by a series of sod farms. I looked at the sod and it looked so welcoming even in its brownish winter state. I thought about being out on it in the summer, barefoot, throwing around a baseball with Ray, or playing disc golf with Pat and Billy. It was quite a vision.
The sod farmers have their long, strapping straddle-sprayers: the metal horsey-looking sprinklers consisting of a series of arches with what look like tires spaced about twenty feet apart. Those sprinklers are busy in the summer, I’m sure. We drove past the sod farms, then some other farmland and then past various patches of woods. I saw an elevated hovel that looked like an art deco take on a deer stand. It caught Pat’s eye as well. I suggested it was a “glorified deer stand” but Pat doubted it. “That close to the road?” he wondered. “I hope they shoot in the right direction.” Then I saw other, more basic deer stands that weren’t much farther from the road. It was sunny.
The skies were a blue, such a blue: if someone else’s eyes were that color: you’d look at them. Hard blue, clear blue, rare blue. I was glad I wasn’t driving, so I could look—and remember. We happened upon—Wow, was my thought, we have gotten ourselves to Winfield already: it’s not that far north. I saw a MoDOT “Project Announcement” sign that had affixed to it the “Completed as Promised” tag. It concerned a new bridge. So I thought, “Hmmm, there must be a bridge up this way that will get us over the river…and then perhaps the Brussels ferry will be running and it’ll all work out.”
We took a right, heading east—finally east—along a simple road, through farmland. Rich, dark, wet, snow-copsed farmland. “So this was flooded then?” asks B. Pat says, “Yeah. All of this.” I had seen signs for Lock and Dam #25, but I didn’t think anything of it. I see a creek, some standing water, a barn here and there, but not much of anything else. We pass a turnoff to the left that bore the Army Corps of Engineers little red and white castle emblem.
Yep, that’s where Pat wanted to turn, he says, but he was in the middle of saying something and went right by it. We went down and turned around, nosing briefly into Big Box Road—and then we headed back to the turnoff for the Lock and Dam #25 Public Access area. We made our way over a bridge, under which was a landscape characteristic of backwater bottomland. I saw three large dark birds that were really kind of bulgy-looking and I thought: turkeys, three of them. They were on terra firma but standing alongside the inlet that was running under the bridge. Of course, they weren’t turkeys. They were eagles.
Bald eagles, three of them. Only one was an adult, the rest “immature” bald eagles, or “imms.” During their first one or two years, bald eagles attain their full size and shape (31″ long, with a wingspan of 6′-7’6″) but they don’t yet get the emblematic white head and white tail. In an imm, those parts remain brown although other parts of an immature bald eagle can take on a mottled appearance, with cameos of white at random over their length. This mottled aspect, and a bigger beak, sets their appearance apart from that of a bald eagle, which is otherwise similar.
Pat paused along the bridge as we looked down at this trio—a startling, early, easy find of three bald eagles not that far from us. We proceeded on to the lock and dam parking lot. On the northern side of the lock and dam (to our left as we looked out), the river was mostly frozen. Movement, at most, was limited to ice floe—big, cold glacial chunks. Maybe you would put your foot through it if you tried to step on it, but it might as well have been completely frozen. The other side of the lock and dam was not visible to us. I had never been to this lock and dam, but I have been to the Mel Price Lock and Dam, downriver in Alton. That is Lock and Dam #26, so there aren’t any others between here and there.
I got my binoculars out, along with my Audubon bird book, my cigs. I neglected to bring my gloves, which I soon regretted. We were still in the parking lot, only having moved a few yards from the car, when we heard a knobby, nerdy sort of “squeaky cackling” (this is how the book describes this form of the eagle’s voice). B asked what it was. And I basically said, “Well, it’s not an eagle, if that’s what you’re asking—it must be some other bird, but I couldn’t tell you which bird.”
But it wasn’t long before we were looking right at a couple of eagles. They were sitting on limbs in a tree that hovered right above the parking lot: one imm, one adult. They were quite close! I still didn’t think it was an eagle that had made the squeaky cackling sound. But it wasn’t until twenty or so minutes later, when we were walking back to the parking lot, that we heard the sound again and realized without a doubt that it was indeed the voice of an eagle.
There was a long, gravel sort of levee-top road that we walked out along. It was cold—the wind was persistent. B took some photos with her phone. Pat had his good camera, with a long lens. He used it like I did my binoculars. Anne-Marie was well-bundled. There were a lot of gulls out on the ice. Further out, like little distant turkeys, drops of chocolate on the ice were eagles, here and there. At least a half dozen. Through the glasses, I could see that two sitting close together, half the way to the Illinois bank, were adults—making them look at first glance like headless turkeys.
One random drake mallard sat not too far away in the ice floe. How cold must that be? If you followed the ice flow north, it was clearly a channel, and perhaps three-quarters of a mile north there was a completely unfrozen, metallic blue channel that Pat suggested at first must correspond to the river’s deepest point. But later, once we were south of the lock and dam, he checked himself—the unfrozen part of the river, which led to the ice floe, led ultimately to the lock. At some point a ship or barge had come through here, and left the unfrozen path in its wake.
Pat grabbed a rock, then a bigger one, and tried to find a spot in the ice where he could break through. But he couldn’t throw one big enough far enough—it was a catch-22. Looking west, back toward that bottomland, were a half-dozen large, white birds. I suspected they were pelicans—which we’d seen before on the river near Grafton this past fall on a trip to Pere Marquette State Park. Through the glasses I could see the pink-orange, big gulping bill of one. Pelicans in January in Missouri? Indeed. Gulls abounded. I never tried to make an ID on them. Usually they are ring-billed gulls. The gravel road seemed to extend on out a ways, but it was hard to tell. We only went a quarter-mile or so. Pat was wanting to get south of the dam, figuring there could be birds drawn to the river there, assuming it was not also frozen.
As we walked back to the car, one of the eagles that had been out on the ice flew toward our side of the river, fairly close. And then one of the two eagles that had been in the tree by the parking lot decided to take flight—its wingspan is nearly as big as you will see on any flying bird save for the great blue heron or the pelican. No other raptor comes close. An eagle is two or three times the size of a red-tailed hawk or an American crow. I have seen three or four bald eagles randomly, unexpectedly—and it is the huge, oven mitt-style flapping wings—the unhurried syncopation of their wing beats that gives them away as eagles. I watch them and wonder how it is they can stay aloft. Their flight is a show and I thanked this second one as it flew by us and north down the gravel road, to the spot where we had stopped our walk. As it landed in the tree there, it tested the limb, causing it to wobble, bounce, and finally hold.
It wasn’t as simple as just walking along the gravel road to view the south side of the lock and dam. It was all fenced off. So we got back in the car, drove back out the road, and took the left onto what I can now identify as Route N. This took us past Big Box Road and along the part of Route N that we had not yet gone down. There was a house there as the road bended to the left. We saw signs for the Winfield ferry. We veered to the left and followed slowly along Eagles Landing Drive, a road that runs right alongside the river. There are four or five homes down there, built up on stilts. This is where the ferry lands on the Missouri side.
We stirred an eagle or two and Pat was keen on them. He slowed the car, though we were hardly moving along anyway. Incredibly, an idiot driving a silver sporty car actually honked at us from behind. I said, “What is wrong with people?” There is hardly any road left at this point on Eagles Landing Drive: it’s about 70 yards to the ferry landing. The ferry was on the other side of the river, not moving. The idiot huffed around us then sat for ten minutes waiting for the ferry, which was indeed running.
Pat wanted a better look at more eagles. With his eyes, he tried to follow the two we had stirred. By this time we had pulled over into what I guess is the makings of someone’s driveway. Eventually, Pat gave up on that pair and simply used the driveway as a turnaround. He pulled off to the eastern edge of that road and parked. Looking north, we could plainly see the lock and dam. The river on this side of it was not frozen except for just a bit of ice building up along the edge of the river on the Illinois side.
It didn’t take long before someone—Pat or B—saw the half dozen eagles actively fishing, out about half way across the river. The river was narrower south of the dam, so these eagles weren’t all that far away from us. They were hovering, watching, diving down, splashing against the surface as they fished. It was a sight! They were mostly imms but a bald head or two stuck out as it flew around, looking. The house owners’ floating docks were jostling below us, right at the edge of the shore. On floats of air-filled, blue barrels, the wood of the docks squeaked and squealed as they bobbed. The ferry—marked as the “Golden Eagle” but not in fact the Golden Eagle—made it back to our side and a couple of cars disembarked. The idiot in the silver car was the only car that got on.
It was one of us—again Pat or B—watching the ferry make its return trip to the Illinois side of the shore who must have let his or her line of sight glide north along the Illinois shore who saw the two flocks—yes, I say they were flocks—of eagles sitting variously on the banks or on some ice that had collected right along the banks on that side of the river. In all, there must have been 35-45 bald eagles over there! They were in two slightly separated groups of about 20 eagles each. Just chillin’. The group to the left seemed to be disproportionately high in its ratio of adults to imms (in other words, lots of white heads).
In the manner of taking languorous shifts, some eagles would leave the banks to come out into the middle of the river to fish while the eagles that had been fishing would head back to the banks for a rest. One or two would go and join the hundreds-strong mass of gulls that worked the water just south of the dam in what appeared to be a frenzied manner. But it probably just looked that way because there so many gulls: a teeming, swirling, silver-white mass. Amongst this collection, the one or two eagles, being dark brown, stood out pretty easily. I had to pee. That was the only bad thing. Cars went by us toward the ferry, cars went by us after leaving the ferry.
I smoked a cigarette, gave one to Pat. He continued to take photos. Anne-Marie used the binoculars and looked on from the car. She handed the binoculars to B. A flock of bald eagles is a rare occurrence and bore our close attention. To see them fishing was a bonus. The chocolate lab attached to one of the four or five nearby households walked down the road toward us to say hello. Pat talked about taking the ferry over to Illinois, then hopping to Grafton via the Brussels, then getting back to Missouri via the Grafton ferry. I wasn’t sure about whether the Brussels was running but I was positive the Grafton ferry was closed for the season. I am interested in driving around that Illinois island—what I think of the middle land between the Missouri side and the Illinois side of the river. But I wasn’t really up for it. Only Pat seemed interested in going over there. So we got in the car and went home. And that’s the story about how we saw dozens of bald eagles in Winfield, Missouri.
There are three other fragments I forgot to include as I wrote, which I have since remembered, and which I believe bear mentioning:
a. Right after we got back in the car south of the dam, and shortly after I noted that about one-third of the flock on the opposite shore had scattered—”Where did they go?” we mused—Anne-Marie saw some in the trees—I scanned with the glasses and certainly some had gone into the treetops—but as we were starting to drive away, someone (maybe it was me this time) said, “Here we go, coming this way.” A big, dark, loping flapper. You look at the bird for a second or two and think, “Which way is that bird flying: away from us or toward us?” It was flying toward us. Pat stopped. It seemed as if the eagle was destined to get pretty close—Pat must have had his camera still out because he quickly said, “Jack, window, window!” And soon enough, the eagle goes on beats-of-time flapping by us—as near us as any had been all day. Pat snapped at it. He showed me in the viewer and he said, “Not the best photo, but proof.” Proof to whom, I wondered. I assumed he meant his dad, who I gather is the one who brought Pat here in the first place.
b. For whatever reason, a day hence, I remembered this exchange: As we were driving along the flood plain in O’Fallon, Anne-Marie got a text and said aloud, “OK, my mom just confirmed: there was an Orange Julius at the mall in Alaska.” Pat responded, “But that just seems like such an odd place for an Orange Julius. Next you’re going to tell me they had Dairy Queens there, too.” And Anne-Marie says back, “I don’t know about Dairy Queens but I do know we had a Wendy’s—and I liked to get Frosties.” Then they were talking about whether gas stations sold ice. Anne-Marie said, “You gotta keep your beer cold somehow.” And Pat said, “But it’s Alaska—you just set it outside.” And Anne-Marie responds, “It gets warm there—in the summer.”
c. Either right before or right after all of that, B was saying how she had never been to this part of Missouri before. Anne-Marie said, “I haven’t been here for awhile.” Pat was saying he had been along this way earlier in the year. “Buddy’s funeral,” he said. And I wasn’t sure if he meant it was the funeral of a buddy of his. Or if it was the funeral of someone named Buddy. I didn’t ask. I was staring at sod farms.
—U City, MO