By Lex Treinen

Chilkat Valley News

The annual Haines Bald Eagle Festival is returning to Haines Nov. 10-12 with a revamped focus on community involvement, despite a late organizational change that put the entire festival at risk. 

“It’s definitely a regrowth year. We’re definitely bringing it back to its roots,” said Rebecca Hylton, Haines’ tourism director. 

The visitor center stepped in just a few months ago with three staff to take over the festival from the American Bald Eagle Foundation, which had previously hosted the festival. This year, the foundation was struck by several staff departures and realized it didn’t have capacity to host the event. 

“We were told it wasn’t going to happen so the visitor’s center decided to take on the task,” said Hylton, head of the borough’s tourism department. “It’s an iconic festival in this community at a time of year when not a lot is going on.”

The three-day program will include lectures by scientists about eagle acoustics and biodiversity, a film screening of a recently released PBS documentary about the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and a special guest photographer presentation. It will also include local touches, including a ceremony to honor Dave Olerud, who was instrumental in creating the eagle foundation and promoting the festival over three decades. 

The Chilkat Valley is believed to host the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. Each October and November, up to 4,000 eagles gather in the watershed to take advantage of a late run of chum salmon that make their way up the largely spring-fed Chilkat River. 

The event kicks off at 3 p.m. at Haines Brewing Co. for a meet and greet followed by the welcome celebration at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 10 at the American Bald Eagle Foundation. That event will include live music, local drinks, two science talks and a brand new exhibit at the center. 

The exhibit, designed by new assistant director Maia Edwards, a student at Cornell University’s ornithology lab, will include interactive monitors where guests can listen to and learn about sounds of Alaska’s wildlife. 

“This interactive, it’s like a show-and-tell exhibit,” said Sue Chasen, a board member at the foundation. 

Edwards will be presenting on the role of acoustics and acoustics’ research on Friday in a talk called “Listening into the Future.” Heather Huson, the director of the Cornell Raptor Center and a new board member of the American Bald Eagle Foundation, will also be giving a talk on her genetic research on Balto, the sled dog celebrated for leading the last team in the 1925 serum run into Nome. 

The festival will continue on Saturday in Klukwan for a noon showing of the recently released PBS documentary “Iconic America: the American Bald Eagle” and talks by Stacie Evans of Takshanuk Watershed Council and Nick Szatkowski.  Evans, the science     \director at the local nonprofit, said the talk will focus on the organization’s bald eagle surveys, water temperature data, salmon numbers, “and how they are all connected.”

At 6 p.m., special guest Mark Bouldoukian, a California-based wildlife photographer who has led several photography tours of the Haines area, will give a talk about his photography process and gives tips for amateurs. 

The event wraps up Sunday with a tribute to the Bald Eagle Preserve at the public library. 

Hylton said the festival will also include other community groups throughout the weekend, such as Sunday when the high school swim team will host a pancake breakfast. Saturday’s silent auction will benefit Haines Huts, a local nonprofit that recently built a public use cabin near 7-Mile Saddle. 

“A lot of the people that have reached out to us have been here before and they want to throw down $100 to register for the event. Instead of doing that, we’re giving them an opportunity to spend money in different ways in the community,” Hylton said. 

The visitor center is charging $50 per person for shuttle transportation Saturday and Sunday.

The foundation previously hosted the festival, but told the borough this summer that because of an abrupt loss of staff, it didn’t have capacity to host the festival. It contacted the borough as soon as it could. 

“It was hard to let it go,” said foundation director Kathy Benner. “We wanted it to happen because it’s not just about us. The whole community benefits.”

Chasen said the festival was never much of a money maker, but has become increasingly difficult in recent years. She said private photography tours have sometimes bypassed the fanfare of the official festival, leading to declining attendance. Plus, eagle counts appear to be declining, which scientists believe is due to a combination of factors including fish counts and a generally warming climate. In 2020, the eagle count dropped to just 279. In the early 2000s, it reached 2,000.

“Last year we may have barely broken even,” she said. 

Benner said the foundation is in the process of reorganizing and reorienting toward its mission, but said she didn’t want to rule out that the foundation might take over the festival again in the future. 

“We’ll see. We don’t know what the future’s gonna hold. But it’s important that it happens.”

The festival was originally put on by the Chamber of Commerce and began in 1995. Dan Egolf, the former treasurer of the chamber who also runs a wildlife tourism business, said in the early years, the $100 registration fee for transportation and the banquet offered a sustaining income. 

“We were doing pretty good back in the day. We would have enough money to advertise for the next year,” he said. 

The visitor center said with its own limited staff, picking up the organization for the festival has been challenging, but it’s been focused on making the event benefit the community. Kiara Hylton, who works at the visitor center, said she hasn’t seen visitor records for the past few years, and doesn’t expect a major increase in the number of visitors to town this year. 

“I know it hasn’t been well-attended in the last couple years,” she said. “That’s why we’re like ‘well, if we don’t foresee a grand entourage of people coming to Haines for this, then we need to lift up the community and celebrate the community.”

Egolf said despite the challenges of local staffing and declining attendance, he sees lots of potential to revitalize the festival with more robust advertising. He noted that bird watching is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the country, based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data. 

“There’s still a whole lot of people interested in the eagles,” he said. “To see that many predatory birds in one spot is in some cases a once-in-a lifetime experience.”

On top of that, eagle survey results indicate it could be one of the biggest eagle congregations in years. 

SIDEBAR: Photographer Mark Bouldoukian

Haines tourism director Rebecca Hylton said she first discovered this year’s guest photographer Mark Bouldoukian on Instagram and was awed. 

“His work is absolutely amazing,” said Hylton. 

The California-based photographer’s wildlife photos are often intimate face shots that capture moody expressions of eagles, bears and other animals from his travels on the West Coast of the U.S., Alaska and as far away as Iceland. 

Bouldaukian is no stranger to Haines. The Lebanon-born photographer learned the trade from his father. About eight years ago, he settled in Fresno, California and immersed himself in capturing the images of the natural world nearby. 

His images have been featured on National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Canon’s Instagram account and others. 

In 2020, he came to Haines after hearing about the resident brown bears and the annual bald eagle congregation on the Chilkat River. He organized a for-fun trip with a few friends. 

“I see eagles here in California, but the amount we saw in Haines was unreal,” he said. “It was like a Disneyland thing.”

The experience got him hooked. He’s returned three times since then as a photography tour guide, leading small workshops of four or five amateur photographers. 

He said one of his favorite things to photograph is moments in which the eagles are fighting one another in the air. “Those are the great moments,” he said. 

He remembered several individual photos from his time in Haines, including one taken from some chairs on the side of the highway that included an eagle with its eyelid halfway shut. He said the shot came together when an eagle perched just 10 feet away from him. 

Bouldaukian will be presenting on Saturday evening.