Trapping Eagles in Adak, Alaska – circa 1981

A fine young gentleman named Adam Edgerton was born on Adak Island, lived there until he was three years old, and was compelled to return as an adult.  He started a fundraising campaign to help cover the costs and create a book of photographs to document his adventure.  Please visit: http://www.indiegogo.com/rediscovering-adak to learn more about this amazing project.

In his own words:

“I was born on Adak in 1985, where my father worked on the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. We moved away when I was three, but the distant memories, stories from my parents, and photos of being born in such a unique, isolated place stay with me to this day. I feel strongly compelled to return, explore my birthplace, and share my perspective on what it once was and what it is today with the world.”

Adam has an attachment to the island similar to the one that I and many others have.  I only lived there two years (1979 to 1981), but it will always draw me back.  I have not had the opportunity to physically go back yet, but one of the ways that I relived my time there was to write my book The Nantok of Adak Island.  While it is a science fiction novel, it includes many events based on my actual experiences there as a high school student living life on an isolated Aleutian island.

My internship with the (then named) Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (AINWR) was one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me.  In my book, the main character experiences several things that really did happen to me.  Some of these are more embellished than others, but they are based on true events.  For example, I really did get to perform a necropsy on a huge female sea otter that died giving birth.  I really did get to trap and mount a Norwegian brown rat, which was added to the refuge’s official collection.  I really did go through a bit of initiation from the biologists that included counting hairs on caribou and sea otter pelts.  One of the most amazing things I did that I did not mention in the book was that I got to help trap and band bald eagles.

Several of the biologists were working on a project of monitoring the bald eagle population on Adak.  They were experimenting with several methods of trapping.  They tried everything from padded leg traps, to traditional falconry bow nets, to a cannon net like the one used at the beginning of the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins, except that one caught a flock of Canada geese.

This YouTube video gives you a rough idea of how a cannon net works: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gi9NJBOWHuo

After they trapped the eagles, they banded them with small aluminum bands that fit around their “shins”.  These each had a unique number that identified the bird wearing it.  The problem was that you could not read these bands from a distance.  They needed a way to identify the adult birds from far away.  They came up with an interesting approach of painting the tail feathers.  They would take the snow white, pristine tail feathers of these spectacular adult bald eagles, divide the feathers into thirds and then paint them three different, contrasting colors.  If the average citizen did this, they would be locked up and the key fed to a polar bear living above the Arctic Circle, but because this was all in the name of science, defacing our national emblem was perfectly OK, in fact it was interesting.

From a great distance they could say, “There goes bird blue-orange-white.”  They could look up “blue-orange-white” in their log and cross-reference it with the band number.  Having known these biologists and remembering their sense of humor, I would wager that the first bird tagged in this fashion was red-white-blue.  The other thing I remember was that they had to make sure they read the colors correctly.  Red-white-blue from underneath would be blue-white-red from above.  That’s two completely different birds!  I’m sure they figured it out, but I remember them having long scientific discussions about which way to do it.

My internship there was through a program called OJT, which stood for on the job training.  As I remember it, it was only for seniors and it was the last period or two of school.  I think they paid ½ minimum wage, or something like that.  I don’t recall caring about the money at all, although I’m sure I did.  Pizza and a movie was probably a day’s wages when you only work about three hours a day at ½ minimum wage.

Even the days in which I had to wash the AINWR boat were interesting to me.  There was a maintenance guy there who often had to find things for me to do.  He had an awesome beard.  I call it an Amish beard.  It’s the big bushy beard on the chin but the upper lip is clean-shaven.  Man, I wish I could remember his name.  He retired while I was there and the stories they told about him at his retirement party were so impressive.  He was one of those really special people you encounter only every so often, someone who I can only dream of being like, someone who makes you feel really inadequate if you don’t climb Mt. Everest or walk on the moon.

So, one day this big crate shows up and it’s the cannon net.  You would have thought it was a stripper showing up at the Marine barracks the way the (male) biologists acted.  Pick your analogy with the female biologists.  I learned long ago not to try to impersonate the female mind (notice that there are no strong female characters in my stories – any male author who writes a strong female character obviously has a ghostess writer – or something.   I’m so glad very few people read this blog.)

Anyway, everyone was excited.

We set the cannon net up in the parking lot of the AINWR headquarters building.  Someone went to the butcher department at the commissary (that’s military talk for grocery store – Adak was a Naval air station, in case you haven’t read my book . . . . yet) and got a bunch of “scraps” to use as bait.  It was mostly pink, pulpy bone-dust from inside the band saw they used to cut up the big chunks of meat.  There were a few chunks of fat and bone and gristle thrown it.  They scattered it around the area where the net was supposed to cover and then we all went back inside to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

There was only one small utility window in the door facing the parking lot.  This was the regular size door that was next to the big rollup door that opened to the garage area inside the headquarters building.  Only one person could look out at a time and it was easy to tell who was the senior biologist at that particular location at that particular moment.  Eventually, I was the one looking out the window.  This obviously meant that I was left alone to watch for eagles to show up, everyone else having gotten bored or cold (the garage was unheated).

True to form, I eventually got distracted by something in the garage and lost track of time.  When I finally remembered to look out the window, there were about ten eagles and 20 or so ravens rapidly eating up the bait.  I ran into the office area and as casually as I could muster I blurted out something to the effect of, “Holy crap you should see all the damn eagles out there!”  There was a cacophony of desk chairs falling over, coffee cups being slammed down and winter wear being grabbed off of hangers and coat hoods.

All of the biologists and other staff came to see.  There was a countdown, a boom, and we all scrambled out the single door.  Someone must have stuffed a big fishing net in my hand and the only instructions I remember getting was “Don’t let them get out from under the net!” as I ran out the door to help.

Bald eagles are big.  I mean really big.  Imagine a turkey with wings the size of ironing boards being held down by a net no more substantial than a bed sheet.  Their beaks are the size of desk staplers and their feet are as large as a grown man’s hand, but a hundred times stronger, each talon as sharp as a awl, faster than a rattle snake strike and as strong as a pair of vice grips.

There were probably eight or nine bald eagles and a few ravens caught under the net.  Biologists were running back and forth, understandably hesitant to jump on one of the eagles and subdue it.  Eventually they found enough blankets and burlap sacks to cover all of the birds and calm them down.  They banded each eagle, one by one.  The adults got new paint jobs on their tails.  They even banded all of the ravens.  I got to hold one of the adult bald eagles while it was being banded.  It was like holding a medium size pit bull.  The strength emanating from this animal was terrifying.  I was able to stay out of range of its talons and beak.  Not true for a raven that I held.  Even though its eyes were covered it new exactly where my hand was when I got too close.  Even though it did not draw blood, it felt like having a chunk of skin grabbed with needle nose pliers and brutalized by an evil electrician.

Words escape me as to how mind boggling that hour was.  It affected the rest of my life in such a positive way.  I went to college to study wildlife biology (I graduated with a degree in environmental engineering, but that is another story).  Shortly after college I obtained my falconry license and trained several birds, eventually becoming a Master falconer.

I vaguely remember one of the biologist taking photos of all the action.  I also knew that the AINWR kept all of their photos as carefully catalogued slides in a large filing cabinet.  It wasn’t until several years later, after recounting this story to multiple incredulous, but polite friends and family that I wondered if there was any photographic evidence of this event.  Before the advent of the Internet I sent several letters to AINWR asking them if these photos existed.  None of these inquiries were answered.  Many years later, I emailed someone who still lived on Adak and asked them if they would check.  They tried but had no luck.  Many more years went by.

Thirty one years later, along comes Adam Edgerton, raising money for his return trip to Adak.  I made a donation and asked him, that if he had time, would he please check to see if these photos existed.  I hoped that his photographic mind and connection with the refuge through his dad would make him interested in searching out these photos.   He sent a very polite reply and said that he would be happy to look.  I tried not to think about it too much.

After his trip, he sent me an email.  He had found several slides and a couple prints, and photographed them.  Here is what he sent me.

Taken just before the cannon net was fired. You can see it on the ground on the near side of the birds.

Taken just as the net went off.

Holding down the net. That’s me (age 17) on the far left.

Subduing one of the angry immature birds.

Close up. Not happy.

Getting ready to release bird “white-blue-white”. (It reads the same from top or bottom!)

Adam, thanks so much.  You have no idea how much these photos mean to me.  Good luck to you and your book project.  I can’t wait to see it.

Sincerely,

Russ

~ by Russ King on September 4, 2012.

6 Responses to “Trapping Eagles in Adak, Alaska – circa 1981”

  1. So glad I was able to find some photos for you. It just took turning the FWS library inside out, which I was happy to do since it was filled with photos taken by my parents and many other familiar names as well!

  2. I have heard some of these incredible stories as well. My husband Ray took the pictures. So glad you posted on the BRHS fb page. Cant wait to start reading your book “The Nantok of Adak Island” and looking forward to Adam’s book as well!

    • Sherri, I’m so glad you commented on my blog. I was going to try to track down Ray and see if he had any other photos. Those were the only ones that Adam could find of the eagle trapping. I also wonder if there are pictures of the sea otter whose skeleton they had me re-articulate. I spent my last month or so there boiling and scraping the bones but never got to finish it.

      I constantly kick myself for not taking more pictures during that time, also, for not being more appreciative at that time of the opportunity I had been given. I probably seemed like a snotty high school kid to them. I deserved all of the hazing they gave me. Like I mentioned in my blog, though, it did have a major, positive impact on my life.

      I would love it if you would message me through Facebook so I can get hold of Ray.

      Thanks again,

      Russ

    • Hi Sherri,

      I don’t have a better way of contacting you, but I was wondering if I could get your/Ray’s permission to use the photo of the slide that I took above (specifically the one of the eagle close-up) in the book I’m putting together on my Adak trip? I’m putting together a section on what I found when I was exploring the FWS slide archives, and want to use that photo to help transition to the next section of the book, which happens to focus on eagles.

      You can reach me at adam at adamedgerton.com

      Thanks!

  3. Russ, excellent blog post, I look forward to reading your book “The Nantok of Adak Island”. I too spent that most impressionable time of my life on “The Rock”. In fact it looks like our tours overlapped, I was there from ’78-’80 when I graduated high school and returned to Florida. I was on the wrestling team and participated in the RSVP (rural student vocational program) which sent me to Anchorage for 2 weeks to work in the civil drafting department for the city of Anchorage. During that trip I had my first experience on a land surveying crew, little did I know at the time but that was to become my vocation and avocation. Thanks again for the blast from the warm and fuzzy past.

    Randy Rain BRHS class of 1980

    • Hi Randy, good to hear from you. We were on the wrestling team together. I was a junior and went by “Rusty” back then. I wrestled at 138 lbs. My 14 year old son will probably wrestle at 145 as a freshman this year! Kids are bigger these days. The fictional version of our wrestling team gets a good mention in my book (and it’s not too far off from the real thing). For those who don’t know, our wrestling team was not very good but we made the best of what we had to work with.

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