I saw my first wild Bald Eagle in the summer of 1993. I had traveled thousands of miles away from my home here to Alaska. The bird gave us a classic show as it swooped low over the water and extended its talons forward, grabbed a salmon from the ocean, and with what looked like extremely ponderous wing beats rose from the water's surface and off to the shore to feast on its catch. The bird's labor was so dramatic, it looked like it was defying gravity as it heaved each wing up and down. It was awe inspiring. Growing up in Portage County, I had only dreamed of seeing a sight as magnificent as this.
I remember seeing my first whitetail deer in the wild. I was just a little boy and my family was way off the beaten path in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. I remember the magic of the deer staring at us and then turning to leap away into the woods waving her white flag as a warning to the rest of the wild residents that people had trespassed into their home. Here in Portage County, I had never seen a deer, or sign of a deer.
I have a very vivid memory of the first wild black bear that I saw. It was dusk and my friend, Vance, and I had been backpacking on a very hot summer day. We ate a quick dinner of noodles and then slipped down to the lake before bedtime. Coming back to the camp in the failing light of that summer day, we saw the bear helping himself to our trash. He then investigated our packs and very calmly made it known to us that this was his domain. Finally he bit into a can of bug spray in my backpack that exploded in his mouth and caused him to lose interest in our gear long enough for us to gather our things and make our way to a huge rock that we had spied earlier in the evening.
Now it's 2014. Things have changed here in our county. I have seen a bald eagle soaring high over my home. I came upon an eagle feeding on some unfortunate road-killed animal and watched with that same amazement as it grabbed the carcass in its powerful talons and with those same ponderous wing beats rose into the air and off into the woods with its prize.
In the evening I can sit on the deck behind my house and watch as the does lead their little ones through the trees, feeding on the understory and pawing for acorns. I've watched a majestic buck as he tossed his impressive rack back and flared his nostrils wide to catch the scent of his lover in the crisp fall air. Perhaps best of all is the video footage from my parents' Shalersville home of a black bear standing on his hind legs and feasting on the seed in their bird feeder, not more than five feet or so from their back window. He was confident and strong, with that same look in his eye of knowing that he was the king of his domain.
What has changed? The answer is simple: habitat has returned. The animals have come back as the land has reverted back to the way that it is meant to be. Clean water, clean air, reduction of pesticides, conversion of once tilled lands to forest have increased the ability of animals to live here with us.
As great as it is, though, the scales are slowly tipping back toward habitat loss and destruction. As agriculture has slowed, fallow fields have slowly returned to the glorious forest habitats that they once were. However, a new crop is slowly taking over. Now we don't plant corn and beans, we plant homes and roads. They call it development. Forest plots are completely devastated, even the rich soil is torn apart and pushed around. Homes are planted and the land is covered with invasive grass that requires tons of harmful fertilizers and pesticides that run off and fill our rivers, lakes and streams. Algae blooms and smothers out life.
What can we do? A balance must be struck. We need homes to live in, we need roads and business, but we also need wild places. Our parks help provide that for us. We all benefit from the wild places. The eagle that soars around my home nests deep in the park. The deer and the bear raise their young in the wooded tracts of land protected by our park system.
As we "progress," we need to recognize the need to have some areas that digress. Do we want to live in a dead world, or do you, like me, find hope and amazement in the life that surrounds us? We can use less destructive development techniques as we build, but we also need to preserve some areas so that our future generations can stand in awe watching the bald eagle, the whitetail deer, and the black bear living their lives in the wild around us.
Kurt Ruehr is a father of four, serves as a scout leader, and works as a financial adviser for MetLife Resources. Green Portage is a monthly feature of the Record-Courier in cooperation with the Portage Park District Foundation.