When Robert Service wrote of "mighty mouthed hollows, plumb full of hush to the brim," "silence that bludgeons you dumb," and "stillness that fills me with peace" in his famous poem "The Spell of the Yukon," he was not at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Council Grounds, witnessing the gathering of the greatest concentration of bald eagles in the world.
During the congregation the trees along the river are filled with eagles, the river's shoreline is filled with eagles, the sandbars are filled with eagles and the sky is often filled with eagles.
The noise is tremendous.
Eagles everywhere are whistling, calling, shrieking and flapping. Gulls, eager to join in, are drawn to the Council Grounds and add their strident calls to the noise. Ravens croak, crows caw, magpies and jays chatter, all adding to the cacophony of sounds. This is not Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." It's Haines, Alaska's noisy fall eagle migration.
Each fall up to 4,000 eagles gather 20 miles north of Haines at the Council Grounds, the confluence of the Chilkat, Tsirku and Klehini Rivers. The congregation starts in mid-October and lasts into January.
The eagles are drawn by a late run of salmon, mostly chums, but including some cohos. An alluvial upwelling of warm water, up to 20 degrees warmer than normal water temperatures, keeps a four-mile stretch of the Chilkat River from freezing in all but the bitterest part of the winter. This enables salmon to spawn later here than they do anywhere else along the Pacific Rim.
When the salmon die, many of the carcasses remain accessible, again because of the open water along the river. For eagles, especially at this time of year, open water and dead salmon amount to McDonald's, Burger King and your local bakery all rolled into one convenient package.
Eagles come from as far away as the state of Washington, the Northwest Territories and the Alaska Peninsula, a radius of almost a thousand miles, to partake of the greatest eagle smorgasbord in the world.
For many years the gathering of eagles was simply considered to be an interesting local phenomenon. In fact, the gathering of eagles played a part in the location of Klukwan, a nearby Tlingit community. The eagle is the symbol of one of the major clans of the Tlingit people, and being close to the site of such a major gathering was an important factor in deciding where to settle.
As a result of community and conservationist pressures, the state of Alaska created the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in 1982. The preserve consists of 48,000 acres of river bottomland along the Chilkat, Klehini, Tsirku and Chilkoot Rivers. The preserve was designed to contain only the land that was considered to be "critical eagle habitat."
As part of the preserve facilities, highway pullouts, paved walkways and boardwalks, shelters with interpretive displays, and rest rooms were installed between 18 Mile and 21 Mile along the Haines Highway, in the heart of the Council Grounds. These facilities make eagle viewing convenient, easy and safe for almost everyone.
In 1995, the Haines Chamber of Commerce sponsored the first Alaska Bald Eagle Festival. The festival has grown each year since then and now attracts participants from around the world. The festival includes talks by wildlife experts from Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48, digital and film photo workshops, art exhibits, live eagle presentations, guided tours of the Council Grounds, the Gei Sun Dancers and many other activities.
The festival this year will be Nov. 8-11, and will include keynote speakers Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer; Brian Latta and Janet Lithicum of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Center; and noted wildlife photographer and conservationist Gary Braasch.
The highlight of the festival, as always, will be the release of rehabilitated eagles back into their natural environment.
For more information regarding the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, contact Marilyn Huitger, Haines Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 1449, Haines, Alaska, 99827, or phone (907) 766-2202.
Bob Adkins is a professional nature and wildlife photographer from Haines.