December 19, 1997 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 451 

Behold: an eagle! The (now) relatively plentiful King of Birds can't fail to inspire Story and photos by Chris Woodall They are huge, but everyone knows that of eagles. The thing of it is, most people — unless you live in the Sea to Sky Corridor for any length of time — have never seen an eagle and can only register the size factor as one of several things they think they know about eagles: "Oh yeah, sure. Eagles are those big birds with the white heads. End of mental file." Well, it's probably the bald eagle we are thinking of, but until we get within speaking distance of one, we can't really grasp that this is no sparrow, no mere Stellar's jay; to see a mature bald eagle close up is to see a truly majestic animal. For myself, to see this area's eagles is to re-affirm my faith that mankind can do something right for once. I am of an age that I can remember when the current wisdom was that "we" had screwed up our environment so badly through out-and-out destruction, but also through pesticides that "we" used the way cops at the APEC conference used pepper spray, that North America's eagles were said to be headed for certain extinction. The thing of that is, I am not all that old. That threat of extinction wasn't so long ago. Eagles (and other raptors) have made a comeback. It is an achievement to rejoice, both because "we" learned to correct our mistakes soon enough and because the eagle is tough enough to multiply if given the chance. But even then, encouraging eagles to increase their numbers is not like raising chickens. About 15 years ago when I worked for a small weekly newspaper in deepest Southern Ontario, the Long Point Conservation Authority tried to re-introduce bald eagles to the peninsula that reaches like a great arm into Lake Erie. The authorities brought a pair of juvenile eagles — they wouldn't grow their white head feathers for a year or so — from the north, built a spacious tree-top nest that would make a Whistler cellar-dweller happy and hoped for the best. The project failed. One day the eagles just weren't there. But 15 years later and more than half a continent away... Down near Brackendale (a few kilometres north of Squamish on your way to Vangroovy) the eagles gather for the winter. There are thousands of them. It is an amazing thing to see and you can do it as easily as going to the causeway at Brackendale and stare across the Squamish River. For a bird that is generally a loner, there they are, sometimes 30 or more to a tree, every man Jack of them practising their bald eagle scowl. To really see this phenomenon up close and personal, a float down the river is required. That's why there's a group of 15 people divided into two large inflatable rafts, owned by the Sunwolf Outdoor Centre. Located a few kilometres north of Brackendale, the centre offers a community of rustic recently-renovated cabins, some with kitchenettes, and a central meeting/dining hall. Suited up in wet weather gear and life vests, we enter the Cheakamus River — it feeds the Squamish River — upstream from the centre and casually paddle our craft with the current, at a low and quiet level this time of year. Guided by Dave, who's doing all the real work at the back, our crew of eight know we'll have a fine trip even if we never see an eagle. The day is a rarity for the beginning of December: cloudlessly sunny. The water takes us calmly and silently onward. Just floating along is a wonderful experience. The river perspective gives us changing views of the surrounding bluffs and distant mountains with each bend along our watery road. Dave occasionally calls out for us to paddle so we'll stay in midstream, but this is no biggie. It's an entirely different story in the spring and summer when the now-chastened Cheakamus is a raging monster of a river. Then we'd be paddling for our lives, almost. And there are eagles here, in their threes and fours a mere 15-20 feet away. Because we are silent with awe, they tolerate our gawking passage. There are crowds of other birds, too, from mobs of ravens, to a variety of tiny river birds, to the usual gang of seagulls. What brings this city of aviators to the Cheakamus and Squamish Rivers are salmon... and who doesn't like a salmon dinner? The fish have come to tie up both ends of their circle of life: they have come to spawn and they have come to die. We pass over ghostly pale bulks of the hooked-beak fish trapped in the shallows, while carcasses litter the shore. Other salmon — their bodies scarred and their fins ripped and gouged by life — still work their way upstream or undulate slowly near the river's edge, building a nest. Although some of us have cameras, there are a few lessons in how to shoot eagles, or anything else that goes on around us. Sunwolf has provided heavy-duty waterproof bags, so the careful photographer can bring an assortment of equipment. The trick is in the lens. You'll need a wide-angle lens to capture the sweep of mountains, especially to include some of your fellow passengers for that human element that makes a picture worth having. There is a temptation to include a telephoto lens of some size in your kit, but don't bother. The rafts are too wobbly to keep large-millimetre lenses steady. You could stop on shore armed with the big guns, but eagle etiquette and the law don't want humans pestering eagles in that way. "Although none of that seems to concern the fishermen," our guide says as we pass by several gents whipping their rods toward the water. The best advice is to bring a 100mm lens, or something close to it. It is powerful enough to bring the eagles in the trees truly close, yet it is compact enough you should be able to hold it firmly for a shot. A 50mm lens will do well enough to picture a whole tree of eagles, with something in the 28-35mm range giving you eagles, trees and a big background or foreground. The kind of film you use depends on the weather. As we reach the meeting place where Cheakamus marries its liquid with the Squamish, the populations of eagles is into the 10s and 20s to each tree. And this is only early December. The eagles have been gathering here since mid-November. They will peak in numbers in January — a record 3,700 were counted in 1994 — and can be observed in force until March, before scramming to their summer domains. As the raft scrapes onto the beach where we pull out, an eagle behind us skree-eee-eets its call, imagined by us to say: "Respect our habitat. And come again." (Some of the information for this article came from "The Book of Eagles," published by Beautiful British Columbia Magazine in association with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.)

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