Eagle watching on the banks of a great American river

For me, there’s no journey more soothing than a riverside road trip, especially as it allows for stops to commune with one’s fellow travellers.

For this reason, I often choose to travel alone along “The Great River Road,” which follows North America’s Mississippi River – to meet new friends and revisit an old one; the river itself.

I have passed over the Mississippi River many times in my life, and been on it several times too. It is known by many names – The Mississippi, Missisip, Old Man River, and many more, but whatever the name, it never fails to stun me with its beauty, power, breadth and amazing influence on all living either near or on it, even those simply visiting it.

Since the river runs the entire length of the United States with drainage into Canada after rising in the northern state of Minnesota, it is considered an American treasure. It has served as a barrier, transport artery and means of communication, and a stepping stone to lives and livelihoods during various stages of the country’s growth.

Bubbling in the Background

Most foreigners and almost all Americans know about the early steamboat days along the Mississippi and Mark Twain is still a great claimant to the river’s fame and history. His tales of life on the river came from his own experiences and were superbly captured in “Life on the Mississippi” and the more well known work, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The stage and musical hit, “Showboat” sealed the river’s fame for any that were unfamiliar with it.

My first impressions were as a child, crossing over the river on bridges that for a tyke seemed to take hours, but I do remember being impressed at an early age that the Mississippi River was home to the country’s national symbol, the Bald Eagle.

The first encounter I had with this magnificent bird up close was by the great river. One flew alongside our car as I rode with a family from Illinois to Iowa. I remember watching all of its muscles moving in rhythm to push its six-foot wingspan as it easily passed our car and rose into the air above. That single moment cemented a lifelong fascination with birds of prey.

I later did a stint as part-time keeper of said birds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) in Tucson, AZ. There, I was in a cage with a massive golden eagle that could have shredded me if she’d wanted (I kept a rake between us); but instead I was attacked by a tiny mottled mood Owl for not having her favourite mouse in my food tray (I had lowered the rake).

Geographical Distinctions

The Mississippi boasts three distinct sections: Upper, from Minnesota headwaters to its confluence with the Missouri River; Middle, to where it merges with the Ohio River; and, Lower, where the basin spreads out into the Gulf of Mexico.

If you choose the upper section and travel with a good pair of binoculars; you are very likely to spot a bald eagle. The time to do so is when the weather is cold, unfortunately, but there are several places to watch and keep warm.

One of the best might be in Clinton, Iowa, where the Clinton Bald Eagle Watch is held every year. When you see these stunning creatures glide at about 43 mph (70 km/h) on lofty air pillows where they’ve risen on thermal currents, only to dive at up to 100 mph (160 km/h) and snatch a fish they’ve seen from a half-mile away under the water, you can’t be unaffected.

During eagle season, there can be dozens of the gigantic birds in the air and diving at any moment. Feeding on fish that splash about after their release from Mississippi Dam 13 and the lock there, which is one reason why the river serves as such a good place to see bald eagles – there are several such places all along the water’s gigantic path.

History and Adventure

On one trip to Clinton, I learned how various tribes of Native Americans have long held the bald eagle sacred, believing it to be a messenger between man and the gods. The bird’s feathers are even used in special ceremonies and headdresses, along with those of another bird I’ve watched soar above Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs – the American Condor.

Such learning makes one hungry, and there’s no shortage of options to eat along the Mississippi. One of my favourite feast spots is the Candlelight Inn, which has sister restaurants in Sterling, and Rock Falls, IL – not five-star cuisine, but hearty middle American fare. You can also enjoy hearty homemade breakfasts at many of the modest B&Bs that line the river, or dine with grand riverbank views from the century-old homes, some of which are for rent.

After Clinton, I merged forces with a group heading south to Muscatine IA. There, Lock & Dam 16 and Muscatine Boat Club offer good perches to watch gatherings of eagles as they swoop and feed. Some trees are festooned with enough of the giant birds to recall Alfred Hitchcock’s scary movie, wherein crows were flying messengers of doom. It’s an altogether more illustrious sight to see when the subjects are eagles, especially when most people are lucky to see one or two in a lifetime.

We were lucky to have a Muscatine Ranger on hand to explain a bit about eagle predatory habits as we watched. I’d forgotten that the bird’s talons or claws have toe features called spicules, for grabbing prey, and although I knew that eagles preyed upon livestock, I was unaware that eagles themselves fall prey to some prairie mammals, especially when surprised as they feed.

Heading South

On another trip along the river, I ventured south along the Mississippi to Keokuk, IA, for a few hours of eagle viewing. Then on to the Great River National Wildlife Refuge – an 11,600 acre (47 km2) protected area harbouring massive migrating songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl.

Now, many folks who love to see soaring eagles might avoid dinky waders such as sandpipers, or songbirds like nightingales and marsh warblers. But, I’d dodged Lake Michigan’s waves with pipers, flirted with girls while teased by Wisconsin mockingbirds and tried to avoid getting lost in Indiana’s dunes with seagulls as my only guides back to the lake. So, seeing flocks of these creatures at ease in a sprawling sanctuary was very empowering for me.

From there, it’s a short drive to Quincy for more Mississippi eagle viewing at Lock and Dam 21. A private boat trip for two makes the experience a bit more special, especially if you time it as early morning mist breaks to reveal a sunny and bracing day.

I opted to head east rather than follow the Great River Road until it ran into the Gulf of Mexico. You might decide to keep heading south, however, exploring the bayous and mysteries of the Southern Mississippi. That’s another tale to tell, and one that holds even more marvellous places, people and foods to wax on about.

Roll on, river, roll on.


Festivals Aplenty

The bald eagle is undoubtedly a fascinating reason to visit the Mississippi and special events are held along the river at many towns. If you want to learn about more than birds, there are also festivals that celebrate other regional specialities. Corn is a highlight of many festivals, cheese is another, with pumpkins, scarecrows, lighthouses and apples also on the list.

  • The National Audubon Society, American Eagle Foundation, American Bald Eagle Foundation, Birds of Prey Foundation and US Army Corps of Engineers, among many other groups, offer educational events.
  • The Quad City Conservation Alliance (QCCA) holds Bald Eagle Days, with home, flower and garden shows, crafts and arts fairs, train and kennel club gatherings and more – http://www.qccaexpocenter.com/bald-eagle-event.html
  • Plan ahead so you can remain stuffed, entertained, county-fair-ed out and never run out of things to do, whether it’s for a one-day or one-week trip – http://www.midwestweekends.com/plan_a_trip/touring/fall_color/midwest_fall_festivals.html
  • Wear layers of warm clothing for cold weather viewing of eagles and any events along the Mississippi and carry lots of warm fluids. If climbing bluffs along the river, assume all ground on trails is loose, slippery and dangerous, especially after rainfall or during snowy periods.
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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.