Record flocks of bald eagles and rubber-necking eagle watchers are turning Lake Coeur d’Alene’s northeast shoreline into a traffic scene straight out of Yellowstone or Yosemite national parks.
Cars stop in the middle of the road, other vehicles drift over the centerline as their drivers’ eyes scan treetops for the telltale white heads, and binocular-clutching pedestrians shuffle along the road’s narrow shoulder.
Local residents say driving the gantlet can be downright dangerous on the busiest days between now and the end of the year. The Idaho State Police has even stepped up patrols on the busiest section of State Highway 97.
“It’s narrow, it’s windy, it’s a nightmare,” said ISP Sgt. Jonelle Greear. “People just need to find a safe place to park, or go on the boat cruises.”
There have been no reports of serious accidents or injury, but Greear wants drivers and pedestrians to take extra care. The highway is no wider than most city streets in residential neighborhoods. The pavement is sandwiched between steep cliffs and the lakeshore, leaving no room to park and a shoulder wide enough for just a single pedestrian.
Several safe pulloffs and parking areas are available. Drivers often stop in the middle of the road, however, when they spot an eagle, Greear said. This is illegal and dangerous. The drivers who stop are also liable for damage should a crash take place. With this in mind, the Idaho State Police will be issuing citations to illegally parked eagle watchers.
“We’re not looking to write parking tickets,” Greear said. “We’re looking to keep people safe.”
A record number of bald eagles has shown up for a holiday buffet of dying, spawned kokanee salmon. Federal biologists counted 156 of the birds in the Wolf Lodge Bay last week. The eagles stay in the area through early January before resuming their southward migration.
A three-mile stretch of the highway offers prime viewing along Wolf Lodge and Beauty Bays. Safe parking close to all the action is available at the Mineral Ridge public boat launch, which is where Liberty Lake residents Gail and Gene Melanson stopped Saturday morning to see the eagles.
“It’s so fun to watch them swoop off with the fish,” Gail Melanson said. “Sure does bring the people out, doesn’t it?”
The couple were with their grandson, Bryan, of Spokane. “It’s cool,” he said, watching an eagle glide above the lake. The raptor turned its head back and forth, scanning the surface for kokanee.
A troop of Cub Scouts at the launch threw rocks at the gray, fuzzy bodies of dead salmon bobbing near shore. The air smelled wet and fishy, like a bait shop. A small crowd of eagle watchers reacted with excitement whenever a new bird was spotted or a resting eagle in a tree flapped its wings.
On a hillside above the launch, 12 white eagle heads could be seen against the dark backdrop of evergreen trees. Just as many vehicles filled the parking lot. Many more drove slowly along the highway, with drivers and passengers stretching their necks to peer up through windshields.
Steve Fender, a photographer from Seattle, parked his truck in a wide turnout to eye a juvenile bird perched in a dead ponderosa pine. Fender spends upwards of 40 hours each December photographing the raptors. The highway can be a dangerous place for bird-watchers, he said.
“This would be a good year for traffic simply because there’s no ice,” he said.
Local residents are more careful with their driving during eagle-viewing season, said Kootenai County Planning Director Rand Wichman, who commutes daily on Highway 97.
“The eagle watchers can be a menace,” Wichman said. “Fortunately, I come into work before they get out there and go home after they leave. … Most of us just kind of grin and bear it and know it’s part of the baggage that comes with living on that side of the lake.”
County building inspectors and other planning staff often travel the highway. The east shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, like all shoreline around the lake, is dotted with new home construction. The county employees also know they must drive more carefully, Wichman said.
“They’ll come around the corner and there’ll be five people standing in the road taking pictures and oblivious to the fact they’re standing in the middle of the state highway,” he said. “The problem is, eagles don’t go where it’s convenient for us to take a picture. Mother Nature didn’t give us a very good area to widen the road and put up viewing platforms.”