1, 2, 160: Counting eagles in BC

Toronto Star, February, 2014

I was already feeling humble.

Having been instructed to “dress for skiing,” I had on several layers before the oversized rain jacket, pants, rubber boots and life jacket I was given to wear for an excursion along the Squamish River to count eagles on a misty January day.

Once fully decked out to about twice my normal size, I was instructed to waddle out to the shallow rocks and roll into the raft. I did so with much joy, if little dignity, and once safely in the raft, I put myself upright and started trying to count all the eagles I saw as we floated down the river.

I ran out of fingers pretty quick.

The eagles were perched high up on tree branches and hanging out on the rocks next to the water. They sat four or six or more to a tree.  Every now and then, a bird would launch itself from a branch, whip its impossibly huge wings and take off up the river, leaving me feeling, well, a rather unremarkable inhabitant of the planet Earth and causing me to completely forget where I was in the counting.

We got to about 160 eagles before losing track altogether and just sitting back to enjoy the view—a view that’s been known to make at least one grown man cry. A hard core birder, who up until that day had only ever seen a single eagle, broke down in tears after seeing his 80th, our guide Jake Freese tells us. Their raft came around a bend to about a dozen eagles in one tree and the man started crying because it was “so beautiful.”

It is indeed. And great fun when you have a birder/photographer from Regina sitting next to you who is beyond giddy with excitement. My group also included a Victoria-based science writer who regaled us with loads of stories about salmon runs and bears, and a Toronto resident whose husband called her in a panic mid-float to announce that their kitchen pipes had frozen.

Jake, who along with his wife Jess owns and operates Sunwolf, a resort and rafting company in Squamish, did his part to keep us entertained with loads of information about eagles. For example, the eagle’s cry you hear in Hollywood movies is fake. They typically dub over a hawk’s scream to make the symbol of American strength sound less like a chickadee and more like a tough guy.

Once you’ve seen a huge salmon carcass hanging from a tree, you know these ain’t no chickadees. But they are messy eaters. We saw more salmon bones on the beach as we got out of the raft after the hour long float.

As for all that rain gear we put on, it didn’t rain and it was a gentle ride down the river—no big splashes or spray from the water, although we were thoroughly awash in amazement.

Eagle facts:

7,000 feathers.  Your average eagle sports about 7,000 feathers. Give or take. The juveniles can look bigger than their parents because they have downier feathers.

1,617 eagles in the 2014 annual Brackendale eagle count. Brackendale, just north of Squamish—a town where many ignorant souls stop only for coffee halfway between Vancouver and Whistler—happily boasts the largest gathering of bald eagles in North America. The magnificent creatures at the top of the food chain come from as far away as Arizona for the salmon that run in three rivers; the Squamish, Cheakamus, and Mamquam. And every year, volunteers get together to head out to count all the eagles they can see over the course of a day.

The record was back in 1994, when they counted 3,769 eagles. This past January, 70 volunteers counted 633 adults, 376 juveniles and 608 “unclassified” birds for a total of 1,617.

2014 was the 28th year of the eagle count in Brackendale, which was started by local artist, gallery owner and eagle enthusiast, Thor Froslev and his wife Dorte.

58 minutes. The float down the Squamish River alongside Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park took just under an hour and covered about seven kilometres. The best eagle viewing is between mid-December to mid-January, but there are still plenty to see between mid-November and mid-February.

$100. Sunwolf charges $100 per ride (Kids 5-11 are free. Kids under five are eagle bait and should spend the day doing something else. By my math (always suspect) that’s 62.5 cents per eagle or about the price of a coffee per gasp as you watch an eagle fly overhead.

1 adorable baby. Flynn Freese and his parents, Jess and Jake, not only run the floats down the river, they own and operate the rustic Sunwolf resort in Brackendale. A former logging camp, the pretty little cabins now attract mountain bikers, rock climbers and others who come to Squamish to enjoy the outdoors. If you miss Flynn in the main guesthouse, you can likely get in a kitchie-coo-coo at Fergie’s Café, Sunwolf’s tiny eatery that features giant English breakfasts.

20 feet tall. The size of an eagle’s nest discovered in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, one of many interesting eagle facts Jake told us on the float.

2 p.m. Everyone has to be off the Squamish river by 2 p.m. to give the juvenile eagles plenty of time to feed. They typically lose 10 per cent of their body weight overnight so they need to stock up on lot of salmon before bedtime. The young birds are easily spooked by man or beast which is why dog walkers are also asked to be off the shores of the river by 2 p.m.

10 days. That’s how long it took the Freeses and their friends to reroof the 10 quaint cabins alongside the Cheekye River at Sunwolf. The couple, who had been Whistler outdoor adventurers for years, bought the property in 2010 and started a whole new kind of adventure. Jess and a friend were on their way hiking north of Whistler when they turned around on a whim and headed to Squamish to explore the site. They saw the potential right away. The renovations on the cabins continue, but their guests have cautioned the couple: “Don’t do them up too much, we like them a bit rustic.”

20 years. An eagle will live an average of 20 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity. Males are smaller than the females—the boys get to about 10 lbs and the females can be as big as 14 lbs. They look like they should weigh an awful more, but their bones are hollow.

1 once in a life time experience.  The next time you find yourself driving between Vancouver and Whistler, do yourself a favour and stop in Squamish for much, much more than a coffee.


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