An Eagle in Distress

The following tale is excerpted from a 2005 travel diary that I kept during a trip to Alaska. We sailed from Seward to Vancouver on board Holland-Americas’ MV RYNDAM.

We observe the scenery as the ship approaches the port of Ketchikan. It is more industrialized than Juneau or Skagway, the other two ports we visited on the Alaska panhandle. We pass a cannery, a container terminal where two tugs maneuver a barge around our ship, a small shipyard with a floating dry dock, and many marinas. Floatplanes circle the ship and land in its wake. Eventually, we pass the floating platform that acts as their terminal and where they are moored. Then we have the dubious opportunity to watch them take-off and climb as they head right for us. They do cross at an angle to pass down the ship’s left side, but one of them passes at the same height where we are sitting, Deck 8 of 13, providing a little too much excitement.

Using thrusters, our ship is docked quickly and safely without the assistance of tugboats.

 We leave the ship with Helen and Don as a tour guide directs us to a van. There are eleven of us taking this tour and we are forced to wait for a last woman to arrive. Shoshanna is our driver. She just graduated from high school and has lived here for most of her life. By this time, we have met enough residents to realize many begin to get nervous if it doesn’t rain for two or three days. Shoshanna doesn’t tell us how lucky we are that it’s not raining. Instead, she complains that it has not rained much in several days. She boasts about how much more rain they get in Ketchikan than Seattle. She is really upset making me I think to myself, “For Shoshanna, a day without cloudy skies and pouring rain is a day without sunshine.”

Shoshanna drives us to a marina where we are introduced to Christine, the young woman who will pilot us out to Orca Island. We are outfitted in life jackets in a little shelter she uses and parade across the marina to the dock where her Zodiac is moored. Shoshanna is thrilled when she calls the tour company and receives permission to join us. The trade-off for her is she will pilot our return trip back to the dock. Climbing on board requires dexterity, but we all successfully board albeit with a couple of close calls. Mary Ann remarks about how beautiful Christine is. “Tall, thin and blond,” Mary Ann says, “She’s model quality.”

You wouldn’t know it to listen to her. She is a licensed captain who has sailed boats solo from Maui to San Francisco and has assumed the rough and tumble mannerisms of a sailor or a construction worker.” Once you get your rear ends into the boat, I can blow this place.”

 Disembarking is also a study in balance. Christine drives the boat onto a pebbly beach. There, two college age young men who will be our guides hook a ladder over one side of the boat. It is at a crazy angle and when I try to descend, I almost fall off. Watching me, Mary Ann decides to descend facing out so she can see what she is doing. The guides provide a good commentary about the forest and we do learn more useless information like the difference between “witch’s hair” and “an old man’s beard.” At the end of the walk, they supply a fire for roasting marshmallows. They also serve us hot chocolate, smoked salmon cheese and crackers. (They too are looking for a tip.)

Christine returns to collect us. The four of us choose to sit near the bow and have the hell beaten out of our coccyges as Christine speeds into the wind. The worst jolts occur when the Zodiac slams down on three waves in succession. Fortunately, we soon return to sheltered water and the beatings cease. As we near the marina, she stops the boat and directs our attention to an eagle struggling in the water. “Oh, my God,” she exclaims. “Do you see that? What’s happening is the eagle has grabbed a fish that’s too heavy in its talon and it can’t liftoff. Neither can it let go of the fish because once it grabs something, its talons lock. The only way the eagle can open the talon to release the fish is by putting it down on to something solid. If the fish is too big the eagle will tire and drown.”

We watch as the bird gently flaps its wings in a swimming fashion to reach shore. Happily, it has only about twenty feet to go from the spot where Christine spotted it and it makes it to the rocks. A throaty cheer follows from our boat when the bird reaches dry land. Shoshanna (who is waiting at the dock) is thrilled. “In the eighteen-years that I have lived here, I’ve seen eagles drown, but I never saw an eagle do that.”

The eagle preens itself on the shore drying its wings so that it may fly again. While it does this, sea gulls try to relieve it of its catch, but the eagle fights them off. In an instant the eagle is gone but none of us sees if it left with the fish.

On the return ride Shoshanna entertains us with stories and tall tales. When we pass a totem pole, she says that hand carved poles cost $1,000 a foot. “I heard of a story where a man gave his wife a 25- or 30-foot totem pole for their 75th wedding anniversary. He must have really loved her.”

 This prompts Helen to observe, “Ah, now we know, silver for 25, gold for 50 and a totem pole for 75.”