Alaska Raptor Centre, Sitka: A rehabilitation centre that lifts the spirits

I'm introduced to Spirit, a three-year-old bald eagle, at the Alaska Raptor Centre in Sitka in south-eastern Alaska. From an intimacy of three paces I can see the glint in her amber eyes, the detail of her juvenile feathers and the power in her talons as she grips her handler's glove.

Having spent the last two weeks cruising the Inside Passage of British Columbia and Alaska, I'd have given anything to stand this close to a bald eagle. But now, my only wish for injured Spirit is for freedom.

"Unfortunately, Spirit won't ever be released," says Richard Hart, a guide at the not-for-profit rehabilitation centre. "She has poor vision in her left eye and slight brain damage after being hit by a motor car in 2016."

Barely out of the nest at the time, Spirit, like 200 other birds each year, was rescued and brought to the Alaska Raptor Centre. While most are rehabilitated and released, some are too injured and are kept as raptors-in-residence to help inspire and educate visitors.

During our two weeks aboard the 100-passenger National Geographic Venture bald eagles are our constant companions. Gazing down on us from spruce trees as we hike across Baranof Island, soaring across cerulean blue skies as we paddle through glassy fiords and sending nervous kittiwakes into a frenzy as we cruise by in Zodiacs. On the shoreline of Icy Strait we see so many we call them "golf balls in trees".

From talks by First Nations Tlingit people we learn that a person is assigned one of two moieties at birth – a raven or a bald eagle. "These moieties are handed down by our mothers," says Deeyaa. "They define who we are, who we can marry and which clans we belong to."

At night we listen to lectures by onboard naturalists, learning about the dark years when bald eagles were almost wiped out across America due to hunting, habitat loss and DDT poisoning. Thankfully, after more than three decades on the Endangered Species List, they have recovered to such an extent they were taken off in 2007.

As the days pass and the daily tally of bald eagles grows, so too our encounters with orcas and humpbacks, brown bears and black, snow geese and arctic petrels, all part of the fabric of the Inside Passage.

It is on our final day that we visit the rehabilitation centre in Sitka, a seven-hectare property on the edge of the Indian River complete with hospital, intensive care unit and open-air weathering yards.

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Our guided tour begins at the "flight training centre", a tennis court sized facility designed to mimic the natural environment, but with the clever addition of two-way glass. "We can see the birds, but they can't see us," says Hart.

For a mild injury such as concussion the birds may only need to stay for a few days, but for something more serious, like loss of primary flight feathers, they'll need to stay for 18 months.

"Once they are fully recovered we release them directly from our property," says Hart. "Bald eagles are migratory birds and will easily go back to the areas they came from."

Such a sight would lift anyone's spirits.

TRIP NOTES

MORE 

traveller.com.au/Alaska

alaskaraptor.org

FLY

Qantas flies to San Francisco daily from Melbourne and Sydney, with onward connections to Seattle. See qantas.com.au

TOUR

Lindblad Expeditions' 14 day Treasures of the Inside Passage travels from Seattle to Sitka (or reverse) visiting the San Juan Islands, Victoria, Alert Bay, Misty Fjords, Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. Prices start from $A12,490 to $A20,550 excluding international airfares. Phone 1300 361 012. See expeditions.com

Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.

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