Haines, Alaska: Eagles and More
We sit on the deck of the caretakers’ cabin in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and watch eagles catch fish in the Chilkat River.
Rafters on tours float past us and wave, unless gazing at glacial jagged mountains. Most come from the many cruise ships docked in the “nearby” town of Skagway. A raft guide tells us, “We call this the ‘float and bloat’ because they’re used to four meals a day.” Another guide says, “We called them the ‘newlywed or nearly dead’ when I worked in Juneau.”
The swift current in this braided river never freezes. Upstream, a large portion of water sits under accumulated glacial sediments. This underground reservoir is insulated and stays ten degrees above freezing all year. As a result, the river hosts the final salmon run on the North American Continent, where around 4,000 American Bald Eagles converge in the fall for a final feast. It’s like a convention of nature’s executives convening in Haines instead of Las Vegas.
Mare and I catch a rare sunny day for our favorite hike up Mt. Riley. We have the moderate six-mile round trip trail to ourselves, and make noise in the thick woods to keep the bears at bay. Up top, we’re treated with views of the Lynn Canal – North America’s longest and deepest fjord.
We gaze over the Chilkat River, Haines, and the Taiya Inlet. We can practically see all the way to Juneau. Massive glaciers melted years ago, allowing this vista which includes optimal views of Rainbow Glacier and its iconic waterfalls.
Battery Point Trail undergoes constant repair. The trail head is right in town and thus one of the most popular hikes in Haines. Ranked as easy, the four-mile round trip takes you through forest and onto rocky beach lined with flowers including Queen Anne’s lace, cow parsnips and fireweed. I go for my pepper spray when we hear something crashing through the thick spruce, relieved when two eagles, instead of a brown bear, busts through.
I haven’t caught a sockeye yet, but have learned how to fish for Dolly Varden. These arctic trout/char, depending upon who you talk to, can get huge. I caught a five-pounder. They taste sweet and would delight any staunch meat-eater. It took three summers for one local fisherman to give up his secret spot to me.
Mare made friends with a young eagle while I was out of town on a family emergency. She calls him “Screamer” because he screams when she walks past on her daily morning stroll. Sure, Mare…how long have you been here in this cabin? So, she takes me on the walk, and there he is, in the same spot, screaming and then soaring over top of us for several moments. It happens every morning when Mare calls to him. We’ll see if after he grows up and his head turns white he’ll remember us.
Still missing our dog Jack, Mare calls and chases what she thinks is a stray black dog. She later claims it was actually a black bear. I think that she has cabin fever, as we have seen no sign of bear. Then, this guy shows up in our backyard.
This year’s cabin comes with electricity. What a treat to have a refrigerator, propane range, oil heat, and the ability to store food and freeze fresh fish! We get one radio station out here, KHNS, a community station. Especially love the listener personals, eclectic array of music, NPR and local news.
Bathrooms are outside of course, which we clean and stock for the general public. Out-houses never break down. We’ll drive 19 miles into the town of Haines for a shower once in a while and catch up on internet (spotty and slow). Then fill our containers with glacial fed spring water and our growlers with beer from the Haines Brewery.
So, here we are, sitting around our fire pit, staring at a fire, a raging river, and the surrounding jagged, glacial-pocked mountains.
We marvel at the eagles fishing skills, and our good fortune to see it all. Life is good. Ron Mitchell