Before the Haines Bald Eagle Festival ended last month, problems seemed to stack one atop another.
• A Juneau eagle planned for release as a centerpiece of the November festival injured its tail feathers just before it was due to be shipped north, making it unable to fly. Two possible replacements from Sitka weren't healthy enough to be released, either.
• A chocolate eagle expected to be the centerpiece of the festival's "chocolate extravaganza" developed a cracked body that could no longer hold the wings and had to be scrapped.
• A blizzard of wet snow blanketed the area.
But more than balancing the problems was the announcement of a $739,000 gift from a Georgia family of bird lovers to Haines' American Bald Eagle Foundation.
Ed Shirley of Bufort, Ga., a man who made his fortune manufacturing wheelchairs and other medical equipment, became fascinated with bald eagles after a visit to Haines in the late 1980s.
"He loved the eagle," said Dave Olerud, founder of the Haines foundation. "He came here and was in heaven."
During construction of the foundation's building in 1987, a wall that volunteers, including Olerud, were raising fell on Olerud, breaking his back. Paralyzed from the waist down, Olerud has been in a wheelchair since. He and Shirley hit it off immediately.
"No one would have believed that Dave would have carried on with this project the way he has," Haines Mayor Dave Black said eight years ago after visiting the founder at his bedside. "I cannot say enough about the man.''
After esophageal cancer claimed Shirley in 2005, his daughter, Susan Flowers, took up his passion. Flowers, a retired teacher, was named to the foundation's board of directors last month.
Olerud said the family's hefty donation would generate a steady income stream that would go toward education and research, including an intern program that brings students to Haines from universities in the Lower 48. The principal, Olerud said, will never be spent.
Flowers oversees the foundation's student internship programs, traveling to several universities to interview prospective interns.
"For we who live in Alaska, Ed can be a lesson," Olerud said. "People say a person cannot identify the doorknob on their front door because they touch it every day and take it for granted.
"In Alaska, we have thousands of bald eagles. A bird that is so rare elsewhere, and we take it for granted. (Ed) wanted to help ensure their success."
Some 30,000 bald eagles live in Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than anywhere in the United States. Fairly common along Alaska's coast, the highest eagle nesting densities occur on Southeast islands.
In Haines' Chilkat Valley, some 3,000 birds congregate in late fall and early winter to feed on spawned-out salmon.
The 48,000-acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was created by the state in 1982, exactly 200 years after the bald eagle had been chosen as America's emblem. Then-Gov. Jay Hammond signed legislation that established the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which includes river-bottom land of the Chilkat, Kleheni and Tsirku Rivers.
Eagle watchers congregate on the flats of the Chilkat River along the Haines Highway. Bald eagles are attracted to the area by the availability of spawned-out salmon and waters that are open into the winter months. At times, hundreds of bald eagles are visible, as well as ravens, gulls, mergansers and magpies. The result can be sensory overload for ears as well as eyes. In a talkative mood, the eagles chatter in a nonstop cacophony of high-pitched screeches and trills. They have curiously high voices for such large predatory birds.
Percolating warm spring water on the Chilkat usually eliminates ice, permitting chum salmon to spawn late in the year. That salmon run is one of the latest in North America.
All together, five species of salmon spawn in the area, and their carcasses help feed the eagles. The bounty of food and warm water attract large concentrations of eagles from early October through February, with the highest concentration in November.
As North America's second-largest birds of prey -- only the California condor is bigger -- adult bald eagles weigh 9 to 14 pounds (females are largest) and have wing spans of 7 1/2 feet.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.