Bald eagles patiently await the day’s arrival of salmon. ©Ed Kingshott
by Julie H. Ferguson
As night falls, the rain rattles on the roof of my luxury cottage at Sandpiper Resort. From my window the steel-grey Harrison River slides west to join the larger Fraser River amid a monochrome landscape of dripping trees and mountains veiled in leaden clouds. I count fourteen bedraggled eagles hunched in a tree nearby.
From time immemorial, long before people trudged over the Bering Sea land bridge between northeast Russia and Alaska, six species of Pacific salmon flooded up wild rivers to spawn the next generation, then die. Distinctive dark brown and white Bald eagles always followed them in huge numbers to gorge on the fish carcasses. I yearned to experience this convocation (yes, this is the correct name for a gathering of eagles), but wanted to see it on an unspoiled river in British Columbia. My chance materialized at Harrison Mills less than two hours drive east from Vancouver.
The eagles are everywhere: in the shallows, on beaches, and atop pilings. They fill the bare trees, soar in the sky, and bicker over one salmon. I hear them mew, whistle, cluck, and shriek. I struggle with a camera bundled up in a shower cap and the dim light so near the winter solstice.
Adult Bald eagle, wingspan up to 2.4 meters or 8 feet, scans the Harrison River. ©Photos by Pharos
©Photos by Pharos
Out of 60 species of eagle in the world, only two are found in Canada and the United States. They are the Bald eagle and the Golden eagle, with the Bald eagle being the only one unique to North America. With dark brown body and white head and tail, the adult female Bald eagle is 25% larger than the male. About half of the world’s 70,000 Bald eagles live in Alaska and about 20,000 live in British Columbia. They flourish here in part because of the salmon. Dead or dying fish are a major food source for all Bald eagles.
When gliding and flapping, eagles reach speeds of 56–70 km per hour (35–43 mph), and about 48 km per hour (30 mph) while carrying fish. See additional information about bald eagle biology.
At the confluence of the Harrison and Chehalis Rivers, named the first Salmon Stronghold in Canada, the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival kicks off each November when the spawned-out salmon breathe their last. Opening day sees experts, eagle handlers, and photographers on hand to assist visitors in understanding the birds’ life cycle directly tied to salmon migrations. Eagle guru, David Hancock, is a regular there. Bald eagles are scavengers first, hunters second, living off dead salmon for six months of the year.
A Bald eagle adult rests in a tree. ©Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival
By mid-morning, the wind is rising and the rain diminishing as I start a tour of the eagle-viewing spots at Chehalis Flats, east of the inn. Betty Anne Faulkner, the owner of the estate, marches me out over tussocks of tough grass and along muddy paths in the wetlands. Dead salmon litter the marsh. Hardy birdwatchers focus binoculars on gravel bars and photographers with gigantic telephoto lenses pick their way to the river’s edge. My 300mm lens seems ridiculously small.
“The number of eagles averages about 2,500,” Betty Anne explains, “but over 6,000 came in 2010. It depends on the strength of the salmon runs in northern BC and Alaska. Harrison always has the biggest Bald eagle gathering in North America.”
I shoot photos of eagles squabbling, ripping flesh off dead salmon, and waiting in snags. They’re skittish this morning — whenever we approach they fly away. “Normally the eagles are too busy feeding to worry about people, but duck hunters in the Flats this week have made them nervous,” Betty Anne says.
A sharp shower rips across the river, and we retreat to the inn for afternoon tea. Later the wind shreds the evening clouds and the Milky Way arches over my cottage. Slipping into sleep, I decide it’s going to freeze tonight.
Sunshine wakes me, and I eat my multi-course breakfast watching many more eagles at the river’s edge than yesterday. After chipping the ice off my car I drive to meet boat tour operator, Fraser River Safari. The air is fresh and the mountains caked with new snow. I’m delighted to discover the boat is heated and has huge sliding windows that give everyone an excellent view.
A juvenile Bald eagle before it takes on the adult plumage. ©Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival
Owners Rob and Jo Anne Chadwick make an excellent team. Rob pilots the jet boat with skill and a keen awareness of photographers’ needs. Jo Anne delivers an expert commentary on the Harrison River, its part in the 1858 Gold Rush and the indigenous Stó:lō First Nation who have been sustained by its bounty for over ten thousand years.
We zip out to the Harrison River’s confluence with the Mighty Fraser River, past the ruins of Rat Portage Mill and an original paddlewheeler dock. Joanne points out a beach on the west bank that has produced vast quantities of 5,400 year-old Stó:lō artifacts and passes a few around for us to examine.
Captain Rob Chadwick awaits passengers for his Fraser River Safari. ©Photos by Pharos
Rob navigates into the semi-circular Harrison Bay. From the pilings and log booms, the adult eagles stare me down with unwavering raptor eyes. Their yellow beaks, hooked and sharp, are perfect for tearing flesh. I watch an adult haul a salmon carcass from between the logs and fend off half-hearted feathered thieves. Crows and gulls gather at the periphery of the skirmish for leftovers.
The boat acts as a hide, and we get closer than I expect. Half the birds are speckled brown from head to toe and one of the passengers asks, “Are they another type of eagle?” “No. They’re youngsters, juvenile Bald Eagles, that won’t develop the distinctive white head and tail of an adult for five years,” explains Jo Anne. “They look big, don’t they? But they only weigh fifteen pounds. Also eagles in their first year haven’t the skill to catch living prey and rely on salmon runs to survive.”
At the shallow Chehalis River mouth, the snow-clad mountains make a dramatic backdrop for eagles lining the bare branches in a mighty array. Rob beaches the boat on a gravel bar and we disembark. Kids poke the salmon carcasses with sticks; the bones are picked clean.
Bald Eagle fledgling stands his ground! ©Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival
In late December or early January, the eagles depart for Vancouver’s garbage dump. Then they disperse — even partners go their separate ways.
“But I thought they mated for life,” I comment.
“Last year one tagged male flew to Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands off the northwest coast of BC) and his partner went to Montana,” Jo Anne says. “They returned to their nest in southern BC on exactly the same March day to raise another eaglet.”
That seems a little more than coincidence!
Sandpiper Resort/Rowena’s Inn is part of a 160-acre estate owned by the Pretty family since 1890. Now a luxury wheelchair accessible resort, it is located on the bank of the Harrison River with sweeping views of the river and coastal mountains. The Sandpiper Golf Course surrounds the inn and next door is the Clubhouse gourmet restaurant, open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Sandpiper Resort offers five guest rooms furnished with antiques collected by the family, and four luxury log cottages are nearby for those wanting absolute privacy. A full breakfast is included. No TVs or telephones spoil the tranquility here.
Guests can arrive at Sandpiper Resort by car, boat, or light aircraft. For active vacationers, fishing expeditions, boat tours, golf, spa treatments, and day trips may be arranged. ©Photos by Pharos
Remains of a wild salmon after the eagles have eaten their fill. ©Photos by Pharos
Bald eagles visit the Chehalis and Harrison rivers from mid-November to late-December with the annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival held on the third weekend in November at the Sandpiper Resort. Pack hiking boots, binoculars, rain-gear and warm clothing, a hat and gloves. To take good photos of the eagles, a camera with a 200mm lens or longer is essential.
For complete tourist information, visit Tourism Harrison Hot Springs, www.tourismharrison.com.
The following websites offer more information related to themes in this article:
Harrison River, Canada’s first Salmon Stronghold;
Fraser River Safari, http://fraserriversafari.com, offers eagle watching tours, photography tours and tours with renowned biologist, David Hancock;
Hancock Wildlife Foundation, www.hancockwildlife.org;
Stó:lō Nation indigenous history of the area, www.stolonation.bc.ca/about-us/our-history.htm.
Julie H. Ferguson is an addicted travel writer and photographer, and the author of twenty-four books, four of which are about Canadian history and nine are photo portfolios. Julie never leaves home without her cameras and voice recorder, always looking for the color and sounds that captivate readers everywhere. Julie’s websites are www.beaconlit.com and www.stampsinmypassport.blogspot.com.