Bald Eagles of Chilkat River, Alaska 2011 Trip Report

By Perry Conway on Jan 30, 2012

Over the years, the banks and meandering braided sandbars of the Chilkat River, located outside of Haines, Alaska, have gained the reputation of being the “Bald Eagle Capital of the World”—and for good reason. Nowhere else on earth can you find this many eagles—up to 3,000—concentrated into such an easily accessible and photogenic river valley. This past November, our hearty group of Photo Safari participants encountered one of the best eagle “shoots” we’ve had over the last 20 years. As nature photographers know, truly dramatic images depend on truly dramatic weather. Scheduling the trip for late November greatly increases our chances for significant snow on the ground. This year, when we arrived, the entire Chilkat River Valley was already blanketed in a wonderful carpet of white. Against a backdrop of ruggedly beautiful, cold-white mountains and intense blue sky, we photographed numerous bald eagles—eagles on the wing, eagles perched in snow-covered cottonwood trees, and eagles feasting on dying salmon pulled from the icy waters of the mighty Chilkat.

To get to Haines, most of us rode the Alaska State Ferry from Juneau, a trip of just over four hours. Traveling up the largest fiord in North America to Haines is a photo safari in itself. Spectacular serrate coastal mountains looking much like the Tetons in Wyoming—but stretching for over 100 miles, historic lighthouses, blue-white glaciers and wild river valleys can be seen and photographed all along the way.

The following morning, as we drove just a few miles out of Haines, bald eagles began to appear as white-headed exclamation points along the river. Most of the birds gather in an area called “The Council Grounds,” located about 20 miles outside of town. Here, if you stand and scan the river from left to right, it is possible to see hundreds—if not a thousand—of these awesome American icons at one time! The wonderful thing about our trip to the Chilkat was the large number of unwary birds right above our heads and within easy photographic range. Numerous birds perched on a single tree scanning the river for salmon, eagles “fighting” over salmon carcasses, dramatic aerial chases and talon-locking skirmishes, and eagle “flybys”—some with fish and some without—were all part of this exceptional photographic experience. And, always, the shots were made against one of the most beautiful valleys in North America in the background.

Then, after two days of excellent photography, a major snowstorm hit. Bringing winds and over a foot of fresh powder, the snow made the cars in our motel’s parking lot look like giant elongated marshmallows. The town of Haines was essentially “shut down.” In my 30 years of working the Chilkat Valley at this time of year, this blizzard was a first! Several of us opted to take a morning walk around town simply to experience the ongoing power of an Alaskan blizzard—an unscheduled adventure, but worth every step. Our walk made us all more fully appreciate what wintering wildlife has to endure in this part of the world. That afternoon, during a very productive photo-seminar at the motel, we discussed photo issues and techniques, and most participants shared the images on their laptops from the first two days. It was a congenial way to spend a stormy afternoon. That evening the storm stopped, the sky cleared, the stars came out—and we knew the next day was going to be really special. And it was!

We encountered plenty of birds, although not quite as many as the first two days—deep snow had covered the dead salmon and the birds had to travel farther afield to find food. But during these final tour days, after a few hours of productive bird photography in the snow-covered forest, we switched to shooting scenics. The fresh snow had enhanced the landscape photography to a dramatic level I had never, ever, enjoyed here before. The curving shorelines, rugged and rhythmic mountain ridges, and snow-laden spruce and fir trees provided our group a much appreciated photographic bonus.

Come with us in 2012 and experience the spectacular eagle congregation along the Chilkat River in November! The Chilkat remains one of Alaska’s best winter photographic destinations.