A bird’s-eye view

Whether it’s for the annual bike race or a fishing holiday, Yukoners love Haines. The small southeast-Alaska port is a special destination for many.

Come fall, the arrival of thousands of American Bald Eagles, in the nearby Chilkat River Valley, offers another reason to visit. From October to January, between two- and four-thousand bald eagles will gather from around the Pacific Northwest in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, not far from Haines. The eagles are drawn to the vast river flats to gorge on late-spawning chum and coho salmon and to enjoy the warmer water of the natural reservoir that forms there. In recent years, mining exploration north of Haines has generated new attention to the Chilkat River ecosystem and its people.

Each November, the American Bald Eagle Foundation, in Haines, holds an annual festival to help celebrate the unique and amazing eagle gathering. This year’s 24th festival, from November 7-10, will explore the theme “A Bird’s Eye View.” The diverse program features all-ages events and storytelling, supported by a variety of partners, added Katelyn Dickerson, the foundation’s curator of collections and exhibits. Art- and music-focused activities are also planned as “different mediums for telling stories of our world,” Dickerson said.

The festival will start with a dinner at the Haines Borough Public School, followed by an art bazaar and cultural evening. Local and Tlingit speakers will share their stories, knowledge and perspectives on birds. Festival guests will also have the chance to share their own bird stories at a later event.

Keynote speaker Jason Beale, a certified avian trainer and avid birder from Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, in Pennsylvania, is slated to discuss “Naturiotism” (the link between patriotism and nature) on Thursday. Film aficionados can attend the wild and scenic Takshanuk Film Festival on Friday night, which will feature 12 “mini-films,” with a seafood dinner organized by the Takshanuk Watershed Council.

The Alaska Bald Eagle Festival Banquet, on Saturday, will be held for the first time at Harriet Hall at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds. “It’s a gorgeous venue. We’re excited to be partnering with the fairground officials,” Dickerson noted.

Regular Foundation programming will continue throughout the festival, with new aviaries designed to support more bird viewing on-site (the Foundation has a raptor centre and also serves as a natural museum).

A great way to see the impressive eagle congregation, one of the largest in North America, is to visit sections of the preserve near the Haines Highway. The shallow river channels and giant riverside cottonwood trees host eagles galore.

There are four designated pullouts between miles 18 and 21, as well as interpretive signage, a viewing platform and a two-mile riverside trail. Visitor guidelines are posted to ensure low-impact eagle-watching. A shuttle will be available twice daily to these main eagle-viewing areas and also stops at the impressive Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center, built in 2016 in the Tlingit village of Klukwan.

The centre is hosting an exciting “Flight to Freedom” eagle release on November 10, with birds from an Anchorage-based rehabilitation centre (if you want to be involved in the release, you can bid for the experience during the fundraising auction held just prior to the event).

The festival attracts about 150–200 locals and visitors from outside of Alaska, each year. The number of Yukoners varies each year and depends partly on the weather. “There’s a 50/50 chance there’ll be snow,” Dickerson noted.

For details and any updates on the festival schedule and ticketed events (many events ask only for a donation), visit the Foundation’s website, www.BaldEagles.org/Festival-Schedule.

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