Last Feast of the Eagles

Winter has already come to this spectacular valley, and an annual drama is well under way. For as far as the eye can see, every tree along the Chilkat River is bending under the weight of bald eagles.

Thousands of them have gathered here for the last feast of the season. It is the largest gathering of this majestic bird anywhere in the world.

Because of a unique geological phenomenon, the Chilkat is the last major river to freeze in southeast Alaska each winter, and eagles from hundreds of miles away flock to the fertile valley where the Chilkat meanders through a rugged mountain range that defies description. It is literally a drama of life and death, acted out in a grand theater.

The eagles are here to feast on chum salmon. The salmon are returning to the river in which they were born, and they are here to lay the eggs that will produce the next generation of chums. And then they will die, as all salmon must after procreation.

So the eagles are feasting on salmon that have spawned out, but many of the eagles that have gathered here will also die this winter.

Not right away, because for now there is much here to eat. But toward the end of winter, when there are few fish in rivers that are rich with salmon during much of the year, meals will be few and far between.

"We would see them [dead eagles] in the first layer of grass above the river," recalls Sid Morgan, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife official who worked in the eagle protection program for many years.

The starving eagles had been on the edge of the river, but the river offered little to eat. So they would struggle back up the bank, and then fall face forward into the grass.

"Their wings would be spread out, and their beaks would be buried in the grass," says Morgan, who along with a boyhood friend, Fred Robards, helped establish the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The preserve is now a state park, extending a few miles south of the Tlingit village of Klukwan.

Like most native villages that were already here when outsiders arrived to search for the gold that was buried in the steep mountains of southeast Alaska, Klukwan is in exactly the right place. Three rivers converge near the village, assuring an ample supply of wildlife, and the weather can be relatively benign.

During the annual American Bald Eagle Festival this year, the wind was howling in the town of Haines, but just a few miles up the road, near Klukwan, the air was so still that fresh snow remained on the branches of the cottonwoods that line the banks of the Chilkat.

Nearly every tree was dotted with eagles. Many birds seemed to have dined so lavishly on the dying salmon that they couldn't lift their own weight to fly from an endless hoard of photographers. So they sat there, peering down with an intimidating look of fearlessness, forced to let humans approach within a few feet.

Across the river, a distance of about one mile, the trees were literally alive with bald eagles. In one small area, I counted nearly 100.

Normally there are only 200 to 400 bald eagles in the entire Chilkat Valley, but during the fall migration that number swells to between 3,000 and 4,000.

"The eagles come in and stay through January and February," says Joel Telford, state park ranger for the Haines district. But after the last of the salmon are gone, they will head back to their normal range along the Alaska coast and northern British Columbia.

Their last feast of the season is due to a fortuitous quirk of nature. The steep mountains along the Chilkat Valley, which is just a hop from Glacier Bay National Park, have many small glaciers, and over the years the glaciers have reduced rocks to sand and gravel. That debris has washed down the hillsides and formed what is known as an "alluvial fan reservoir." Alluvial fans can be seen at the foot of most mountain valleys, where debris collects and forms what really looks like a giant fan.

But what makes this fan different is the amount of water that collects between the chunks of gravel several feet below the surface.

"Water percolates through the gravel," says Telford, "and that keeps it warmer than surface temperatures."

The water from the underground reservoir rejoins the Chilkat River near the village of Klukwan, and it is 10 to 20 degrees warmer than the water in the river. That keeps the river from freezing, and much of the river stays open for several miles south of the village.

Meanwhile, chum salmon, which are generally regarded as the least palatable to humans, make their way up the Chilkat to spawn. The best place to do that is in the last stretch of water below the village. Elsewhere in southeast Alaska, the last runs of salmon ended months ago.

So each November, thousands of visitors show up to watch thousands of eagles gorge on the last run of the year.

It's a unique opportunity for people who care a lot about the national symbol to try to repair some of damage done by humans. Eagles often fall victim to power lines, and even automobiles, as they go about their difficult task of staying alive.

So two or three eagles rehabilitated by volunteer centers are released back into the wild during each festival. At least for the time being, they will have plenty to eat.

And then the last of the salmon will be gone. The eagles will have to struggle through the cold months of winter, when food will be very scarce. Some of them won't make it.

But most of them will. And they'll be back here again next year, along the banks of the Chilkat River.