Haines’ annual Alaska Bald Eagle Festival takes place this week. There are talks by naturalists, workshops and other activities at the Eagle Foundation in town. But the main draw is about 20 miles up the highway, along the Chilkat River. That’s where hundreds, maybe thousands of eagles congregate for a late salmon run. And the convocation of eagles brings a similar pilgrimage of people. Specifically, photographers.
As you walk along the frosted leaves that cover the banks of the Chilkat River, you’ll hear a couple sounds: eagles calling out as they feed on salmon, and loud camera shutters clicking away.
“In one word, wow,” said Denver resident Rick Brennan. “The mountains are gorgeous today. It’s such a clear, blue sky. Water’s flowing, there’s eagles everywhere. If you had binoculars you could see hundreds of eagles in the trees in the distance. They’re scattered all over the gravelly plains here. Pretty much eagles as far as the eye can see.”
Brennan is here because his wife, Jen, is an avid photographer. They’ve visited Alaska before to take photographs of bears. Rick sees some similarities.
“The eagles here are doing the same thing that the bears in the late fall and early winter are doing, and it’s just eating and eating and eating.”
The Brennans are two of about 20 people gathered in this area along the river. Like them, some are amateur photographers of varying skill levels. And then, there are the professionals.
“You want that shot of the one on the ground jumping up, flipping on its back, talons up as the other one’s coming in with talons down,” said Idaho-based photographer Andy Long. “Those special moments. I happened to be at a spot they were right out in front of me. And it’s like yep, you can tell when it happens and you can sort of feel it.”
Long and fellow professional Mark Lissik have a running commentary as they wait for the right moment.
“On the left, coming in!” Lissik says, and then the Canon cameras start clicking.
Lissik recently moved to China. But he wanted to make one last trip to Alaska before settling there for good. He’s come to Haines for about 10 years for the eagles. This is his last trip in a while, and he’s hoping to get some photos to add to a book he’s working on called ‘Kingdom of Eagles.’
“Haines and the eagles will stay with me long after I’ve not been able to get back here for a while,” Lissik said.
What is it about eagles that draws so many photographers?
“Just the interaction and behavior is so exciting to see,” Long said.
“For me it’s more of the beauty and grace of their movements in the aerial combats, the fighting,” Lissik said. “It’s almost like an aerial ballet, a dance in the air sort of thing. And that’s what I’m trying to capture.”
Lissik and Long are both leading groups of photography enthusiasts on a trip here. They coach the groups throughout the excursion on photography techniques and strategies.
“It’s not work, it’s a passion for us,” Lissik said. “And it’s a passion because of things like this. It just keeps things interesting.”
A couple miles up the river is a group of European photographers who are here on a guided trip out of Whitehorse. Elke Delvoye of Belgium says she was expecting the eagles. The added bonus, she says, is the scenery.
“I think the landscape with the eagles in it is really what does it for me,” Delvoye said. “Like yesterday we had a nice fog over the river. It was really, really pretty.”
The photographers say they’re not just here to take pictures, but also to step away from the lens and enjoy the view of hundreds of eagles up close.