5 TAKEAWAYS FROM MY RECENT PHOTO TOUR OF THE CHILKAT BALD EAGLE PRESERVE
Hosting photography tours in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is always an interesting experience. After making several return trips to the location over the years, I’ve learned that while Alaska weather always manages to provide a challenge or two, there are always plenty of pleasant surprises. Here are five takeaways from my November bald eagle photography workshops in Haines.
#1 – THE CHILKAT NEVER DISAPPOINTS
In the vast majority of bald eagle hot spots found across North America, several factors can lead to a rough outing. Weather can make for less than ideal conditions, forcing them into hiding. Shifts in food sources can cause them to vacate an area for several days at a time, leading photographers to scramble just to find them. In other words, finding the best location to photograph bald eagles is often the biggest challenge. This is a tremendous challenge for anyone hosting a photography workshop or tour and if there is one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s the unpredictability of the subject matter that I have chosen to cover with my clients.
But the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is different. While some days are certainly better than others, the location provides some of the most consistent bald eagle populations that I have witnessed in my 20+ years of photographing them. The question isn’t whether you’ll see a few eagles at the site. It’s more of a question of whether you’ll see 50 or 200. It’s rare to see less than 100 perched in the Chilkat River Valley at a given time.
#2 – GREAT YEAR FOR BALD EAGLE CLOSEUPS
There I was, on Day 2 of my trip to the Chilkat when I found myself obsessed with rock collecting on a beach that had been uncovered by low water conditions in the preserve. Yes. You read that correctly. Rock collecting. (My workshop hadn’t started yet)
I had just finished photographing two bald eagles fighting over a salmon. Light began to fade to the point when I was about to call it a day. I packed up my gear and started the short hike back to my car. Noticing several interesting specimens under my feet, I decided to start a small collection for my rock-loving stepson that was at home recovering from a broken femur, when a strange feeling came upon me. Something was watching me. Something close. Very close.
I looked up, noticing the intense gaze of a juvenile bald eagle sitting on a branch less than 10 feet away. Recalling my original purpose for making the long trip to Alaska, I backed up far enough for the subject to feel comfortable. As I carefully set up for a portrait, I noticed the eagle slowly glancing to each side as if it didn’t even care that I was there.
This is often what you’ll find at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Bald eagles doing there thing. Bald eagles acting fearless, more concerned about the other eagles than that photographer standing 20 feet from them. And this was only Day 2.
After capturing a few frame-filling shots of this careless bird, I decided to wait it out. While I am a sucker for the sharp, detail shots that display their unique characteristics, I am a bigger fan of the emotion that shines through their seemingly violent behavior. The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is known for this, and capturing vocalizations is always a good possibility. Wait long enough and you might just be rewarded.
Once again, this subject didn’t disappoint. After about a 10-minute wait, it responded to a rival’s call with a familiar shriek as I felt my shutter clicking away.
#3 – THE SALMON RUN WAS EXTRAORDINARY
Successful wildlife photography starts with understanding the subject’s food source. The late salmon run that makes its way through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve always draws thousands of bald eagles to the area each November in what is thought to be the largest gathering anywhere in the world. I absolutely love this area, so the media coverage about local mining operations has caused me to be more than a bit concerned about the future of this unique habitat. I tend to keep a close eye on the strength of salmon run as it can be seen as the canary in the coal mine. After all, if the fish disappear, so do the eagles.
While I will make no claim to be an expert in the affects of local mining operations or the politics that are associated with them, the salmon run in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve appears to be in extremely good shape to my novice eyes. The food source was so plentiful that eagle’s would pass up easy opportunities to eat. Spawned out salmon that were barely cognizant of their surroundings would often get caught on rocks only a few feet from bald eagles that appeared to have reached their limit for the day. This could be a great sign for the future of the preserve.
#4 – THE YEAR OF THE BEAR
While my Chicago Bears struggled to live up to expectations back in the lower 48, the bears around the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve didn’t disappoint. They were active in the Chilkoot and Chilkat Rivers, undoubtedly making one last effort to feed on the healthy salmon run before entering hibernation.
Sensing a great opportunity to land a brown bear photo encapsulated in the beauty of the landscape near Haines, we tracked one subject until it entered a spit of land near the Chilkoot Lake. The atmospheric haze added depth to the image as the bear fished the area.
#5 – A BAKERY THAT SHOULD BE A CHAIN IN THE LOWER 48
Winter in Haines will never be a hotspot for fine cuisine, one of the few “digs” I will make about this location. But the Chilkat Restaurant and Bakery does such a good job of making up for it that I think it should be a bigger deal.
Hungry for breakfast? What about breakfast at 6pm? Change your mind and want a burrito? Change your mind again and decide that you’re hungry for Thai? When I think of a bakery, I think of carb overload, dry scones, and the occasional oversized cinnamon roll. But this place is amazing. Not only will the owner cook the meals herself, but she apparently created a limited but diverse menu of everything she was GREAT at cooking. Go to Haines for the eagles, bear and moose. Stay for the… um… bakery.