Discovering raptors and rapids
Eagle viewing on the Squamish River is drawing people from around the world
By Oona Woods
A three-hour drift boat trip down the Squamish river to look at eagles in their winter feeding grounds starts at the local library — a frightening thought for my roommates, who made me leave the premises after I got out books on bird watching. I don’t know why bird watching has such a bad reputation, it’s actually quite fascinating. And no, I have no urge to buy an anorak or tape my glasses.
I learned all sorts of things from those books. Eagles can live up to 50 years in captivity, they are descended from dinosaurs, they have a wingspan of up to seven-and-a-half feet. I also learned that they are similar to other winter migrants — like liftees — in that they hook up with their partners on a seasonal basis. It is alleged that they mate for life but no scientist will bet his beaker on it because they haven’t proved this conclusively, yet. The juvenile eagles also go through a mottled stage, reminiscent of washed out marble wash denim, before they get their adult plumage — some may see a connection there, too.
On my way to the Brackendale Art Gallery I met an American who was also bound for the boat trips which take in the sights and sounds of the annual eagle convention. He also denied being any kind of bird watcher but said he had spent many hours with binoculars observing the soaring eagles above the Susquehanna River in his home town of Brogue, PA. As a ski patroller on a small American hill, migrating skier Richard Meyer happened on the Brackendale eagles purely by chance. He had a free ticket to use on Northwest Airlines. He decided to come to Whistler to see what all the ski-magazine hype was about.
"I came up here basically to ski. It’s my first ski trip of the season. I never expected to see anything as beautiful as it is now. You always play weather roulette. My thighs are giving out already."
Meyer had to find something else to do with himself after taking in three solid days of skiing.
"When I drove up from Vancouver the northbound traffic was stalled for two hours in Squamish. I wandered into the Sea to Sky Hotel and looked at the community brochures. I saw the eagle watching raft trips. There is nothing like that at home."
Meyer said that his home town could boast 10 or 20 eagles. Brackendale plays hosts to thousands of raptors at this time of year. The birds mostly feed on fish but last year it was reported that one swooped down and carried off a small dog.
I met up with Neil McCutcheon and Lisa Margaret in Brackendale with their 14 foot drift boat. They took one look at my inappropriate dress, shook their heads and gave me some waterproof gear.
McCutcheon has been in the river guide trade for the last eight years. He has just opened his private eagle watching tours after having worked for another firm for the last three years.
The tour started with an unscheduled 150-yard boat push because the road was covered in snow. We started in the Upper Squamish Valley in order to get an overview of the landscape. I got a great view of the underbelly of heli-logging, sounds of the Husquavarna in the distance and a clear view of a big clear cut. The landscape here has quite a few competitors for its bounty.
Once we were away from the loggers the first few eagles made their appearance. After an hour there were so many eagles around you could throw a penny and hit five of them (not that I did). Cottonwood trees were bent under the weight of seven eagles sitting around and shooting the breeze. They are very talkative and they must be saying something to each other, after all, if they live for an average of 20 years they must come up with something better than "Oh look, a fish."
The tour takes in inlets and islands full of eagles eating and stalking. McCutcheon pointed out that the tired salmon seek out smooth parts of the stream as their energy fades after spawning. He showed me one chum salmon slowly undulating in the water. "She’s probably got a day or so left before she rolls over and dies. The eagles will come and get her then." Watching this floating fish some tenuous connection between the fish and the Hotel California came to mind but I left it there.
Snowball-sized snowflakes fell as we drifted down the river. There were some mild rapids purely because the river is so low this year. The river is like an inside track to nature. Its views and vistas changed completely from one bend in the river to another depending on the amount of light and height of the nearby mountains. It is also a lot noisier than I ever thought it could be. There were so many birds it was like a natural version of O’Hare Airport. The different species of birds included the honking trumpeter swans, whistling Goldeneye ducks, squawking seagulls and the sounds of the eagles; McCutcheon summed up their noise as a "whistling chirp."
A few sea-going seals poked their heads up proving that there are loads of salmon still in existence. McCutcheon says that the species don’t always get along so well but with so much food they are just one big happy family.
After the tour I warmed up and dried out my allegedly waterproof boots at the Brackendale Art Gallery where I found out there beats a funky soul in Squamish. The trendy teahouse, theatre and gallery is also the base for the eagle festival celebrations this season. This year’s festivities includes the 11th Annual Eagle Count on Sunday, Jan. 12 at 8 a.m.