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On a muggy morning not long ago, a former park ranger from Cincinnati named Jack Holt slouched beneath a giant white pine tree in the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, methodically coiling 150 feet of thick manila rope on the ground. Pale, unshaven and a little bleary-eyed, Holt didn't much resemble the all-American backpacker such a splendid setting required. On the contrary, the burly 6-footer looked more like a middle-aged bouncer nursing a hangover. He ignored the mosquitoes swarming over his bare arms, but every now and then he glanced at the sky and scowled. The wind was picking up.
Earlier, Holt had been motorboating across a gently ruffled lake with four companions when biologist Sergej Postupalsky waved at the dispersing storm clouds. "Look at the blue. Jack," he shouted. Holt was in no mood for small talk. "I'm not interested in blue," he snarled. "I'm interested in wind."
Holt's interest was understandable. His first assignment that day was to band two young bald eagles nesting atop one of the most formidable trees on the peninsula. In a dead calm the climb would be intimidating; in 40-mph gusts, it would be ridiculous. But now Holt stoically buckled on his battered W.H. Buckingham climbing irons, checked the tools attached to his belt, snapped on his homemade "eagle stick" and fidgeted while Postupalsky administered a final burst of mosquito repellent across the back of his faded green T shirt. Then Holt proceeded to assay the task.
The designated nest was a swaying platform of sticks 10 feet across, several feet thick and 115 feet above the ground. The trunk of the tree was 11 feet around at the base, too thick to girdle with a rope, so Holt started up a nearby maple instead. There are other birdmen in the U.S. who scale tall trees, but unlike most of them. Jack Holt doesn't use a rope ladder, a safety belt, a safety line or a helmet while climbing and he eschews the security of a fellow climber. He just bear-hugs a tree with his rope and clambers right on up. Two steps, flip the rope; two steps, flip the rope.
After progressing in this fashion about 50 feet up the maple, Holt drew even with the lowest branches of the pine. There he paused, throwing ropes and fussing with knots, until he had made fast a line between the two trees. Then he swung across to the pine and free-climbed up the branches all the way to the nest, where he tied himself in and bent to his task.
The eaglets on the fishy-smelling platform removed themselves as far as possible from the awful intruder. Covered with chocolate-colored feathers but still showing wisps of white down here and there, they hissed at Holt, their ebony beaks held half open. They were just seven or eight weeks old and had not yet fledged, but their wings already stretched more than five feet from tip to tip and the talons on their yellow feet were large and dangerous. Using the hook at the end of his eagle stick, Holt secured a grip on the leg of one bird, dragged it across the nest, fended off the thumping blows of its wings and turned the eaglet over on its belly, facing away from him. Grasping both legs with one hand, he slipped an open band on one ankle, riveted it shut, released the bird and then went after the other one. The adult eagles were nowhere in sight.
Back on earth, Postupalsky, who knows the location and recent history of almost every eagle nest in the state of Michigan, was explaining to an observer how a previous nest in this tree had been blown down two years ago. Suddenly, Holt screamed. The sound was muffled by the rising roar of the wind but there was no mistaking the urgency in that howl. "Aaaaaaarrrrrrrrrghh! Gawddam-gawddam-geezus-keeeeee-rist!" Postupalsky grinned. "It's the wind," he said. "It always seems to start gusting when he gets up on this nest."
Moments later Holt climbed back down through the branches in a shower of bark and debris. As soon as he hit the ground, Postupalsky, pen and notebook in hand, began to debrief him. How many birds? How old? Sexes? Any food in the nest? Anything unusual to report? Holt answered calmly enough as he unbuckled his irons and recoiled the rope. But when he held up a pike jawbone he had found in the nest, his hand was shaking.
On the way back to the boat, Holt admitted he had been scared up there. But then he allowed as how he is always scared in the wind. The only thing worse than climbing a live tree in that kind of wind, he said, is climbing a dead tree in that kind of wind.
"Well, Jack," said Postupalsky, a big, ebullient fellow who was born in Czechoslovakia and speaks with a rich accent, "now that we've got the biggest one out of the way, maybe tomorrow we can do the deadest one."