Alaska’s Chilkat River Bald Eagle Preserve

Our National Symbol © Debbie McCulliss

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. – John Muir

By Debbie McCulliss

The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is a world-famous, 48,000-acre area in which one of the world’s largest gatherings of bald eagles feast every fall on spawned-out chum salmon. As winter moves in, the eagles migrate into this open water reservoir in which the water temperature remains somewhat warmer than the surrounding waters. It is a place full of photographic opportunities and offers countless chances to make lifelong memories.

For me, ferrying in November on the Alaska Marine Highway from Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, to Haines, where there are more eagles than people, was nostalgic. When I was 24, I backpacked alone around southeastern Alaska for four months. A trip highlight was hiking the Chilkoot Trail, a 33-mile, rocky, steep, sometimes snow-covered trail, best known for its history as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush. Being back in the area of the Inside Passage on a Wild Departures photography tour allowed for many photo opportunities, from the historic Eldred Rock Lighthouse to the fog-laden snow-capped mountains that showcased themselves—a first in a long time, since weather is oftentimes unpredictable. America’s largest national forest, Tongass National Forest, blankets the area. Our destination was the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

Once in Haines, our tour headed 18 miles north on the Haines Highway to the preserve. Over the next five days, along a 23-mile stretch on the Chilkat River, our photography group would observe our national symbol of freedom—bald eagles of all ages, male and female, mottled and white-headed, flying with salmon in their talons, attacking each other in midair, vocalizing with passion to protect their catch, and roosting in the trees in the snow, rain, or sleet. I used my long telephoto lens and kept my camera on continuous autofocus to keep up with their speed and maintain tracking with a focus on their eyes. Weather made for some dramatic and interesting images. 

Bald Eagles Fighting over Lunch ©  Debbie McCulliss
Bald Eagles Fighting over Lunch © Debbie McCulliss

One afternoon we went to the Bald Eagle Festival in Klukwan, a Tlingit village nestled along the banks of the river, where we watched as two rehabilitated bald eagles were released into the wild. Chi’a’ak is the Tlingit word for eagle. This majestic bird is one of two moieties of Tlingit society. (The other is the raven.). The Chilkat River’s name means “salmon storehouse,” a nod to the sheer abundance of the prized fish.  

In 1982, the state of Alaska created the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to protect bald eagles and salmon, as well as their critical habitats. The area is currently designated as the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Important Bird Area because of not just the large number of bald eagles in the fall but also the nesting tundra swans that gather there in the summer. The Chilkat River originates in British Columbia, Canada, and flows through the Chilkat Inlet, entering the Bald Eagle Preserve before reaching the community of Haines. The spectacular snow-covered Takshanuk Mountains surround the preserve.

Bald eagles have incredible eyesight and are capable of seeing both forward and to the side at the same time. Their vocalizations are a series of high-pitched whistling sounds. They have a six- to seven-foot wingspan, soar at 30 miles per hour, and can ascend up to 10,000 feet. When fishing for prey, they are able to see fish from several hundred feet above. They fly low and fast, gliding above the water before snatching their catch with their talons, which have incredible gripping power. Once they’ve attained their food, bald eagles don’t like to share it, unless they are feeding their young. 

While I was on this trip, my 16-year-old American Eskimo dog started to get sick and continued getting sicker every day. On day four, while other people were trying to photograph locked talons or any action of the eagles on the Chilkat, I was distracted and sad because I had just learned that Keeshaw had died. Although he was old, this was unexpected, considering how healthy he had been up until the trip. And he passed away on November 11th, the same day that we had lost our daughter, Laura, prematurely at 18 weeks of pregnancy, 33 years earlier.

I continued to take photos, but none were action packed. However, one photo in particular evokes nostalgic emotion in me every time I look at it.

Bowed Eagle in the rain on a tree stump. ©  Debbie McCulliss
Bowed Eagle © Debbie McCulliss

I knew that this image was a keeper, a divine symbol that Keeshaw was at peace. This photo is a treasured token of both Laura and Keeshaw, together in spirit.

After photographing this particular eagle, my focus changed. I became more interested in walking the shoreline and simply observing the behavior of the eagles and taking portrait shots that captured a special moment. Timing was everything. The magnificence of the perched eagle below on a tree stump, against a stunning backdrop of trees, with its wings spread downward for just a brief moment was breathtaking.

Perched Eagle © Debbie McCulliss
Perched Eagle © Debbie McCulliss

There was plenty of opportunity to capture tight, frame-filled portraits. Some of my favorites include the one below of eagles watching the action between other eagles.

Two Eagles Fighting as Two Others Watch in Dismay © Debbie McCulliss
Eagles Watching in Dismay © Debbie McCulliss

Photographing communal roosting in the landscape provided scale and added depth to the scenes.

Bald eagles nearly went extinct during the 20th century, but, as a result of aggressive protections under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the banning of DDT, they have made a dramatic recovery. They are now protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The Chilkat River is home to the eagles’ primary food source—king, sockeye, coho, pink, and chum salmon. The culture, economy, and food supply of the people of the Chilkat Valley also depend on the river’s bounty. This area was designated a state critical habitat area and, in 2019, American Rivers, an advocacy organization whose mission is to protect wild rivers, named the Chilkat River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers. The main threats are from proposed mining projects that would threaten the river’s salmon, culture, and economy. For example, the Constantine Mine could pollute the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve’s salmon-rich waterways, putting the bald eagles, and people who live and work in surrounding communities that depend on the salmon, at risk. Similarly, the proposed Palmer Project, a copper/zinc mine, threatens the salmon runs that have returned for millennia to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, as well as the surrounding tribes and communities. Should this project come to fruition, harmful chemicals and heavy metals would pollute the waters with toxic acid mine drainage and cause irreparable harm to the entire Chilkat Valley watershed.

Besides potential mining, logging, road building, hydro-developing, high-powered commercial jet boating tours can cause erosion and disruption of the salmon habitat, weaken salmon runs, and impact the eagles. Other ongoing threats to this once-endangered species include lead poisoning from ammunition used by hunters, collisions with cars or structures, habitat destruction, and environmental pollution. Wild animals have drawn me further and further into their world. Learning about 21st-century environmental threats to animals and habitats in the places I’ve traveled has transformed me into a budding conservationist. And the more I learn, the bigger my photographic world becomes.

Debbie McCulliss is a Colorado-based wildlife and nature photographer whose my work is represented in the Windfall Fine Art Gallery in Steamboat Springs.

She is a certified applied poetry facilitator and holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing and nonfiction writing. She came to photography after an unexpected fascination with the behavior of bald eagles. It didn’t take long before she fell in love with photographing a variety of wildlife and witnessing the strength, fragility, beauty and rhythm of nature. The more she learns, the bigger her photographic world becomes. 

With camera in hand, she travels the globe, mostly to colder regions, to capture images that speak to the heart. She believes that her photography speaks, not only for her but for people who can only imagine what it would be like to explore the world with freedom of mind and imagination. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation.