Bald eagles, brown bears among attractions on Alaska vacation

June 24, 2017
Mike Leggett
American bald eagles are the most prominent birds in Alaska. This mature bird was fishing at the mouth of the Tazimina River, across Sixmile Lake from Newhalen Lodge. The eagles feed on fish, small mammals and animal carcasses throughout Alaska. MIKE LEGGETT PHOTO

Wind, ever present in southwest Alaska, was building from the southwest as we neared the mouth of the Tazimina River, across Sixmile Lake from Newhalen Lodge.

I was in a johnboat with my grandchildren, twins Connie and Ben Cooper, 10, ending a day of fishing for trout and grayling on the narrow river. I watched an immature bald eagle chase a raven off a sand spit at the mouth of the river and then give way to a mature bird of his species as he tried to catch a fish.

The two eagles separated then, the younger eagle leaving for another fishing spot while the mature bird with the distinctive white head and tail feathers landed on a tree that stuck up out of the water.

The salmon hadn’t yet begun their annual death match up the rivers, which meant small mammals and the occasional injured rainbow trout would be the only food the eagles might catch here now.

It’s a sight that never fails to thrill me in Alaska, and I quickly pointed out the eagles to the kids as we drifted down toward them. Bald eagles number in the thousands in Alaska and are an almost daily sight along the rivers, usually as they sit high in a tree along the fast-running, clear streams.

But eagles aren’t the only wildlife that draws visitors to the 49th state. Other attractions include bears, brown bears and grizzlies. The monsters had left their hibernation spots earlier and begun traveling their usual routes that will bring them to the rivers as the salmon show up to spawn and then die.

The bears come for the rich fat under the skin of the salmon. They get fat as they pack on calories to get ready for the next winter, which is always just around the corner. Sometimes there’s a dead whale washed up on the beach at Katmai National Park, and dozens of bears will be feeding on the decaying flesh they can smell for miles.

Newhalen Lodge founder Bill Sims flies clients over there several times a week to photograph bears and to watch them as they feed. During one morning there, we saw three different sow bears, each with three tiny cubs out for some of their first trips into the world.

Occasionally, beavers and other riverine mammals can be found along the streams. Their dams and lodges are everywhere, keeping the streams at bay while they raise their young each year.

And Alaska’s rich tradition of volcanic and seismic activity is always on display. From the beach at Katmai, we are able to view the Augustine Volcano. Although it last erupted in 2006, the mountain continues to spew smoke into the atmosphere offshore.