Wes Jones quietly motored his charter boat along Lake Pend Oreille’s eastern shore Tuesday morning, pulling close to the rocky cliffs to allow his passengers unobstructed views of dozens of circling bald eagles.
Eagles soared above the lake, landing in pine trees and taking off again as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” played softly in the boat. The music lent a dreamlike, choreographed feel to the eagles’ flight.
“It’s like being there when they film an Imax experience,” said Jones, the owner of Bayview Shuttle.
Jones added eagle-viewing excursions to his charter business this year. For $20 per person, customers get a 90-minute cruise to some of Lake Pend Oreille’s top eagle-watching spots.
The white-headed visitors from the north have become a significant tourism draw since the 1990s, attracting thousands of visitors to Lake Coeur d’Alene and in more recent years, to Lake Pend Oreille.
The eagles spend about six weeks in the area, gorging on late-spawning kokanee salmon before heading south. During their layover in North Idaho, the eagles pack on calories from the oily fish and also pump cash into the local economy.
“We get a significant number of calls about eagles,” said Steve Wilson, executive director for the Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce. “People want to know the best time to see them. They plan their trip around that.”
Wilson has wondered about eagles’ contribution to the economy, though he’s not aware of any studies measuring it. The migration helps bring people to North Idaho during a slower tourism time.
People in the area for eagle-watching probably buy gas or lunch or do some shopping while they’re in North Idaho, he said. In addition to retail sales, hotels get some business, too.
“It’s a great little attraction that we steer people to. They’re quite surprised they can see an eagle so close,” Wilson said.
The Coeur d’Alene Resort’s eagle cruises, offered during December, attract more than 4,000 people each year. A weekly “eagle watch” report put out by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management gets thousands of hits.
“I was just on the phone with a documentary filmmaker from Boise, and I sent maps to a photographer from San Diego on where to see the eagles,” said Carrie Hugo, a BLM wildlife biologist in Coeur d’Alene.
Each year, the BLM and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game sponsor a free eagle interpretive exhibit on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Wolf Lodge Bay. More than 3,000 people visit the display, which runs between Christmas and New Years.
“We’ve had people from all 50 states and 18 countries,” Hugo said.
While tourists with cameras are chasing birds, the birds are chasing fish.
Kokanee, which spawn along the lake shore, are easy pickings for the eagles. Lake Coeur d’Alene has hundreds of thousands of the landlocked salmon, which were introduced to the lake in the 1930s. In Lake Pend Oreille, the kokanee count could be high as 2 million, said Andy Dux, Fish and Game’s regional fishery manager.
Eagles use their keen vision to watch for ripples on the lake. When a dying kokanee surfaces, they swoop down to hook the fish with their talons. The dramatic dives are crowd pleasers.
“They’re just such a grand species to see,” said Tim Hoskins of Athol, who was eagle-watching on Lake Coeur d’Alene last weekend with his wife, Lori, and an out-of-town guest. “It’s a treat to see one even if it’s perched, and if you get to see one pull a fish out of the water, that’s impressive.”
The eagles fly in from interior British Columbia and Glacier National Park. After feeding at local lakes, their migration continues to Oregon’s Klamath Basin or parts of the Southwest.
Over the past three years, Idaho Fish and Game has added about 300 truckloads of gravel to parts of Lake Pend Oreille’s shoreline to improve spawning habitat for kokanee. As the lake’s kokanee runs have rebounded, more eagles are stopping there instead of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“They have a lot more eagles than they used to,” said Hugo, the wildlife biologist, said of Lake Pend Oreille’s bays. “But we have enough eagles to share.”
Jones, the charter boat captain, saw a business opportunity from the eagles. For three years, he’s had a contract with the U.S. Post Office to deliver mail to communities on the east shore of Lake Pend Oreille. Jones figured people would pay to see some of the sights he enjoys on the lake.
“When the skies clear and you’re watching the clouds break over the top of the mountains, it’s amazing,” he said. “But there’s no way to get here without a boat.”
Jones’ eagle-viewing charters are a mom-and-pop operation. The 32-foot boat seats six people and he doesn’t take reservations. People who want to go on an excursion sign up each morning at Ralph’s Coffee House in Bayview.
The charters will run through January. If people are lucky, they’ll get to see mountain goats on the cliffs about the lake as well as eagles.
And if Jones is lucky, the eagle charter will turn into a going concern.
He also works as a security guard at the Farragut Naval Training Station and sells real estate with his wife. But that’s typical for North Idaho’s small communities, he said.
“You have to be diversified up here,” he said. “The jobs come and go, and many of them are seasonal.”
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