by Lee Foster
The interminable January rain drizzled on, the British Columbia sky showed endless shades of gray, and the chill in the air enveloping my raft on the Squamish River penetrated every extremity. But the company was outstanding.
The companywas composed of one of the densest concentrations of bald eagles on Earth. Some 665 of these majestic birds (in 2012) perched on the Douglas fir and cottonwood trees in a short six-mile-by-half-mile corridor of the Cheakamus and Squamish Rivers, about an hour by train from Vancouver. The eagles, distinguished scavengers, were gorging on the carcasses of coho and chum salmon that swam up the river to spawn and die. An average of 1,562 eagles have appeared each year for the last 25 years. The number had climbed to 3,769 in 1994. So, just 665 in 2012 was a cause for alarm.
My rafting encounter with the eagles was clearly a conservation story with its ups and downs. Current numbers of eagles are down as the chum salmon population is collapsing. The DDT threat to these magnificent birds has been defeated. The earlier, misguided, anti-raptor sentiments, which had sent many a bullet through an eagle, have been vanquished. But questions about over-fishing in the ocean, foreign fishing, the effects El Nino, pollution issues, and many other potential causes of the salmon decline all stir the debate.
On an earlier occasion my passion for eagles had taken me rafting down Alaska’s Chilkat River, near Haines, through the Chilkat Eagle Reserve. The raft floated past a portion of the eagles known to gather there. This was the largest convention of the U.S. national bird on American soil and was once presumed to be the densest concentration anywhere.
However, Canadian appreciators of eagles at Brackendale, British Columbia, led by artist Thor Frosley, have challenged the Haines superlative. In some past years Brackendale’s eagle population has surpassed that of Haines.
The international range of these eagles was a notable part of the story, I learned, as I paddled my raft with Sydney Cannings, one of British Columbia’s leading experts on eagles. Cannings is a zoologist for the Conservation Data Center, part of the Provincial Wildlife Branch.
“These eagles come from Colorado and from the Canadian Rockies,” said Cannings. “They may have ventured here from Oregon or Alaska. The saving of these eagles means that we have cooperated successfully as western North Americans. The eagles’ range is enormous. They know no borders. They go where the salmon run.”
The bald eagle was taken off the U.S. Government’s Endangered Species list in 1999. This was a small victory, but not a signal to reduce vigilance.
“To flourish into the future, eagles in this area need an assured supply of salmon,” said Cannings. “That means no more ill-advised dams to impede the salmon migration. It also mandates that all clear-cut logging in eagle nesting areas leave some mature trees. Only a mature tree can support a 2,000-pound eagle nest.”
There are other habitat issues on Cannings’ mind as he does one of his jobs–catalog each of the nests of the nesting pairs of eagles in British Columbia.
“Channeling the Squamish River has reduced flooding, but it has also decimated the protective habitat of backwaters and downed logs that the salmon fry need to survive,” he said. “If you ever totally disrupt a salmon run, with dams, overfishing, or habitat destruction, it’s difficult to regenerate it. Of course, all these salmon runs have been regenerated since the ice age of perhaps 10,000 years ago, but it’s a slow process.”
The ability of salmon to return to their birth stream is one of the great wonders of nature. Salmon have many subtle sensing devices for finding their home stream, Cannings explained. It’s partly a chemical smell memory and partly the collective social memory of going down to the sea with your buddies beside you. Some salmon fry know they should swim upstream or downstream to a nearby lake to spend their first year. It’s a marvel to contemplate how they know in which direction is the desired lake. The fry live in the slack-water sections of the river for a year before migrating to sea.
The survival rate is small for both salmon and eagles, added Cannings. The chum salmon lays 3,000 eggs, resulting in three fry, of which one makes it to the sea, returning in three to seven years to where it was born. A nesting eagle pair will lay three eggs, but only an average of 1.4 survive the fierce battle for food in spring after the hatching. At that time food is more scarce than in winter along the Squamish.
Guiding Cannings and myself in the raft was the veteran outfitter in this region, Brian McCutcheon, who was managing the Sunwolf Outdoor Centre. McCutcheon had been rafting this river and watching the eagles since 1980. Sunwolf operates a year-round rafting and sea-kayaking guide business in British Columbia.
“The raft is an ideal vehicle of discovery for eagle-watching,” said McCutcheon. “When we float quietly past, the eagles are not disturbed. Walk on the bank, and they’d all fly away. Participants in a rafting trip need to keep warm and dry to enjoy the eagles. That means rubber boots, rubber gloves, warm clothes, and an all-body rain suit.”
Sure enough, around every bend in the river stood another perch tree with perhaps a dozen eagles on it. When we floated by, they watched. The eagles used Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock, and cottonwood for their perches. The mature adults, after about five years, attain the characteristic white head and tail. Mature birds boast a wing span of six feet. The immature birds are mottled brown and appear even larger than their parents.
Besides our main quarry of the afternoon, there were other birds to enjoy in this Squamish Valley below the emerald-green forests and 8,000-foot glacier-capped Tantalus Mountains. Dippers, small and lyrical birds, plunged into the chilly waters in search of insects and small fish. Goldeneye and merganser ducks entertained us with their takeoffs. White trumpeter swans made a regal, measured appearance, flying up the river in late afternoon.
My rafting trip started on the Cheakamus River and included a section of the Squamish River, along the Paradise Road Ecological Reserve of old-growth trees. Thor Frosley and others fought to see the area designated as the Brackendale Eagle Reserve, which was created in 1996.
The chum salmon run begins here each September. The eagles are present from November through March, but they are most abundant in January. Thousands of salmon carcasses are present in the water and on the banks in January.
The raft trip pullout put us near Frosley’s Brackendale Cafe and Art Gallery, where I enjoyed the hot fireplace, some hearty soup, and good talk with Frosley, inspirer of the Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival. Frosley organizes the annual January eagle count, which draws about 150 participants. The festival also has an eagle art show, an eagle photography workshop, and a shindig of a party. The festival began in 1986.
“Rafting is a popular soft adventure in many locations,” said Frosley. “But if you want to see one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on Earth, you’d better come to see us at Brackendale in January.”
Brackendale Eagle Watching: If You Go
Thor Frosley’s Brackendale Cafe and Art Gallery operates as an informal center for the bald eagle preservation movement, including the annual count in January. Details at http://www.brackendaleartgallery.com.
For overall British Columbia tourism information, contact Tourism British Columbia at www.hellobc.com.
For Vancouver information, contact the Greater Vancouver Visitors and Convention Bureau, www.tourism-vancouver.org.