At the beginning of every winter, a natural phenomenon draws throngs of spectators from around the world to the northern tip of the Southeast Alaska panhandle.
Eagles and spectators soar to Haines 112014 NEWS 1 FOR THE CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY At the beginning of every winter, a natural phenomenon draws throngs of spectators from around the world to the northern tip of the Southeast Alaska panhandle.

Emily Russo Miller | Ccw

Ed Cragg, of Arlington, Va., watches as an eagle he released from a crate flies into Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve during the 20th annual American Bald Eagle Festival in Haines on Nov. 15. Cragg won a live bidding auction at the ceremony to release the bird, which was injured by a fire in Adak and rehabilitated by Bird TLC in Anchorage.

Emily Russo Miller | Ccw

The American Bald Eagle Foundation now houses 12 raptors, including three eagles (two of which are seen here), that are permitted through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as educational birds. The nonprofit foundation hosts the American Bald Eagle festival each year as a fundraiser.

Emily Russo Miller | Ccw

American Bald Eagle Foundation intern Leia Minch, left, shows off eagle feathers on display after giving a talk on raptors Nov. 15 during the 20th annual American Bald Eagle Festival in Haines.

Phillip Moser Photo

Erin O'Boyle, a professional photographer from Las Vegas, left, and his friend Jerry Rega, of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, were decked out in camouflage while shooting photographs of eagles at the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Story last updated at 11/20/2014 - 1:22 pm

Eagles and spectators soar to Haines

At the beginning of every winter, a natural phenomenon draws throngs of spectators from around the world to the northern tip of the Southeast Alaska panhandle.

Three to four thousand bald eagles migrating south swoop into the Chilkat Valley in Haines and hone in on a portion of the Chilkat River where there's a break in the ice and five miles of open water.

"I don't know how they know it, but they know that that particular part of the river does not freeze, and they know that there's a late salmon run," said Cheryl McRoberts, executive director of the American Bald Eagle Foundation located two blocks from downtown Haines. "The salmon are innocently coming under the ice, and then they come to open water and the eagles are waiting for them."

The gathering of the bald eagles is the largest concentration of eagles in the world and is celebrated each year at the American Bald Eagle Festival. The eagle foundation hosts the festival annually as a fundraiser, and this year marked the festival's 20th anniversary.

Just under 200 people - from as far away as New Zealand (years past have seen tourists from England and Africa) - attended this year's festival, which features educational lectures from guest speakers and the foundation's staff showcasing the foundation's 12 live animals. It also features eagle viewings in the wild, and a bus shuttles people daily to a section of Haines Highway that overlooks the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

"Oh look, there's one, and another and another and another," Dolly Vigneulle, of Berea, Ohio, exclaimed to her husband Bob, pointing out eagles perched in trees during a Saturday bus ride.

The couple heard about the festival during a cruise ship tour to Alaska, and they always planned to come back for it. Ed Cragg, a 68-year-old from Arlington, Va., had the same experience.

"The tour guide on the cruise ship told me about it, and I started planning the trip the next month," he said Saturday of his cruise to Alaska two years ago.

McRoberts said that's how most people hear about the festival.

"What happens is they come on the cruise ships, and they learn about there's 200 to 400 eagles in the valley during the summer, and we let them know that in the winter, there's three to four thousand," she said. "And they come back."

David Olerud, creator of the foundation, said the organization is dedicated to the protection and preservation of bald eagle habitat through sponsoring and facilitating educational and research activities. But the impetus for founding it back in 1994 was actually more economical than anything else.

"I'd like to say it's because we're brilliant people, and we know the resources and the value of our resources, but basically it was very simple: We lost our tax base," he said. "Both of our mills shut down overnight, and that was estimated to be about 50 percent of our tax base. So what we were supposed to do was to evaluate the resources still remaining and to see if there's a way and means by which those resources could be utilized for the economical survival of our community."

He added that the community turned to their valley's birds as an answer.

"This is the story of Mother Nature within our valley," he said.

Wildlife photographers revel in that story and made up many of the festival's attendees. They snapped picture after picture as countless eagles flew past jagged towering snow-capped mountains, snatched salmon from the sea and puffed up their feathers as they rested on the beach.

"I got plenty of images, maybe two or three thousand," said Gary Presol, a self-described advanced amateur photographer from Kenai River, as he gestured toward the cameras slung around his neck.

Portions of the Haines Highway overlook the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, the state park and wildlife refuge where the eagles fly and scavenge for food. They were not as concentrated this year because the river has not yet frozen over, but it was still a sight to see.

"It was a spiritually enriching, soulful experience," Erin O'Boyle, a commercial photographer from Las Vegas, said Saturday. "It puts you in touch with Mother Earth."

O'Boyle traveled to the festival with his friend, Jerry Rega of Coeur d'alene, Idaho, and their significant others, after scouting it out in May with a local photography guide.

They were just some of the photographers that McRoberts referred to on Saturday as the "Eagle Paparazzi." Lenses were arrayed in ranks to take pictures of the ceremonious release of two eagles back into the wild. The eagles were burned by a fire at an Adak landfill and nursed back to health by Anchorage-based Bird TLC.

Chilkat Dancers from Klukwan sang, danced and drummed to celebrate the release of the birds, and the foundation auctioned off the opportunity to be the person to release the eagle from the crate. That's a yearly tradition and has brought up to $2,500 in the past. This year, the bids went for $360 and $280. Cragg was one of the winners.

"I was ready to go up to $500," he said. "It was definitely worth it."

The release ceremony was free and open to the public, and many of those in attendance were locals.

"We got to the festival every year," said Kirsten Amann, a Haines resident since 1997. "It just makes you appreciate the area more. You should still be amazed that there's thousands of eagles, even if you live here. It still amazes me."

The festival is the biggest fundraiser for the foundation, which last year had an operating budget of about $159,000. They rely on admission fees, grants from the state and donations to operate. The festival last year pulled in some 11,000 for the foundation.

Neither the spectators - who come to the festival for one week in November - nor the eagles stay in the valley long.

McRoberts said, "They come and stock up, and usually by Christmas, they're gone."

• Emily Russo Miller is a reporter for CCW's sister publication, the Juneau Empire, and she can be contacted at 523-2263 or