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A Bird's Eye View: Eagle watch tours entertain guides, too

by Flip Putthoff | January 14, 2022 at 7:00 a.m.
STAFF PHOTO FLIP PUTTHOFF This juvenile bald eagle seen on an eagle watch cruise is starting to develop its white head. Eagles don't get their white head and white tail feathers until age 5 or 6.

Kids say the darndest things, but so do grown-ups sometimes when they're aboard the big pontoon boat during eagle-watch cruises on Beaver Lake.

Offered by Hobbs State Park, cruises ply the clear water at the 31,000-acre reservoir each winter Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting. There's a driver and a guide aboard each cruise provided by a platoon of volunteers who sign up and take training for eagle-cruise duty. It's a hoot when these skippers and guides swap stories of their trips out there on the lake with excited kids and adults.

Bob Ross, Alan Bland and yours truly were fortunate to be drivers and guides for years. We all recently retired from eagle watch duty because so many new people wanted to get involved. We're sure they're getting a chuckle, as we did, at some of the funny questions and comments from the life-jacket wearing passengers that came our way.

Bland is a retired Army Corps of Engineers park ranger who worked at Beaver Lake for decades. One cruise was particularly delightful, with a good number of eagles seen on a beautiful day.

As one guy was getting off the boat, he told Bland he enjoyed the trip, but was disappointed in one thing.

"I'm surprised we didn't see any beavers," the passenger from a distant state said. "I've never seen a beaver, and I came to Beaver Lake because I expected to see lots of beavers."

Bland politely explained that the lake is named for the little town of Beaver, Ark., not the furry critter. Beaver, the town, is where the Beaver Lake dam was originally going to be built. The town is named after a postmaster whose last name was Beaver.

Sometimes passengers get a guffaw from a driver or guide, like Ross.

"There was one trip where we'd seen five bald eagles," Ross recalls, "and I was the first one to spot all five. I was sort of beating my chest, proud of that. On the water you look for that white head of an adult bald eagle. I saw that white again and motioned for the driver to head over that way. Turned out I was looking at a pickle bucket."

I always liked to do most of my guide spiel at the dock before we headed out. We were talking about nests one day, and I mentioned there are about half a dozen bald eagle nests on the lake.

"Oh that's nothing," a passenger piped. "I've got an eagle nest in my back yard in Springdale."

What can you say? I just said she might want to let Game and Fish know about that.

We talked about all kinds of wild things with passengers on the boat. One conversation turned to our beautiful Ozark streams.

A passenger asked, "Now when did the Corps of Engineers build the Buffalo River?"

That was a doozy, but I never considered any question a silly one. Hey, if you don't know, you don't know.

Then there was the passenger from Wisconsin. Someone asked how deep Beaver Lake is and I said near the dam it's about 200 feet.

"Well some spots on Lake Superior are a thousand feet deep," he said.

Later we cruised near a beautiful Beaver Lake bluff about 100 feet high. "At Lake Superior, we've got bluffs that are way higher."

One thing guides and drivers get a chuckle about is this: As passengers board the boat, we can always tell who's going to freeze. Even in January and February, some folks show up in a wind breaker and no hat. Women occasionally arrive in high heels. Good thing there are comfy blankets on the boat, as well as binoculars for passengers to use.

Here at the newspaper, we always recommend in our stories that people dress for weather 20 degrees colder than it is on land. It feels chillier out there on the water.

There's a new twist this year. No restrooms are open at Rocky Branch park as in past years. No flush toilets, no porta-potties, no nothing. That means there's no restroom for passengers to use before boarding the boat and there's no restroom on the boat.

There is a public restroom at the Shaddox Hollow Trail parking area along Arkansas 303 on the way to the marina. Good advice here is, "Go before you go."

We can always tell who didn't. Back at the dock they want off that boat pretty darned fast.

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Eagle Watch Tours

WHEN — 3 p.m. Jan. 15-17, 22-23, 29-30; Feb. 5-6; 12-13; 19-21; 26-27

WHERE — Passengers make reservations and pay by phone or at Hobbs State Park visitor center 1/4 mile east of Arkansas 12 and War Eagle Road east of Rogers; cruises leave from Rocky Branch Marina

COST — $7.50-$15

INFO — 789-5000

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