A freight train chugs across a bridge high above as Cleveland Metroparks historian Karen Lakus begins a tour of what she calls the hidden valley. Not long ago, she says, this was a dump.
“It was trash and gravel, and it was completely overgrown,” she says.
Now, just a few miles south of downtown Cleveland, this ribbon of fields and forest forms an urban oasis. We head up the towpath, bordered on our right by the remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal, and on our left by the muddy Cuyahoga River.
“Just this last year is when we started noticing a lot of eagles," says Lakus, pointing to a stretch of river dotted with pale sycamore trees. “One day we came down here and we were able to count 20 eagles at one time.”
Bald eagles were nearly wiped out in Ohio a generation ago. But now they’re back, and a pair is nesting close to the industrial heart of Cleveland.
Nesting Near The Tank Farm
We’re looking for just two bald eagles, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Cuyahoga Valley’s newest nesting pair. Instead, we catch a whiff of what smells like burning rubber wafting from a complex of low-slung buildings looming to our right.
“That is the steel plant,” Lakus says, "part of Charter Steel up on East 49th Street."
On the opposite bank of the river, we see dozens of cylindrical tanks. Each holds 40 million gallons of fuel. The “tank farm” is the terminus of a regional pipeline, through which the majority of Northeast Ohioans fill their gas tanks.
And then we see it. A bald eagle nest sits like a dark smudge near the top of a distant tree.
Lakus says the pile of sticks weighs about a ton. The largest seen in Ohio, measured in 1925, weighed 2 tons, was 12 feet deep and more than 8 feet across.
We head up the trail to get a closer look, but nobody is home. The eagles are off hunting, and Lakus says they haven’t laid eggs yet.
But they did last year, she says, marking the first time eagles have bred in this stretch of the Cuyahoga in more than one hundred years.
From Burning River To Breeding Ground
The Cuyahoga River famously burned for the final time in 1969, but it had long been declared “dead” for much of its northbound stretch.
A news reel from 1967 shows images of sludge and debris, the narrator dramatically describing "an exhausted stream, abused and misused by man and his machines.” The 1969 fire helped spark the nation’s environmental movement, and half a century later its enforcement actions are bearing fruit up and down the river's length.
Ten miles upriver from the Industrial Valley, crowds often gather to spy a pair of breeding bald eagles in Brecksville.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park volunteer Gene Stepanik aims his spotting scope across the river toward a massive tangle of sticks at the top of a sycamore. He glimpses the white patch of a nesting eagle's head.
“You can see its eye,” he tells me when it's my turn.
A female bald eagle hunkers down in the nest, barely visible, a clear indication she’s sitting on eggs. Soon her mate swoops in to relieve her, and with barely a nod, she darts off to do a little fishing as he settles in to incubate.
Stepanik says fish populations in the Cuyahoga had once been decimated. Now, he says, 60 types of fish breed here, "everything from minnows, to steelhead trout.”
The pair we’re watching arrived in 2006, the first in the Cuyahoga Valley in more than 70 years.
Ohio's Urban Eagles
The Brecksville eagles are one of more than 220 nesting pairs in Ohio, a remarkable return for a bird that 50 years ago was on the brink of extinction.
“This has been one of the most extraordinary conservation success stories ever,” according to Harvey Webster, chief wildlife officer at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
His team spent more than a decade breeding baby eagles in captivity and placing them in the few remaining nests near Sandusky, “so they would have both the imprint of real wild eagles and the geographic imprint to Ohio.”
That population has spread to all of Ohio’s major lakes and rivers, and along the way, adapted to the human landscape.
Webster says the eagles' rebound shows that if we care enough about something, including the symbol of our nation, we can indeed remedy the wrongs of the past.