Mike the Protector

By Guy McClure

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This may or may not have actually happened, but it happened in my head and it is happening on the paper on which I’m writing so that’s good enough for me.   The following is a story about fear, trust and an unspoken friendship that I have encountered along a wooded path.  It begins with a first step and I’d like to take you with me.  Believe it if you need to.

About a year ago I first experienced the joy of the Swan Creek nature trail in my hometown of Athens, Alabama.  It was developed years ago by the city as a recreational respite for those needing to take a bit of exercise or those wanting to marvel in a fairly untouched part of the town.   The path starts at its most southern point where Highway 72 dips down and crosses Swan Creek.  Its crushed gravel, wide track meanders alongside the creek for which the trail is named – a fast moving, natural drainage system that ebbs and flows depending on the rainfall and keeps the town above water during the inevitable torrents.

I am an early riser and usually make it to the trail as day breaks.  At this hour most of my walks are done alone and I witness many types of animal life who are just starting their day as well.   Rabbits, squirrels, foxes, and deer – I have seen them all.   As I approach, each scampers into the thick vegetation that lines the path opposite the creek shore.

Some days were luckier than others as I would see Mike.  Mike is the name given by a friend of mine’s boys who have witnessed him as well.  He is a majestic Great Blue Heron who will stand in the rushing water about half way down the path.  Many times I’d miss him, but Mike always sees me before I see him.  About once a week, in a silent moment of discovery, I’ll happen upon him – so shocked by his beauty that I come to a complete stop and stare.   He lets me stare for about 30 seconds then spreads his wings and I am awestruck by the sheer size of his wing span, the blue of his coloring, and the grace of his propulsion.   He does not fly away in fear or out of aggression; I feel he just wants me to witness his power, grace, and ability.   Yes, it is always a lucky day when I see Mike but I’ll not know how lucky until early one morning in December.

The new winter had stripped the foliage from the brambles and saplings that floored the woods on the west side of the path, but there was still a mass of limbs, vines and evergreens that kept a natural state of protection for animals.  The new winter had also stripped the path of most of its visitors – mostly due to the temperature but also to the lack of morning light.  That one day was warmer than most, and I had more time than usual so I thought I would visit the path to see what changes the season had brought.

That morning the first thing I noticed was an eerie quietness to the path, the woods, and the creek.  Something was different and it was unsettling.  I then realized that I had not seen any of the small animals that usually run from me, bounding in to the dry thickets as I turn a corner and come into view.  As I got further along the trail I began to notice small bits of fur and feathers scattered about, then small bones which were scoured and snapped into sharp points, finally blood – drops and streaks as if this had been a battlefield overnight.  An uneasiness overcame me and as I was about halfway down the path I turned to make my way out of the woods and off the trail.  Then, I heard it – a guttural growl in the thicket just off the path alongside me at a low, monotone level for a long, long time.  I quickened my pace and felt tension in the air but I was careful not to give the sound the attention it was craving.  As I walked, it kept time with my steps, always just a couple of yards from my feet, unseen in the foliage.  The low tone rose and now it was just a few inches from me – following me as my pace quickened even more.  It was an unknown type of animal, possibly hungry, and I was now its prey.  Out of the corner of my eye I could seem the steam rising from its nostrils and I could feel the power as I knew it was going back on its haunches getting ready to strike – to lunge at me after a quick intake of air.  Although I did not stop, I prepared myself for the inevitable attack.

As a shadow crossed my face, I closed my eyes and curled myself into a ball.  I was about to be killed if not severely maimed by a wild creature and probably left to die on an empty trail.  My blood and bones would join the others I had seen earlier and that should have served as a warning to me.

Then I heard a noise that could not be associated with a vicious mammal.  It was more of a caw, like a crow, but at a much more intense level. I looked up to see a blur of blue transcending from the sky and I realized that shadow that had crossed my face was Mike.  The Great Blue Heron hurled himself toward the thicket with his web feet first in attack mode. He hit the unknown creature with a force unimaginable and with his sharp beak pointed directly toward the animal apparently piercing his skin and causing it to scream in pain.  I could see Mike’s enormous wing span from behind and he continually pelted my attacker with his sharp beak and webbed talons.  His wings stabilized him by grasping the undergrowth and allowing his instruments of attack to be free to do their damage.  After what seemed like an eternity, I heard the creature scream and retreat deeper into the woods.  I sat on the crushed gravel path as Mike straightened himself and came to a full stance.  He did not look at me and did not acknowledge what he had done.  As I started to say “Thank you Mike” he turned and flew away, back to the creek.  The wind created by his wings as he flew over my head was the sweetest wind I had ever experienced.  He owed me nothing, but he had saved me from a certain doom.  I owed him everything.

Yesterday I finally gathered the courage to return to the path.  Walking along I saw the rabbits and squirrels, and I saw Mike.  I came upon him in his usual spot – I stopped.  For thirty seconds I watched him and then he flew away.

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