Friday, October 29, 2010

Soaring Freely

I turned away from home, toward the river and the eagles!
by Charlie Leck

I felt free, relieved and reborn. When I saw the exit sign for Zumbro Falls, I instinctively turned the car eastward. I’m still having a love affair with this new car. It’s enormous fun to drive. The road east of Zumbro and on in to Wabasha would be enjoyable and challenging. The hills just west of the Mississippi River are handsome down there in southeastern Minnesota. It was early in the afternoon on a Thursday and there was barely any traffic.

The highway fell quickly, mile after mile, down into the valley where Zumbro Falls is nestled along the Zumbro River. The river is normally friendly and makes for enjoyable fishing and canoeing, but late this summer, responding to pounding and enormous rains, the river rose far above its banks and ravaged the little community down there. I’d listened to and read the stories about the destruction and heart-break. Over 50 homes were destroyed and a number of businesses were wiped out. On TV, I’d watched the big, burly mayor speak at a gathering of town-folks. He told everyone that it was the worst flood the town had ever seen, way beyond the devices in place to measure the height of the river. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke of the losses the people of his community had suffered. Over 50 percent of the residents of the town were seriously impacted. Some people lost everything – photographs, clothing, furniture and appliances. Fortunately, no lives were lost and the mayor said he wanted to keep it that way.

I slowed the car as I pulled into town and turned down a side street or two, toward the river. I stopped on Water Street and looked at a couple of the vacant, abandoned homes there. What had just a little more than a month ago been people’s pleasant homes were now little more than rotted shacks. Yards, which I imagined had been lush and green and healthy once, were cracked, ugly and mud covered. Legal abandonment notices and safety warnings were posted on all the homes. A few were being reconstructed, but most were not. It is difficult to go back to the river once it has insulted you so.

Just to the east side of town, the river falls dramatically south. It is a popular recreation area and this has been important to the economy of the village. It’s not been much fun there this autumn. Folks have pretty much stayed away. For miles and miles, the river falls and bends and winds its way south and southeast and flows through Millville. Then it climbs north and east and heads for the mighty Mississippi.

My car roared up the winding, narrow highway out of Zumbro Falls. Near the tiny town of Dumfries, I caught up with the river again; and then, a few miles further on, it dropped south once more. The winding, curving highway began to fall now and I knew I was approaching the big river.

A large gathering of birds appeared in front of me, tearing at some carrion in the middle of the road. I slowed and leaned on the horn. Three or four great, shiny black birds flew off in fear, but a huge, majestic bald eagle stayed put and stared at my car and me as we approached. I slowed and braked to a stop, not ten yards from the noble bird. We stared at each other. Without taking my eyes away from him, I reached into the back seat and fumbled for my camera. I retrieved and brought it slowly to my lap and cautiously, then, raised it to my eyes. The big bird, startled, spread its massive wings and began beating them, quickly boosting himself up and skyward. I missed the extraordinary photograph and cursed as the eagle bent eastward.

The Zumbro River was 6 or 7 miles south of me now, flowing eastward. It passed by the pretty town of Kellogg, on its northside, and just a few miles further east the Zubro emptied itself into the Mississippi.

My car purred downward, swinging easily around bending turns to the right and left. As I approached the river town of Wabasha, I passed by Coffee Mill Country Club, built into the steep river hills. I thought I knew all the golf courses in the state. I’d never heard of it. I was tempted to stop, so I could take a few photographs, but my car was flowing downward now and running too free to rein back. We’d be down in the river bottom very quickly, moving in a perfectly opposite direction from home.

I thought about the face of that mighty eagle, back there in the middle of the road. How free! How regal! I thought about the doctor who came back into the examining room and told me I was free to go also.

“There’s nothing,” he said quietly. “The blood analysis was a false indicator. There’s nothing there. Everything is clean and healthy.”

For weeks I’d worried. I’d wake up nights thinking about where the disease would lead me. What treatments? What surgeries? And now, he was telling me there was nothing.

“You’re free to go! Come back in the spring, so we can visit again!”

Down in the dungeoness hallways beneath the clinic, I found a bench and sat. My cell phone connected to the clinic’s Wi-Fi and I sent off a text message to my wife.

“Very good news. PSA very low. Bladder clean. No biopsy necessary. Doc says I’m healthy. I’m free to head home.”

Yet, I couldn’t head home. For some reason, the eagles attracted me. The National Eagle Center is in Wabasha. We’d brought the children here a few times. One could sit along the river and watch the majestic birds gracefully soar and then dive to grab fish with their talons and swoop away with them.

My car slid into the quiet little town. A big sign welcomed me.

“Welcome! Home of Grumpy Old Men!”

Much of the movie with Jack Lemon, Walter Mathau and Sophia Loren had been filmed here. Some of the ice-fishing scenes had been filmed on a little lake back in my town.

I parked my car down along the river, by the observation deck. It was chilly and the wind was strong. I didn’t feel it. This spot and the eagles beckoned me. So did old Chief Wapahasha. The extraordinary sculpture of him stood there beside the river, reminding everyone of us that he once lived freely here, as free as the giant eagles themselves. I looked up into Wapahasha’s eyes and nodded at him.

“I’m free, too, pardner. Free as a bird.”

The river was flowing rapidly – as if, perhaps, winter was chasing it down from the north. I was there alone – only in the company of the chief – and I felt as peaceful as a man can feel. The chilliness didn’t bother me and the wind felt good upon my face and I happily let it blow my hair into a tangle.

“You’re free to go,” the doctor had said with a gentle smile upon his face. There’s nothing! Everything is clean and healthy”

In the distance, almost over in Wisconsin, a bald eagle fell from its flight in a sudden dive toward the water. Without any loss of speed, it swooped close to the water and it hung its talons low and then rose with extraordinary power and force, its prey secured and fixed in place. It was too far away to photograph, so I sat down on a bench, close beside the river, and waited, hoping one of the great fishers would perform for me.

It was a very beautiful day and I was in no hurry to go anywhere.


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