The dozens of attendees huddled on the Brackendale dyke late last month to celebrate the opening of the Squamish Eagle Watch Program's (EWP) 2015-16 season weren't really expecting see much wildlife that chilly, rain-soaked day.
But just moments before the ceremony was about to begin with a traditional Squamish Nation dance, the skies cleared up to reveal two dozen bald eagles soaring overhead.
Not a bad way to kick off the group's 20th year in the community.
"It was almost like an amazing little miracle," said program coordinator Judith Knapp.
The EWP is a volunteer-driven initiative that educates guests about ethical eagle viewing, and this magnificent bird of prey's important connection to the community and local ecosystem. Over the years, its team has met with thousands of attendees at the Eagle Run Viewing Area, and many more in local schools.
"We're so excited about the program," Knapp said. "I think we're building a lot of strength in the community, particularly though our school program."
The program is in such high demand in schools across the Sea to Sky and even with visiting students from the Lower Mainland, Knapp said she's "already wondering how I can possibly do all these classroom presentations."
Now in her third year as program coordinator, Knapp realizes the importance of connecting with the younger generation.
"We do a lot of that (education work) to get the students to appreciate what we have here and to start thinking about protecting what we have at an early age," she said. "They'll often go home and talk to their parents about it, and I think that all helps."
Beyond the educational component, the EWP's interpreters also play a key role during what is often visitors' first introduction to the area.
"What we're noticing is that the volunteers on the dyke are not just there to show people the eagles and talk about ethical eagle watching practices," she said. "But I think what's happening is we're becoming ambassadors more and more for the whole Sea to Sky corridor. We send people to the gondola... we send them to the various restaurants, we get them to go to Britannia, the railroad heritage centre, the farmers' market."
As trained bird watchers, EWP interpreters collect vital information on the local wintering bald eagle population. Over the course of 20 days last season, over 220 eagles were spotted. Early signs from this season indicate the population is thriving with a healthy number of young eagles.
"We've seen more juveniles this year than we have in the past," said Knapp. "That's a very good sign; if the juvenile eagles are surviving, that's a good indicator that things are going well."
But with several major industrial projects on Squamish's horizon, Knapp has worries about the potential impact on local wildlife.
"I certainly think we have to really be careful," she said. "Whatever industry is put forward they need to really look closely at the environment and put in precautions."
She also feels the community needs to take "a hard look" at the growing salmon farming industry and its associated risks.
"When (wild salmon) pass by the salmon farms, they are very susceptible to the pollutants that linger around the farms," she said. "They're farming Atlantic salmon in the Pacific right along where our wild salmon are passing back into the ocean."
But with a new leader in Ottawa, Knapp is optimistic.
"I'm hopeful that with the scientists coming back into the fold with the new government under (Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau, we're going to see a change. I'm hoping environmental issues will be looked at more carefully and closely and I'm hoping there will be some things put in place to protect our wild salmon. If not, we just won't have any eagles coming here anymore."
The group is seeking submissions to its annual Eagle Watch Photo Contest. Contestants must submit a photo of an eagle or a recent bird watch taken in the Squamish Valley. The deadline is Dec. 3, and entries can be submitted at email@example.com. The group is also on the look-out for volunteers.
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