Bald Eagles of Chilkat River, Alaska 2013 Trip Report

By Perry Conway on Jan 16, 2014

In my 32 years of photographing the autumn eagle concentrations along the Chilkat River in Southeast Alaska, the 2013 shoot will go down as one of the most memorable. Due to unusually cold temperatures, we had more river ice than I have ever seen. With a totally blue sky, lots of snow and tons of ice floating downstream, the landscape photography was some of the best ever.

The cold temperatures also caused the eagles to be very active due to their need for more calories in order to stay warm. Eagles can be downright nasty to one another when pressed for food. A commonly photographed sequence began with a bird pulling a 10 to 12 pound salmon out alongside the riverbank and starting to feed. Then another bird flew by and tried to “foot smack” the bird on the ground, or flew by so closely the other bird would have to duck and/or jump away from the dead salmon. At times we had as many as six eagles lined up waiting for a chance to feed. Some birds literally flew after another bird—harassing it far away from the food source. All this behavior makes for wonderful photographic opportunities.

Just getting to the Chilkat River and the nearby town of Haines can be an adventure in itself. Most of us opted to take the ferry north from Juneau. The 4 to 5-hour ferry ride takes you by some of the most majestic mountains found anywhere in Alaska. The Coastal Range rises right up from sea level to endless pointed peaks often skirted by glaciers. The ride north is a wonderful introduction to the kind of scenery which will surround you for the week.

All of our meals, except for our “field lunches,” were eaten right across the street from our motel—very convenient when the sidewalks and streets are snow packed. After breakfast, we were picked up by our bus and driven approximately 20 miles upstream to the best areas for photography. A trail runs right alongside the river, so it’s a matter of seeing where the birds are, setting up our tripods and waiting for the action to begin. The bus stays with us all day and serves as a “warming hut”—complete with hot chocolate. A nice feature, especially this year!

I have seen images from several of the participants who were on this year’s trip and I was impressed. The Chilkat River remains as the best place anywhere to photograph this American icon, the bald eagle.