13. HOMER, ALASKA:
"EAGLE LADY" AND HER CHILDREN
Winters are cold as well as long and dark in Alaska. After coming out in mid-morning, the winter sun sets only six hours later. When I went to visit with Jean on a February day, she was looking for me from a small trailer window. Before I could reach the trailer, she was outdoors ready to greet me. She also was prepared to feed the hundreds of eagles clamoring for their handouts of fish, and she said: "My kids are hungry and waiting. I have to give them a meal. You can take pictures from my patio. But don't leave the patio; it is dangerous." Jean went with a bucketful of fish to the beach. Seagulls and crows seemed to come out of nowhere to join the eagles for breakfast.
The Bald Eagle has long served as America's national symbol. Its habitat once ranged from Florida to Alaska, but in recent years few eagles have been seen outside of Alaska. Even today in Alaska, it is difficult to see them. Late in the fall eagles start arriving to feast on the season's last salmon run up the Chilkat River. The Haines Eagle Festival draws visitors to watch them. Other visitors seek out, though in fewer numbers, the Eagle Lady feeding her birds in Homer. Wildlife photographers come from all over the world to photograph her, while popular magazines and TV programs publicize her feeding of eagles. Indeed, she is the "Eagle Lady."
Alaska's people are often classified mainly as either Eskimos or newcomers who came to find riches before returning to the lower forty-eight states. But another group is the environmentalists or nature lovers like the Eagle Lady. This group came to reside here and enjoy the natural beauties of Alaska.
In 1973 Jean made her first trip to Fairbanks, Alaska at about fifty years of age to attend the wedding of a cousin. After returning to Minnesota where she had trained horses and driven trucks, Jean could not forget her encounter with Alaska. On the tenth anniversary of her divorce, the fifty-four-year-old Jean bought a trailer for 15,500 dollars and headed for Alaska. Her only son remained in Minnesota.
In Homer Jean found employment in a fish packing plant, while a campsite owner permitted her to set up a trailer home on his land. She liked animals as well as birds that came to the campsite. One day she obtained a bucket of fish scraps from a fishery and tossed them to the birds that began to gather daily at her trailer thereafter. Soon she was hauling even four buckets of scraps per day mainly from two fish processing plants.
After retiring from the fishery in 1995, she has devoted her days to gathering fish scraps for the eagles. Each eagle eats from two to three pounds per day. So it takes about 800 pounds to feed three hundred eagles that come regularly for her feedings. She feeds the eagles between Christmas and early April.
Initially, local fisherman viewed her as odd and even demented. But she did not retreat from her mission. When eagles returned winter after winter, she remembered them. It became easier to get both fish scraps from local fishermen and money from contributors. The Eagle Festival honored her with a special award.
Before leaving Homer, I invited her to join me for dinner. My seventy-eight-year-old guest surprised me. It was unbelievable to see her in a red jacket rather than a fish-smelling coat. And she wore six rings on her hands as well as rouge and other facial makeup, while dangling a long cigarette from her lips. How stylish! When we parted, Jean said: "Every Christmas I think the time has come to quit. But when I see these kids, I can't put my thought into practice. Besides, no one will take this fishy job without pay."
So she remains in Alaska. Her son has not tried to lure her back to Minnesota. Instead, he sent her a small computer to keep e-mail contact beyond Alaska. During long winter nights she uses e-mail in her beach side trailer, and covers herself with an electric blanket on windy nights. Her radio booms popular songs of the 1960s. What an Eagle Lady!