Her cell phone chimed. It was Rob at Orphaned Wildlife.
“Hey, Mattie, are you busy?”
“I just got a call from a woman about a Great Blue Heron in distress.”
“She’s in the parking lot at Blackie’s Spit, it’s at the end of–”
“I know where it is.”
“You do? Good. The heron appears to be attached to a rotted piling in the middle of the estuary. She says it can’t fly, it’s wing or leg is caught on something. It takes off, rises about five feet and then crash lands back on the piling,” Rob said. “We don’t do rescues–”
“I can be there in less than an hour.”
“The thing is the tide will be coming in soon and the piling will be under water.”
Mattie gathered the essentials; wire snips, canvas bag, heavy leather gloves, protective eyewear and stuffed them in a backpack. She kicked off her sneakers, stepped into a pair of gumboots and was out the door.
Blackie’s Spit jutted out into the estuary where the Nicomekl River flowed into Boundary Bay. It was a great place for bird watching, attracting sea and shore birds as well as raptors. When the tide was out, sandpipers and plovers skittered across the mud while Great Blue Herons hunted in the shallows.
Reaching the heron at low tide would be nothing more than trudging through thick mud and wading across the ankle-deep channel. But the channel was narrow and filled fast when the tide came in. The bird’s life depended on her getting there fast.
She arrived within forty minutes. The clouds had thickened, the sky had darkened, there was no one in the parking lot and the incoming tide was insinuating itself up the banks of the river.
From the shore, Mattie watched as the heron launched itself into the air and was pulled back down, colliding with the rotting wood. She put on her eye shields, slipped the backpack over her shoulders, and started toward the bird.
The shore was gravel, then sand, then mud–mud that was eight inches deep and threatened to suck off her boots. It was slow going. Mattie watched the sea creeping closer, each small wave receded less and the next one came up further.
As she got closer, she could tell by the dull plumage the heron was juvenile, about four feet in length from head to foot and likely weighing at least five pounds. The bird was now watching Mattie. She had to be careful. The three-inch bill that speared fish was also used for defense.
The heron had fishing line wrapped around a wing and a leg and it was snagged by a lure embedded in its back. The other end of the line was attached to something beneath the mud.
Mattie stopped, opened the backpack, put on the gloves and took out the bag. She felt a chill as cold water lapped over the tops of her boots. She needed to get the bag over the bird’s head before she could cut the line and free it, and she couldn’t wait. She stepped closer, and the heron tried to take flight. When it was jerked back down Mattie moved in and before it could regain its balance covered it with the canvas bag.
The bird was still. Mattie reached in the backpack for the wire snips. They slipped from her gloved hand into the ocean.
The water was at her crotch. She could feel the current tugging at her legs. She shucked off the gloves, bent her knees, ducked her head under the water and felt around in the mud. Nothing. She came up for air. She took a deep breath and went back under. The current caught her backpack and pulled her over. Completely submerged, she put down a hand to push up and felt the snips.
Back on her feet, the ocean now above her waist, she cut the line that tethered the heron to the bottom. The bird began to flap. Mattie pulled up the bag, but kept it over the head and lethal beak. She grabbed the lure lodged deep in the bird's back, twisted, and it came out with a clump of bloody feathers. The fishing line attached to it slid out from around the wing and dropped off the leg. She pulled off the hood.
The heron floated on the water but was either in shock or too exhausted to lift off. Mattie moved behind it and lifted the bird out of the water.
The heron flapped, flapped, then took off, faltered, recovered and made it to the opposite bank.
Mattie turned to go back. Two other cars were now in the parking lot and three people were on the shore watching her efforts. Two appeared to be videoing the rescue with their cell phones.
“Great.” The last thing Mattie wanted was more notoriety. Maybe she wouldn’t be recognized so far away.
And it was far away. The tide had climbed up the bank of the river and dry land was now a long way off. She was exhausted, freezing, and the water was just under her chin. She looked to where the heron was now preening its feathers on the opposite bank. It was a lot closer, but her car was parked on the other side.
She didn’t have a choice. She shrugged off the backpack and dog-paddled toward the heron on the beach.
Ten minutes later she pulled herself up on the shore and lay there panting, face pressed against the rocks. When she finally stood up, the heron took flight, sailing majestically over the bay.
It was enough.
In the past few months she’d watched helplessly as dozens of her precious, beautiful birds had succumbed to disease, narrowly escaped kidnapping at the hands of the sinister Mexican police, watched an innocent woman, shot for no reason, die in her arms, stood by as her partner struggled with political and personal issues that left her emotionally battered, and yesterday comforted her mother who’d been viciously attacked trying to assist a marginalized person. All the pain, frustration and futility of those recent events, the pall of hopelessness that had left her asking why bother, all of it had been erased by saving one bird.
She had purpose, she had value, she had focus. She would carry on.
A dike road protected this side of the estuary. If Mattie walked along it upriver for three miles, there was a railway bridge. If the bridge span was closed, she could cross it and then walk down river to the parking lot where her car was.
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