Naturalist and River Guide Joe Ordonez Reissues Award-Winning Photography Book ‘Where Eagles Gather’ | KHNS Radio


Photo courtesy of Joe Ordonez

Haines River guide, photographer and naturalist Joe Ordonez has lived and worked in the Chilkat Valley since the 1980s and wants to see it protected. Now he has reissued his award-winning photography book “Where Eagles Gather” about the history of the Alaskan Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve with a renewed focus on conservation. The new edition features a section opposing the Palmer copper-zinc mining project that is progressing at the headwaters of the Chilkat Valley. Corinne Smith of KHNS sat down with him to talk about the book.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KHNS: First of all, what inspired this book?

Joe Ordonez: I started guiding on the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in 1987. And I just got fascinated, I was the director of training for Chilkat guides and then my own company, Rainbow Glacier Adventures . So I really dove into researching the eagle reserve, learning all I could about it and taking pictures along the way. And probably about 20 years ago, I said, boy, that would make a good book. And I should.

KHNS: It’s a beautiful book of photographs and walks through the natural history of the Chilkat Valley, as well as the cultural history. Can you tell us a bit about the public reaction since the publication of the book in 2015?

Order: Well, that was great. As soon as it came out, we had a little marketing campaign for people just online…then we did rafting trips in the Eagle Reserve. It’s a natural choice, we offer them to our guests on this tour. And a lot of them buy it you know at the end of the tour and take it home… So the response was positive and you know, 3000 copies sold over a period of six years. I had no idea how it would sell and so I feel like it was a good pace, and so excited to update.

KHNS: So what’s new in this reprint edition?

Ordonez: Well, I kept taking pictures, and so I was able to update some of the pictures, like I got a great shot of the ptarmigan where you can see how they have snowshoes, the way they get them extra feathers on their feet. I have a picture of a brown bear with, if you look closely in its snout, you’ll see porcupine quills. So it’s a new one. And one of them I had, but it wasn’t included in the first copy that I dug up, I said this that really needs to be in the book. It’s a photo of a crow and a bald eagle on a salmon eating it. And a bunch of crows wanted to steal the salmon. And so the thing is, you know, what I talked about in the book – we think of the eagle in terms of strength and the crows in terms of intelligence. So a crow came over from the side and actually grabbed this eagle by the tail feathers and started shooting at it, and I captured that moment. And what happened after that, the eagle got mad and turned around to chase that crow, and the other crows come across and flew and bit that salmon. So at some point I realized that I had the photo that I didn’t have in the first version of the book.

KHNS: There is a strong emphasis in the book on the protection and conservation of this area and the unique and fragile ecosystems here, so can you talk a bit about the conservation message? Especially with the developments of Constantine’s Palmer project, potentially entering its next phase of exploration, potentially drilling a tunnel under the Saksaia glacier next year? Can you talk about the potential risk for this area that you see?

Ordonez: Definitely, I love the Eagle Preserve. I spent so much time there intimately associated as a photographer during the winter months with the gathering of eagles and then as a river guide during the summer months. And then, through all my research, I just discovered how special and unique the Eagle Preserve is. And one thing that happened recently is that we moved seasonally to Mount Vernon, Washington, the Skagit River there. I took a raft with me and did some exploring, and I was actually hired there to do some bald eagle education. And I was along this river with cottonwoods that looked like the Chilkat River, but there were no bald eagle nests. And last year, no eagles in the winter congregation. And I realized that the river – with the dams upstream, the agriculture, the levees, the pollution, you know, all those things, everybody down there is really trying to work together to save the last salmon. This is the river, the only river that has all five species of salmon flowing from Puget Sound. And here in this area we have a river, the Chilkat River is home to all five species of salmon, and some pretty healthy trails. And therefore to have a mine upstream that would potentially, and I think probably, pollute the river. And just a tiny bit of copper in the river caused the salmon to lose its ability to perfect itself to find its home. And especially since I wrote the book in 2015, the increase in extreme weather events and earthquakes…hasnd, also population growth and all sorts of things. I mean, there really aren’t many places as pristine as Haines and the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Over time, the more other places are spoiled, the more valuable the fact that the Eagle Preserve has not been spoiled, the more valuable it is. Because rarity equals value. So my position is, and the argument is often economic – people say the mine is going to make money. But not having the mine will bring in money. There is already money flowing into the community through ecotourism. And so we have to look carefully at that. And as a community, you know, have real discussions. You know, open discussions about the associated risks, we decided as a community if it was worth it. But not just as a community, the Eagle Preserve is a treasure for Alaska, for all of the United States. And really for the world. It’s unique.

It’s unique in the way all of these rivers come together, the warm up with uplift, upwelling that brings this November salmon run to life. One thing many people don’t know is that the main killer of eagles is winter starvation. It’s cold, the salmon runs are drying up. In fact, if you see an adult bald eagle, it’s one in ten survivors, nine of its generation died primarily from winter starvation. So the fact that there is a chum salmon run in November, a huge amount of biomass being flooded into the Chilkat Valley. Warm waters bring salmon, then salmon bring eagles. And that’s what allowed the survival of the bald eagle.

I think we see all around us how the climate is changing and how the planet is changing. So many of us are here because of the clean water, the fishing opportunities, and the lifestyle that comes with the subsistence part of our way of life. And not to mention the Native Americans who have been here for so long. And I don’t pretend to speak for them, but I know they oppose it. And so DOWA put $8.8 million into this project, the Japanese fusion company, you know, overseas. And so I took $10,000 of my own dollars to self-publish 1,000 more copies and help spread the word. So it’s a real kind of David and Goliath. But I really believe in it. I also believe in the role that art can play and photography is art. And with beautiful imagery and well-researched writing, and carefully crafted environmental advocacy, it’s a dispute that can be won by the conservation community.

The danger here is that the mine is upstream from Eagle Preserve, the mine is upstream from Klukwan, the mine is upstream from Haines. And so you’re talking about tunnels and water permits insofar as there’s conductivity between upstream and downstream. It’s basic physics, basic science, you know, it goes down, it goes down the valley. I think it’s folly to think that a mine producing acid waste, sulfuric acid mine drainage, upstream of the Eagle Reserve, and Klukwan and Haines won’t have an impact downstream. It will be. And that’s why I came out and said it on this version. I didn’t say the exact words (last time) but added this time, I said, that’s a bad idea. This idea that, you know, I just think it’s insane to think that these things can co-exist. We must protect what remains. This is how I feel.

KHNS: Yes, a lot of important discussions will take place in this community over the next few months and years. Thank you very much, Joe Ordonez, for your work and for this beautiful book, which captures a small slice of the beauty of the Chilkat Valley.

Order: Thank you Corinne

The updated version of his award-winning photography book ‘Where the Eagles Gather: The Story of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is available now online hereat local bookstores and online retailers.

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