bald eagles 

But you never were made, as I, On the wings of the winds to fly! The eagle said. – Will Carleton Screaming the night away with his great wing feathers, Swooping the darkness up, I hear the eagle bird Pulling the blanket back off from the eastern sky." – Iroquois invitation song Enraptured by raptors An icon for many cultures, the eagle is also symbolic of the interdependence of man and environment By Robyn Cubie It's the start of the silly season, when carloads of powder hounds whiz along the Sea-to-Sky corridor, their eyes glazed over with the anticipation of the first run ahead. However, for those without the snow blinkers on, the journey can yield a different type of natural magic — namely the sight of hundreds or even thousands of bald eagles. Take a few minutes drive off Highway 99 near Brackendale and you enter another world, where white capped heads stand out in stark contrast to the green canopy carpeting the sides of the Cheakamus and Squamish rivers. Get a little closer and you will be captivated, and quite possibly chose not to go skiing that day. There is something about the eagle that appeals to the human spirit — whether it is in the proud stance of the bird, its grace and strength or the way it soars so effortlessly across the skies. Since ancient times, these "kings of birds and birds of kings" have garnered multi-national and multi-cultural iconic status. The Roman, Byzantine, Holy Roman, Russian, French and Austrian empires chose the eagle as the symbol of their cultures, as did the Aztecs. The ancient Greeks even awarded a constellation to Zeus's favoured eagle, Aquila. Eagle gods were common in ancient Mesopotamia and the bird-king Garuda arose from Indian Hindu scriptures. Closer to home, eagles play a huge role in Native American Indian culture, as seen in aboriginal art, mythology and artefacts. And of course the eagle is the symbol of the United States. The widespread fascination with eagles is hardly surprising, given they are among the biggest and most powerful birds of prey in the world and are found on every continent except Antarctica. In all there are 59 species of eagles, including the bald and golden eagles, which are found in North America. With a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, it is hard not to notice a bald eagle that is passing you by. And fortunately today it is not a rare sight. Bald eagles have made it off the planet's endangered species list, largely due to the banning of DDT — a pesticide that makes eagle eggshells too thin to protect the embryos. The abolition of a post-World War II bald eagle bounty in Alaska has also helped. An international visitor When asked how to sum up the raptor family, most people respond with words such as "majestic", "proud" and "regal." And how often have you heard someone say, "If I could come back as anything, I'd come back as an eagle"? Or as cartoonist Gary Larson put it in his sketch of Walkman-wearing, tree-sitting eagles: "Birds of prey know they're cool." However, the bald eagle is not always close to the heart of Americans — especially when they steal the family pet. One Whistlerite remembers pulling up to a gas station in Stewart, B.C. some 15 years ago where all hell was breaking loose. "This American couple had let their Chihuahua out of their Winnebago and this eagle swooped down and carried it away. They were going crazy and begging people to, 'do something, anything!'" Apparently they were warned by the attendant not to let the small dog wander around. Pets aside, the opportunity to see a bald eagle up close and in the wild is treasured by most people. Yet many don't know how accessible it is. Fiona Dyer is manager of Sunwolf Outdoor Centre in Brackendale, one of four companies in the area offering eagle-viewing tours via inflatable raft. She says the area harbours the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world, but it's a well-kept secret. "A lot of people think they have to go to Alaska to see the eagles so it's a bit of an education, telling people what they have in their own backyard." Brackendale wrestled the world eagle record off Haines, Alaska, in 1994, when a group of enthusiastic volunteers recorded 3,769 in their annual winter eagle count. Count organizer, eagle guru and Brackendale Art Gallery founder and proprietor, Thor Froslev, recalls the elation of kicking Alaska off its 3,495-eagle high perch. "On the Sunday one woman (counter) came in with 360 and we thought oh, that was a lot. Another came in with more than 600, it was incredible. It looked like winter berries up and down the river." Since coming "to the land of milk and honey, Canada" from his native Denmark in 1957, Froslev has been instrumental in leading the charge to save bald eagles and their habitat. Gruff and somewhat wild haired on first appearance, it doesn't take long to see the twinkle in Froselv’s eye or his passion for eagles. "When I open my door in downtown Brackendale I can hear them down at the river," he said. "Loads of eagles — they feed, they haggle, they swoop down to pick up stuff and they talk and talk and shriek. Sometimes 36 eagles will sit in a single tree and it looks just like a Christmas tree with those white heads all lit up. It's a beautiful sight to see." On Jan. 7, 2001 Froslev and co-organizer Laura Plant will be running the 15th annual Brackendale winter eagle count and festival. A 37 kilometre stretch, from the Woodfibre Ferry to the Ashlu Creek, including the Cheakamus, Squamish and Mamquam rivers, is divided into 20 zones, each territory jealously guarded by its respective trained eagle counter. Froslev admits eagle counting isn't an exact science. Birds being birds, they will fly around and go where they please. "The weather has a lot to do with it. If it's piss-pouring down rain and the river comes up and washes all the salmon out, they are not hanging around here," he explains. "Other times it's snow flurries and counting becomes impossible because they fly back into the old growth trees and sit under the big branches." Dyer says even sunny weather can decrease the final count. "Two years ago the count came in at under 2,000 so the majority were probably out soaring, drying out and playing in the thermals, enjoying the sun." She says some people believe that up to 6,000 eagles find their way to Brackendale from all over the U.S. and Canada each year, but says it is impossible to get a definitive figure. Looking for shelter and a meal So what brings these "kings of birds" to Brackendale from early November until late February every year? Basically a free lunch, in the form of thousands of dying salmon completing the final dance of life and death on the journey back to their spawning grounds. Add in the factor of Brackendale's mild climate and the birds have a nice, easy winter home, where they can conserve energy without having to fight over or chase their food. And when not dining or flying around, bald eagles make for excellent tourism fodder, posing like disdainful models on vantage points along the rivers. The best way to see these spectacular raptors is from a raft. The rafting excursion with Sunwolf started in the best way — with hot freshly baked muffins and coffee for non-morning types. A quick lesson in paddling and water safety and we were on the Cheakamus river. Seeing cameras being hastily pulled out of bags, Sunwolf river-guide Kim Bayne offered a few tips. "I had this guy using two rolls of film before we were half way down the trip, so he ran out and there are so many things to take pictures of, especially downstream after we hit the confluence of the Cheakamus and Squamish where more fish and eagles are." The Squamish River also usually brings Bayne’s personal favourites, the seals, into the tour. A former Whistler resident of more than nine years, Bayne says she "finally wised up" and moved to Squamish in the summer. It’s affordable plus, she says, she loves her job. "I'm kind of a people person so don't mind just sitting here chatting, and I never tire of looking at the salmon and the eagles and seals." Bayne proved to be a mine of information over the two hour trip, pointing out areas of interest and most importantly, insight into an eagle's life. What unfolded was a picture of a species that is powerful and resourceful, yet sensitive to the point of vulnerability. "They choose a mate for life, unless their mate dies and then they become eligible for a new one," she explained. "They build their nest in one particular tree and that is where they come back every year to mate. And if the tree is gone or blown over, they possibly may not mate that year." If you disturb an eagle or walk under its nest it may not come back to its eggs, she added. Bald eagles are attentive parents but an eaglet's time spent "under the wing" of its parents is short-lived. After six to seven months of intensive growing, it's time to leave the nest and strike out alone. Most do not live long. Scientific studies show eagles begin to breed around the age of five but only one in 10 survives to that age. Suddenly the eagles near us seem to have even more reason to look so proud. That is until we find out that while in Brackendale, these famed hunters are solely scavengers, the local garbage collectors if you will. "I don't like telling that to the Americans ’cause they get a little offended, eagles being their national symbol and all," Bayne laughs. An uncertain future Mid-way through the trip, it is time to switch boats. I ask Sunwolf raft guide Eric Bowers what the job means to him. Sweeping his arm around at the surrounding view, he comments that it's a pretty awe-inspiring office to work from. "We have the Tantalus range to the left of us beside the ocean, Garibaldi on the other side, which is our local volcano, and this is the Squamish Valley — the Elaho Valley is just upstream: five major rivers in this valley, so quite a diverse area," he said. "There are many eagles, trumpeter swans, seals and sometimes we see bears. When the clouds are hanging low over the mountains and the sun comes out, it's always very beautiful. Plus you meet people from all over the world." Bowers says eagles are becoming increasingly important to the local economy as more visitors, especially photographers, come to visit the raptors. But he says the birds' future is threatened by a host of factors — most of them of human origin. "Logging is a key issue here because eagles prefer old growth forests to live in and breed," he explained. "They don't really breed around this immediate area but they like the older tall trees for sure." A separate issue that has caused deep divisions within local communities is the proposed expansion of Brackendale Airport, which is directly adjacent to the eagles' winter home. A referendum to permit the subdivision of airport land for lease purposes was held Oct. 14, and resulted in 57 per cent approval from Squamish area voters. Just over 2,100 ballots were cast, representing a quarter of eligible voters. Froslev says the margin was too close to claim the community wants it and he is outraged about the proposal on several levels. "They will fly to Brackendale Airport, load the people into buses and drive them to Whistler," he said. "It won't have anything to do with our economy but we are paying for the ground crew, the building, the fences and the electricity." He says the close proximity to the eagles greatly increases the risk of bird strikes, and the only solution is to shoot the birds or use falcons. Besides that, it is very rude to ask a neighbour to live under an airport, he added. "I told you how gorgeous these eagles are and they want to risk that," he said. Froslev says local groups will continue lobbying the government against the proposal and he hopes potential flooding and debris problems with the upstream Cheekeye Fan Terrain Hazard zone will halt the plans. However, Squamish Mayor Corrine Lonsdale says a clear message of support has been given from the community and building options are being investigated. "We are not talking about extra international flights into Brackendale or more traffic in the air but simply enabling existing users to build non habitation hangers for storage and repairs." Lonsdale says a special legal team will be investigating subdivision options as well as the level of approvals required by the Ministry of Environment. "The Cheekeye Fan poses some restraints on development in the area but if we have a mill across the street, I don't see why we can't have a few hangers." As a company, Sunwolf has not been directly involved in the airport issue. However, Fiona Dyer says staff have got out and voted on an individual basis, as some believe the development will lead to extra air traffic. "To look at getting larger planes to land more regularly right in the heart of where the eagles are wintering, it's hard to say that it won't have an effect," she said. Dyer was surprised at the referendum result, but believes "it is a reflection of who is getting out and voting as opposed to a realistic reflection of what the community is thinking." One of Dyer's key concerns as a local tourism company manager is intrusion upon sensitive bald eagle habitat. Some people consider tours like Sunwolf's to be invasive by their mere presence, "but viewing the eagles from the river is much less intrusive than tramping around on the grounds below them." she said. "Eagles have no natural predators, certainly not from the waters, so they are not scared of what is coming down the river and don't tend to take off," she explained. "We don't stop on the river, we try to go after their morning feeding time and try to limit our numbers to a maximum of four boats, just to avoid shocking them." The salmon Perhaps even more important than airplanes or tours is the state of the fishery. Being at the top of the food chain means any break in the cycle ultimately affects eagles' ability to feed and reproduce. Up to a third of the salmon spawning populations in south-western B.C. have been either been lost or depleted, along with habitat throughout North America, according to The Nature Conservancy of Canada. To blame are a host of factors including warming oceans, spreading urban development, logging of the birds' favoured old growth forest breeding areas and pollution of key waterways through port developments, mining and farming run-offs. Brackendale and Squamish can still support a huge eagle population, providing a lavish feast of spawning salmon. However, this river system is not unscathed by downstream developments. Chinook, coho, sockeye and steelhead salmon stocks have been dramatically reduced over the years, although there has been some recovery in pink salmon populations. Only the hardy, bottom-dwelling chum salmon — or dog salmon — still exists in high numbers. Froslev can recall when the Cheakamus and Squamish rivers were bursting with salmon. "I have been fly-fishing since 1958 when (these rivers) used to be loaded with fish, and they aren't anymore," he explained. "We never fished the chum because it was like the dirty old salmon, the bottom feeders, and we wanted the nice steelhead — but now people are sure fishing it." Concerns about the future of the eagles and their wider ecosystem prompted Froslev and Len "Lefty" Goldsmith of the Squamish Estuary Conservation Society to seek provincial government approval for a protected area for the birds. Also instrumental in gaining support for eagle habitat protection has been The Nature Conservancy of Canada, the North Vancouver Outdoor School, the Forest Alliance of British Columbia, the Brackendale Farmers Institute and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The end result was the creation of the Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park in 1996, encompassing 750 hectares along the Squamish River between the confluence of the Cheakamus and the Mamquam. It has since been upgraded to Class A park status — or as Froslev says, "the top of the totem pole in park protection." However, he says the level of protection this park can afford will be null and void if the airport expansion goes ahead. "How much can you shield the birds if their main domain, airspace, is filled with planes?" Business development at the risk of the environment is a tough call for traditional logging towns such as Squamish and Brackendale, as they search for new livelihoods in the face of a forestry downturn. Fiona Dyer says alternatives are needed and she believes eco-tourism could be the wave of the future. "It is taking a long time for the Squamish area to get a name as an eco-tourism centre, which is surprising because it really does have it all," she said. "You name it — rock climbing, mountain biking, rafting, incredible scenery, sea kayaking, hiking, windsurfing and of course, the bald eagles." She says as Vancouver and Whistler continue to grow, Squamish will increasingly become an alternative to getting out of the city or the snow — provided its environment and natural habitats are protected and well managed. The solution for humans and eagles appears to lie within a balance, a balance of forest management, urban development and controlling human access to sensitive habitat. In The Book of Eagles, The Nature Conservancy of Canada reinforces the need for people to understand the interdependence of salmon, eagles and humans — the cycle of life. As the human dramas play out beneath them, these "kings of birds and birds of kings" continue to rule the skies, blissfully unaware of how much their future hangs in our grasp.


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