Eagles have been active over the water and in the trees near our place along the Missouri River as the old year draws to a close.
We’ve seen them resting in the tallest trees along the river bank morning and afternoon. One particularly large eagle has regularly flown over our house for the past couple of weeks, soaring northerly above the bluffs until it disappears into the haze. Later, if we happen to be watching, we can see what may be (maybe not) the same majestic creature re-tracing its flight southward, and we marvel at how far this bird can soar without once flapping its wings.
Eagles were particularly lively on Christmas Day. They soared and swooped for much of the day. Sometimes they’d pause in the highest branches of a tree. More often they’d glide down to the ice. Sometimes they smacked the open water with a tremendous force, no doubt drawn by a fish moving close to the surface. It was an entertaining spectacle for those of us viewing it from behind the windows of our home on the river bank. An eagle in flight, its wings seeming to spread halfway across the river valley, exudes strength and purpose, effortless control and presence.
Ice covers the western side of the Missouri River here where we live. The causeway leading to the old highway bridge between Chamberlain and Oacoma protects that area from the wind, and the water there is relatively shallow. American Island sat there before the dams were built and the valley flooded. In my high school days, we sometimes skated in that area. Everyone knew the ice was solid behind the causeway. Everyone also knew better than to venture too far from shore. Ice sometimes formed all the way across the river. Over what was the main channel, though, it never froze solidly enough to be trusted.
This year, the river’s channel remains open as 2019 nears its end. Good-sized ice floes drift downstream on the current, moving along lazily now that the Corps of Engineers has cut back to winter flows its releases from the big dams upstream. That reduction in release rate has been a long time coming this year. For most of the summer and fall the Corps pushed releases, trying to drop the amount of water stored in the big dams – Fort Peck in Montana, Garrison in North Dakota and Oahe north of Pierre – low enough so that the reservoir system can collect and hold the water from the coming year’s mountain snow melt and plains snow and rain. This past year, heavy mountain snowpack, widespread, soaking rains across the river basin and frequent strong storms with massive amounts of precipitation tested the Corps’ ability to manage the river system. The ever-present water also tested the spirit of those living along the river whose homes and lands were flooded or threatened by flood water.
For the moment, the river is relatively calm. The once-pink stones of the rip-rap along the banks carry discolored lines that show high water marks this past year, as well as the high mark from the historic flood of 2011. Those lines are many, many feet above the current water level. That brings residents along this river some sense of comfort but certainly not a complete lack of concern about what the coming year might bring. In that sense, I suppose it’s no different from the rest of our lives. As New Year’s Day nears, we never know what will occur in the time ahead. We simply move forward with a degree of trust that we’ll experience more good than bad.
Meanwhile, the eagles continue to captivate, riding the wind on those powerful wings. We hurry from window to window, upstairs and down, to follow their flight, and we duck out of sight like children playing games when they land in a high branch and look our way.
I read somewhere than when eagle feathers are waved over a group of people, it means those people are being wished peace and prosperity and happiness. That’s about as nice a wish for all of you as I can come up with to end 2019.