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Floating with an Eagle - or several hundred!
Squamish River, British Columbia

© By Diane Selkirk
  Our raft leisurely drifted down the Squamish River, floating past two fishermen in hip waders, casting for spawning chum salmon. Mist rose from the water, the Tantalus Mountains, a snow capped backdrop. It took me a longer than others to see the Bald Eagles, and to their merriment, I excitedly pointed out the first one I saw, perched on a logjam. I realized that the white-headed eagle shared the logs with six dark-coloured juveniles and in the tree behind, there were another eight adults. Gradually, I began to process the scene: hundreds of eagles perching, feeding and soaring along the snowy banks of the river.
     Initially, the intrepid suggestion of a mid-winter rafting trip on the Squamish River sounded too cold to be any fun. I visualized freezing my way down rapids - catching the odd glimpse of an eagle through icy spray. My 5-year old daughter, Maia, more apprehensive, became fixated on a photograph that she had come across; an overturned raft, with passengers flung into frothing water. However, instead of white water disaster, the "Eagle Float" trip is named so for a good reason.
     One of the best and unique ways to view the famous Brackendale eagles, raft trips are family-friendly, half-day adventures. From November through February yearly along the Squamish and Cheakamus Rivers in Squamish, the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the world gather to savour spawned out salmon. People travel great distances to observe this magnificent sight - using viewpoints along the dyke in the Brackendale area.
     Rafting provides a new perspective, meandered down the river with time to study the eagles, watch their interactions and learn about their behaviour from our guide.
     After meeting at the Sunwolf Outdoor Centre, my husband, Evan, Maia and I, joined two other participants, Klaudi and Randy and our guide, Shelagh Thompson aboard a bus for a 10-minute drive to the launch point. Crunching over snow and ice, we stumbled and slid, manoeuvring the raft to the river.
     After a quick lesson in paddling skills, we launched the boat. The mountains first caught my eye as Mount Alpha rose up from the river, densely-forested slopes blanketed with fresh snow. Then, I noticed the eagles. I've seen eagles in groups of three and four before, occasionally as many as eight or ten together. But what happens in Brackendale is stimulus overload. For the first few minutes, we took turns pointing out large groups of eagles; then, we stopped in awe. Eagle calls whistled shrilly through the air and as we silently floated. I heard the whoosh of wings beat on take off.

       

     Despite the overcast December, rain held off, making the day perfect for eagle viewing. Dressed in fleece layers, tall rubber boots, hats and mitts, we were cozy while the raft floated in the current. Occasionally, Shelagh asked us to paddle when we drifted too close to the eagles. Although there are no guidelines, a volunteer at the Eagle Run viewing centre explained that good eagle ethics mean you don't raft until after the morning feed and stay clear of the bank that they favour.
     Still, we were as close as I've ever been to a wild eagle. Maia pointed out two squabbling over a salmon carcass, the battle stately yet ridiculous with four more salmon beside the pair. Maia rooted for the juvenile, contending that he found the salmon first and it was, "finder's keepers."
     The Brackendale phenomenon is beautiful and potentially tragic, eagles congregating at the confluence of the Squamish, Cheakamus and Mamquam rivers for a millennium but not in the same large numbers. Diminished salmon stocks and logging of their fragile habitat peaked the concentration of eagles at 3,769 in January 1994. Conservation of the surrounding 1,500 acres allows the raptors to continue to thrive there for now.
     Along with eagles, we shared the river with Trumpeter Swans, Mergansers and comical seals. The seals floated alongside then dove to pop up with a splash a minute later in an unexpected place. Their playful, puppy-dog eyes mirrored Maia's giggles as it appeared they were having as much fun as us. The play contrasted with the eagles and a heavy feeling of concern. Shelagh told us that the salmon run is much smaller than it should be. Maia asked me what would happen to the eagles if the salmon stopped coming. I didn't answer.

   

     As the trip concluded, Maia alternately looked at the bus waiting on the riverbank and back at the eagles on the other side. "This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I need to remember it," she said, staring hard.

Diane Selkirk writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines in both Canada and the US. http://www.dianeselkirk.com

Photo Credits
Diane Selkirk
Vancouver Coast and Mountain Region Tourism: Squamish, Squamish River, Stawamus, the Chief, Squamish
Click for Squamish, British Columbia Forecast

If you go
Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival: Call the Brackendale Art Gallery: 604-898-3333 or visit www.brackendaleeagles.com
Sunwolf Outdoor Centre offers half-day Eagle Floats for about $84(US) per person. Visitors also have the options of combining the raft trip with a night in the newly renovated riverside cabins for $114. Call 1-877-806-8046 or visit http://www.sunwolf.net
You can also observe eagles from several stationary viewing areas. The main "Eagle Run" viewpoint is located on the municipal dyke on Government Road in Brackendale. Exit Highway 99 at Mamquam Road and head north on Government Road to the viewing area. An interpretive program explains the eagle and salmon life cycle, and visitors get an up-close view through telescopes. Volunteer interpreters are on hand each weekend until early February.
Visitor Information Centre in Squamish: For more information, call 604-892-9244. U. S. Visitors: Traveling to Brackendale - Drive time to Squamish from Seattle is 3.5 hrs (Sunwolf is 8.5 miles further on).

What's happening, money, distance, time?
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