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This time of year, you’ll usually find RiverQuest Captain Mark Yuknat out on the water, tracking down bald eagles and other fauna of the lower Connecticut River. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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It was blustery day, temperature in the 20s, winds blowing at between 12 and 15 miles an hour, with a wind chill that made it feel like 11 degrees, but the people disembarking from RiverQuest at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex were smiling as they made their way up the gangplank. They had seen what they came for: eagles.
For RiverQuest Captain Mark Yuknat, the weather wasn’t even that cold.
“We’ve gone out in much colder, nine degrees, I think,” he says.
What keeps RiverQuest at the dock is snow or fog or rain thick enough so that passengers cannot see the wildlife they came to observe.
Of course, the boat’s cabin has both a heater and thick, clear plastic around the sides that allows passengers to see outside without letting the elements come in. And Captain Mark, as he is known, has his own secret: battery-heated gloves that he charges every night.
“My wife gave them to me and they work well,” he says.
Mark’s wife, Mindy, who works at the Lee Company, also takes care of the advertising and paperwork for RiverQuest.
Mark and Mindy? Does that remind you of anything? Mark regularly hears references to Robin Williams’s breakthrough television series Mork and Mindy.
“Pretty much every day,” he says.
Mark has been captaining cruises up the Connecticut River since 2001, in the winter embarking from the dock at the Connecticut River Museum, in the summer from Eagle Landing State Park in East Haddam. On a recent visit to the Essex dock, his crew included naturalist Cathy Malin, who was dressed for the weather with hat, gloves, wool socks, long johns, and windproof pants over which she wore Carhartt bib overalls and a windproof jacket.
The mouth of the Connecticut River is prime winter territory for eagles. The birds come from further north at this time of year.
“Their food source is water-based, so when the water freezes up there, they come down looking for open water,” Mark says. “This is great habitat for them. There are fish, clean water, and vast expanses of protected property, state land, and Nature Conservancy land.”
The eagles are not picky about dinner. At this time of year, according to Mark, they will make a meal of dead fish floating in the water.
“That way they don’t have to get wet,” he says.
He recalls a particular fish kill when many small fish swam into a shallow area where they froze as the water itself froze. The fish made prime eating for the eagles.
“Word gets out,” Mark says.
The lowest number of eagles that Mark has seen on a cruise is one-half—it was an eagle sitting on a nest, Mark explains, so passengers only saw half of it. Usually eagle sightings number in the 20s.
Mark scans ahead with binoculars looking for eagle as he pilots the boat.
“I’m looking for something different, a big brown blob on a tree,” he says.
There are also binoculars on board for all the passengers. On a recent afternoon, as a visitor sat talking with Mark and Cathy at the dock, binoculars were not even necessary. An eagle soared overhead.
“There’s one,” both pointed out.
Most of the eagles that people see in this area are bald eagles, but in the nearly two decades Mark has operated the cruise, says there have been four sightings of golden eagles. Many of the bald eagles are immature birds, completely dark, without the characteristic white head, which only develops when the birds are five years old.
Mark cannot recognize individual birds, but when he sees mating pairs, he can tell males and females. The females are bigger—”And, my wife says, smarter,” he adds.
The crew named a recent pair that they see regularly in the same area Bob and Helen, after Bob and Helen Davis, longtime volunteers who recently retired from the Connecticut River Museum.
The eagle population in this area, Bob says, is now growing after a time when the birds had become an endangered species because of widespread use of DDT. The insecticide weakened the egg shells leading to a precipitous decline in numbers as few birds hatched.
“I think the last eagle’s nest in Hamburg Cove was in something like 1952,” Mark says.
In 1972, the Environmental Protection Administration banned the use of DDT and threatened bird populations began to recover. Now in addition to the large migrant population, there are some eagles who make permanent homes along the river. In fact, as of 2007, eagles are no longer considered endangered.
Before captaining RiverQuest, Mark, now 66, had a varied career. He has worked at Electric Boat and for United Parcel Service. For four years he delivered packages in Deep River and then for 12 years in Chester.
Before his delivery days, for seven years he was a member of the state capitol police force in Hartford. The policemen were asked all kinds of questions, but one was constant Mark recalls was where to find bathrooms.
And he is still asked that question regularly on RiverQuest. The boat does have a bathroom and it is handicap accessible, but it is frozen in winter and doesn’t work. The solution is the same one that everybody’s parents insisted on before embarking on trip: Make sure you go to the bathroom before you leave. In real emergencies, Mark adds, the frozen bathroom can be made available.
Riverquest has a shallow draft, only 22 inches, so Mark can bring the boat close to shore to observe wildlife.
“The boat is stable, it’s nice and wide, we think of it like a floating classroom,” he says.
On a recent trip, a passenger reported seeing animals on the shore that she thought might have been muskrats, but when she described the two creatures as small, sleek, and fast, Malin believed they might have been mink.
“A muskrat is short and fat,” she says.
Mark can sometimes do as many as four cruises in a day, but he says he is never bored.
“Every day is different. I don’t get tired of saying the same thing because every cruise is different. You never know what you are going to see,” he says.
He has seen beavers, river otters, and what he describes as some very big fish, Atlantic sturgeon. They can grow as big as 15 feet, though the ones he saw were six or seven feet long.
Mark loves the reaction of passengers to the experience.
“They tell me they had no idea that all of this was right here in their back yard. It’s fun to hear people say that,” he says.
He also loves the feeling of freedom that comes from being out on the river and being his own boss. Well, sort of.
“Mindy is the admiral; I am just the captain,” he says.
Then he amends that statement, looking at Malin.
“Actually, I say I have two admirals,” he adds.
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