Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 23, 2011

Eagle Eye

Dad and I have traveled long and far together. Our recent trip through Washington was just one of many I’ve made with him in our 60 years together. When he was a young man with a growing family, and I was one of The Kids, he and Mom held it as an unquestionable fact of life that there WOULD be a family vacation each summer, and that it would involve traveling somewhere. As a result of their devotion to these annual trips, by the time I was 16 or so, I had visited 32 of the 50 United States on those family vacations, and another 16 since then. I saw Alaska — #48 on my list — with Dad three years ago. (Since you ask, my two unvisited states are Wisconsin and North Dakota.)

While not as picturesque as vacation travel, Dad and I also spent a lot of hours in the pickup, van or dump track traveling to and from construction jobs when I worked with him after my college days. I’ve logged a lot of miles and hours with the guy, and he’s a great travel partner.

In his retirement, Dad’s continued to pursue his love of travel, particularly to see the mountains and deserts of the American west and the great U.S. national parks. On our Washington trip, we added three to his (and my) national parks bag: North Cascades, Rainier and Olympic. Just saying you’ve been somewhere, though, doesn’t really amount to much. You want to see something significant; you want to do more than check the place off a list. For Dad, recording those significant places and sights has become one of his passions, and one of the goals he pursues to make a trip more than just another place he’s been is to record the locale in pictures. In the course of his travels, Dad has proven himself to be a natural-born photographer with some genuine chops for composition and interesting angles — perhaps related to his training in architecture.

One of the most iconic North American animals, though, had eluded his camera: the Bald Eagle. He’s seen them, but never gotten The Shot: a defining photograph of the American Symbol. He hoped that this trip to the Pacific northwest would fill the gap.

Dad’s life coincides almost perfectly with the catastrophic demise and recovery of the Bald Eagle. In the early years of the 20th Century, Bald Eagles numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But by the 1950s — Dad’s early adult years — DDT and hunting had reduced their numbers to the point at which there were estimated to be only 412 nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states. As a kid living in Ohio at the time, I considered it unlikely that I would ever see a bald eagle alive. They were one of the world’s most endangered species.

Along with the devastation from loss of habitat and  DDT,  hunters killed Bald Eagles in large numbers under the mistaken belief that the birds grabbed young lambs and even children with their talons. Eagles are fishers. They live near oceans and large lakes. They don’t kill livestock.  But myths are powerful. To the credit of the Bald Eagle Protection Act, passed when Dad was 12, they have recovered, and, after seven decades, have finally been removed from the endangered species list.

In the final three days of our week-long trip we circled the Olympic Peninsula. Olympic National Park occupies a huge swath of the center of the peninsula. It spreads around the Olympic Range of mountains. Here is the Olympic range from Hurricane Ridge at 5,400 feet.

Olympic range pano Brad Nixon (640x265)

These are not among the highest peaks on the continent. The tallest, Mt. Olympus (out of view), is 7,980 ft. in elevation. But the Olympic Range is remote, rugged wilderness. Its western face is home to the world’s largest temperate rainforest — the Hoh — which receives an average 140 inches of rain each year. There are lakes, vast expanses of old-growth trees and the continent’s largest population of the Roosevelt Elk. The lakes, rivers and ocean shore are home to a significant population of Bald Eagles. This trip to Washington was a prime opportunity to photograph one.

Olympic NP sign Brad Nixon 7674 (640x473)

We got our first eagle tip in Amanda Park at the southwest corner of Olympic National Park when we stopped for lunch at — so far as we could tell — the only likely dining establishment for about thirty miles around: JJ’s.

JJs Brad Nixon 4003 (640x383)

JJ’s is open from 5 in the morning ’til about 3 in the afternoon, catering to breakfast and lunch for those who come to the Olympic Peninsula to fish for salmon. James — the proprietor — said if we just circled Lake Quinault (kee-NALT) there on the southwestern edge of the national park, we’d find ’em: eagles, perched in trees, watching the water for fish. It was twenty-some miles around the lake, most of it paved, he said.

So we set out. This was “temperate rainforest.” Every single object — tree or limb, stone or twig — was covered with moss, lichen, fern and growth of every imaginable variety.

Olympic NP dense Brad Nixon 7681 (640x480)

Eagles, we knew, would be perched high above us in trees offering good visibility of the lake. As driver that day, I had the luxury of paying a minimum of attention to the single-lane road in that late season, on which we expected (and encountered) no other traffic. I craned my neck up and to the right: my attention was focused above us as we circled the lake clockwise.

Olympic NP Brad Nixon 7701 (640x480)

This was — as Longfellow said — the forest primeval. Silent, dark, dripping and brooding (well, Longfellow actually said, “the murmuring pines and hemlocks,” but I take artistic license): almost impenetrable, except for the single lane of road we traveled.

Olympic NP road Brad Nixon 7703 (640x480)

We watched high in the trees overlooking the lake. And there, above us, peering out onto Lake Quinault, we saw our goal.

Bald eagle Brad Nixon 7700 (640x426)

The Bald Eagle. We had him!

Our Founding Father, Ben Franklin, took issue with naming the Eagle as our National Symbol. In Ben’s view, eagles are scavengers (which they are, given the opportunity). Mr. Franklin believed that a far more fitting symbol of our  egalitarian, hardworking society of the future would be the turkey. Mr. Franklin, we still admire you, but you were, perhaps, a victim of your own hyperdemocratic propaganda regarding this issue of the National Bird. Let us have the eagle, and nothing less. And let the Bald Eagle’s resurgence from the edge of extinction stand for the emergence of all those who are oppressed or downtrodden.

Dad and I saw many more eagles during our trip, once we were looking for them. Another thirty miles to the north, on the shore of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, we saw them perched on trees on the very edge of the continent’s ultimate northern edge:

Bald eagle Brad Nixon 7740 (640x479)

Once beleaguered, at the brink of extinction, eagles now prosper, at once a literal and symbolic representation of freedom. Although I have seen many of our fellow inhabitants of this blue globe, from the majestic elk and moose, gray and blue whales and grizzly bears, to a pack of wolves ranging through Alaska’s Denali National Park — not to mention the reclusive Pika — there is nothing so stirring as the sight of this magnificent bird as it surveys its domain.

OK, Dad, we got ‘im! What’s next?

This is the fifth entry in a series of articles about a trip I recently made with my dad to the national parks and wild places of Washington state. To start at the first in the series, CLICK HERE, or use the navigation at the bottom of the web page to move forward and back.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017


  1. Congrats to you both! Magnifique!


  2. Thanks for the kind words Brad. Though driving, Brad spotted all but one eagle before I. All I had to do was point my camera and push the button. Perhaps “Keen Eye” would be an appropriate name for you.


  3. A great report on your trip! I’ve lived in Ohio all my life also, and couldn’t remember seeing an eagle until moving here near Lake Erie. Now I see eagles almost daily, as there are several nests nearby in the 5 parks in our areas. One mile from us is a new park, and on the edge of the park is an old house that once was part of the Underground R.R. The house is now a historic site, and near the house the eagles have nested.
    Loved hearing about the rain forest! The only rain forest I’ve visited was in Hawaii, on the Big Island, and it was beautiful also. Keep up the good reports!


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