05/08/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Clad in a red rain jacket and knee-high rubber boots, Jean Keene, 76, treads slowly down a pebbly beach, toting a bucket of smelly herring. As the morning fog lifts in Homer, Alaska, a tiny coastal community 133 miles south of Anchorage, the sky suddenly turns dark with hundreds of bald eagles. Keene—known as the Eagle Lady in this small fishing hub—rises early each day to feed one of the world's largest gatherings—some 300—of America's once-endangered national symbol. She beams like a proud parent as a few majestic birds tear gleefully into their breakfast. "It's a big responsibility," Keene says proudly. "I enjoy wildlife, and I don't like seeing anything go hungry."
From around Christmas to April for the past 20 years, she has hauled up to 600 lbs. a day of herring, cod heads and halibut scraps from local canneries over to her regular feeding spot, sometimes enduring temperatures as cold as 45 below zero. A Minnesota native, Keene once worked as a professional rodeo rider and a dog groomer before moving to Alaska in 1977. For 17 years she was a supervisor at a local cannery, the source of her first finny scraps. Divorced with one son, Lonnie, now 40, Keene has become a local celebrity. In season, cars, minivans and SUVs line up six-deep in the driveway of her beachfront trailer home, cameras poking through car windows as Keene feeds her feathered friends. Her detractors complain that the growing bald-eagle population disturbs the natural balance. "The eagles eat the other birds," says Clem Tillion, a local tour-boat operator. But Keene believes her work helps humans better appreciate—and thus be more inclined to preserve—nature. "Sometimes I think, what the hell am I doing out here?" she says, bundled up against the freezing rain. "But not for long."
Leslie Berestein in Homer