Every November up to 3,600 eagles gather in one place: the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Haines, Alaska. It is the largest gathering of eagles on earth.
The Preserve holds unique conditions for these magnificent birds: Sections of the Chilkat River remain ice-free and an unusually late run of salmon from November until January provides a food source for bald eagles.
The preserve is also the traditional home of the Chilkat and Tlingit people.
Photographer and naturalist Joe Ordonez tells the history of this extraordinary place in his self-published book Where Eagles Gather. It features stunning photographs of eagles in the preserve and breathtaking views of the landscape.
Since he was a child, Ordonez has been fascinated by eagles.
“The first bald eagle I saw was when I was 10 years old in a zoo in Washington DC,” he says. “I’ll never forget the wild look in that eagle’s eyes, even though it was in an enclosure.
“ I moved to Washington State from the East Coast as a teenager, and was in awe when I saw my first bald eagle in the wild there.”
Ordonez first came to Haines in 1986 working as a naturalist on an 80 passenger expedition vessel. He was fascinated by the Chilkat Eagle Preserve and started working as a river guide there.
“Tourism in Haines grew, and I realized that many visitors, and even their guides, did not really understand the story behind the preserve,” he says. “It is a story of conflict and compromise, of people coming together.”
In 1982 there were disputes between the federal government, the National Audubon Society, Alaska Governor Jay Hammond and national and local conservationists. On the other side were the logging companies, the Haines chapter of the Alaska Miners’ Association and pro-development locals, he writes in the book.
A meeting was called on Jan. 28 where logger, miners and environmentalists sat together to discuss the Chilkat Watershed. Everybody wanted something different for its future. No agreement could be reached and the meeting closed without a solution. People left for the airport but a huge storm shut down the airport. Everyone was stuck in town until the weather cleared up.
The participants decided to sit back down and talk things over. Discussions continued into the early morning. At 3 a.m. a compromise resulting in the formation of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was reached.
An agreement to protect 48,000 acres (19,420 hectares) of land in the Chilkat Valley was proposed.
Fast forward to current day, and Ordonez is now concerned about the future of the preserve. The Palmer Project, also known as the Constantine Mine, is currently a threat.
“I want to shift the debate about the mine from one focused on local jobs to one focused on an internationally significant and unique environment under threat,” Ordonez says. “This area demands the highest level of protection. There is a myth that we can have it all… a potentially toxic mine upstream of the Eagle Preserve and a healthy environment. The problem is… there is always some risk.”
Ordonez writes in the book that one thing is certain: it would be impossible to recreate the unique combination of elements that come together to bring this many eagles together in one place.
Joe Ordonez’ book Where Eagles Gather is available online at www.TourHaines.com.