Excitement crackled through the brisk winter air as we drifted along a river in southwest British Columbia. How many bald eagles would we see?
Last January, 164 bird watchers in the vicinity of Brackendale, a small community halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, spotted 3,766 eagles, topping the 1993 world record of 3,495 birds seen in the former eagle capital of Haines, Alaska.
Eager to see these elegant birds in the wild, I grabbed the chance to float down part of the lower Squamish River with Canadian Outback Adventures. Eagles are drawn to the area because of the rich supply of spawning salmon. Hikers can spot eagles from the riverbanks, but the premier way to see them is by kayak or raft.
We started in the dark in North Vancouver, sloshing through rain to board a 7 a.m. northbound B.C. Rail train. As the train crossed the Capilano River, a blue heron eased into flight. Along Howe Sound, shadowy, misty glimpses of islands and mountains stacked up one behind the other.
The train made several stops to let passengers on and off along the way, and by 8:30 a.m., we had arrived in Brackendale. Our guides had additional waterproof gear for us at the Sunwolf Outdoor Centre and from there, we headed out for a walk along the Cheakamus River, part of the Squamish River system.
Enveloped in stillness, we walked beneath towering firs and hemlocks. Our guide, naturalist and biologist Terry Tobin, laughed. “I told you it would stop raining.” he said. He was right. It was snowing.
He pointed to the clear, low river, and explained, “All the dead wood and other material in there is an incubator for life.” As we walked in the dampness and heavy snow, past ferns and decaying cedar, Tobin explained the life cycle of Pacific salmon, the main attraction for the eagle.
Salmon can swim from salt water upstream to Brackendale, a distance of 25 miles, in as little as a day. For the most part, they don’t waste time stopping to feed. Instead, oil in their bodies fuels them for the arduous journey. Driven by instinct and directed by water pressure, temperature and the smells of the water and mud, salmon persist relentlessly to their spawning grounds.
By the time the female lays her eggs and the male fertilizes them, the salmon’s body has taken a dramatic turn. Once firm and muscular, silver and black, it is now soft, the skin red. A whitish fungus may coat the scales. The salmon is vulnerable to sharp rocks or sticks, and pieces of torn flesh hang from the fishes’ body like so many parasites. These are the dog salmon, the spawning fish that natives often fed to their dogs.
Spawning salmon provide a ripe smorgasboard of easy pickings for the voracious eagles. Because of their speed, talons and remarkable eyesight (they can see four to eight time better than humans), eagles are fully capable of diving and catching a healthy salmon from rushing waters. But when salmon are plentiful and lethargic, the eagles come in droves for fast food. These days, that stop is Brackendale.
After our walk, and a bit chilly, we climbed into a van and drove to the Glacier Valley Farm bed-and-breakfast to warm up. Over steaming cups of coffee and tea and homemade cookies, we settled before a roaring fire to watch Tobin’s slides of salmon and eagles.
Then it was on to Milepost 21, our put-in point on the river. We scampered down the snowy bank to the inflated yellow rafts waiting for us. Brian McCutcheon, our river guide, helped us into life jackets, cinching them tight. He commanded our raft of six people, while another followed us.
Each of us had a paddle and some carried waterproof bags with cameras and binoculars. There was a vacant spot at the bow and Brian asked me to fill it. I sat facing forward, the only direction that felt comfortable with six layers of clothing sandwiched between my body and an immobilizing life jacket.
For the most part, the river carried. Brian steered and, occasionally, we paddled for extra power.
“Forward,” Brian yelled. We paddled. I frowned. The river had seemed placid, but ahead it was boiling. Would we spin out of control?
Thinking about how young Brian looked, I wondered, “Can he handle this raft?”
The raft stayed under control, but a wave sloshed over the port side of the bow, drenching my fellow paddler’s legs.
We continued floating and paddling, with nary an eagle in sight. Brian explained, however, that he had come down the river the previous day to make sure the route was clear - and he had seen eagles. A good sign, I thought.
Brian pointed in the direction of 8,787-foot Mount Garibaldi, hidden by clouds. In fact, the valley is surrounded by forested hills with snow-covered peaks rising in the background.
Ahead, boulders and craggy limbs looked menacing as the water rushed around them. I couldn’t see a route that was clear of debris. I thought of those exhausted, soft salmon and how limbs tore at their flesh.
Suddenly, the raft pulled left toward a rock. My hands broke out in a cold sweat. Brian was at least six feet behind me in the stern and I wondered, “Could he SEE what’s happening?”
“Forward,” he yelled. But I knew it was too late. We paddled until my arms strained. Still the raft headed toward the rock. And then, just as I was sure we would crash against the boulder, the bow turned and slid past the rock.
In the leafless trees along the bank, I saw white spots on dark ovals. Eagles! Two stayed in the tree. One flapped its wings and swooped overhead, its wingspan somewhere around seven feet. Silently, I watched the graceful bird glide.
Ahead there were more. And more. I lost count. But in the 90-minute float trip that covered five miles of river, we saw between 20 and 25 eagles. Not bad for the pre-season.
MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: If you go