Witness a Convocation of Bald Eagles in Skagit County

During the holidays we often celebrate the year’s bounty with delectable feasts. During this same season, bald eagles are migrating to the Skagit River Valley to gorge themselves on the chum (and occasionally coho) salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean. Chum salmon are the last of the five species of salmon to spawn in the Skagit watershed, with a spawning season that starts in November and goes through January. With winter in full swing in Alaska and Canada, bald eagles migrate to the Skagit for easy pickings. Bald eagles are scavengers and a salmon’s life cycle ends once they spawn. So, put two and two together and you can imagine the opportunity to feast that the Skagit River presents to bald eagles during the winter time.

Skagit River Bald Eagles Boat
A juvenile bald eagle flies across the Skagit River right in front of a Skagit River Eagle Tour’s boat. Photo credit: Michele G. Bullock

An Alaska fisherman, Wayne Ackerlund, didn’t just put two and two together. He put two and two and two together, two cubed if you will. Ackerlund has managed to create a business with virtually no competition in the tiny, rural community of Rockport. According to the 2010 census there is a grand total of 109 people living in Rockport, a scenic, but sleepy town at the foothills of North Cascades National Park. Prior to five years ago, several whitewater rafting outfitters lead bald eagle tours on the Skagit River during the winter time as an off-season gig. The section of the Skagit River popular for bald eagles does not have whitewater rapids. In fact, you’re more likely to run aground in your boat, it gets so shallow.

Skagit River Bald Eagles Three Eagles
An adult bald eagle challenges two juveniles for decaying salmon. It’s just one of scenes you may see play out on the Skagit River. Photo credit: Ashley Roeder

Whitewater outfitters, save maybe two, have abandoned their hopes of profiting off the river during these calm, cold months due to Ackerlund’s unique investment. Rather than rowing guests eager to catch a near-guaranteed glimpse of bald eagles in a plastic or rubber raft, Ackerlund’s guides row their guests in a custom-made fiberglass drift boat made by Koffler. That’s pretty cool, I don’t know much about boats, but I guess a custom-built fiberglass drift boat by some name I don’t know makes me feel more protected against the elements than plastic or rubber. There’s more. Because Ackerlund deviated from the traditional plastic or rubber raft of choice most commonly found on the river, he was able to install propane powered heaters. Depending on if you’re in the 20- or 22-foot boat, 6 to 8 people can enjoy a ride down the river with approximately half a heater per seat. What happens when it rains as it so often does? The heater’s stay on. What happens if I catch on fire? Your guide will put you out and remind you not to get too close to the heaters. Does that actually happen? Not on my trips! I remind everyone not to get too close regularly. Wait, are you the author of this article and a guide you ask? Yes,  I am. I even put down my oars to serve you hot cocoa too (we all do to be fair). Shameless self-promotion: please feel free to request yours truly, Aurora, as your guide if you choose to embark on this wildlife winter excursion.

There’s also a jet sled that can accommodate six people, but there’s no heat. There’s a separate bald eagle tour without heat on the even more remote and wild Nooksack River that can accommodate four guests. You can book a tour with Skagit River Eagle Tours by calling 888.675.2448 or emailing skagitguide1@gmail.com.

Skagit River Bald Eagles Trees
A trip to the Skagit River in December means you will probably see a convocation of bald eagles. Photo credit: Bob Cournoyer

In previous years the majority of business happened in January, after the holidays during the Skagit Eagle Festival. This is fine as there are plenty of bald eagles to observe on the river throughout January. However, if you want an insider tip, the bald eagles are traditionally even more abundant in December right around the holidays. Imagine showing up for a feast, how much self-control would you have to wait? Especially if you’re an opportunistic, scavenging eagle. You say you’re all booked for the holidays, but want to know more about that Skagit Eagle Festival since you don’t know what to do with yourself in January? Check out Concrete, Washington’s website for a list of scheduled events. You can visit the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, participate in a 5k Salmon Run and nature walk, engage in arts and crafts for children, go on a hayride, attend various presentations, among many other bald eagle-centered events.

Skagit River Bald Eagles Flying
There is nothing like seeing our national emblem flying free over a wintry river. Photo credit: Bruce Leonard

Eagle Watching Tips

The best time of day to see eagles is first thing in the morning. The best place to see them is on the river. if a boat tour isn’t for you, Howard Miller Steelhead Park is one place to go. Doing the nature walk on Concrete’s Eagle Fest website would be another good way to see eagles from land. Remember though, humans are eagles’ only natural predators so be quiet when you’re watching them.

This time of year is an excellent opportunity to practice your photography skills with eagles perched in trees, flying over the river, and if you’re lucky, fighting it out with one another for first dibs on decaying salmon. There’s no better place to acquire these shots and memories than on the river within the bald eagle’s very habitat and scavenging ground.

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