AK: Eagles Up Close

Photographer James Norman shared this picture of eagles along the Chilkat River. (Photo by James Norman)
Photographer James Norman shared this picture of eagles along the Chilkat River. (Photo by James Norman)

Each fall, thousands of bald eagles flock to a stretch of the Chilkat River about 20 miles north of Haines. The birds fly there for a late chum salmon run. It’s thought to be the largest gathering of eagles in the world. Dozens of people travel to witness the raptors each year, filling up almost every hotel room in Haines.

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“They have a fish, two more kind of flew in eyeing it, so far the first guy has it,” Laura Ferraro said, standing on edge of the Chilkat River watching bald eagles fish for salmon. Ferraro describes herself as a “serious hobby photographer.” She has a camera on a tripod in front of her with a huge lens.

“Yeah it’s probably close to two feet long so it’s pretty heavy, probably 8 and half pounds just for the lens,” she said.

Ferraro is from Orange County, California. She’s visited here once before to photograph the eagles.
“They’re a beautiful bird, they symbolize freedom. They’re great,” Ferraro said. “And it’s really fun getting the interactions with them here when they try to steal fish from each other.” Ferraro is not alone on this bank of Chilkat River. Half a dozen photographers are clicking away. They’re here during the Bald Eagle Festival. It’s a week-long event Haines holds each November to capitalize on the influx of visitors like Richard Barrett, who has traveled even farther than Ferraro. Barrett is an amateur photographer from the UK.

Barrett: “Quite a difficult place to get here is Haines, and I’ve come a very long way to get here.” Files: “Do you think it’ll be worth it?” Barrett: “Oh yeah sure. Definitely, no doubt. All the raptors are great birds to photograph. And then here we got the fantastic mountain backdrop as well. So you’ve got a lot of ingredients to make a really nice photograph.”
He’s planning to use some of the pictures he takes here in a wildlife calendar. [caption id="attachment_129926" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Eagle photographers along the Chilkat River. (Photo by John Hagen) Eagle photographers along the Chilkat River. (Photo by John Hagen)[/caption] Other people have less official plans for their eagle photos. “Making everyone else envious they haven’t been here,” Chris Klore, who traveled from Dallas with her twin sister, Michaela Davis, and their husbands Duncan and Jack, said. They’ve been planning this trip for three years.
Michaela: “It sort of makes my heart beat fast, it’s so pretty.” Jack: “It’s something you don’t see in the Lower 48. You don’t see all this beauty. It’s something different for us to see.” Michaela: “It’s flat where we live. We have no mountains; we have no snow; we have no bald eagles.”
This year, there seem to be fewer bald eagles, because the weather has been clear and sunny and the rest of Chilkat River isn’t frozen over. But American Bald Eagle Foundation Executive Director Cheryl McRoberts says they’ve counted more than 2,000 eagles along the river. This is the 20th year the foundation has held the Bald Eagle Festival. “We have people here this year from New Zealand, Africa, England,” McRoberts said. McRoberts says 184 people registered for the festival. Throughout the week, the foundation holds eagle feedings, raptor presentations, lectures and more. Dave Olerud is the founder of the Bald Eagle Foundation. He helped advocate for the 48,000 acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve that was established by the state in 1982. “Every creature out there has a beautiful story to tell,” Olerud said. “And the bald eagle is a classic.” Olerud says one reason people are interested in eagles is their power. “Ancient civilizations or old civilizations what did they use to tell the story of their dominance or the power of their society?” Olerud said. “They used the eagle.” Back along the river, Dave Teeson from Whitehorse points out a group of about a hundred eagles near the water. “I think it’s rare for wildlife not to be scared of us,” Teeson said. “Most animals just avoid us so much that you just catch a short glimpse.” “But for eagles you can watch them close up for a long time they don’t care.” What many of the photographers here hope for is that perfect picture. “I got a shot yesterday I’m just thrilled to death with, it makes the entire trip worthwhile,” James Norman, an amateur photographer and retired lawyer from Virginia, said, describing the picture. “Two eagles interacting, both in the air, claws extended separated by an inch perhaps, nice spray of backlit water behind them. I’m just thrilled to death.” Norman plans to enter the shot in photography contests. The migration of eagles and photographers to the Chilkat River will continue until the end of the salmon run, around late December.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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