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EAGLES ON THE CHEAKAMUS - BC\'s GREAT RAPTOR GATHERING
 
(2013 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: HANS TAMMEMAGI



Seven of us, each heavily layered against the cold and looking like a Michelin Man, cram clumsily into a rubber raft that feels like a giant waterbed.

We push off and float gently down the Cheakamus River near Brackendale, B.C., surrounded by snow-topped mountain peaks. The crispness of the air is intoxicating, but not as much as the sight of eagles around us.

Jess Freese, one of the owners/operators of Sunwolf Outdoor Centre, occasionally pulls on the oars to keep the raft from running aground on the shallow, pebble-bottomed riverbed. Our heads crane this way and that, and at every eagle sighting gloved hands point, cameras click and we jabber in excitement. We’re enthralled, for we’re immersed in the largest gathering of bald eagles in North America.

Nature’s Intricate Web

Eagles perch on trees and snags, glide gracefully overhead and stand on the shore or a gravel bank. On one tree I count six adult eagles and two juveniles. Freese says that the previous week she saw more than 30 eagles on one tree.

Freese explains that eagle pairs lead relatively reclusive lives most of the year while they build their nests, lay eggs and raise their young. But every fall after their young have left the nest, they travel to salmon-spawning rivers where they gather in large numbers. They socialize and young eagles learn how to hunt and seek mates.

Death summons the eagles to the Cheakamus River. The raptors, lured by the spawning salmon that die at the end of their great voyage from the sea, begin to arrive in November and most remain until February. During this time, the eagles gorge on the salmon, consuming about 10 per cent of their body weight each day.

Bald eagles gather at many salmon spawning rivers, however, the Brackendale area, which is located on the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway about halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, is one of B.C.’s hot spots. It draws eagles from as far away as Wisconsin, Alaska and Arizona. In 1994, volunteers tallied 3,769 eagles in a single day during the annual winter eagle count, a record that still stands. Little wonder that Brackendale proudly claims the title, “Bald Eagle Capital of the World.”

As we drift along Freese explains that salmon are the very lifeblood of B.C.’s vast western forests and all that live in them. In the fall and winter, salmon come in the millions, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres, bringing an enormous food mass from the ocean to the forest. The bodies of the dying salmon create a feeding bonanza for eagles as well as crows, gulls, bears, mink, raccoon, coyotes, bobcats, lynx and cougar. Their droppings fertilize riverbeds and enrich the forest soil. Rain falls and trees grow. Drainage carries nutrients to the rivers, which flow back to the ocean. I’m exhilarated and humbled to be floating in the middle of this extraordinary and intricate web of nature, which connects all living beings along the coast.

Surrounded by Splendour

I close my eyes and listen. The gurgling of the river is a backdrop for numerous bird calls. Every few minutes an eagle cry, a cross between a warble and a yodel, echoes up and down the river. The tap-tap-tap of a pileated woodpecker reverberates from the forest. The river is teeming with birds: mergansers, gulls, Barrow’s goldeneyes, crows and great blue herons. A young lady from New York in a pink parka breaks the silence, “Wow, this is really cool. I’ve never seen so many birds . . . or mountains.”

Bald eagles, which mate for life while maintaining the same territory, were nearly wiped out by shooting and the widespread use of the pesticide DDT during the 1930s to 1950s. Fortunately, they made a remarkable recovery and today there are an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 eagles in North America, with more than 25 per cent living in B.C. where they flourish because of salmon.

Suddenly, we spot a small bundle of black fur ambling along the bank, looking lost. After a few moments, we realize it’s a bear cub. Why the dickens isn’t it hibernating with its mom? Hoping the cub will find its den, we drift on.

We pass beside a stark red alder where an eagle perches, only 10 metres away. Our cameras click but we remain silent, in awe of the large raptor with its scimitar beak and yellow talons that look like industrial meat shredders. Higher up the tree sits another eagle, but all brown without a white head. Freese explains, “The second one is an immature, or juvenile, and won’t get a white head until it’s four or five years old.” She pulls on the oar and adds, “They’re impressive birds. Adults have a wingspan of two metres and can fly at speeds of more than 70 kilometres per hour.”

Mythological Symbols

I understand why First Nations people of the northwest coast consider the eagle a wise, noble and sacred creature representing power and prestige. The eagle is frequently embodied in their art and mythology and often is a symbol of chieftainship. This mighty bird is, appropriately, the national emblem for the powerful United States.

We float around a bend and see a juvenile eagle attacking a salmon carcass, watched studiously by several gulls and a crow. I take a deep breath and exhale a cloud of mist into the cold air. High above on the tip of a tall Douglas fir, an eagle poses, majestically silhouetted against snow-cloaked ramparts.

Then the raft bumps against the shore and, too soon, our voyage into the heart of nature is over. 

Travel Planner

Hans Tammemagi is the author of Eagles on an Island. For more information, visit:

Vancouver Coast & Mountains Tourism: vcmbc.com

Sunwolf Outdoor Adventure: sunwolf.net

 
 
 
 
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