“He looks like a real hot dog”, my dad said, eyeballing a young pilot swaggering out to meet us on the Juneau tarmac. I liked the pilot’s confidence. Flying Cessna 208’s through the Inside Passage of Alaska requires a certain amount of chutzpah. As we smoothly climbed into the air over Juneau, the majesty of the landscape revealed itself through the mist. Stark mountain peaks juxtaposed with calm inlets reflecting their beauty. Snow blanketed all but the lowest river valleys. I produced my iPod and scrolled to Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, which seemed to echo the majesty and drama of the mountain-scape surrounding us on our flight to Haines.
I gave my dad a reassuring glance as we touched down. We took our headphones off, and simultaneously said, “wow”. We had elected to fly from Juneau rather than take the ferry, because we had heard that the price difference was negligible, and that the scenery on the flight was worth the cost of the flight alone. I shoved my Canon 17-40mm lens back in my backpack. I had been taking photos during the entire flight. Photography has always been a way for me to participate in the beauty that surrounds me. When I travel somewhere new, especially somewhere as beautiful as Haines, my finger rarely leaves the shutter button.
We quickly picked up our rental vehicle and started driving the Haines Highway out of town. Our target: The Chilkat Eagle Preserve located 18 miles from town. I had read about Chilkat since I was young, and now I finally had a chance to spend some serious time doing research for upcoming photo tours to the area. We timed our arrival for mid November when thousands of eagles congregate along a short stretch of the Haines River to feed on dying salmon. A light dusting of snow covered the ground in town. As we drove upriver the snow appeared deeper and more pristine. Dad pointed out the first Bald Eagle sitting majestically atop a spruce amid the lightly falling snow. After a few miles of driving, it was clear that there was no need to point out eagles – dozens turned to hundreds as we approached mile 18. Eagles decorated the trees like ornaments. They gathered on the ground along the river banks looking for salmon. They filled the air, soaring, swooping, chasing, and diving. The Chilkat Eagle Preserve has the perfect recipe for stunning images: Eagles everywhere, stunning mountains in the background, and beautiful snow and atmospheric conditions.
Wearing a medium weight leather jacket and gloves, we hopped out of the car with our 500mm and 600mm lenses and spent time at all of the observation points along the highway through the preserve. Because of the Alaska Current flowing from the south along the Alaska Panhandle, temperatures are moderated in Haines during the winter. Temperatures rang from the upper 20’s Fahrenheit to the lower 30’s Fahrenheit in November– just cold enough for snow but not so cold to make us uncomfortable. While Eagles arrive in early November and stay through December, I timed this visit, and all my Haines photo tours later in November to increase our chances at having snow on the ground. The riverbanks are composed of dark rocks and mud, which makes it difficult to visually isolate the eagles in a photo. Snow simplifies the images and creates a much more beautiful scene.
Eagles hunt the entire area around Haines. I heard several eagles out my hotel every morning when I woke up and photographed them from my hotel balcony. While I kept an eye out for eagles on the drive to the Chilkat Preserve, the vast majority of eagles congregate along the highway from mile 18 to 24. Beyond mile 24 the road climbed into the mountains. We found Steller’s Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and Ravens near homes along the road. One morning, I saw a native woman walk outside on her porch in a robe and toss some dog food onto her driveway. Immediately 30 Black-billed Magpies and a handful of Steller’s Jays appeared out of the woods and began devouring the food. She asked if I would like to photograph “her birds” which she feeds through the winter and I gratefully accepted. Now when I lead photo tours to the area I make sure I bring pet food and birdseed to attract the birds myself.
Bird life decreases as the Haines highway gains elevation outside the Eagle Preserve, but the trip can still yield mammals such as bear or moose, along with beautiful landscape opportunities. At mile 40 the highway reaches the Canada border, which is where I usually turn around and head back to town.
A visit to Haines is not complete without a flight seeing tour with “The Drake”, an experienced pilot who has worked with countless photographers. http://www.flydrake.com Drake takes photographers to see aerial views of the preserve, as well as breathtaking looks at the surrounding mountains. Glacier Bay National Park lies just 20 minutes from Haines. Drake will point out beautiful blue glaciers, mountain lakes, and snow-capped peaks beyond words. My flight with Drake was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
No visit to Haines is complete without a visit Chilkoot Lake on the other side of town. Chilkoot offers more spectacular scenery along with native totem poles, American Dippers, diving ducks, and eagles sitting in massive spruce trees. Road conditions can vary. My first trip to Chilkoot Lake was thwarted due to deep snow, which my two-wheel drive car simply could not handle.
To get to Haines, Alaska, visitors will have to travel to Juneau, Alaska first. Juneau (airport code JNU) has several 737 flights per day and is easy to book via Orbitz.com or other online travel site. From Juneau, either take a small airplane (www.wingsofalaska.com, 30 minute flight) or take the ferry (http://alaskafjordlines.com/ 4 hour boat ride).
If you have limited time in Haines and want to make sure you make the most of your experience, I invite you to join my group for a photography trip of a lifetime. My job is to put photographers in the right place at the right time, know the area like the back of my hand, understand and be able to identify wildlife and their behaviors. I help manage logistics, advise on composition and camera settings, and do everything I can to ensure my group has an enjoyable and productive experience. Visit http://www.studebakerbirds.com/tours.html to sign up for this and other Alaska photo tours.