AS we nudge the raft out into the surging current of the Skagit River, our guide, Jerry Michalec, challenges his six passengers to be the first to spot an eagle. "Sit anywhere on the thwarts or the side of the raft and look any direction," he suggests. "Just don't fall in the river."
Not that anyone would want to risk that. For bald eagles, the Skagit is a comparatively balmy winter vacationland, but for humans, it's bundle-up territory where hand warmers are indispensable accessories.
In 26 years of trips, Michalec has seen thousands of wintering bald eagles along the brawny, emerald Skagit, two hours north of Seattle. This is one of three prime West Coast winter homes for migratory eagles drawn by readily available food; the others are the Squamish River, near Whistler, Canada, and the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon and Northern California. Each attracts hundreds of eagles, sometimes more than 1,000. And each has become a popular, exotic winter wildlife-watching travel destination.
As it turns out, on today's float I'm the first to spot a bald eagle, perched in a tall cottonwood on the northern bank. I happen to glance behind us as the raft slides out of a long riffle, and notice the distinctive black oblong topped by white that signifies a roosting eagle. My prize is universal acclaim in our little waterborne community and renewal of a lifelong sense of fulfillment I've enjoyed at seeing wild creatures in their native surroundings.
Eagles are no longer a rare sight in the Pacific Northwest, from Northern California to southeastern Alaska. Their resurgence since the ban on DDT represents a turnaround from a low point about 1970, when there were fewer than 1,000 pairs in the Lower 48. Now half a dozen pairs nest in Seattle, for instance. Close to 1,200 nesting pairs are in California, Oregon and Washington. About 100,000 eagles now live in North America, more than a quarter of them in Canada's British Columbia province.
But sightings usually are of a lone bird, with its unmistakable 8-foot wingspan, circling 500 feet overhead in a thermal. On the Skagit in winter, visitors can see as many eagles in a day as they otherwise might see in a lifetime. With strong salmon runs that supply food from late November to late February and mile after mile of the tall cottonwoods that eagles favor for roosting, the river draws hundreds of the big raptors to a 17-mile stretch from Concrete to Marblemount.
"The first time I saw this, 23 years ago, it was so magical it was bewildering," recalls Libby Mills, a local naturalist whose advocacy helped create the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area and who has helped count the birds almost every year since 1982. "Even after all these years, it's still glorious."
The preserve, founded by the Nature Conservancy in 1973, is now a 10,000-acre corridor along the river that affords crucial winter habitat for the raptors.
Our float trip begins near Marblemount and descends eight miles to Rockport. For the final five miles, the southern bank is Nature Conservancy land, and this is where we see the most eagles. Perched in the raft, swaddled in raingear, we peer through light sprinkles and gauzy mist to spot eagles ahead.
Michalec keeps count, and guides the raft nearer to a couple of trees where birds are perched particularly close to the river.
Close up, it's possible to discern the true colors of the birds -- not black and white, but dirty chalk and dark brown. We watch a mottled immature bald (they don't reach mature color until their fifth year) try to hoist a dead salmon from a gravel bank into a tree, but the decaying carcass escapes its grasp. The eagle flaps to a branch nearby, and Michalec adds it to our count.
In the end, as we come ashore in Rockport, we tabulate our last eagle, No. 70. Not as many as the hundreds that floaters sometimes see, but impressive nonetheless. As a bonus, we've seen 10 great blue herons and innumerable mergansers.
IT'S wonderful to float the river, but that's not the only way to see the Skagit eagles.
Many of the most popular viewing spots around Rockport are staffed by volunteer naturalists in the peak season, early December through late February. They set up spotting scopes and help visitors use them, and answer questions about eagles' life histories and habitat. It's a good occasion to learn how the river's whole ecosystem is interdependent -- and still threatened.
Japanese knotweed, for instance, an escaped decorative landscaping plant, is suppressing natural vegetation along the river, forming dense mats in which cottonwoods cannot take root.
On another early winter morning, a sunny, dry day in which dawn's mist has dissolved and the sky is watercolor blue, I visit a riverfront park for a more meditative eagle-watching session.
Pockets of white frost linger in the shadows. The skeletons of bare cottonwoods sketch a pen-and-ink landscape that at first disguises the eagles perched in the trees. Then, as I peer more intently, the balds start to resolve in my vision; one on a gnarled old maple 40 yards downstream, then two others elsewhere in the same tree; then one across the river; another downstream from there.
In 10 minutes of scanning a quarter-mile bend in the Skagit, I've counted a dozen eagles.
One takes flight, the beats of its strong, deep wings curling in the crisp air like bell curves, a low-velocity aerialist. The crystalline air and broad vistas lend a clarity and perspective to the sight that's almost impossible to experience elsewhere. Time and space seem to compress cinematically as I track the big bird's passage downriver to another cottonwood that poses some unknown appeal.
I make a game of discovering "new" eagles, like hidden animals in a Bev Doolittle painting, and bring my ultimate count to 15. I hike into a cottonwood grove to savor the musty smell of frost-mulched leaves and carefully creep within 20 yards of an eagle tree.
It's hard to say how much time passes before my attention is riveted by the sudden appearance of an eagle flying low. It must have been hidden on the gravel bar behind a log; now it swoops across the water to land on a small tussock of grass, barely 3 feet across, and starts feeding on a salmon carcass. I am so close I can see it tear small chunks from the fish. It's deliberate about the meal, eating and pausing, eating and pausing, taking breaks to gaze around impassively.
Then it takes flight again, passing just a few yards in front of me to light in a knobby maple upstream to my right. I take a moment to savor the sureness and efficiency of nature's cycles, and head back through lengthening shadows to the city just a few hours away.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Tracking America's bird
From LAX, Alaska, American and United fly nonstop to Seattle. From Long Beach and Ontario, Alaska has the only nonstops; from Orange County, American does. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $203.
The Skagit River Valley is a two-hour drive from downtown Seattle, or three from the airport, following Interstate 5 north to Arlington, then Washington 530 through Darrington to Rockport.
WHERE TO STAY:
Seattle hotels are lightly booked in winter and often offer reduced weekend rates. The Kimpton Group's Alexis is an art-filled, historic boutique property that offers splendid winter specials. 1007 1st Ave., Seattle; (888) 850-1155, www.alexishotel.com.
The Skagit River Guesthouse is a riverfront B&B; housed in a historic farmhouse, with five comfortable rooms; it's also home base for a float-trip outfitter. Stay-float packages cost $270 per couple; rooms are $150-$195. 61008 Washington 20, Marblemount; (800) 228-7238, www.blueskyoutfitters.com.
TO LEARN MORE:
Eagle watching on the Skagit (Washington state), the Squamish (British Columbia) or in the Klamath Basin (Oregon) can be easily accomplished by renting a car, driving to the area and poking around to find the birds. (Take adequate winter clothing, including waterproof outer layers.) During peak periods, conservation groups set up interpretive booths at prime viewing spots. Contact: Skagit Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in Rockport, (360) 853-7626, www.skagiteagle.org; Squamish River Visitor Information, (604) 815-4994, www.brackendaleeagles.com; Klamath Basin, the Great Basin Visitor Assn. at (800) 445-6728, www.winterwingsfest.org.
The Nature Conservancy of Washington periodically offers naturalist-led field trips to the Skagit. Call (206) 343-4344, www.nature.org.
Jerry Michalec's Skagit float trips cost $55 per person, including lunch, for a three-hour trip; (800) 634-8433, www.riverexpeditions.com. Pacific NW Float Trips is an outfitter that offers round-trip transportation from downtown Seattle; (866) 298-6287, www.pacificnwfloattrips.com.
-- Eric Lucas