Behind The Shot: Bald Eagles In New Snow On Cottonwood Trees

Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska

Photo By Charles Sleicher

The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in southeast Alaska is a state park and wildlife refuge. Established in 1982, it covers 49,320 acres and has the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles. The eagles are there to feed on the salmon that swim up the Chilkat River by the thousands in the fall and winter to spawn. The nearest town is Haines, which has an excellent online guide at Haines can be reached by air, road or ferry from Juneau.

I traveled to Haines by ferry from Juneau in November to photograph the eagles in the preserve. At that time of year, you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle in the preserve, so it’s best to rent a car in Juneau, where you’ll have a much larger selection than in Haines. You then drive the car onto the ferry for the nine-hour trip to Haines. Haines has a population of about 1,900 and is a center for art, including native arts of the Tlingit Tribe and at least three museums. It has several nice hotels and restaurants serving fresh Alaskan king crab that’s as good as you’ll find anywhere. Imagine two days of photographing eagles and three dinners of king crab!

I took this photo in the preserve where the eagles gather to feed on the salmon. The river flows southerly from the mountains in the north and empties into the Lynn Canal. Haines Highway, a two-lane road, runs parallel to the river as it heads south toward Haines. The preserve is reached by driving north from Haines on the Haines Highway, which is never far from the river. The photograph was taken from a turn-off of the highway about 20 miles from Haines.

I had to leave Haines in the dark at around 7 a.m. in order to arrive by 8 a.m. before the overnight dusting of snow had blown or melted away. I was on the east side of the river looking across to the eagles on the west side. The eagles had perched in the trees to sleep, and during the night, there was a light snowfall that covered the branches with an inch or so of fluffy snow. There was a heavy overcast as well. I managed to photograph the scene before the first morning breeze blew the snow away.

In addition to this photograph, I took many others of eagles eating fish on the shore and fighting over fish. I also took many photographs of eagles in trees along the road. A memorable one was of an eagle scolding me from a branch only a few feet above my head.