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Bald Eagle Viewing at Haines, Alaska

By Murray Lundberg

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it.

      Despite the natural riches of the southeast coast of Alaska, life for bald eagles hasn't always been good there. In 1917, the Territoral Council initiated a bounty on eagles, who were credited with having a huge impact on the very important salmon industry. Starting at $1 for each pair of talons brought in, the bounty was later raised to $2, and some of the soldiers at Fort Seward (at Haines) were able to make almost as much money from hunting eagles along the Chilkat River as they got from the Army. By 1953, when the bounty was discontinued, over 128,000 eagles had been killed. When Alaska became a state in 1959, the bald eagle became a protected species under the 1940 Bald Eagle Act.

Dead chum salmon along the Chilkat River at Haines, Alaska
Salmon - the reason the eagles come to the Chilkat River.
      Regularly rated as one of the top natural events in the world for wildlife photographers, Haines now draws thousands of people from all over the world to see "The Gathering" of bald eagles along the Chilkat River. Drawn by a late run of chum salmon, the number of eagles peaks in mid-November at between 3-4,000, varying quite a bit from year to year. Most of the birds congregate in a very short stretch of river just below the mouth of the Tsirku River. A huge reservoir of water far under the riverbed at that point keeps the river ice-free for most of the winter, allowing the salmon to spawn and the eagles to feed.

Eagles in the trees along the  Haines Highway, Alaska Trees dripping with eagles, along the Haines Highway.
      Only 18 miles from downtown Haines, that short stretch of river is commonly known as the Eagle Council Grounds, and is the main destination for those in search of eagles. The eagles have a tremendously positive effect on the community. The names of many businesses pay tribute to the great birds, but their impact goes far beyond the economic one. This year, the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival was held from November 12-15, and brings the community together on a broad range of projects. For the Tlingit people, particularly the residents of Klukwan, the gathering is an extremely strong symbol of their connection with the flow of life along the river, and they play a very visible part in the celebrations.

Eagles at Haines, Alaska A bit of road-pizza bunny will balance a guy's salmon-heavy diet out nicely.
      Getting to Haines is certainly a large part of anyone's eagle-viewing adventure. Accessible from major airports at either Juneau, Alaska, or Whitehorse, Yukon, you have your choice then of either flying or taking a ferry from Juneau, or driving from Whitehorse. Either way, it's a magnificent trip. Car rentals are available in Haines, and several companies offer shuttle service to the Council Grounds.

      As you can see from the photos on this page, it isn't always dark in Alaska during the winter, nor is it always raining along the coast. However, be prepared for the worst. Rain gear is mandatory, as is a stock of fast film - direct sunlight only hits the Council Grounds from about 10:00 AM until 2:00 PM, and the action is often fast. On clear days, the temperature drops rapidly once the sun disappears behind the towering granite palisades, and snow is entirely possible, so to ensure a great trip, go thoroughly prepared.

All photographs are © 1998-2009 by Murray Lundberg, and are not to be copied or reproduced in any form without permission.

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