Visitors throng to Alaska each summer to watch bears, whales, and other animals in the wild, but these travelers miss one of the state’s most astounding gatherings: the fall assembly of bald eagles in the Chilkat River Valley, near the southeast Alaska town of Haines. During breeding season the valley boasts around 300 eagles—but the population can swell tenfold when the snow flies. The attraction: food.
An unusual phenomenon keeps parts of the Chilkat River ice free, providing ideal conditions for a unique late season salmon run. All summer, water flows into an underground reservoir created by gravel deposits at the confluence of the Tsirku, Klehini, and Chilkat rivers. In fall and winter the water percolates upward, keeping the river from freezing. Chum and silver salmon lay eggs in the gravel and then die. Their carcasses provide food for eagles and a host of other animals.
Cottonwoods line the riverbanks, and from October through February eagles dot these trees on what has come to be called the "Bald Eagle Council Grounds." After a snow, the roosting birds resemble giant Christmas ornaments. As many as 3,500 bald eagles—5 percent of the world’s total of 70,000—overrun the valley at their peak. To protect this remarkable place along with its birds, the 48,000-acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was established in 1982.
Today it isn’t just salmon and eagles that flock to the Chilkat Valley but also photographers, birders, and tourists marveling at this largest-in-the-world gathering of eagles. Haines Highway parallels the river, providing ready access by either tour bus or rental car. With its panoramic turnouts and information kiosks (did you know that eagle nests weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and can collapse trees?), the drive itself is reason enough to visit. Steep mountains rise above the valley, creating a rocky barrier that makes for early sunsets and late sunrises all winter. It’s a quiet place where the bubbling of the river, the splashing of salmon in the shallows, and the distinctive cries of eagles dominate the soundscape. Bring your camera, binoculars, camcorder, and spotting scope to watch eagles or to scan for coyotes, swans, and mountain goats.
Locals take all these eagles for granted, but for those who rarely see one, this is a miraculous place. Preserve Ranger Joel Telford finds outsiders’ views refreshing: "After a while you get complacent, so it’s nice to experience the excitement when visitors can see so many eagles together for the first time, to appreciate why this place has been set aside."
Haines celebrates with the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, a four-day November event featuring art and photography workshops, excursions, presentations for children, programs about American Indian culture, and raptor demonstrations. You’ll even find out how many feathers are on an eagle (7,000, give or take a few) and how fast the birds can dive (up to 100 miles an hour). Many events take place at the American Bald Eagle Foundation headquarters in Haines, but the festival highlight is a riverside release of rehabilitated eagles. Getting these powerful birds safely out of their cages and ready to fly is a delicate maneuver—sharp talons and beaks have injured even professional handlers. It’s a thrill to watch a healthy eagle launch itself from captivity and lift out over the river, winging its way into freedom.
Eagles are the festival’s main attraction, but Haines and its people go out of their way to make visitors cozy on an early winter day. The town of 2,245 is home to several galleries, restaurants, and lodgings, along with two museums and a microbrewery. Fort Seward is a popular focal point. The former post hospital now is headquarters for the nonprofit organization Alaska Indian Arts, where Native artisans carve totem poles, masks, and other traditional pieces.
Photography by Don Pitcher
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
The festival runs November 8–12; visit www.baldeaglefestival.org. Use AAA’s Western Canada & Alaska Tour-Book and Alaska and Northwest Canada map; also, contact the Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 458-3579, www.haines.ak.us. Phone numbers are area code 907 unless noted. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry (800-642-0066, www.ferryalaska.com) connects Haines with Bellingham, Wash. Alaska Air (800-426-0333, www.alaskaair.com) flies to Juneau; Wings of Alaska (766-2030, www.wingsofalaska.com) flies on to Haines.
TO DO AND SEE
American Bald Eagle Foundation 113 Haines Hwy., 766-3094, www.baldeagles.org. Alaska Nature Tours Guided visits to the Eagle Preserve. 210 Main St., 766-2876, www.alaskanaturetours.net. Alaska Indian Arts Watch Native Alaskan artisans at work. 13 Fort Seward Dr., 766-2160, www.alaskaindianarts.com.
Hotel Hälsingland $89. Fort Seward, (800) 542-6363, www.hotelhalsingland.com. Captain’s Choice Motel $72–$81. 108 Second St., (800) 478-2345, www.capchoice.com. Eagle’s Nest Motel $65–$85. 1183 Haines Hwy., (800) 354-6009, www.alaskaeagletours.com.