As we approach the end of March, our migrating winter eagles in the Illinois River Valley are beginning to fly north to their permanent nesting sites in the upper Midwest and Canada. 



I will miss them until they return next winter but I was able to celebrate our national bird a little longer when I visited the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., on the “Where Eagles Dare” tour presented by Mayflower Tours of Downers Grove, Ill.


As we approach the end of March, our migrating winter eagles in the Illinois River Valley are beginning to fly north to their permanent nesting sites in the upper Midwest and Canada. 

I will miss them until they return next winter but I was able to celebrate our national bird a little longer when I visited the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., on the “Where Eagles Dare” tour presented by Mayflower Tours of Downers Grove, Ill.

I will be working with Mayflower Tours as a tour director for their motorcoach tours this year and welcomed the opportunity to ride along on this unique three-day tour of southeast Minnesota river towns Winona, Wabasha, and Red Wing.

Our first stop, as we crossed the Mississippi River from Wisconsin into Minnesota, was in Winona at the Watkins Products home office and museum.

This international company, with more than 40,000 sales associates worldwide, was founded here in 1868 by J.R. Watkins who sold liniment with the very first “money-back guarantee” on a consumer product.

Today, Watkins manufacturing complex encompasses a full city block in downtown Winona and is probably most famous for its outstanding vanilla. 

A guided tour of their home office complete with Tiffany stained glass windows was followed by a visit to the adjoining Watkins Museum offering a glimpse into their past. 

More than 350 products and historical exhibits are on display here and items are available for purchase there or online at  www.WatkinsOnline.com.

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum is also located in Winona on the banks of the Mississippi and features “Great Art Inspired by Water.” 

Four galleries of world class marine art paintings and artifacts combined with local folk art and revolving historical exhibits such as “The Shell Game: Clam Fishing and the Pearl Button Industry” made this museum exceed my expectations.  

Check their Web site for upcoming exhibits at www.minnesotamarineart.org.

Next, we proceeded north in a soupy fog along scenic US Highway 61 to our home for the next two nights — The AmericInn Lodge and Suites of Wabasha — “the historic rivertown where bald eagles gather and home of Hollywood movies “Grumpy Old Men” and its sequel “Grumpier Old Men.” 

As we exited the motorcoach, a sign in the parking lot featured two carved bald eagles which I joked with our passengers would have to serve as our first two sightings until the weather cleared.

In the meantime, I was surprised when I checked in to my room to find myself in the Cat House Suite — one of their eight themed suites for guests. 

Complete with a king sized bed, a fireplace and jacuzzi, along with a dozen or so cat figurines, dolls, etc., it was a very cozy place to lay down my head after a long day of travel.

After a short “cat” nap, a gourmet dinner awaited us that evening in the Vinifera Vine and Dine Restaurant in downtown Wabasha. 

A pear and gorgonzola salad preceded a cedar plank grilled salmon w/garlic celery cream sauce entree and chocolate brownie cake a la mode for dessert.

The next morning dawned clear and we left the National Eagle Center in downtown Wabasha with our local eagle expert and high hopes of spotting eagles in the wild. 

As we headed north along Hwy 61 to Reads Landing we learned that eagles are common in the area because of the wide stretch of open water just below Pepin Lake (a large pool of the Mississippi not unlike Peoria Lake on the Illinois River) which provides eagles with a steady supply of fish year round. 

As we approached the pulloff area, we spotted a large, mature bald eagle in a tree calmly surveying the river and when we set up our viewing scope we could plainly see other eagles on the ice and flying over the river. 

For many of the passengers from the Chicago area, it was their first sightings of eagles.

We learned eagle facts like: (1) the adult bald eagle has over 7,000 feathers and (2) that adult bald eagles are identical to the eye other than the fact that the FEMALE is actually larger and heavier.

When we returned to the National Eagle Center we were treated to a “Nose to Beak” experience with resident mature bald eagles, Harriet, Angel, and Columbia along with an immature Was’Aka and Donald the Golden Eagle. 

A special glass-encased inside viewing area is their home which guests are allowed to enter and literally get within two feet of the magnificent birds which are tethered so they may look out over the river themselves.

Next we gathered in the classroom area where a handler presented an educational program complete with a feeding of fresh fish for the tethered eagle, who was happily perched on the handler’s extended arm. 

Various programs are held throughout the year to honor eagles and are online at  www.nationaleaglecenter.org.

It was time for our own noon “feeding” and we headed to the hills above town to the Coffee Mill Golf and Country Club for a delicious broasted chicken lunch before departing to the neighboring village of Kellogg and Lark Toys. 

This family friendly complex offers high quality, wholesome and healthy educational toys, books, products and a one of a kind carousel.

Hand carved from native basswood, the colorful collection of animals that are found on their carousel range from the state bird, the loon, to the mythical dragon and unicorn. 
Lark Toys is open year round. For complete information go to www.larktoys.com.

After slipping across the bridge to Nelson and Alma, Wisconsin for cheese, ice cream, and scenic views, it was time for dinner at Slippery’s Bar and Grill, made famous in the “Grumpy Old Men” movies.

I dined on tilapia although I daydreamed about Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau finally hooking “Catfish Hunter” in the movie.

After dinner, we enjoyed an evening of musical entertainment around the fireplace in the lobby of the AmericInn before getting a good night’s sleep and our final tour stop upriver, Red Wing, Minn.

As we drove to Red Wing the next morning, we saw several more large adult eagles one of which flew along the edge of the river parallel to the bus for a mile or more and another perched on the top of a telephone pole, which I had never seen before.

In Red Wing, we enjoyed a tour of the Red Wing Boot factory, where the world’s best work boots are still made by skilled craftsmen by hand ensuring the quality that has built their worldwide reputation. 

We were able to purchase their footwear at their factory outlet store in downtown Red Wing later that day at bargain prices.

For lunch, we visited the Red Wing Pottery Shops and visited the Red Wing Pottery Museum dedicated to the history of the pottery industry that once flourished with clay found in the area. 

Now all that remained was the ride home but we all left with memories of the eagles, friendly folks, and unique attractions of the Upper Mississipi River Valley and southeast Minnesota.

I will be heading out on the road leading Mayflower Tours myself April 11-18 and May 1-8 beginning with Value Tours to Myrtle Beach, S.C. and would love to have you join me. Call 800-323-7604, Extension 1 or visit www.mayflowertours.com. 

Make sure you tell them Mark Bradley referred you and I hope to see you all on the road soon!

About the author: Mark Bradley is a tour director and currently resides in Chillicothe. He is a 1973 graduate of Illinois Valley Central High School and 1977 graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a degree in radio/TV.

For more about Mark Bradley, click here.