By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
Our national symbol, the bald eagle, has made quite a comeback since nearing extinction in the 1970s.
A ban on the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides has allowed the majestic bird to significantly rebuild its numbers. Among the areas where that comeback is most obvious is along the Skagit River, where eagles migrate every winter to eat the carcasses of chum salmon, the last of the Pacific salmon to spawn each year.
The Skagit flock is typically the largest wintering population of eagles in the United States outside Alaska.
They’ve started showing up already. Hundreds will gather and hang out into February, sitting in the cottonwoods along the riverbank or feeding on dead chum along gravel bars.
Eagle-watching along the Skagit is a great outdoor activity.
It can be as simple as packing the family into the car and driving along Highway 20 from Rockport to Marblemount. Or you can get a little more up-close and personal by hiring a river guide and taking an eagle-watching float trip.
Eagle central is the Skagit River Interpretive Center at 52809 Rockport Road in Rockport. That’s at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park adjacent to the river. The center opened Dec. 1 and will remain open each weekend.
It offers guided walks at 11 a.m. and speakers at 1 p.m. And you can also check out locations for some of the best viewing areas.
Getting to Rockport is fairly easy, with some nice scenery along the way.
The most direct route is to take I-5 exit 230 north of Mount Vernon and then head east along the river on Highway 20. It’s about a 37-mile drive to Rockport. You can also get off I-5 at Arlington and head east along Highway 530 to Darrington. The highway then goes north to Rockport and Highway 20.
The Highway 530 route is a little more meandering, but I like it better because it follows the Stillaguamish and the Sauk rivers and is more scenic.
Whichever way you go, you’ll definitely want to dress warmly and prepare for rain. And for the best viewing, bring your binoculars, a spotting scope or a camera with your biggest telephoto lens.
There aren’t a lot of places to eat in the area. Marblemount is probably your best bet for restaurants. The Marblemount Fish Hatchery, 8319 Fish Hatchery Road, is not far from town and is also a good location for eagle viewing.
If eagle watching isn’t enough of an outdoor activity, the anglers in your family can take an hour or two and fish for steelhead on the Skagit. Winter steelhead are just starting to come into the river now
The Howard Miller park is not a bad place to wet a line in winter. There’s a decent run right at the boat launching ramp in the park. And if you like the idea of winter camping, the park has campsites for rent throughout the winter.
Height: 31 to 37 inches
Wingspan: 6 feet
Weight: 9 to 14 pounds
Vision: Six to eight times better than that of humans
Lifespan: 30 years in the wild
Source: U.S. Forest Service
Howard Miller Steelhead Park: This Skagit County park is open for camping year-round. Call 360-853-8808 or go to tinyurl.com/79hlbol.
Skagit River Interpretive Center, in the steelhead park. The center will be open through the last weekend in January. It offers guided walks to view eagles and speakers on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 360-853-7626 or go to www.skagiteagle.org.
Float trips: To hire a guide for eagle float trips, call 888-6-SKAGIT.