Chilling with the Bald Eagles at Chilkat Indian Village

ICTMN Staff
4/2/11

Everyone knows how majestic and stunning the Haliaeetus Leucocephalus is, the most symbolic of animals in the western hemisphere, a creature only found in North America.  For those without a ornithology degree, we're talking about the bald eagle here.

Wild bald eagles can live to be up to 35-years old.  As the top of the food chain, bald eagles are essential indicators for measuring the health of the larger ecosystem where they live. They've gone from the endangered species list in 1978 to being upgraded to 'Threatened' in 1995, and today as efforts to replenish populations continue, bald eagles need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to maintain acceptable levels.  Spotting them in large numbers in their natural habitat is still difficult, with a smattering of bald eagle watching events that ask a traveler to try to enjoy the splendor of one of the world's most beautiful creatures while gaping through a car window or sitting with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other people.

For those looking to do a little bald eagle watching in a area as majestic as they are, we have an idea for you.  Alaska.

Klukwan is a tiny village in the southeastern portion of Alaksa, the finger of the state that curves southeast.  The capital of the state, Juneau, is situated in this finger of Alaskan territory that includes the Glacier Bay National Park and Perserve, Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness, and the city of Ketchikan to the south.  Klukwan began as a Chilkat Tlingit village along the trade route that came to be known as the Dalton Trail. In the late 19th century the United States Navy reported the name of the village as "Chilcat of Klukquan."  The name isTlakw Áan in Tlingit, which roughly translates to "forever village," due to the village's antiquity.  Klukwan remains as the last surviving of the five Chilkat villages that were in the area before 1900.

Today, Chilkat Indian Village is situated on the banks of the Chilkat River.  The word Chilkat means "storage container for salmon," due to the warm springs that keep the Chilkat river from freezing over during the winter, allowing the salmon to spawn late into the season. The village has been encouraging of visitors, hosting an annual Putney student travel group, who come and stay in the village for a month during the summer.

The warm springs of the Chilkat river, and the subsequent proliferation of salmon it draws, is what makes Chilkat home to the largest concentration of bald eagles on the planet.  Every year thousands of bald eagles descend upon Chilkat valley to feed on the late chum salmon run.  From a three mile stretch on the Haines Highway (Kulkwan is 22 miles northwest of the city of Haines) that runs along the river, one can make out bald eagles congregating on the river flats and perched en masse in the tall Black Cottonwood trees that flank the riverbank.

National Geographic listed this area in their "Best American Adventures" year-end roundup last year.  "Ascend 250-foot (76-meter) tall spruces smack in the middle of the world’s highest concentration of bald eagles," they wrote, although it seems likely this kind of 'adventure' isn't exactly good for the bald eagles.  Humans scrambling up the trees the eagles are nesting doesn't sound quite right, does it?

Visitors to Chilkat who luck out will get to watch the eagles hunt.  Small mammals and water fowl are options for the bald eagle, but these majestic masters of the sky feed mostly on fish.  Flying at speeds up to 30 m.p.h., the bald eagle's incredible vision allows it to spot a fish from a mile away.  Then comes the insane, incredible dive.  Bald eagles with a fish in their sight will dive at speeds up to 100 m.p.h., where they snag the salmon with their razor sharp talons.  Eagles who try for fish over five pounds have been known to fight so hard to life their catch that they drown themselves in the process.

There's more to see and in do at the Chilkat Indian Village, thanks to efforts over the past fifteen years to revive many of the cultural arts and practices of their ancestors.  They now offer a Jilkaat Kwaan cultural tour, and are building a brand new cultural center and hospitality house.

The tour includes visiting the bald eagle observatory, visiting a traditional long house, and watching carvers work on their craft, such as bear spruce panels, baleen whale woodworm soapberry spoons, and a fire bringer mask.  For more information, click here.

For those most interested in watching North America's most beloved and famous animal, there's no better place on earth to visit then Chilkat.

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