Alaska – Bald Eagles and more …..

Saturday 19 November 2016 saw an early morning start to Heathrow to meet up with the folks from NaturesLens to start our journey to Alaska. I’ve been on a few trips now with NL and each and everyone has been fantastic – not only do they work hard to provide superb photographic opportunities but you also feel like you’re going on holiday with a really super group of friends.

After a 10 ½ hour flight to Seattle we had a quick change-over and it was on to stage two of the journey – an ‘internal’ flight from Seattle to Juneau. This was a quite a unique experience as the flight stopped at Ketchikan and Sitka with passengers leaving and new passengers boarding carrying their cups of coffee, just as we would on a train in the UK…..

An overnight stay in Juneau was necessary, ready for an early start the next day to catch the ferry to Haines.

The early morning air was fresh to say the least and as the sun rose you really started to get a feel for the amazing scenery ahead of us. We’d been advised to look out for the Eldred Rock historical octagonal lighthouse.

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The Eldred Rock lighthouse was first lit on June 1, 1906. It is one of the remotest lighthouses in North America and was built after several disastrous shipwrecks in the vicinity, especially during the 1898 Gold Rush, when the Lynn Canal was full of steamships bringing miners to Skagway for their climb over Chilkoot Pass.

Determined to get a photograph a few of us ventured onto the deck and I have to say it was probably the most difficult photograph I took all holiday. Most of the camera gear was packed away so it was a case of hand held using the 100-400mm lens but it was so windy on deck you couldn’t stand still let alone hold a camera still …… and if you tried to use a rail for support you almost instantly froze to it so I was pretty pleased to get a shot!!

Our base for the stay in Alaska was the town of Haines.

Haines is surrounded by mountains and water and is situated on the shores of the northern Lynn Canal, the deepest, longest fjord in North America and just 40 miles from the Canadian border.

We arrived around midday and, as per norm on a NaturesLens trip the plan was to get straight into photography mode so it was a quick visit to our hotel to drop off our luggage, sort out the camera gear and then off to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Reserve to have an afternoon ‘recce’ of the area…….. when I say Bald Eagle Reserve it’s basically a large conservation area along the river by the Haines Highway.

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It’s easy to see why this area is so popular for bald eagle photography.
The river “flats” of the Chilkat River along the Haines Highway, are considered critical habitat for bald eagles and are the main viewing areas for eagle watchers. The eagles are attracted to the area by the availability of spawned-out salmon and open waters in late autumn and winter.

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Whilst most of the eagles sat happily in the trees on the other side of the river it was often a waiting game for them to settle close enough to get a more detailed shot …but when they did it really was an amazing sight to see.

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Action shots were a real challenge ….. the eagles almost took turns to battle for the fish meal but with 2, 3 or sometimes 4 birds together images could become quite confusing with heads hidden between the mass of flapping wings …… but then, thankfully, between the confusion came the ‘bingo’ shot !!!!

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During our stay we experienced quite a mixture of weather conditions. The previous week had seen heavy rainfall so it was great to be able to sit and photograph the eagles in dry weather. It wasn’t until Wednesday that we had fresh snowfall, which just added to the ‘fun’ of scrambling up and down the slippery river banks carrying tripods and heavy gear!! Photographing the bald eagles in the snow really added an extra dimension.

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On a couple of afternoons, when the eagle action was a little quiet, we decided to have a drive along the highway to look at some of the roadside frozen waterfalls and visit a local beauty spot. Chilkoot Lake is a state recreation site, the beautiful still waters creating gorgeous reflections.

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In contrast to the beautiful, serene blue water of Chilkoot Lake the frozen roadside waterfalls create amazing structures ……. and yes, the ice here genuinely is yellow!!!!

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Back to the bald eagles and a couple of flight shots. The eagles could quite often be seen flying across the river carrying the remains of a fish head, settling in a tree away from the other eagles where they could finish off their prize catch in peace….

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Another treat was to see some Trumpeter Swans flying across the far side of the river. They didn’t come close enough to see in detail, so in many ways this is what I would describe as a ‘record shot’, never-the-less it was a lovely to see them flying over a resting bald eagle.

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On the Friday we had the opportunity to drive across the border to British Columbia to do some landscape work. It meant missing the bald eagles in the newly fallen snow but even so, I’m glad I took the opportunity to see more of this amazing place. As we crossed the border into BC the sunrise was simply stunning and as the sun moved across the mountain peaks it was truly beautiful.

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…… and sometimes it pays to look both ways!!!  After watching the stunning sunrise our guide, Thomas, pointed out this single small bush at the top of a snowy hill. The ethereal quality was simple and beautiful.

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We spent quite a while absorbing the beauty of the landscape and then decided to take a wander up the hill towards the ‘lonesome bush’  – the contrast looking the opposite way was breathtaking.

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At the end of the trip we visited the Kroschel Wildlife Centre. This is no ordinary centre!! Owned by Steve Kroschel, an independent filmmaker, the park is mainly for orphaned wildlife indigenous to Canada and Alaska. Steve is one of the most enthusiastic characters I have ever met and his relationship with the animals he cares for is simply awesome. We had the opportunity to photograph a range of beautiful creatures and, although you would classify them as ‘captured’, they were by no means easy to photograph ….boy could the mink and wolverine move fast!!!

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But, without doubt, for me, the star of the Kroschel Wildlife Centre was the absolutely stunning red fox called Isis.

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Having had fairly heavy snow for a couple of days we were watching the weather forecast carefully. The first leg of the  journey home was by chartered aircraft rather than ferry, as this would have proved difficult for flight connection times. Haines airport is no more than a small runway and a shed so taking off in poor weather just isn’t an option.

We took advantage of a couple of hours with the bald eagles on the final morning, with our luggage packed and ready to go. With a storm heading towards Haines we had the early, but half expected, call to literally throw everything in the cars and head for the airport. The flight was brought forward by a few hours but at least we took off ……. a few hours later and we could well have been grounded!!

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Then it was the long, long journey home…….. it’s always nice to get home, see loved ones and get back to ‘normality’ but Alaska was stunning. A place I never thought I’d  have the opportunity to visit, but I’m so very glad I did.

As always a huge thank you goes out to NaturesLens – another fabulous trip 🙂