Bald Eagle and the Sleeping Indian

January 10, 2017
Bald Eagle Landing in Tree

I was exploring a mostly unexplored part of a river in Grand Teton National Park. Not that it’s completely unexplored, it’s just not on the radar for everyday hikes. The high that day was 5 degrees (F), 35 degrees warmer than the low that morning. So more of a snowshoe hike in this case.

The area was in an arctic grip that had lasted a month so far. Temperatures in the 20s reminded locals of island beaches in the sun. If only that kind of warmth would return! And yet, I still wanted to get out and get exercise. The sun was shining for a change and I wanted some vitamin D.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I just like the way a river or creek looks when the entire landscape around it is frozen in ice and snow. There’s something paradoxically relaxing and welcoming where water’s flowing through a landscape in which animals built for cold are dying from freezing to death.

I was loving it. Twists and turns that I had never seen before along a familiar river. Two prominent and familiar peaks, one of them the Sleeping Indian, rose high above a white foreground with a sliver of water rushing just fast enough not to freeze over. The Grand Teton itself even poked out from behind the trees.

I continued movement, the cold relentlessly trying to break through my skin. More movement meant more warmth flowing through my body. My fingers would get cold, and I would continue a slow and forceful pace through the powdery snow to counter the attack, all the while easy prey for any cougars that might be watching.

Ahead, high in a cottonwood tree, I spotted the silhouette of a bird, a large bird, obscured by the glare of the sun. Definitely an eagle though. Across the river, a moose munched on willow trees. Next to him, several bull elk. I hiked another several hundred yards around the trees occupied by the eagle to see exactly what kind it was. Now with the sun at my back, I looked back up. It was a golden eagle! A rare bird in Jackson Hole. A rare bird anywhere, for that matter.

I moved a bit more into the open along the river’s bank. On the other side the landscape stretched out into a vast open flood plain. It seemed to go on for miles. It felt wild. I felt far from any roads. I felt like I was in the middle of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. It was relatively easy to access, but it felt far away. There was a wildness about it I hadn’t expected to find.

I stood still, my body’s warmth assisted by the former movement and the late afternoon sunshine shining across the sky, the sun too low this time of year to be considered above.

Then I saw something flying in from the southwest. I picked up my camera and zoomed in on it. It was a bald eagle and it was headed right in front of the Sleeping Indian. Through gloves, I found the buttons on my camera to track it and keep focus on it. I started firing. I was starting to feel how cold the metal on my camera had become, but I kept firing anyway. I wanted to capture this majestic bird in flight in front of the peak. It gave me a surprise though. Rather than flying in front of the peak, it found a branch just below it to land on. In a few graceful flaps of its wings, it found its balance on a small branch high up in a cottonwood tree, the Sleeping Indian resting right behind it, impartial to our separate lives and desires.

I was hoping for one of those shots to come out, but at the time I was more enamored with the entire scene itself. I stayed longer seeing what else would come out instead of chimping on my camera. More bald eagles. A coyote in the distance. More elk. A plummeting temperature.

I looked back at the sun. It was low. Just above the mountains. It was time to go. As soon as I started moving I felt my fingers and toes going numb. I knew more wildlife would be coming out, but the cold was pushing me out, this time. I kept a steady pace to get my blood flowing again on my way back to my car.

Categorized: Story Behind the Shot, Wildlife
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