Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tales from the North Woods: Bitch Slapped by an Eagle

There's something about getting up early and peddling through the hills of the Shingobee forest, watching the sun rise over the tree tops, and listening to the birds wake and the squirrels and chipmunks scavenge for food, that brings a certain peace - a certain zen.

I love the section of the Paul Bunyan trail that connects to the Heartland trail and runs all the way down to Brainerd. I love it because it's hilly. The hills offer a strenuous workout, but they also offer a solitude not found on the Heartland trail.

Most people don't want to work that hard, so the Heartland trail, which is fairly flat, always seems crowded and packed with people. While the Paul Bunyan trail (specifically the portion running through the Shingobee forest) always seems deserted.

Last week I had an encounter with a porcupine on the Paul Bunyan trail. This week I met a young skunk on the trail who seemed content enough to threaten me as I passed, but that was all.

However, the most amazing part of the ride didn't take place on the Paul Bunyan trail. I was actually on the Shingobee Connection, a short stretch of trail that leads from the Paul Bunyan, through Walker, and back to a different section of the Heartland trail.

The Shingobee connection weaves in and out of forest, it crosses driveways, and actually becomes part of the road for a while. There's one section of the trail that creates a horseshoe or U-shape. The trail spits you out of the forest, you cut a diagonal across someone's gravel driveway, and then you enter a bit of woods again as you start back on the trail. Those woods disappear after about five feet and the trail curves and opens up to look out over the first expanse of Leech Lake you see on the trail.

It's a blind curve. You keep to the right to make sure you aren't going to run into anyone else. A sudden bike accident isn't a fun thing.

This morning, as I curve around the bend and the first blue sparkles of Leech Lake make me glad I'm wearing sunglasses, a giant shape lunges from my left. I feel a breeze graze up my cheek moving air in the wrong direction, up instead of across.

I do what any normal person would do. I leaned away from the shape and turned my head to see what I was going to need to defend myself against.

I came face-to-face with the taloned claw of a mature bald eagle.

It was curled, and the eagle was flying away from me. Most likely I scared him as much as he scared me.

The branch the eagle had been sitting on bounced, and I saw how close we had actually come. That breeze I felt against my face was the rush of air pushing around the eagle's wings as he took off across the lake.

The entire episode took all of two seconds, but still I stopped and watched the eagle cross to better hunting grounds on the far shore. It was an experience both amazing and terrifying.