Return of the Eagle: How America Saved Its National Symbol

© 1994 by Greg Breining

IN A LEAP OF FAITH, John Grobel launched his hang glider from a cliff overlooking the Mississippi near Red Wing, Minn. Jaws of bone-colored bluffs spread out below, as if to swallow him whole in the wide gulf of the river. As sun warmed the hills, thermals spiraled into the blue vault of the April sky. 

Once aloft, Grobel noticed several large birds soaring in the distance. Turkey vultures, he thought. He enjoyed them. Never aggressive, they often let him fly in their midst. So Grobel tweaked his right rudder, banked his glider and soared along the ridge, gaining altitude as he sailed toward the birds.

Soon he realized they weren't turkey vultures at all, but bald eagles — thirteen of them. As he approached, two adults — their white heads and tails now unmistakable — broke away from the group. Like interceptor aircraft, they sped toward the intruder. "I've got to get my camera," he thought. But he knew it was too late for that.

One eagle spun and flew twenty to thirty feet above Grobel's hang glider. The other wheeled and pulled in just a few feet from the right wing. Were the eagle a bit closer, Grobel could have reached out and touched it. More than anything — more perhaps than the fan of the white tail, the seven-foot wingspan, or the powerful hooked beak — Grobel noticed the intense eye, a spot of yellow light as unflinching as the sun itself. Grobel felt the eye pierce him as if it were a needle. Drawn to the birds, yet not wanting to frighten them, Grobel began simply to talk. He didn't know what else to do. As though they would understand, he explained he wanted to fly with them. He hoped the calm measure of his voice conveyed that he meant no harm. 

Before long, the birds veered and headed back toward the group. "What have I got to lose?" Grobel thought, and he turned with them, hanging well back and slightly below the birds to avoid alarming them. The two sentinels led him back to the main flock. Amazingly, Grobel flew into their airspace. Suddenly he was surrounded by eagles, seven white-headed adults and six predominantly brown juveniles.

The birds were apparently engaged in some flight lesson. Several adults would single out a juvenile and escort it below the level of the bluffs, down toward the river, where the youngster apparently did not want to go. As it flapped and tried to climb back above the ridge, an adult would accompany it back downward, sometimes even bumping it or pouncing on its back. Sometimes an adult would even fly under the young bird, spin upside down, lock talons with the other bird and pull it to a lower altitude. All the while, two adults shadowed Grobel's glider, watching his every move.

Finally, a half-hour after Grobel joined the flock, the eagles began to flap, quickly gaining altitude. They soared off down river toward Lake City, Minnesota. Grobel, quite unflappable, couldn't gain the altitude needed to follow. He watched them sail into the distance, with admiration and even envy for the efficiency and beauty of their flight. For several minutes, he simply glided back and forth along the ridge, marveling at what had happened and basking in the privilege he felt at having been able, however briefly, to fly with the most majestic birds he had ever seen. 

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