All about the eagles

By Jason Miller

Many Upper Valley events became casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic during the past few years, including the Skagit Eagle Festival.

“Volunteers and contractors who offered the activities have stepped away from those roles in the last couple of years,” said Concrete Chamber of Commerce President Val Stafford. “Some of our older volunteers are still reluctant to lead indoor events, and the live bird show that was such a popular attraction is no longer offering those shows due to lack of staffing.”

But Stafford and many others are encouraged by the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in Rockport. The center is open and offering guided interpretive walks, as well as a slew of fun experiences and information within its headquarters near Howard Miller Steelhead Park.

The center’s education coordinator, Joe Ordonez, came on board in December 2021 and is himself a smorgasbord of information, almost giddily sharing his knowledge of eagles, salmon, and the local environment with visitors.

Ordonez hails from Haines, Alaska, where he’s been a guide for upwards of 30 years. He and his wife host rafting trips in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, bear-watching tours, nature education tours, photography, sightseeing, and more. His seasonal work allows him to split his time between Alaska and Mount Vernon; recently he’s started spending more time in our neck of the woods.

Ordonez said his initial, primary focus was to get a strong interpretive walk program going during the weekends.

“People seemed most comfortable with that during the pandemic, rather than sitting in an enclosed space,” he said, adding that the guides were largely college-age interns who graduated and moved on with their lives.

This year, said Ordonez, the walking guides he has trained are largely local, with Birdsview, Sedro-Woolley, and Mount Vernon represented. “We’re building more interpretive guides from the local population,” he said. “I’m hoping to build a program with strong volunteer guides and a good reputation for quality educational walks, work toward our mission of education, appreciation, and stewardship of the Skagit River watershed. That’s the starting point.”

The walks depart from the interpretive center at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. during the center’s regular hours (see info box, this page). They take about an hour and a half to complete and are an easy stroll on relatively flat terrain.

“In that hour and a half, we are able to give a good background and experience of riverside, wetland, old growth forest,” said Ordonez. “We tie those three environments together with the setting, the bald eagle, the chum salmon, the Doug fir—the storyline gets people involved and they can see how it all fits together.”

Even in December and January, eagle sightings are not guaranteed, said Ordonez. “But if you don’t see eagles, come on the walk anyway and enjoy the quality of the experience, get out in nature, go with a guide who will keep you safe and who provides context and info to help you notice additional things that you might not notice on your own. It enhances the experience.”

Dedicated volunteers

The interpretive center is managed by the Skagit River Bald Eagle Awareness Team, a local nonprofit whose five-member board of directors is committed to educating visitors about eagles and the entirety of the environment and its history, of which eagles are one component.

Education is the name of the game, said SRBEAT Treasurer Judy Hemenway.

“We host students and seniors during the week, as well as more visitors during the weekends,” said Hemenway. “We have a handicap and nonhandicap route. We’re very flexible. We ask them what they want to learn about: Eagles? Skagit River? The whole of the environment? We tailor the program to whatever they want. It’s wonderful to entertain and educate them.”

The center itself has evolved from humble beginnings in 1997, when it occupied the second floor of the Rockport Fire Hall. It moved to its current location at Steelhead Park in 2007.

Inside the center, visitors discover all manner of enticements, including two stuffed eagles—immature and mature—environmental and eagle games, books and other publications, a table with eagle eggs and an eagle skull on it—everything to explain and illuminate the life cycle of bald eagles.

Get ready

Visitors who want to go for a guided walk are encouraged to dress for the weather, including proper footwear, warm clothes, and rain gear.

“With nature, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Ordonez. “But if you want to experience it, you have to show up!”

The Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center is located at Howard Miller Steelhead Park, 52809 Rockport Park Rd., in Rockport. For more information, go to

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