The Whistler Insider

A Trip Downriver: Winter Eagle Viewing Float Tour from Whistler

Almost anyone with a passion for nature can be a good wildlife tour guide, but to be a truly excellent one you need the gift. Like being the host of a party, you need to talk to your guests (not at them), create an atmosphere and interpret facts in an interesting and sometimes humorous way.  Geoff from Squamish Rafting Company has perfected this. He knows the rivers intimately and is a wealth of knowledge and thoughtful antidotes.

NIKKEY DAWN PHOTO

We first met our Eagle Viewing Float Tour guides (Geoff and Tyler) in the rustic warming hut at the company’s base camp off of Highway 99. You have a couple of options for getting there –  drive yourself to their office or take their shuttle from Whistler with pick-ups available upon request.

After bundling all warm and waterproof we piled into the bus and drove out to the launch point in Paradise Valley where the guides readied the rafts and split us into small groups, the bald eagles already soaring overhead. With Geoff at the helm I slid into the raft with a friendly group of five from the Sunshine Coast. This is a tour you can enjoy equally as a group or as a solo experience.

The Cheakamus river changes year to year, creating new gravel bank and pushing trees here and there meaning those who travel it must adapt. I wasn’t sure what to expect on this tour, if guests did any of the paddling or if there would be sections where we got wet. All in all it was a smooth and relaxing journey with one very small eddy. Unlike their whitewater rafting tours where guests help guide the boat this tour is truly a float, where only the guide paddles.

Your only job is to watch for wildlife.

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It’s the salmon reaching the end of their life cycle that attracts the abundance of wildlife including wolves, seals and bobcats. The eagle float takes place on traditional (and unceeded) Squamish Nation territory and in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language the name of the river (Cheakamus) translates to ‘fish trap’. When I went the salmon spawning was Chum salmon, and we ran into a few locals fishing who were catching trout as well.

Squamish is home to North America’s largest wintering population of bald eagles so I knew we were in for some incredible eagle viewing, but I hadn’t even thought about what other types of birds we’d see. We spotted giant blue herons, hooded mergansers, little dippers (the cutest birds ever) and plenty of seagulls – all looking for their share of the fish.

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The wintering bald eagles begin to arrive in October and can stick around as late as March but you’ll see the most between December and February. Geoff explained how to tell the difference between adult and juveniles by their markings. Full adults have the white head, juveniles are a spotted brown (some even still sport their baby down) and the in-between ‘teenagers’ look almost like adults but still have a dark band across their eyes. Not all of the bald eagles in Squamish are transient; we passed a pair of residents watching over their giant nest high in a Douglas fir tree.

Juvenile Bald Eagle (left) Adult Bald Eagle (right). NIKKEY DAWN PHOTO

I’d estimate we saw 40 eagles on the day but numbers vary depending on seasonal factors. The population fluxes year to year but has been down overall since the 90s due to a toxic spill in the river.  Floating on it now, you would never guess- the environment feels pristine. On one of his best days Geoff said he stopped counting eagles after 500. The highest ever seasonal count of the population was 3,769, the 32 year average is 1,433 and this year’s survey just came in at 962.

I’d mentioned to Geoff and Tyler that I’d read in the local paper this was a hard year for the birds. Geoff responded that he’s seen worse and went on to tell me about a few years back when the salmon run was so low the birds were starving. The seasonal variation and the sensitive nature of the eagle’s eating patterns are reasons the company and guides are so environmentally aware.

The eagles feed in the morning and evening, and if you disrupt an eagle eating on a hard year it can be fatal for the bird. Squamish Rafting Company keeps the number of guests going through their habitat in check and only run the tours mid-day to reduce harmful interactions. My respect for their practices is immense, they truly seem to understand the balance between helping people enjoy the outdoors (and in turn care about it) without negatively impacting it.

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As we floated into what guides called Frog’s Pond we took in the last of our surroundings before climbing onto the shore which was spotted with salmon skeletons. A short walk through the forest brought us back to the warming hut for lunch. We were welcomed to a spread of hot drinks, chilli (meat and vegan options), and brownies. You know the food is good when the room grows quiet enough to hear the crack of the wood stove! It was the perfect way to cap off our time on the river.

If you’re interested in an engaging and unique experience I would highly recommending adding the Winter Eagle Viewing Tour to your Whistler winter must-do list – check out my tips for what to bring below.

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Nikkey’s What to Wear and Pack Tips

  • Waterproof boots that pass your ankles, you may step in slush, snow or mud depending on the conditions (boots can be provided)
  • Ski jacket and pants, it’s advisable to layer like you’re spending a day on the mountain. If it’s set to rain you’ll want to make sure your outer layers are waterproof (outerwear can be provided if needed)
  • Warm gloves, choose five fingered ones over mittens if you’re going to take photos
  • A camera! A DSLR with a telephoto lens is recommended if you want to take close-ups of the eagles

Visit Whistler.com for this and more must-do winter activities.