A rare encounter at the water’s edge

A black and brown raptor with what seemed like a three foot wing span soared over our heads no more than a dozen feet up, before alighting on an angled tree trunk right on the water’s edge. We paddled closer to shore to where the bird alighted than raised our oars and bobbed in our double kayak on 120 acre Mongaup Pond,a lobular shaped lake, encircled by a maple-beech-birch forest in the western Catskills of New York. The bird stood still, bright yellow feet and jet black talons gripping the tilting bark. It looked familiar but alien at the same time. I knew what it was not but could not identify to my satisfaction what it was.


Mongaup Pond, Livington Manor, NY

I can identify most of the fairly common birds I see,  a skill that began with a mandatory assignment years ago in my high school zoology course. I know to zone in on the details of the plumage, the beak and feet colors, the size, any unusual markings seen during flight or when the bird flashes its tail feathers. I look for any marking on the bird’s nape, or crown or rump. I try to remember the shape of its beak as well, pointy, like a spear, or stout and angular, like an anvil.

Something seemed familiar about this raptor, like we had met before. I should know you, I thought, like when you meet someone you think you recognize but can’t quite place. Maybe we went to school together once long ago, or lived in the same neighborhood?  The avian body shape perched in front of me now looked like one I should know, with those distinctive fearsome grasping toes and talons and that flesh ripping beak that looked as strong as iron.

My son and I had been kayaking around the lake for an hour or so and just paddled nearby to the area we camped at many years ago, when he was quite young. I pointed out where we had pitched our tent, made our campfire, tied up our row boat. His memories of those times are faint. I looked at my son now in the kayak, in his teens, and could imagine him back at the campsite more than a decade ago. When I looked at that spot, I saw a past more meaningful than a mere snapshot or even a video clip of that time. What I can picture of the past on that lakefront campsite is so meaningful because it is a page, maybe just a sentence, in a book that is still being written even as we rowed away. I can pair his toddler face and toddler gait then with his teenage loping walk and smile of today. There is always a synergy of the past and the present, not always apparent but always there. The boy on that sloping shore trying to skip rocks years ago is now the young man in the front of our boat, the one who first spotted the soaring bird overhead.

I knew the bird was too large and bulky to be any raptor I had seen in this area. It was not a diving double crested cormorant and too stocky and muscled to be a gangly turkey vulture. I know that bald eagles frequent Mongaup Pond, and I have seen them before, huge wing span, soaring high, bright white head and tail visible even from a distance, such a stark contrast to their homogeneous brown bodies.

And than I knew. I knew this mystery bird, flying awkwardly, was indeed a juvenile bald eagle, not yet bearing the plumage of an adult. It looks like a bald eagle in body type and shape, and at the same time looks nothing like a bald eagle. No white head. No yellow beak, perched calmly as two paddlers approach within fifteen feet. Don’t you know you should not trust us? Fly away.

The child and the adult morphed into one unified image. “The Child is father of the Man”, wrote William Wordsworth in his poem, My Heart Leaps Up. The one gives rise to the other, inexorably bound, different but the same. This young hunting bird is a bald eagle sure enough, even without the distinctive markings. Once I visualized the adult, I could identify his offspring too.

Juveniles often do not resemble their adult phase. A swimming tadpole in no way resembles a hopping frog nor does a crawling caterpillar resemble a butterfly. Even a baby robin has a speckled breast and not a reddish orange breast. And the idea of change is common throughout nature. We accept that an ice cube or steam are just different phases of the same substance. Water is transformed as it goes through each change. In chemistry terms, a phase change results from exposing a substance to an extreme, usually either cold or heat. But in the animate world, time precipitates the change. With time a seed in the dirt will nearly disintegrate before it begins to sprout. The sun will rise and set about a dozen times whilst the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. And the full moon will appear and vanish about a dozen times until a new born human will take his first steps.

I was not shocked to realize the bird before me did so not resemble an adult eagle. But I was shocked to be only a kayak’s length away, knowing this chance occurrence will not come my way again. And in that moment, the young and old were one, and it was as if I was in the presence of an adult bald eagle in all its majesty. I stared at the juvenile but saw the adult and stared at the young adult in front of me and saw the child.

The young eagle did eventually unfurl it wings and took flight, creating audible ‘thwaps’ of air with each powerful downstroke. It flew low over the lake than slowly gained height and headed away to the other side of the lake out of our range of vision. High above tree line we noticed an adult eagle soaring and could just make out the white head. We knew what we had just shared was one of those rare moments in nature where you are gifted with the opportunity to see something unusual, to learn a little more about the inner workings of the natural world and at the same time given a chance to learn so much more about that most complex phase change of all, life itself.

My Heart Leaps Up
by William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.


Howard E. Friedman



Losing and finding the trail: an Olympic lesson

Outdoors educators advise lost hikers to stay put, make a shelter, and wait for help, instead of striking out in a new direction and risk getting even more lost. If you stay put you might be safe and not get more lost. But staying put will only help if someone comes to find you and leads you home. There are no guarantees you will be found. Sometimes you have no choice but to walk yourself back to where you began, or at least to where you lost your way.

A series of television commercials from the 2014 Sochi Olympics consider the value of looking back, or more precisely, walking, running, jumping, skiing –  backward, and back to your earliest beginnings.

Noelle Pikus Pace (Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)

Noelle Pikus Pace
(Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)

TD Ameritrade presents a series of ads that begin with images of an olympian on the podium in gold medal position. Than, we see a montage of that athlete’s life in reverse, with video, in one example, of olympian skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace sliding backward, running backward, sliding backward up a water slide, with additional images of of Noelle as a child, than as a toddler and finally sliding backward up a sliding board as an infant. The screen goes black with a tagline that says: Behind every big moment there are lots of small ones.

Of course, we are the sum or our total experiences, as this commercial emphasizes. But those life experiences are rooted in our childhood. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) made that point in seven words in his poem, The Rainbow:

The Rainbow

by William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth. (c) The Wordsworth Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Wordsworth.
(c) The Wordsworth Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began:

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

“The child is father of the man” is a frequent theme among people hoping to make sense of their lives. Where did the happy child go? What happened to hopes, dreams and aspirations?Psychologists walk patients back to their childhood to try and help then understand who they were and in so doing help them understand who, what and why they are what they are now.

Teachers understand the importance of rallying around a child’s natural talents and ambitions. The wise King Solomon wrote in his Book of Proverbs: Educate the child according to his ways. So when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). And this advice has become a mantra for educators  who need to teach different children differently, whether a child is a visual or auditory learner, to cite just two examples.

But the TD Ameritrade commercials portray not only the importance of rallying around our children to help them make their dreams come true. The television spots capture other qualities that are rare yet necessary for an olympic caliber athlete: passion. And not even the most supportive of parents can create passion in a child. Yet, since passion breeds perseverance, it is an important prerequisite for success.

Pikus-Pace wins silver at Sochi 2014 (NBCnews.com)

Pikus-Pace wins silver at Sochi 2014 (NBCnews.com)

Even the non-olympians among us should note the path to greatness these athletes exhibit and we could learn a lesson from these vignettes. To walk ahead with determination and resolve starts by knowing one’s self at the start of the journey. True, not everyone has the passion of an olympian, nor the skill. But everyone is on a journey, and, if you lose the path, than what?

Noelle Pikus-Pace left her sport after the 2010 Olympics. But after a miscarriage last year left her feeling lost she walked herself back to where she started and with the support of her husband returned to the skeleton track. I would suggest that when lost in the forest, real or metaphorical, you at least attempt to find that point where you lost your way. Then, if nothing in the woods seems familiar, stay put and wait for help. But in your mind continue to walk yourself backward.  Try and understand  how and where you became so lost. Once you answer those questions, you can start to find your way back home again.