It’s a finger-numbing January day on the Squamish River, and the world-famous Brackendale bald eagles are making themselves scarce. When temperatures dip below freezing, every calorie counts for these raptors, which are sticking close to their night roosts today. It’s all about keeping warm.
“Everything they do at this time of year is about energy conservation,” says Brent Macdonald, a river-rafting guide with Canadian Outback Adventures. In winter, eagles must eat the equivalent of 10 percent of their own body weight in fish every day to stay alive. When it’s cold, they’re more likely to lay low and steal leftovers than seek out fresh prey.
“They’re just working smarter, not harder,” remarks the affable Macdonald.
The bald beauties are here in Brackendale, a West Coast village between Squamish and Whistler, for one reason: rotting salmon. Every year from mid-November to mid-February, abundant runs of chum salmon in the Squamish, Cheakamus, and Mamquam rivers draw eagles from as far north as Alaska, and at least as far east as Saskatchewan.
Brackendale is a heavyweight in winter eagle watching, thanks to a world-record count in 1994, when birds filled the cottonwood trees along the Squamish River. A landmark 3,769 were counted in one day, no doubt sending tourism promoters in Haines, Alaska—which also bills itself as the bald eagle’s winter home—into a tailspin.
Following that staggering count, locals, particularly Brackendale Art Gallery owner Thor Froslev, began urging provincial officials to protect the eagles’ nesting habitat. In 1999, the government created the 7.5-square-kilometre Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park, primarily protecting the west side of the Squamish River where it meets the rugged terrain of the Coast Mountains. There are no hiking trails in the park, and recreation use—except for fishing and commercial river-rafting trips—is closed from October 1 to March 31 each year to protect the eagles’ feeding grounds.
It takes more than 100,000 chum to fuel the 3,000 to 4,000 bald eagles that typically visit the Squamish Valley each winter. The feast of spawning fish that attracts these birds in turn attracts eagle watchers.
Today, about two dozen of us, most from British Columbia, have gathered on Brackendale’s Judd Beach for a river tour. The sun arches over the glaciers of the Tantalus Range as we don red survival suits and climb into four paddle rafts. Almost immediately a mature eagle—showing its distinctive snowy head—slices the sky. The expanse of its wingspan provokes gasps of amazement.
The distance between the rafts widens as we bob down the river, with each group taking its time, enjoying the peaceful surroundings. Although the birds are less active in the cold, we’ll be floating right past their preferred breakfast nooks, increasing our chances of sightings.
“I’ve seen as many as 1,200 in an hour and a half,” says Macdonald, as we drift past “Eagle Run,” the most popular area for eagle watching. There, outside the park boundary on the river’s east shore, visitors can view the action on the opposite bank, with the river acting as buffer between people and eagles.
Later in the day, charter buses will line up chock-a-block here, Macdonald says, as a trio of mergansers skids by. An eagle’s broken musical cackle catches my ear. It’s a surprising sound, quite unlike the piercing call often attributed to these birds in the movies—apparently an overdub of a red-tailed hawk’s cry.
We paddle toward shore to observe a young, brownish eagle, which has yet to develop its famous white pate. Rafting among the birds, Macdonald says, is “like being a log” and poses no threat if paddlers behave responsibly. Unfortunately, he’s seen individuals smack their paddles to scatter the eagles, potentially putting them off their feeding—which, in these temperatures, can be deadly. As if on cue, a jet boat with a handful of passengers—presumably on an eagle-watching tour—blasts past, paring waves onto the water.
“Let’s say I had my five-year-old out in a canoe,” fumes Macdonald. Our group’s indignation is waylaid by the surprising appearance of a wide-eyed harbour seal peering up at us. As we approach the confluence of the Squamish and Mamquam rivers, Macdonald marvels that the skies can be alive with eagles so close to a major city.
“I think this is something everyone should check off their life list,” he says.
Having seen Brackendale’s winter guests of honour from the river, I venture to the main eagle-viewing site on the municipal dike. Volunteers with the community-based Eagle Watch program, dressed in distinctive green vests, troll the strip to answer visitors’ questions. Amateur photographers chat as they aim lenses the size of mammoth tusks at the riverbanks.
The Brackendale Art Gallery, just a short walk away, is the village’s unofficial centre. The gallery exhibits nature photography on its main floor and West Coast art in an upper loft. There’s a tearoom for a light fare—coffee, soup, or croissants—and a small theatre running a bald-eagle slideshow with amazing facts about Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
Gallery owner Thor Froslev is a fierce advocate for Brackendale and its visiting eagles. He recently started an Eagle Aid Station for wounded eagles, to be staffed by volunteer veterinarians. He underscores future need for the station, pointing to ongoing development pressures in the region and the danger of chemical spills, such as the 2005 train derailment that dumped caustic soda into the Cheakamus River.
A retired longshoreman, Froslev moved to Brackendale in 1970 after his wife died, and directed his formidable energy into his new community. He snorts at those who dismiss Brackendale as a suburb of Squamish, or make the mistake of calling it a town. The village has its own distinct history, he says, including a 1906 post office, and roots as a farming community stretching back to the late 1800s.
He describes the rivalry with Haines as “friendly,” but admits he couldn’t resist making a few long-distance calls after that momentous 1994 eagle count.
“I said, ‘Don’t be the guy that’s going to phone and brag up to Haines, Alaska, tomorrow morning, Thor, just be cool.’ But of course I was on the phone Monday morning.”
There are reminders of the eagles throughout the village, beginning with a carved wooden highway marker (made by Froslev), that reads “Brackendale: Winter Home of the Bald Eagle.” The iconic birds stare down from the Brackendale General Store sign. The nearby Eagle’s Nest Restaurant, casual but elegant, offers everything from pizza to curried seafood hotpot.
While there is limited accommodation in Brackendale, I’ve found something special in the clifftop Tantalus View Chalet. This unusual getaway allows guests to see the local mountains from an eagle’s perspective, its expansive windows and wrap-around cedar-railed deck providing stunning views of the wooded Cheakamus Valley and snowcapped peaks of the Tantalus Range.
Chalet owner Warren Brubacher, who runs the retreat with his wife, Janice, has decorated the interior with his wooden carvings and fantastically shaped furniture. Working mainly with red and yellow cedar salvaged from the forest floor, he fashions this twisted “wildwood,” as he calls it, into irregular, often looping creations, including tables, benches, lamps, and staircases.
The Brubachers’ property sits just outside the municipality of Squamish, requiring the couple to be self-reliant. They have their own snow-removal equipment, and create their own micro-hydro power using a nearby stream.
“It’s make do, or make it yourself,” says Janice.
The cozy two-bedroom chalet has a hot tub on the deck, next to a waist-high eagle carving. I can think of no better way to start or end a day in Brackendale than a steamy soak in the bubbling water while taking in the spectacular glaciers of the Tantalus Range. As the eagles well know, at this time of year, it’s all about keeping warm.
Brackendale is off the Sea to Sky Highway (Hwy 99), between Whistler and Squamish, about 70 km north of Vancouver.
Bundle up and hike the trails of four-square-kilometre Alice Lake Provincial Park, 13 km north of Squamish.
Explore the Tenderfoot Creek Hatchery (604-898-3657), five km north of Squamish; open year-round.
Peruse West Coast art, or warm up with soup at the Brackendale Art Gallery (604-898-3333; www.brackendaleartgallery.com), 41950 Government Rd.
Raft the Squamish River and its tributaries on an eagle-watching safari. Canadian Outback Adventures (604-921-7250; www.canadianoutback.com) and Sunwolf Outfitters (604-898-15378; www.sunwolf.net) are two of the area’s main rafting companies.
Marvel at the birds from the viewing site on Brackendale’s municipal dike on Government Road. Peak viewing season is mid-December to mid-January; the yearly eagle count, conducted since 1986, takes place the first Sunday in January.
Brackendale Bistro (604-898-9211), 41703 Government Road.
The Eagle’s Nest Restaurant (604-898-4444), 41340 Government Road. Popular family-friendly restaurant.
Bean Brackendale (604-898-2669), 41340 Government Road. Good coffee and cookies.
The Watershed Grill (604-898-6665), 41101 Government Road. Pub food with a great view of the Squamish River.
While nearby Squamish has many lodgings options, including several large motor inns, Brackendale accommodation is limited.
Tantalus View Chalet (604-849-0431; www.tantalusviewretreat.com), about 13 km north of Squamish off Hwy 99, just above Tantalus Range viewpoint.
Sunwolf Outdoor Centre (604-898-15378; www.sunwolf.net), 470002 Squamish Valley Road. Newly refurbished cabins along the Cheakamus River.
Vancouver, Coast & Mountains Tourism Region (604-739-9011, 800-667-3306; www.vcmbc.com).