I used to work near a lake in western Washington. Along the shoreline was a park with a stand of Douglas firs that stood twenty or thirty yards from the water’s edge. The top of one of the firs had lost all its needles, leaving a naked trident piercing the sky. In the crook of that trident, a bald eagle frequently perched, watching.
One day, my wife invited me for a picnic lunch. She picked me up at work and drove us to the park, where we found a bench between the water and those Douglas firs. Two fishermen were standing near their beached rowboat while a dozen or so ducks swam just off shore.
We were halfway through lunch when suddenly, the ducks took flight en masse, and seconds later, an eagle dove into view, plunged its talons into the water, pulled a writhing steelhead trout out of the lake, and flew off.
It happened so fast, several seconds of stunned silence settled in its wake. But then the fishermen starting jumping up and down. “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!!” they shouted at each other, at us, at no one in particular.
It reminded me of something that happened many years earlier in a much different setting. I was in high school and living near the ocean in Southern California. My best friend and I had ridden our bikes down the Coast Highway early one summer morning.
We came to a beach still empty of sunbathers and surfers and decided to take a swim. The tide was low and, being early, the wind hadn’t risen. The water was glassy and the surf little more than a ripple.
Wading out to waist-deep water, we knelt in the sand and let our arms spread out, the saltwater causing us to bob and drift slightly in the current. We didn’t talk. It felt magical, even holy, and silence seemed the only respectful response.
Suddenly we heard a faint splashing behind us and, turning at the sound, we saw four dolphins swimming twenty yards beyond where we knelt. We didn’t want to breathe let alone move. After a few moments, the dolphins continued north and we were left alone again.
We came out of the water, dried off, put on our shoes and shirts and rode fifteen miles home without saying a word.
Maybe it’s because our daily living has become so far removed from the natural world, wrapped up in concrete buildings, asphalt streets, fluorescent lights and computer monitors. But these momentary encounters with wildlife in their natural surroundings feel almost transcendent.
One of my favorite things about cycling is that it has brought me to those encounters on multiple occasions, as it did with the dolphins. Once, while riding on an old, forested rail trail, I stopped beneath a western red cedar for a snack break. A minute later, two owls came swooping down the mountainside and settled in the cedar. One was barely visible near the trunk of the tree; the other was perched on the nearest branch, watching me with unwavering vigilance.
Perhaps they had a nest in the cedar and were protecting their owlets. But they were definitely not comfortable with my presence. I quickly finished my snack and rode on.
On another ride along a river trail, I had my camera and telephoto lens with me and caught a bald eagle just starting to spread its wings and take flight from the top branches of a bare alder.
A few months ago, on my bike commute home from work, I turned into our condominium complex as a bobcat stepped out of the wooded canyon that runs beside us, trotted across the road ten yards in front of me, and walked into the trees between the buildings. I had never seen a bobcat out of captivity and stopped to make sure it was really there.
The bobcat might never have seen a bicyclist either, because it stopped and watched me for several seconds before turning and melting into the trees.
These moments are magical not simply because of the surprise and delight they inspire in the seconds or minutes they are taking place. Their magic lies even more potently in the vibrant memory of the encounter that resonates in mind, muscle, and bone for days, months, and years afterward.
They are stunning reminders that despite our cars and televisions and social media, we are still animals living in the natural world. Coming face to face with an eagle, a dolphin, or a bobcat gives us the opportunity, if only for a few seconds, to feel again that deeper, older, and wilder part of our self.
It’s a gift of healing.